With the stroke of a pen, Pope Francis has taken concrete steps to abolish in practice the Roman Rite of the Holy Mass. Substantially in use since Saint Damasus, at the end of the fourth century, and with additions by Saint Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth, the 1962 Missal promulgated by John XXIII is the most recent version of the Roman Rite.
In his letter to bishops around the world accompanying the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, the sovereign pontiff is clear about his intent to restrict the use of this immemorial rite gradually, unto extinction. The pope urges bishops “to proceed in such a way as to return to a unitary form of celebration,” with the missals of Paul VI and John Paul II, which, he says, are “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” The practical consequence is that Roman Rite priests are no longer entitled to celebrate the traditional Mass. They can only do so with their bishop’s permission, and for those ordained after the motu proprio, that of the Holy See!
The obvious question that arises in the face of this drastic measure is: Does a pope have the authority to overturn a rite that has been used in the Church for 1,400 years and whose essential elements come from apostolic times? If, on the one hand, the Vicar of Christ has plena et suprema potestas in matters concerning “the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world,”1 as the First Vatican Council teaches, on the other, he must respect the universal customs of the Church in liturgical matters.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by John Paul II gives a definitive answer to this question in paragraph 1125: “no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy.”2
Commenting on this text, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote:
It seems to me most important that the Catechism, in mentioning the limitation of the powers of the supreme authority in the Church with regard to reform, recalls to mind what is the essence of the primacy as outlined by the First and Second Vatican Councils: The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law, but is the guardian of the authentic Tradition, and thereby the premier guarantor of obedience. He cannot do as he likes, and is thereby able to oppose those people who for their part want to do what has come into their head. His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why, with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile. The “rite,” that form of celebration and prayer which has ripened in the faith and the life of the Church, is a condensed form of living tradition in which the sphere which uses that rite expresses the whole of its faith and its prayer, and thus at the same time the fellowship of generations one with another becomes something we can experience, fellowship with the people who pray before us and after us. Thus the rite is something of benefit which is given to the Church, a living form of paradosis the handing-on of tradition.3
Msgr. Klaus Gamber, whom Cardinal Ratzinger deemed one of the greatest liturgists of the twentieth century, develops this thought in a superb book titled The Reform of the Roman Liturgy. He starts from the observation that the rites of the Catholic Church, taken in the sense of obligatory forms of worship, definitively date back to Our Lord Jesus Christ but gradually developed and differentiated from the general custom, being later confirmed by ecclesiastical authority.
From this reality, the distinguished German liturgist draws the following conclusions:
1. If we assume that the liturgical rite evolved on the basis of shared traditions—and nobody who has at least some knowledge of liturgical history will dispute this—then it cannot be developed anew in its entirety.
[J]ust as the primitive Church gradually emerged from the Synagogue, so did the liturgical forms used by the young communities of Christians emerge from the liturgical rites of the Jews….
2. Since the liturgical rite has developed over time, further development continues to be possible. But such continuing development has to respect the timeless character of all rites; and its development has to be organic in nature.
… never breaking with tradition, and with no directives emanating from the Church hierarchy. Plenary and local church councils concerned themselves only with eliminating abuses in the actual execution of liturgical rites.
3. There are different, independent liturgical rites in the universal Church. In the Western Church, in addition to the Roman rite, there are the Gallican rite (now defunct), the Ambrosian rite, and the Mozarabic rite; and in the East, among others, the Byzantine rite, the Armenian rite, the Syriac rite and the Coptic rite.
Every one of these rites has gone through a process of independent growth and developed its very own characteristics. Thus, it is not appropriate to simply exchange or substitute individual liturgical elements between different rites….
4. Every liturgical rite constitutes an organically developed, homogeneous unit.
To change any of its essential elements is synonymous with the destruction of the rite in its entirety. This is what happened during the Reformation when Martin Luther did away with the canon of the Mass and made the words of consecration and institution part of the distribution of communion….
5. Restoration of early liturgical forms does not necessarily constitute a change in the rite, at least not if this is done on a case-by-case basis, and if it is done with certain constraints.
There was thus no break with the traditional Roman rite when Pope St. Pius X restored the Gregorian chant to its original form.4
The distinguished founder of the Regensburg Theological Institute goes on to comment that while “The revision made in 1965 did not touch the traditional liturgical rite … the publication of the Ordo Missae of 1969, however, created a new liturgical rite.”5 He calls it ritus modernus, since “the assertion … that the inclusion of some parts of the traditional Missal into the new one means a continuation of the Roman rite, is insupportable.”6
To prove this point, from a strictly liturgical point of view,7 it suffices to quote what Prof. Roberto de Mattei said about this devastation:
During the [liturgical] Reform, a whole series of novelties and variants were gradually introduced. Some of them were foreseen neither by the Council nor by the Constitution Missale Romanum of Paul VI. The quid novum cannot be limited to replacing Latin with vernacular languages. It also consists in the desire to conceive of the altar as a “table” to emphasize the aspect of a banquet rather than a sacrifice; in the celebratio versus populum, which replaced versus Deum, consequently abandoning the celebration turned to the East, that is, toward Christ, symbolized by the rising sun; in the absence of silence and meditation during the ceremony and in a theatrical celebration often accompanied by chants tending to profane a Mass in which the priest is often reduced to play the role of “president of the assembly”; in the hypertrophy of the liturgy of the word over the Eucharistic liturgy; having the “sign” of peace replace the genuflections of the priest and faithful to symbolize the passage from the vertical to the horizontal dimension of the liturgical action; in Holy Communion received by the faithful standing and in the hand; allowing women to access the altar; and in concelebration, tending to the “collectivization” of the rite. It consists above all and ultimately in changing and replacing the prayers of the Offertory and Canon. As Cardinal Stickler observes, the elimination of the words mysterium fidei from the Eucharistic formula can be considered a symbol of the demystification and, therefore, of the humanization of the central nucleus of the Holy Mass.8
The greatest liturgical revolution took place in the Offertory and Canon. The traditional Offertory, which prepared and prefigured the unbloody immolation in the Consecration, was replaced by the Beràkhôth of the Kiddush, meaning the blessings of the Passover supper of the Jews. Father Pierre Jounel, from the Pastoral Liturgical Center and the Superior Institute of Liturgy in Paris, one of the experts of the Consilium that prepared the liturgical reform, described to the newspaper La Croix the fundamental element of reform in the liturgy of the Eucharist: “Creating three new Eucharistic prayers whereas hitherto only one existed, the first Eucharistic Prayer established in the Roman Canon since the fourth century. The second is taken from the Eucharistic Prayer of [St.] Hippolytus (3rd cent.), as discovered in an Ethiopian version at the end of the nineteenth century. The scheme of the Eastern liturgies inspired the third. The fourth was prepared in one night by a small team around Fr. Gelineau.”9
Fr. Joseph Gelineau, S.J., was not mistaken when he enthusiastically greeted the reform stating, “Indeed, it is another liturgy of the Mass. It must be said bluntly: The Roman Rite as we knew it no longer exists; it has been destroyed.”10
How can Pope Francis say in his letter to the bishops, that “Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements”? This seems as bitterly ironic as the title of the motu proprio, Custodians of Tradition.
If the Novus Ordo Missae is not a mere reform but implies a rupture with the traditional rite, then the latter’s celebration cannot be prohibited. For, as Msgr. Gamber reiterates,
[T]here is not a single document, including the Codex Iuris Canonici, in which there is a specific statement that the pope, as the supreme pastor of the Church, has the authority to abolish the traditional rite. In fact, nowhere is it mentioned that the pope has the authority to change even a single local liturgical tradition. The fact that there is no mention of such authority strengthens our case considerably.
There are clearly defined limits to the plena et suprema potestas (full and highest powers) of the pope. For example, there is no question that, even in matters of dogma, he still has to follow the tradition of the universal Church—that is, as [Saint] Vincent of Lérins says, what has been believed (quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus). In fact, there are several authors who state quite explicitly that it is clearly outside the pope’s scope of authority to abolish the traditional rite.11
Moreover, if he did so, he would run the risk of separating himself from the Church. Indeed, Msgr. Gamber writes, “thus, the eminent theologian Suarez (d. l6l7), citing even earlier authors such as Cajetan (d. 1534) took the position that a pope would be schismatic ‘if he, as is his duty, would not be in full communion with the body of the Church, as, for example, if he were to excommunicate the entire Church, or if he were to change all the liturgical rites of the Church that have been upheld by apostolic tradition.’”12
It was probably to avoid this risk that eight of the nine cardinals on the Commission appointed by John Paul II in 1986 to study the implementation of the 1984 Indult declared that Paul VI had not prohibited the ancient Mass. Furthermore, in answer to the question, “‘Can any bishop forbid any priest in good standing from celebrating the Tridentine Mass?’ Cardinal Stickler replied, “the nine Cardinals unanimously agreed that no bishop may forbid a Catholic priest from saying the Tridentine Mass.”13 “There is no official ban, and I don’t think the pope will issue one.”14
However, in his motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis authorizes the bishops to ban its celebration. Indeed, the Bishops’ Conference of Costa Rica hastened to decree collectively that “the use of the 1962 Missale Romanum or any expression of the liturgy before 1970 is not authorized,” so that “no priest is authorized to continue celebrating according to the ancient liturgy.”15
For all of the above, we fully subscribe to the conclusions drawn by Fr. Francisco José Delgado: “I think the smartest thing to do now is, ever so calmly, to defend the truth over iniquitous laws. The pope cannot change Tradition by decree or say that the post-Vatican II liturgy is the only expression of the lex orandi in the Roman Rite. Since this is false, the legislation stemming from this principle is invalid and, according to Catholic morals, should not be observed, which does not imply disobedience.”16
No specialized knowledge in ecclesiology is needed to understand that papal authority and infallibility have limits and that the duty of obedience is not absolute. Numerous leading scholars explicitly recognize the legitimacy of public resistance to erroneous decisions or teachings of pastors, including the sovereign pontiff. They are widely cited in a study by Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira titled “Public Resistance to Decisions of Ecclesiastical Authority.”17
In the current case, not only is it permissible to “not observe” Pope Francis’s motu proprio but even to resist its implementation according to the example set by Saint Paul (Gal. 2:11). It is not a matter of questioning papal authority, before which our love and reverence must grow. It is love for the papacy itself that must lead to the denunciation of Traditionis Custodes, which seeks dictatorially to eliminate the most ancient and venerable rite of Catholic worship, from which all the faithful have the right to drink.
As the distinguished theologian Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546) says, “According to natural law it is licit to repel violence with violence. Now, with such orders and dispensations, the pope does violence because he acts against the law, as was proven above. Then, it is licit to resist him. As Cajetan observes, we do not affirm all this in the sense that someone has the right to be judge of the pope or have authority over him, but rather in the sense that it is licit to defend oneself. Anyone, indeed, has the right to resist an unjust act, to try to impede it and to defend himself.”18
The model of resistance on which Catholics can base their reaction is the late Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s declaration of resistance to the Ostpolitik of Pope Paul VI. This statement, firm but filled with respect for the supreme pontiff, states in its crucial paragraphs:
The bond of obedience to the successor of Peter, which we will never break, which we love in the most profound depths of our soul, and to which we tribute our highest love, this bond we kiss at the very moment in which, overwhelmed with sorrow, we affirm our position. And on our knees, gazing with veneration at the figure of His Holiness Paul VI, we express all our fidelity to him.
In this filial act, we say to the Pastor of Pastors: Our soul is yours, our life is yours. Order us to do whatever you wish. Only do not order us to do nothing in the face of the assailing Red wolf. To this, our conscience is opposed.19
Last updated on August 8, 2021.
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- See Denz.-Rahner 1827.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1125, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P32.HTM.
- Joseph Ratzinger, “The Organic Development of the Liturgy,” 30 Days (2004) no. 12, http://www.30giorni.it/articoli_id_6796_l3.htm. Paradosis: Greek term used thirteen times in the Bible and translated as tradition, instruction, transmission.
- Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background, trans. Klaus D. Grimm (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.: Una Voce Press, n.d.), 27–31.
- Ibid., 33–34.
- Ibid., 34.
- Serious theological errors in the ritus modernus such as downgrading the sacrificial and propitiatory character of the Mass deserve a separate article.
- Roberto de Mattei, “Considérations sur la réforme liturgique,” (Text read at the Liturgical Congress of Fontgombault, July 22–24, 2001, in the presence of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Our translation.)
- See La Croix, April 28, 1999, 19.
- Joseph Gelineau, Demain la liturgie: Essai sur l’évolution des assemblées chrétiennes (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1977), 10.
- Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, 35.
- Ibid., 35–36.
- John Vennari, “Traditional Mass Never Forbidden: Cardinal Stickler Confirms,” Catholic Family News (Feb. 1998), https://olrl.org/new_mass/latinmass_cfn.shtml. (Our emphasis.)
- Cardinal Stickler’s statements were published first in The Latin Mass and were reproduced by the French magazine La Nef, no. 53, September 1995.
- Conferencia Episcopal de Costa Rica, “ Mensaje de los Obispos de la Conferencia Episcopal de Costa Rica con relación al Motu Proprio del Papa Francisco sobre la liturgia anterior a la Reforma de 1970” (July 19, 2021), nos. 3 a.–b., https://prensacelam.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Mensaje-Traditionis-Custodes-19.07.2021.pdf.
- Walter Sánchez Silva, “Sacerdotes se pronuncian tras restricciones del Papa a Misa tradicional en latín,” ACI Prensa, July 17, 2021, https://www.aciprensa.com/noticias/sacerdotes-se-pronuncian-tras-restricciones-del-papa-a-misa-tradicional-en-latin-68603. (Our translation.)
- See Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira, “Resistência Pública a Decisões da Autoridade Eclesiástica,” Catolicismo, no. 244 (Aug. 1969), 2–3, https://catolicismo.com.br/Acervo/Num/0224/P02-03.html; Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira, Can Documents of the Magisterium of the Church Contain Errors? Can the Catholic Faithful Resist Them? trans. John R. Spann and José Aloisio A. Schelini (Spring Grove, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, 2015), 127–46, https://tfp.org/can-documents-of-the-magisterium-of-the-church-contain-errors-can-the-catholic-faithful-resist-them/.
- Obras de Francisco de Vitoria, 486–7, quoted in Xavier da Silveira, Can Documents of the Magisterium, 134.
- Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “A política de distensão do Vaticano com os governos comunistas—Para a TFP: omitir-se? ou resistir? (Folha de S. Paulo, Apr. 10, 1974), PlinioCorreadeOliveira.info, accessed July 23, 2021, https://www.pliniocorreadeoliveira.info/MAN_740408_Resistencia.htm#.YPtCN5hKiUk; “The Vatican Policy of Détente with Communist Governments – Should the TFPs Stand Down? Or Should They Resist?” TFP.org, accessed July 23, 2021, https://tfp.org/vatican-policy-detente-communist-governments-tfps-stand-resist/.