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The Spirit of Summorum Pontificum

By March 11, 2012Maryvictrix

In this essay I continue to register my thoughts on traditionalism and liturgy, specifically with a discussion of the expressed motives for Pope Benedict’s promulgation of the Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum.  After this post I plan to take up where I left off with my “Traditionalist Sleight of Hand” essay.

The current biformity of the Roman rite, established formally by the Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, is a reality that has existed and has been spoken about as such by Joseph Ratzinger for many years.  He has said numerous times that the old form, that is, the Extraordinary Form, was never abrogated.  However, the Motu Proprio establishes by way of “universal law” this biformal liturgical discipline, presumably, attempting to stabilize, at least for now, this condition as the liturgical status quo:  two forms, one ordinary, the other extraordinary.  The motives for this have been variously interpreted, and it seems to me that something parallel but antithetical to what happened in regard to the interpretation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council has happened in respect to the text of Summorum Pontifcum.   I hope to make this clear as well as suggest a sound alternative.

The Spirit of Vatican II

Pope Benedict has said that the rupturist interpretation of the Council is based on the idea that the conciliar documents were the result of a compromise.  In his well-known Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005 he lamented that many people think that in order for the different factions at the Council

to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts (December 22, 2005).

Hence, we understand why the “the Spirit of Vatican II” becomes the necessary obscurantism to throw over every novelty dreamt up by progressives.  The conciliar documents do not give the real story.  It is the spirit by which it became necessary to create a compromise that shows us the true way.  Of course, Pope Benedict completely rejects this interpretation of the Council.

It seems to me that something similar, but as I say, antithetical, has happened in respect to Summorum Pontificum.  The document clearly establishes two forms, the novus ordo being the Ordinary Form of the rite, and the vetus ordo, the Extraordinary Form.  The document itself and subsequent clarifications (Letter to the Bishops, Universae Ecclesiae) both make it clear that this liturgical discipline is completely in line with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and in no way “detracts from the authority of the Second Vatican Council, one of whose essential decisions [was the] the liturgical reform. . .”  Nevertheless, some have interpreted the document as expressing implicitly some sympathy with positions of the Society of St. Pius X on the Council and its alleged breaches from Tradition.  In fact, for example, I have heard it suggested more than once that the pope presently is limited by opposition to the old form of the Roman Rite and therefore has produced a compromise document, with the real intention of eventually making the Extraordinary Form the Ordinary Form and gradually fading out the novus ordo altogether.  This is the hermeneutic of rupture applied to the Motu Proprio, or what I call “the spirit of Summorum Pontificum.”  I wish to illustrate this by examining the motives for the Motu Proprio as Pope Benedict has actually stated them.

Real Motives

In 2010, Pope Benedict said that the biformity of the Roman Rite is a matter of “internal reconciliation” with the past:

My main reason for making the previous form more available was to preserve the internal continuity of Church history. We cannot say: Before, everything was wrong, but now everything is right; for in a community in which prayer and the Eucharist are the most important things, what was earlier supremely sacred cannot be entirely wrong. The issue was internal reconciliation with our own past, the intrinsic continuity of faith and prayer in the Church (Light of the World, 106).

This is consistent with what he said, both in the Motu Proprio itself and in the Letter to the bishops accompanying it.  The old rite was never abrogated, nor could it be, since it is a usage “universally accepted by uninterrupted apostolic tradition, which must be observed not only to avoid errors but also to transmit the integrity of the faith, because the Church’s law of prayer corresponds to her law of faith’” (Motu Proprio).  Summorum Pontificum is consistent with the provisions of Ecclesia Dei, insofar as both documents aim to provide for the “legitimate aspirations of the faithful,” and “to assist the Society of Saint Pius X to recover full unity with the Successor of Peter” (“Letter”).  In fact, the provisions of Summorum Pontificum are specifically directed to those faithful “who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the Pope and the Bishops” (ibid.).  Here the Holy Father acknowledges that this attachment to the old rite arose, to a large extent, due the abuses of the novus ordo:

This occurred above all because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear (ibid.).

Thus, the overarching theme in all of the Holy Father’s stated reasons is “reconciliation.”  He speaks of “internal reconciliation with our own past,” and of “continuity of faith and prayer in the Church”  (Light of the World,106).  He also says that the positive reason for the provisions of Summorum Pontificum “is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church”:

Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden (“Letter”).


I am well aware that my own critique of traditionalism is itself subject to a critique according to the standard of reconciliation.  I have often pointed to the irony of touchiness of those who defend the SSPX, and who have naively believed that the Holy See was going to capitulate to their “just” demands to reevaluate the Second Vatican Council.  My style and tone has been directed at exposing this irony, and its clear anti-magisterial, and often—at least implicitly—anti-papal attitude.  I admit this involves real liabilities, but what is one to do?  Most recently, Professor Roberto de Mattei has complained of the resistance offered to Monsignor Gherardini, himself and others, who have expressed their sympathies with the very ideas that have kept the SSPX from returning to full communion with the Successor of St. Peter:  “But why is there such aversion from the part of one who is not progressive? Why is there so much focus on the one who defends Tradition instead of unifying all their forces in order to fight those who deny Tradition?”

But this question begs the question and at the same time provides the answer as to why I insist that the use of the term traditionalism is both apropos and relevant.  Simply put, traditionalism judges the magisterial teaching according to a personal and contingent opinion about what constitutes Tradition.  The whole question for me is whether, when these crusaders ask the Holy Father to prove to their satisfaction that that the Council is in continuity with Tradition, they are indeed defenders of Tradition.  Could they possibly be so, when they not only propose to examine such questions academically, but also utilize political pressure tactics as well in order to exact papal compliance with their contingent opinions?  If their scientific analysis of the Council is not met with agreement by the Holy Father—indeed, if he continues to resist their positions and maintains his own—are they really the guardians of Tradition?  I think these are legitimate questions.

But if the overarching reason for the clear and—at least for the foreseeable future—stable biformity of the Roman rite is reconciliation, then there will have to be a healthy dose of realism on the part of those who are inclined to romanticize about the future of the Church and are intent upon driving the liturgical development into an ideological framework—whatever end of the spectrum they represent.  If, as Dom Alcuin Reid argues, the liturgy may only develop in fidelity to Tradition in an organic manner, that is, only within the parameters of its own nature determined by the received Tradition, then everyone will have to accept those parameters, not only as limiting the amount of creativity that might allow development along the lines of pastoral expediency, but as also broad enough to allow for the principles laid down in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

In a lecture given in Rome in 1998 concerning the progress made after ten years of work done on the basis of the Motu Proprio, Ecclesia Dei, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about those principles as representing the “fundamental rules” by which liturgy is defined, regardless of which form is in question:

The Council did not itself reform the liturgical books but it offered their revision, and to this end, it established certain fundamental rules.  Before anything else, the Council gave a definition of what liturgy is, and this definition gives a valuable yardstick for every liturgical celebration.  Were one to shun these essential rules and put to one side the normae generales which one finds in numbers 34-36 of the Constitution De Sacra Liturgia (SL), in that case one would indeed be guilty of disobedience to the Council!  It is in the light of these criteria that liturgical celebrations must be evaluated, whether they be according to the old books or the new.

The principles from the Constitution on the Liturgy to which Cardinal Ratzinger referred include the following: that “the rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation”; “there is to be more reading from holy scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable”; “if necessary, short directives to be spoken by the priest or proper minister should be provided within the rites themselves”; “[p]articular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites”; “[b]ut since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended.”  From this two things are apparent: 1) that the revised books as they stand, could be different; 2) that the old books could be different as well.  But it is precisely this conclusion that sends shudders down the spines of both modernists and traditionalists.  And this is not all.  These liturgical principles do, in fact, ratify the present form of the novus ordo, celebrated according to the rubrics and the various liturgical directives.  Cardinal Ratzinger even says that when the use of the old Missal conforms to the “essential criteria of the Constitution on the Liturgy,” it will both be loved more widely and “no longer be irreconcilably opposed to the new liturgy” (“Lecture”).

Could the two forms be brought into closer conformity with the conciliar principles?  Of course they could.  What exactly, then, does the future hold in store?  I personally do not believe we are going to receive the correct answer to that question from the ideologues.  Reconciliation is never going to be produced by the grinding stone of ideology.  Cardinal Ratzinger stated that the “criterion which the Council established,” for the reform of the liturgical books “invites us all to self-criticism.”  The lack of self-criticism, it seems to me, leads some to exaggerate the in se difference between the two forms.  Cardinal Ratzinger also wrote:

The difference between the liturgy according to the new books, how it is actually practiced and celebrated in different places, is often greater than the difference between an old Mass and a new Mass, when both these are celebrated according to the prescribed liturgical books (ibid.).


This lecture of the Cardinal is, obviously, pre-papal and fourteen years old, but the use of the principle of “continuity” vs. “rupture” by Joseph Ratzinger goes back at least to 1985, when The Ratzinger Report was published, if not before (35; see also, “The Final Report of the Synod of Bishops,” 1985, 5).  Liturgically speaking, Ratzinger/Benedict has been and continues to be intent on maintaining and promoting “intrinsic” and “internal continuity” with the past, that is, with Tradition.  He continues to resist casting the history of the Church in pre- and post-conciliar terms:

This schematism of a before and after in the history of the Church, wholly unjustified by the documents of Vatican II, which do nothing but reaffirm the continuity of Catholicism, must be decidedly opposed. There is no ‘pre-’ or ‘post-’ conciliar Church: there is but one, unique Church that walks the path toward the Lord, ever deepening and ever better understanding the treasure of faith that he himself has entrusted to her. There are no leaps in this history, there are no fractures, and there is no break in continuity. In no wise did the Council intend to introduce a temporal dichotomy in the Church (ibid.).

The insistence on a dichotomy Pope Benedict describes as a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” (December 22, 2005).  In respect to the Council it is the error of both modernists and traditionalists, who both resist the reconciliation that Pope Benedict wishes to bring about.  This reconciliation is not a Hegelian dialectic, nor is it some kind of compromise.  This is precisely what the Holy Father proclaims it is not.  Pope Benedict maintains the line he has held since at least the 80’s:  “contradictions and oppositions . . . originate neither from the spirit nor the letter of the conciliar texts” (“Lecture”).  “Innovation in continuity,” “combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels” is a necessary requirement for reform.  A measure of discontinuity is manifestly a characteristic of any change, but in respect to the Council “after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned” (December 22, 2005).


Cardinal Ratzinger has suggested that the real liturgical dichotomy lies in the fact that the advocates for the hermeneutic of rupture tend to wave the two forms of the Roman rite as flags for “two different spiritual attitudes.”  The liturgy must either be celebrated “in the vernacular and facing the people,” with “a great deal of freedom” or “in Latin, with the priest facing the altar, strictly and precisely according to the rubrics” (“Lecture”).  The one flag represents an adaptation to needs of modern man, and the other a maintenance of Tradition; or seen inversely, the one represents a capitulation to Protestantism and Modernism, the other, a refusal to recognize that the Middle Ages have ended.  Ratzinger goes on to say that this dichotomy is fostered by the viewpoint that “a particular set of externals [phénoménologie]” are essential “to this or that liturgy, rather than what the liturgy itself holds to be essential” (ibid.).

In his preface to Dom Alcuin Reid’s book, The Organic Development of the Liturgy (2005), Cardinal Ratzinger writes something that at first glance seems contrary to this point, but actually tends to confirm it:

[P]eople might reduce the “substance” [of the liturgy] to the matter and form of the sacrament and say:  Bread and wine are the matter of the sacrament; the words of institution are its form.  Only these two things are necessary; everything else is changeable.  At this point modernists and traditionalists are in agreement:  As long as the material gifts are there, and the words of institution are spoken, then everything else is freely disposable (11; emphasis mine).

On the one hand Cardinal Ratzinger in 1998 says that the liturgy is dichotomized by spiritual attitudes that fixate on respective external markers.  But in 2005 he says that modernists and traditionalists are united in their reduction of the substance of the liturgy to the matter and form of the sacrament.  I believe the way to understand this is that the arguments of both modernists and traditionalists are positivist and focused on describing the externals of the liturgy only within their ideological framework.  Validity of the sacrament is not the issue, except for the most radical of the traditionalists.   But for most modernists and traditionalists liturgy is a kind of means for social, cultural and spiritual engineering.  It is also a kind of posturing in respect to what they insist authentic Catholicism must look like.

Biformity and Unity

Of course the fact that neither side is willing to admit the existence of continuity, and that, therefore, unity is impossible, is largely due to the liturgical abuses that have run rampant for fifty years.  But note that Benedict’s acknowledgement of this problem has not only led him to issue the Motu Proprio, but to continue to argue for the existence of continuity.   Undoubtedly, one of the greatest obstacles to unity on this matter is continued modernist insistence on fooling with the liturgy and traditionalist harping on the problem and blaming the Council for it.  I admit, this is a real problem for my argument, and I suspect will constitute the bulk of responses to this post from those who are sympathetic to traditionalism.  It seems plausible that the habitual abuses of the liturgy are linked to the form of the rite itself.  My short and anticipatory response is “I am not the pope, and the conciliar and postconciliar popes deny that the abuses are linked to a defective rite.”  The longer answer is this post itself.  I hope it is read in context, and reread, if necessary.

Liturgy by the Numbers

But if, as Cardinal Ratzinger has said, this dichotomization and loss of unity has been occasioned by “two spiritual attitudes” rooted in externals, then we are dealing with a rather materialistic kind of spirituality.  That oxymoron actually has intelligible content.  Anyone who has been a devout Catholic for any length of time has seen spirituality subjected to weights and measures and mathematical calculations.  We have all probably attempted to do it, and to some extent it has its place.  Liturgical prayer, for example, can be quantified in terms of orations, crosses, genuflections and sacramentals, just as mental prayer can be quantified in terms of its length, number of points of meditation, resolutions and manner of physical posture. The conciliar principles concerning the liturgy pointed to by Cardinal Ratzinger can also be quantified, in terms of the relative quantity of Latin as compared to that of the vernacular, the relative simplicity, the number of repetitions, etc.  I do not think many would suggest that such considerations are negligible.  The question is “are they finally determinative spiritually?”

Father Chad Ripperger, FSSP argues for the superiority of the Extraordinary Form on the basis of a tally of extrinsic merit, that is, by a comparative analysis of the two rituals.  He states that the merit of the Mass is determined intrinsically, that is, by the value of Christ’s offering itself, and extrinsically as determined by the merit of the celebrant and participants, as well as by the character of the church building, appurtenances (decora) and the rite itself.   While these are valid considerations in themselves, when utilized for the purpose of propaganda, they subject the spiritual merit of actual Masses to mathematical analysis.  I actually have had someone admit to me that the superiority of the vetus ordo was mathematical, that is, that is involves more prayer and therefore is more pleasing to God.

Puritanism and Ritualism

During and after the Council the amorphous “Spirit of the Council” was defined liturgically by means of its opposition to the Traditional liturgy, its transcendence and verticality.   James Hitchcock points to many examples of liturgical tomfoolery, especially during the phase of immediate implementation of the Council’s liturgical mandates.  He quotes the future Archbishop of Milwaukee, Fr. Rembert Weakland, saying that the liturgy should no longer convey “a feeling of infinity or eternity or the world beyond — an experience of man approaching God that is unique to that moment,” but “is to be primarily the communal sensitivity that I am one with my brother next to me and that our song is our common twentieth-century situation . . . ”  Of course, this was not the mandate of the Council, but the assumption that whatever represented the “impulse toward the new” (cf. Benedict XVI, December 22, 2005), was the true “Spirit of the Council.”  In this way the liturgy, perhaps more than anything else became the flag, the banner waved on high, for the “spiritual attitude” of modernity, modernism, progressivism, horizontalism and secularism.  The celebration of Mass entirely in the vernacular and only facing the people became perhaps two principle external branches of the new liturgy—neither one of them mandated by the Council—upon which were hung the ornamentation of modernity in the form of liturgical abuses.

Prior to the Council many involved in the Liturgical movement warned against this potential development, as a kind of liturgical puritanism that downplayed ritual.  But some of them, like Father Louis Bouyer, while not failing to point out this danger, also warned against the opposite extreme, a kind of ritualism rooted in a mummified traditionalism (Hitchcock).  The one extreme horizontalized the liturgy and left no room of the sacred and for reverence.  The other petrified the liturgy and left little room for organic development that legitimately fostered the active participation of the faithful.  The interesting, aspect of this, however, is the way in which both extremes are represented by a particular set of externals that must be rigidly followed, and both of them are based on a fundamental misinterpretation of the Council, namely, that it is a rupture from the past and from Tradition.  One faction has followed the “Spirit of Vatican II,” and the other now claims a mandate from the “Spirit of Summorum Pontificum.”

Liturgical Fact Finding

To support this thesis, traditionalists use the historical analysis of the Council and its aftermath.  Annibale Bugnini, his probable membership in the Freemasons, his firing by Bl. John XXIII and his soon after reappointment by Paul VI are invoked as clear proofs of the protestant and modernist engineering of the novus ordoMichael Voris, for example, reinforces these proofs by the testimony of an unnamed source that had private conferences with Paul VI and knew him to be a man of weak character and will who was easily manipulated (25:19-25:46).  The Ottaviani Intervention is often invoked, as it is by Voris, as an accurate analysis of the novus ordo itself indicating that the changes constitute a clear rupture with Tradition:

The pastoral reasons adduced to support such a grave break with tradition, even if such reasons could be regarded as holding good in the face of doctrinal considerations, do not seem to us sufficient (emphasis mine).

The Intervention was the work of twelve theologians under the direction of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and Cardinal Antonio Bacci.  It was a critical study that called into question the liturgical reforms then in force in 1969.  The Intervention has been widely publicized; for example, for many years it was in print through TAN Books, although that does not seem to be the case any longer.  What is not nearly as well known is the existence of a private letter to a priest from Ottaviani (in the public forum since 1970), in which the Cardinal declares his satisfaction with the clarifications offered by Paul VI and his conviction that “no one can any longer be genuinely scandalized.”  He goes on:  “As for the rest, a prudent and intelligent catechesis must be undertaken to solve some legitimate perplexities which the text is capable of arousing” (See Likoudis, Whitehead, The Pope the Council and the Mass, 143, 144).  Furthermore, in the same year Ottaviani made also the following statement:

The beauty of the Church is equally resplendent in the variety of the liturgical rites which enrich her divine cut—the legitimacy of the origin protects and guards them against the infiltration of errors . . . The purity of and unity of the faith is in this manner also upheld by the supreme Magisterium of the pope through the liturgical laws (see ibid.).

Those who invoke the “Ottaviani Intervention” as proof that the novus ordo was poisoned from the beginning and was acknowledged as such by those immediately around the Paul VI, rarely if ever make reference to these subsequent statements of Cardinal Ottaviani, Michael Voris among them.

During the late 60’s and 70’s, many writers, some of whom I personally admire a great deal, such as Dietrich Von Hildebrand, critiqued the new rite mostly contra the ideologues who had an influence on the implementation of the Council.  Von Hildebrand wrote: “Truly, if one of the devils in C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Screwtape Letters’ had been entrusted with the ruin of the liturgy, he could not have done it better.”  One can see from his essay “The Case for the Latin Mass,” that his critiques were in no way limited to simply abuses of the new Missal.  However severe the critiques of those who responded to the postconciliar liturgical implementation as it was happening in the early years after the Council, it should at least be noted that the context of such observations is different now, fifty years after the Council with the reform of the reform underway, and the current occupant of the Chair of St. Peter continuing to support the liturgical changes mandated by the Council.

Certainly, the historical analysis of the postconciliar period with the relationship between liturgical changes and the crisis of faith is legitimate.  And it appears that the Church is permitting a certain plurality of opinion in respect to this analysis.  After all, this is a question of history and not doctrine of the faith.  But when the historical analysis leads to ideological solutions that diverge from the consistent direction in which the Holy Father is leading the Church, then it seems to me that we are dealing with another matter.

For example, Michael Voris believes that it is perfectly legitimate to call into question whether the novus ordo and the liturgical schema of the Council out of which it proceeded was a rupture from the Tradition of the Church, and therefore, although valid as a sacrament, is not really authentic Catholic Worship (29:23-29:43).  Granted, there is plenty of literature answering this question in the negative, argued mostly on the basis of the historical analysis.  However, Voris further claims that Pope Benedict’s reason for call for the reform of the reform is to counteract the danger to which the faithful are exposed by attending the novus ordo (31:40-32:54).  It is clear he is not referring merely to abuses of the new liturgy since he prefaces his remarks by hammering home a sharp distinction between the validity of the novus ordo which he clearly affirms, and its status as “authentic Catholic worship,” which he emphatically questions, to the point of suggesting that it might be harmful to one’s faith.  It should be noted that Michael Voris presents himself as fully in accord with Benedict XVI and has never, as far I know, identified himself as a traditionalist.

The Reform of the Reform

The actual position of Joseph Ratizinger/Benedict XVI is rather more complex than the ideologues would grant.  The reform of the reform is not actually a kind of creeping traditionalism, that is, an “impulse toward” the old derived from a reading between the lines of the Motu Proprio.  It is true, however, that the Cardinal has had some rather severe words for the novus ordo, mostly for the abuses of it, but not entirely restricted to these.

Growth vs. Fabrication

Those criticisms might be summarized as a repudiation of liturgical changes that are manufactured out of thin air or a result of an inorganic manipulation of the liturgical tradition.  This first of all applies to the way in which “the spirit of Vatican II,” that is, the “impulses toward the new,” led to wholesale rejection of the principles laid down by the Council.  Hence, the Mass was no longer viewed as a sacrifice during which both priest and the faithful face the rising sun, and the liturgical language which tended to verticalize the celebration was completely rejected—not in favor of a just and needed use of the vernacular, but in view of horizontalizing and eliminating any reference to the transcendent; on the contrary, invoking every pretext to justify unfettered creativity, a complete disregard for the rubrics, and a jettisoning of every expression of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.  Likewise, the very just and needed emphasis of Sacrosanctum Concilium on the active participation of the faithful was “fatally narrowed” (The Ratzinger Report, 127) to signify the call for everyone to be “doing things” rather than call to a deep personal and contemplative participation in the prayer of the Church.  The Council mandated none of this.

Beyond this Cardinal Ratzinger has leveled qualified criticisms of the way in which the new liturgical books came into existence, saying that they appeared to be “put together by professors,” and not as a result of “a phase in a continual growth process.”  He said:  “I do regard it as unfortunate that we have been presented with the idea of a new book rather than with that of continuity within a single liturgical history” (Feast of Faith, 87).  In his preface to the French edition of The Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Klaus Gamber (1992), Ratzinger’s criticisms are more stinging and appear to support the position of Gamber, which is that the new liturgical books could be revised to reflect more accurately the principles laid down by Vatican II, and hence, be drawn more fully within Tradition.  In that preface, he contrasts the Western understanding of liturgical development with the Eastern notion that the liturgy is a “reflection of eternal light,” and then writes:

What happened after the Council was totally different: in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy.  We left the living process of growth and development to enter the realm of fabrication. There was no longer a desire to continue developing and maturing, as the centuries passed and so this was replaced—as if it were a technical production—with a construction, a banal on-the-spot product.

This statement might be taken in one of several ways:  as pertaining simply to the abuses of the new Mass and not to the new books themselves; as pertaining to the very novus ordo itself as codified in the Missal of Paul VI; as pertaining to the manner of presentation of the books, as the work of professors and not as organic developement.  I suggest that the meaning of the Cardinal is nuanced, tending toward the third option, because his earlier statements and those of his pontificate suggest that he is not denigrating the novus ordo as such.  Again, to be clear, both before and after his 1992 preface for Gamber’s book, his remarks indicate that he favors the new liturgical books, even if he hopes for some revisions.

Organic Development

In fact, the principle that motivates his criticisms of the new liturgical books is organic development, and not in any way an argument for a mummified liturgy.  In fact, he suggested in 1981 that those who refuse to accept the liturgical reform mandated by the council are operating on “a faulty view of the historical facts.”  The Cardinal declared that the Missal “both before and after Pius V . . . was subject to a continuous process of purification” and “continued to grow and develop” (“Lecture”).  Furthermore, he said that subsequent editions of the new books

will need to make it quite clear that the so-called Missal of Paul VI is nothing other than a renewed form of the same Missal to which Pius X, Urban VIII, Pius V and their predecessors have contributed, right from the Church’s earliest history. It is of the very essence of the Church that she should be aware of her unbroken continuity throughout the history of faith, expressed in an ever-present unity of prayer (ibid.).

This is hardly a reason to count the novus ordo as a break with the liturgical tradition; on the contrary, it is an affirmation that the actual books in use in 1981, the Cardinal considered to be in actual continuity with the older books.  In fact, in the Letter accompanying the Motu Proprio the Holy Father clearly reaffirms, both the wisdom of the conciliar mandate and the actual liturgical books for the Ordinary Form, if only the rite is celebrated according to the books in the light of Tradition and with the enrichment of the Extraordinary Form:

The most sure guarantee that the Missal of Paul VI can unite parish communities and be loved by them consists in its being celebrated with great reverence in harmony with the liturgical directives. This will bring out the spiritual richness and the theological depth of this Missal.

Of course, none of this even takes into account the positive steps taken forward, in English speaking countries, with the new translation of the Missal of Paul VI.  In this respect, the Holy Father has said: “The new translation of the Roman Missal, which is the fruit of a remarkable cooperation of the Holy See, the Bishops and experts from all over the world, is intended to enrich and deepen the sacrifice of praise offered to God by his people.”

Thus, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI in no way calls into question the reforms mandated by the Council, but rather calls for a two phase reform of the reform: 1) put an end to “unauthorized fabrication;” 2) determine what was excessively “pruned away” from the tradition “so that the connection with the whole history may become clearer and more alive again” (God and the World 415-16).

Positive Review

Thus, whatever criticisms he might have of the new liturgical books, he does not believe the absence of the needed improvements proves fatal or justifies the suggestion, for example, that Michael Voris makes, namely, that the novus ordo in its current form is a rupture from Tradition and is not, in fact, authentic Catholic worship.  In fact, Ratzinger has qualified his negative remarks on a number of occasions, including in Feast of Faith where he registered the criticisms noted above (German original published 1981):

[A]s far as  its content  is concerned  (apart  from  a  few criticisms),  I am very grateful  for the new Missal,  for the way  it has  enriched the treasury of prayers and prefaces,  for the new eucharistic prayers and the  increased number of texts for use on weekdays, etc., quite apart from the availability of  the vernacular (87).

To summarize:  since the 80’s, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s position on the matter is consistent—if nuanced. He fully supports the reforms of the Council and believes the principles articulated in Sacrosanctum Concilium should also be applied to the celebration of the Extraordinary Form.  Further, he believes it needs to be made clearer that both the old and new books are part of one unbroken Catholic Liturgical Tradition.  His criticism of the post-conciliar liturgical implementation extends from the manner in which the new liturgical books were produced, to the manner in which changes occurred, to the way they were abused.  He further maintains a number of criticisms of the books themselves, such as the inorganic and hasty transformation of the liturgical calendar, silence in the wrong place, such as after the homily, the lack of silence in the right place, especially during the Eucharistic Canon (cf. Feast of Faith 81; The Spirit of the Liturgy, 210, 214).  Pope Benedict has and continues to teach that the reform of the reform involves the end of liturgical abuse and a reassessment of lost liturgical treasures, which includes liturgical plurality and implies an internal reconciliation with the past; hence, his support of the biformity of the Roman Rite.  It is clear, however, that his reform of the reform belongs neither to the “Spirit of Vatican II” nor to the creeping traditionalism represented by the “Spirit of Summorum Pontificum.

Social Aspects and Pastoral Prudence

But there remains another obstacle beyond the task of showing that the Council was not the cause of the liturgical chaos and the task of avoiding “spiritual attitudes” rooted in a dangerous externalism.  It is a question of persons and personalities and the vices associated with relativism and private judgment.  In his Roman lecture of 1998, Cardinal Ratzinger, admits that such “wholly extrinsic” circumstances factor into the problem and “go further back than any theology.”  In God and the World  (2000), Joseph Ratzinger referred to the uncharitable manner in which those attached to the ancient liturgy were treated:

Anyone who nowadays advocates the continuing existence of this liturgy or takes part in it is treated like a leper; all tolerance ends here. There has never been anything like this in history; in doing this we are despising and proscribing the Church’s whole past. How can one trust her at present if things are that way (416)?

As Benedict XVI, in the “Letter to the Bishops” accompanying the Motu Proprio, he again defends, with qualification, those attached to the Extraordinary Form:

It is true that there have been exaggerations and at times social aspects unduly linked to the attitude of the faithful attached to the ancient Latin liturgical tradition. Your charity and pastoral prudence [i.e., of the bishops] will be an incentive and guide for improving these.

Lepers and Outcasts

Traditional Catholics, especially those attached to the old Mass, have certainly had more than their share of marginalization and isolation.  Ratzinger/Benedict’s words and actions over many years have expressed a genuine pastoral concern for them.  The liturgical changes in the period immediately after the Council were implemented too fast and without the precise pastoral consideration so much a part of the Council’s true spirit.  For those upon whom the false spirit was being imposed, who did not want to feel compelled to obey “the Spirit of Vatican II” when they knew that the inventions of that spirit were simply not mandated by the Council, there was no pastoral consideration.

The dictatorship of relativism,” as the term may be applied to implementation of conciliar liturgical reform, in fact, does “not recognize anything as definitive;” its “ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”  Ironically, the movement that advocated the greatest application of freedom and creativity to the liturgy, would hear nothing of dissent and would brook no such thing as pluralism of thought and practice.  Anything that could be labeled pre-Vatican II was deemed “pointless” and contrary to the “Spirit of the Council,” which favored, it was believed, every “impulse toward the new,” no matter how disconnected or contrary it was from the conciliar documents.


Unfortunately, there is still more irony in the reactionary and “counter-revolutionary” movement to turn the ecclesiastical clock backwards.  Modernists and traditionalists are strange-bedfellows in their rupturist interpretation of the Council and in their common commitment to reject pastoral considerations.  The modernists do this in the very name of being pastoral.  Anything old and venerable must go because it is old, stuffy, and inhibiting.  The traditionalists do this because in their view pastoral charity is a compromise with the truth, and because the counter-revolutionary traditionalist guard is elitist and convinced that it knows what is best for everyone else.  It is true, the modernists still seem to maintain a fragile but tenacious status quo, but the traditionalists are on the move and making ground, largely, I think, because Pope Benedict’s attempt at reconciling with the SSPX is misinterpreted as sympathy for their anti-conciliarism.

Indeed, the Holy Father is being very generous when he says “that there have been exaggerations and at times social aspects unduly linked to the attitude of the faithful attached to the ancient Latin liturgical tradition” (December 22, 2005).  I take this to mean that attachment to Tradition ought in no way imply that one is anti-pastoral or anti-conciliar, or otherwise guilty of having little or no consideration of Catholics who have no attachment to the older liturgy.  Those who have experienced and continue to experience ostracization and isolation would certainly understand what it is like to have a liturgy they are unfamiliar with jammed down their throat, or have mere contingent opinions, not in conformity with the Council, spouted continually like dogma.  Right?  I think there is a huge measure of good will on the part of the Holy Father, in spite of the continual pronouncements of the SSPX and other traditionalist organizations.

If one believes that this assessment of the risks of the traditionalist position is exaggerated, I recommend reading “The Gnostic Traditionalist” by Thaddeus Kozinksi.  (Unfortunately, there is a small subscription cost.)  Kozinksi describes “gnostic traditionalism as follows:

As I see it, it is the unwillingness or incapacity to take a step back, to adopt a Socratic stance toward one’s commitment and allegiance to the traditionalist narrative and critique of the post-conciliar Church, which may be a true narrative and accurate critique, but, nevertheless, is a narrative and critique that doesn’t come to us from the Magisterium, and so does not require submission by divine Faith.

Both the “Spirit of Vatican II” and the “Spirit of Summorum Pontificum” are merely contingent personal opinions to which no one has any moral obligation to grant assent.  Even more, Benedict XVI has rejected both of these spirits in principle and practice as expressions of the hermeneutic of rupture.  It seems to me that we would do well to heed what Joseph Ratzinger said in his 1998 lecture:

The authority of the Church has the power to define and limit the use of such rites in different historical situations, but she never just purely and simply forbids them. Thus the Council ordered a reform of the liturgical books, but it did not prohibit the former books. The criterion which the Council established is both much larger and more demanding; it invites us all to self-criticism.

We just need to remember that this self-criticism must work in both directions. We must be willing to examine the contingent opinions registered in favor of and against particular liturgical reforms.  We must be willing to criticize in ourselves whatever “spiritual attitude” prevails, and whatever “particular set of externals” to which we are attached, because both attitudes tend toward rupture and both of them are lacking in true and necessary pastoral charity.

Pluralism not Uniformity

The path forward cleared by Pope Benedict is a true and generous pluralism, one that rejects the polarized spiritual attitudes and their ideological underpinnings.  The reform of the reform is a “New Liturgical Movement” that has the benefit of both the principles laid out by the Council and of a clear view of the mistakes made in both directions in the wake of the Council.  The fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican II and the upcoming Year of Faith afford us the opportunity to start again in a spirit of self-criticism.

Throughout the years, Pope Benedict has argued for the internal reconciliation of the Church with its past and for the biformity of the Roman Rite, noting that ritual pluralism is nothing new in the Western Church in which there have always been various expressions of the Western Rite (for example, the Ambrosian, the Sarum, the Braga, and the Dominican Rites; see for example “Lecture”).  In Feast of Faith he says plainly:  “Catholicity does not mean uniformity” (123).  In his 1998 Roman lecture he also made explicit reference to an idea proposed for a New Liturgical Movement, seeming inspired by the “Oxford Declaration,” which he explicitly mentions.  That declaration is fundamentally pro-Vatican II, though it is certainly not ostrich-like in respect to the current state of affairs:

Our liturgical heritage is not a superficial embellishment of worship but should properly be regarded as intrinsic to it, as it is also to the process of transmitting the Catholic faith in education and evangelization. Liturgy cannot be separated from culture; it is the living font of a Christian civilization and hence has profound ecumenical significance.

Perhaps more significant for the current state of affairs is the call for pluralism:

We call for a greater pluralism of Catholic rites and uses, so that all these elements of our tradition may flourish and be more widely known during the period of reflection and ressourcement that lies ahead. If the liturgical movement is to prosper, it must seek to rise above differences of opinion and taste to that unity which is the Holy Spirit’s gift to the Body of Christ. Those who love the Catholic tradition in its fullness should strive to work together in charity, bearing each other’s burdens in the light of the Holy Spirit, and persevering in prayer with Mary the Mother of Jesus.

In fact, Stratford Caldecott one of the organizers of the event that produced the “Oxford Declaration,” notes that during the proceedings of the conference Fr. Mark Drew

requested the lifting of much of the current restrictive legislation and its replacement with creative permissive legislation. Don’t fear anarchy, he said. Anarchy is what we have already. The law of the Church has been so widely disregarded that it is now in disrepute: if respect for law is to return there must be an end to the pretense that everything is under control.

Caldecott notes:  “It was an extreme position, but an important one.”  In any case, whether or not more anarchy is in the best interests of the Church, Joseph Ratzinger has rejected a “top-down” approach to the reform of the reform.  In God and the World he says that the reform of the reform “ought in the first place to be above all an educative process, which would put a stop to this trampling all over the liturgy with one’s own inventions” (416).  He also says that an effort like the New Liturgical Movement, insofar as it actually touches the lives of Catholics, is “a matter of an impulse emanating from people who celebrated a living faith” (ibid.):

If out of this a kind of movement develops from within and is not simply imposed from above, then it will come. And I believe that here in the new generation there is already a move in this direction (ibid.).

What the Motu Proprio has provided is more opportunities, not fewer, and a way of going forward, not backward.  Neither the “Spirit of Vatican II,” nor the Spirit of Summorum Pontificum will take us anywhere except in more and ever narrower circles of frustration and bitterness.

Even in respect to the manner in which the most solemn celebration of the liturgical tradition is preserved, we must understand that it should be not a matter of subjective considerations, tinted by spiritual attitudes and ideologies, but of objective considerations.  Summorum Pontificum, article 3, provides an opportunity, not a mandate, for religious communities to adopt the Extraordinary Form “often, habitually or permanently.”  Joseph Ratzinger has written that a “non-subjective criterion” needs to be found to “permit the possibility of the old Missal.”  He says that this is something that could easily be done in monastic communities whose very existence is based on the mandate to celebrate the liturgy in the most solemn fashion possible.  He also notes that certain religious orders, like the Dominicans, have had their own special rite, so that it would make sense that such religious orders were committed by their nature to a specific form of the Roman rite.  He mentions also the possibility of other religious communities and priestly fraternities following this path, on the basis of objective, and not merely subjective considerations (Joseph Ratzinger, Teologia della Liturgia, Opera Omnia Vol. II, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 757, translation mine).

What Pope Benedict does not recommend, in any context, parish or religious community, is an arbitrary top-down approach, without sufficient education, based on gratuitous interpretations of the Council and his teaching, that is, on the basis of the “Spirit of Summorum Pontificum.”  If there is to be some legitimate pluralism and even a measure of give and take on what truly constitutes the liturgical use that is most pleasing to God, it will have to respect this pluralism and the very nature of the contingent opinions that are thus represented.

But this is a problem for the elitists of both stripes of “spiritual attitudes” and “particular sets of externals.”  Revolutions and counter-revolutions are run by elitist ideologues, by the gnostic intelligentsia, the social, cultural and spiritual engineers of either the “new world order,” or the “old world restoration.”  Fr. Chad Ripperger, would make every priest an evangelist for his personal and contingent opinions on the relative merit of the two forms:

Yet, to answer the question of whether the old rite of Mass is more efficacious than the new is of paramount importance. It is the point of departure between priests of the respective rites, since each holds that he is saying the Mass that is best for the faithful.  Nevertheless, the question is a key one since, in the end, whichever ritual is more meritorious ought to be the one that the Roman authorities encourage.

This is precisely what Pope Benedict is not saying and not mandating.  This kind of externalism and, in my view, partisan elitism needs to end.  It is not the opinion about which form of the rite is better that I object to, but the manner in which a top-down solution is encouraged.  Pope Benedict, the Supreme Pastor of the Church, favors organic development and liturgical pluralism, not a socially engineered uniformity at the hands of elitists and authoritarians.

Reality Check

Those who are sympathetic to the strong words and actions of the SSPX and the likes of Michael Voris had better be clear of what is really going on.  Recently, Bishop Fellay said that the Society would just have to wait for the Vatican to catch up, that the reunion talks for now do not leave much to hope for in the immediate future:

I am persuaded that in ten years things will look different because the generation of the Council will be gone and the next generation does not have this link with the Council. And already now we hear several bishops, my dear brethren, several bishops tell us: you give too much weight to this Council; put it aside. It could be a good way for the Church to go ahead. Put it aside; forget it. Let’s go back to the real thing, to Tradition.

I continue to wonder at the naïveté of some of the contemporary liturgical and anti-conciliar enthusiasms coming from the traditionally minded who would never attend an SSPX Mass in this present state of their irregularity.  The anti-conciliarism, explicit and implicit, is not of God.  Christ has given us a pope, not only as a Teacher who is infallible in certain circumstances when he speaks on faith and morals, but also a Pastor who has the charism of governance in a way that only the Vicar of Christ has it.  The cultivated doubt as to whether or not he is infallible in his pronouncements on the liturgy is a red herring promulgated by ideologues and elitists with an agenda.

Rebuilding the Church

As a Franciscan I can appreciate an analogy made by Joseph Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy.  It is very architectural in an ecclesiastical way.  Pope Benedict compares liturgical reform to the restoration of a beautiful but whitewashed fresco.  Franciscans have been tasked by Holy Mother Church since the beginning of the Order in the 13th century to protect the edifice of the Church from destruction.  St. Francis rebuilt three Churches at the beginning of his vocation, as a sign of the more critical way in which he and his sons would work for the “rebuilding of the Church.”

The Cardinal writes that the liturgy of the earlier part of the 20th century was like this undamaged but obscured work of art that had been covered over by generations of whitewash.  (How ironic, considering this is exactly what happened to beautiful ecclesiastical and liturgical art after the Council.)

In the Missal from which the priest celebrated, the form of the liturgy that had grown from its earliest beginnings was still present, but, as far as the faithful were concerned, it was largely concealed beneath instructions for and forms of private prayer.

But, he says:

The fresco was laid bare by the Liturgical Movement and, in a definitive way, by the Second Vatican Council.  For a moment its colors and figures fascinated us. But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions.

He goes on to tell his reader, as Jesus told St. Francis, that this beautiful work of art “is threatened with destruction.”  Something must be done.  But that something, he writes, is not to once again use whitewash,

but what is imperative is a new reverence in the way we treat it, a new understanding of its message and its reality, so that rediscovery does not become the first stage of irreparable loss.

For this we have the Second Vatican Council to look to, not in suspicion, but for guidance, because as the Pope reminds us in the words of another great Franciscan, St. Bonventure:

“Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”:  Christ’s works do not go backwards, they do not fail but progress.

Filed under: Catholicism, Church, Culture, Prayers, Religion Tagged: Benedict XVI, Blessed John XXIII, Dictatorship of Relativism, Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Ecclessia Dei, Extraordinary Form, Hermeneutic of Continuity, Hermeneutic of Rupture, Joseph Ratzinger, Liturgical Movement, Liturgy, Michael Voris, Modernism, New Liturgical Movement, Novus Ordo, Ordinary Form, Oxford Declaration, Paul VI, Professor Roberto Mattei, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, Summorum Pontificum, Traditional Latin Mass, Traditionalism, Vetus Ordo
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Author Fr Angelo

I am Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, and a priest for more than twenty years. I am now studying in Rome for my licentiate in Theology.

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  • Joanne L. says:

    Thank you Father Angelo for that wonderful article. I agree with you 100% as usual. On a lighter note, I really liked the pictures! I always love the picutures in your blogs. They are wonderful and needed – it really helps to kind of “lighten up” sometimes. I had to laugh a few times. – I especially liked the picture of “the spirit of Vatican II” the ghostly guy & and the picture of the old man sweeping up the cathedral at the end – perfect ending – wow.
    You are wonderful Father Angelo! I think Pope Benedict would enjoy your article! 🙂 I admire your courage! Yeah! Ave Maria!

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