Summorum Pontificum at Fourteen: Its Tragic Flaws

As we come to know more and more about the doctrinal and moral corruption of the Church’s hierarchy today, which rivals Renaissance records, it seems to border on the miraculous that Summorum Pontificum—the motu proprio issued by Pope Benedict XVI liberalizing the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass—was ever issued at all. It was a watershed moment, a gesture of fortitude and favor, and a clear factor in multiplying traditional Masses around the world and weakening the modernists’ hegemony. We were grateful to have a pope who, instead of throwing a bone to supposed nostalgics—the “indults” of Paul VI and John Paul II—had the courage to say the truth: the great liturgy of our tradition had never been abrogated and could never be abrogated.

It’s fair to say right from the start that Summorum Pontificum was useful to the traditional Catholic movement in the way that an enormous old-time booster rocket was useful for launching a spaceship into orbit: it has a lot of raw power but can only do so much, and when it’s empty, it falls away. Summorum is destined to be one of the great papal interventions in history, but it is no more than damage control; it cannot be a pillar, much less a foundation, of a permanent structure.

Unless we understand its weak points, we will not be able to understand why we are still so vulnerable to the machinations of Pope Francis and his circle, and, more to the point, we will not be able to summon the necessary strength to ignore or to oppose what the Vatican might do to reduce or prevent the celebration of the classical Roman rite. As much as the traditional movement has benefited pragmatically from Summorum (and of that, there can be no doubt), we must learn to put our weight fully on our own two feet, so that when the legal crutch or brace is suddenly removed, we do not topple over helplessly.

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Summorum’s Prologue is a veritable paean to the central role of Roman Pontiffs in the guidance of the sacred liturgy over the centuries. Benedict XVI rightly acknowledges the decisive roles played by St. Gregory the Great, St. Pius V, and many other pontiffs (his list includes Clement VIII, Urban VIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XII, and John XXIII). However, he fails to note an all-important fact: the popes, although they occasionally modified details of the liturgy, never saw themselves as masters and possessors of the Church’s rites, as if they could exercise complete control over them—as if they could jettison these rites and redesign them from scratch if they felt like it. To use a metaphor dear to Ratzinger, theirs was the work of gardeners, not of manufacturers. If we consider popes one by one, the contribution of any of them pales in comparison to the sum-total of the heritage they received and handed on.

Summorum’s list of named popes includes one pope from the sixth century, one from the sixteenth, one from the seventeenth—and five from the twentieth. After many centuries of stability—a fact that does not signify ossification but rather a slowly-maturing perfection of form under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as I have argued elsewhere—we cannot fail to notice that “something is up” once we get into the twentieth century: a sort of escalating itch or craze for liturgical reform as we move from breviary and calendar changes early in the century, to an overhaul of Holy Week in the mid-century, to a deconstruction and reconstruction of all rites and ceremonies in the decade from 1963 to 1974.

We see evidence, frankly, of a hypertrophic ultramontanism that makes the pope the one who determines the content and message of Catholic worship, with increasingly less respect for tradition. In sharp contrast, the Roman rite codified by Pius V after the Council of Trent preexisted any papal codification. That Missale Romanum is what it is not because the pope made it so, but because the pope verified and validated what he had received, in a printed edition that seemed to him to be most faithful to the tradition.

Summorum Pontificum describes lovers of the old rite in this manner: “In some regions, no small numbers of faithful adhered and continue to adhere with great love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms,” which, says Pope Benedict, “had…deeply marked their culture and their spirit.” Yet is it not incumbent on Catholics as such to love the liturgy that has come down to them from the ages of faith? This was nothing less than the primary goal of the healthy phase of the Liturgical Movement as we see it in a figure like Dom Prosper Guéranger: to know the inherited liturgy better, so as to love it more, and to live it more fully.

The “culture and spirit” of these faithful were “deeply marked” by their liturgy—of course, and rightly so! The faithful who were striving to be practicing Catholics did not need a different liturgy, since the one with which they already worshiped had won over their hearts and minds, and had permeated their lives and even their social milieux (one need only think of the riches of the old liturgical calendar). It is as if Summorum identifies as a minority concern the only mentality that is Catholic and the only outcome desired in the entire history of liturgy. By implication, the so-called reform was an an act of violence by which the faithful were alienated from the “liturgical forms” that defined Catholic faith and life.

After proffering a list of popes who never dared to forbid (and, by the same token, never dared to “allow”) worshiping in ancient rites, Benedict XVI mentions the “indult” of John Paul II—a concept that makes sense only on the hypothesis that the Church has the authority to outlaw or suppress a traditional rite, which Benedict, just a few paragraphs later, denies (and, moreover, denies in many other writings of his). Only that which has been definitively discontinued requires an indult; if the usus antiquior was never abrogated and cannot be abrogated, then a priest never needed permission to say it, and will never need permission to say it.

This point is obviously of the greatest importance when reacting to any future papal or curial attempts to subvert the use of the traditional Roman rite. Regrettably, in its overall approach Summorum Pontificum and its accompanying letter to the bishops Con Grande Fiducia still reflect the false view that the pope and the bishops have the authority to dictate whether or not priests ordained for the Roman rite are allowed to use the classic form of their own rite—the only form that existed, from apostolic derivation and a continuous ecclesial development of over 1,500 years. It is a contradiction in terms to say that a priest of the Roman rite normatively uses a partly deformed and partly invented rite promulgated by a single pope, whereas the same priest might or might not be able to use a venerable rite received and transmitted by hundreds of popes, bolstered by their cumulative authority.

The most notorious feature of Summorum Pontificum is its claim, in Article 1, that there are two “forms” of the Roman rite:

The Roman Missal promulgated by Paul VI is the ordinary expression of the lex orandi (law of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite. Nonetheless, the Roman Missal promulgated by St. Pius V and reissued by Bl. John XXIII is to be considered as an extraordinary expression of that same lex orandi, and must be given due honour for its venerable and ancient usage. These two expressions of the Church’s lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s lex credendi (law of belief). They are, in fact two usages of the one Roman rite.

Yet the claim that Paul VI’s Missale Romanum of 1969 (the “Novus Ordo”) is, or belongs to, the same rite as the Missale Romanum last codified in 1962—or, more plainly, that the Novus Ordo may be called “the Roman rite” of the Mass—cannot withstand critical scrutiny, nor can this claim be sustained for any two liturgical books, Vetus and Novus. Never before in the history of the Roman Church have there been two “forms” or “uses” of the same local liturgical rite, simultaneously and with equal canonical status.

That Pope Benedict could say that the older use had never been abrogated (numquam abrogatam) proves that Paul VI’s liturgy is something novel, rather than a mere revision of its precursor, since every earlier editio typica of the missal had replaced and excluded its predecessor. While there have always been different “uses” in the Latin Church, this doubling of the liturgy of Rome is a case of dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia.

By no stretch of the imagination is it possible, let alone desirable, to talk about the Tridentine rite and the Novus Ordo as “two usages” or “forms” of the same Roman rite; and it is ludicrous to say that the deviant form is “ordinary” and the traditional “extraordinary,” unless the evaluation is merely sociological or statistical. With a growing body of scholarship showing the radical differences in theological and spiritual content between the Roman rite and the modern papal rite of Paul VI, it is not intellectually honest or credible to claim that the old and new rites express the same lex orandi or, consequently, the same lex credendi. It may be that the new rite is free from heresy, but its lex orandi only partly overlaps with the old rite’s, and so too for the credenda that they conveyas seen not only in texts but also in ceremonies and in every other dimension of public worship.

If there is one claim common to traditionalists of all stripes, it would be the following: what Paul VI did to the liturgy of the Catholic Church was a tectonic shift, an unprecedented assault on tradition—and therefore truly wrong, unworthy of the papacy, incompatible with the duties of the papal office, wicked in the way in which patricide or treason is wicked. We know that earlier popes added or modified the rites, but never in such a way that one could look at the “before” and “after” and say: these are different things. Paul VI did what no pope had ever dared to do: to change every rite of the Catholic Church, from top to bottom. He even modified six of seven sacramental forms, the most sacred of formulas.

In comparing the old and new Masses, one is looking at largely incompatible calendars, nearly totally different lectionaries, and a radical deconstruction of the euchology (that is, the prayer texts), the music, and the rubrics. Similar unfavorable comparisons can be made between any two actions of the Church at prayer: old and new baptism, old and new confirmation, old and new diaconal, priestly, and episcopal ordinations, old and new blessings of any and every object, and so forth. Unquestionably, the traditionalists are right to say that this was by no means a “reform” but rather a revolution.

Does a pope have the authority to do what Paul VI did? I am not asking if he can pretend to have the authority, expending a thousand years of political capital in demanding of the hierarchy and the faithful an obedience to wilfullness, a reception of revolution that vitiates the defining Catholic attitude of receptivity to tradition. Nor am I asking what Paul VI subjectively thought he was doing or capable of doing, nor of what bishops and the rest of the faithful subjectively thought they were doing or ought to do in response to the imposition of new rites that have more in common with Cranmer and Pistoia than with Cluny and Trent.

Rather, we should be asking whether objectively a pope has the right to substitute new rites for the rites organically developed within the Catholic Church over her entire history. Subjective intentions can be messy and confused; but objectively the liturgical revolution separated Catholics from their own tradition, from orthodoxy as “right worship,” and reconfigured the relationship of lex orandi and lex credendi such that a coalition of liturgists channeling “the magisterium of the moment” became the sole norm of prayer.

If such a rupture can be seen as legitimate and acceptable, there are no longer any perennial principles of liturgy left: everything has been reduced to the mere exercise of the papacy in any way it pleases. Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388–1468) expressed the common-sense perspective of most of Church history: if a pope fails to observe “the universal rite of ecclesiastical worship” and “divides himself with pertinacity from the observance of the universal church,”  he is “able to fall into schism” and is neither to be obeyed nor “put up with” (non est sustinendus).

This, then, is the fundamental problem with Summorum Pontificum: it is internally incoherent, founded on a monumental contradiction caused by the worst abuse of papal power in the history of the Church. As a result, its provisions cannot help echoing, almost every step of the way, an insoluble dialectic between the unabrogatable privileges of collective ecclesiastical tradition and an assumed or presumed authority over liturgical aetiology, ontology, and teleology. The motu proprio reflects and reinforces false principles of ecclesiology and liturgy that led to the very crisis to which it was a partial response. Indeed, Benedict XVI’s work is often characterized by an Hegelian dialectic method that wishes to hold contradictories simultaneously, or to seek a higher synthesis from a thesis and its antithesis (“mutual enrichment” can be understood in this framework).

After its Prologue and Article 1, the remainder of Summorum Pontificum subtly holds the traditional liturgy hostage, or gives it, as it were, second-class citizenship. The practical upshot of its language has been to multiply excuses for pastors and bishops, who can always claim that pastoral care is being or would be impeded by the existence of old-rite sacraments, that episcopal guidance implies veto power over a priest’s “willing acceptance of requests” to say the venerable Mass, and that the Catholics requesting it are fomenting discord and damaging the Church’s unity.

Summorum Pontificum needlessly complicates the situation and multiplies the possibilities of bureaucratic stonewalling. It is never easy to persuade bishops to be truly pastoral, but a document that simply said: “The old Mass is to be made available in every diocese in multiple locations by such-and-such a date, and all seminarians are required to be trained in it” might have overcome some of the inertia, obstructionism, and perpetual procrastination that we have seen in the fourteen years since the motu proprio appeared.

Article 9 can be taken as a case study:

The pastor, having attentively examined all aspects, may also grant permission to use the earlier ritual for the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Marriage, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick, if the good of souls would seem to require it. Ordinaries are given the right to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation using the earlier Roman Pontifical, if the good of souls would seem to require it.

Although the intention is admirable—to free up these riches for the benefit of souls—the language is once again too cautious, too non-committal. When do we know that a pastor has “attentively examined all aspects”? When does he know? Why does he have to grant permission for the other sacramental rites, if they were no more abrogated than the Mass? And the primary condition, “if the good of souls would seem to require it,” will frequently be met with a thunderous rejoinder: “Nobody’s salvation depends on a particular liturgical rite!”

I know of bishops who simply flatly deny that it is good for souls to have access to the Church’s traditional rites; they say it is better for them to be “obedient,” to be “humble and content with what the Church provides,” and “not to look for externals or be fixated one one’s own ideas of what’s reverent,” etc. Let’s put it this way: if pastors and bishops had a clue what was “for the good of souls,” we would not be in the disastrous situation in which we find ourselves.

As great as are the benefits we have been able to reap through Summorum Pontificum, we are in dire need of a more comprehensive theological understanding of the inherent rightfulness of traditional liturgy and the inalienability (so to speak) of the rights of clergy and laity to such liturgy. We need to see that, as much as popes have added to divine worship over the centuries, we are not beholden to popes for the liturgy; it preexists them, superior in its reality and its authority; it is the common possession of the entire People of God.

If Summorum Pontificum is abrogated, the traditional Roman liturgy will not be abrogated thereby; if Summorum’s provisions are curtailed, that will be no reason to curtail the ever-increasing restoration of our immense treasury of faith and culture. It may be that Divine Providence sees a need to wean us still more from the milk of ultramontanism so that we may exercise our mandibles on the meat of tradition—with or without the approval of prelates.

[Photo Credit: Tracy Dunne]


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