Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Juridical Key to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 17, 2011

Back in May, when the Vatican issued an Instruction on the use of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite (see Universae Ecclesiae), I briefly addressed the question of how easily those who wished to have Mass in the extraordinary form would be accommodated:

Inevitably then, the attitudes of individual pastors and bishops will determine how easy or difficult it is for “stable groups of the faithful” to have their desires for the extraordinary form met. Universae Ecclesiae simply offers greater clarity and applies a little more pressure to accommodate them. [From my commentary of May 13, 2011, The Key Points in Universae Ecclesiae.]

A recent feature article in Catholic World Report by R. Michael Dunnigan (“Justice and Reconciliation”, August/September 2011) reminds me that I spoke far too softly in using the phrase “a little more pressure”. In fact, Universae Ecclesiae includes an important juridical key in the effort to obtain the free and unencumbered use of the extraordinary form.

Dunnigan’s article emphasizes the techniques some bishops have used to control the use of the extraordinary form, including competency requirements and certifications which, however well-intentioned they may be, must certainly have the effect of dampening a priest’s interest in taking advantage of the Pope’s widespread permission (first provided in his 2007 Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum). Dunnigan lists Alexandria, Cincinnati, Peoria, St. Augustine, Erie and Steubenville among dioceses with such requirements, which could be regarded as stifling, even for a priest’s private masses.

But what has happened between Summorum Pontificum and Universae Ecclesiae, Dunnigan rightly points out, is that the juridical character of the Pontifical Commission in charge of promoting the extraordinary form has evolved. No longer merely an encouraging or facilitating presence, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei now has actual jurisdiction over the tensions and conflicts which may arise between priests and bishops over the use of the extraordinary form. In a word, the Ecclesia Dei Commission can now not only listen to complaints but rule on them, including overturning the decisions of local bishops where necessary to preserve the integrity of the Pontifical legislation—not only in theory but in practice.

This in itself could have a chilling effect on ill-advised episcopal tinkering with the Pope’s intentions through “regulation”, but of course it does not (and should not) eliminate the legitimate concern of the bishops that their priests should be properly prepared to say Mass according to the older form, and in Latin. But it is clearly the Pope’s intention that this concern be expressed not by forcing priests to jump through bureaucratic hoops, but by offering them the assistance they need in preparing themselves for a knowledgeable and reverent use of the extraordinary form.

Although I noted the Commission’s new jurisdiction in my May commentary, I did not sufficiently emphasize this shift. It is something more than “a little more pressure”, as I called it, for the simple reason that it represents a difference not just in degree but in kind. Legal authority to override a bishop’s restrictions is not the same thing as stronger encouragement. It is a potential game-changer in recalcitrant dioceses. Now we need to begin to look around and see how this new juridical authority is used.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Aug. 20, 2011 6:54 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Lord, for our "Extraordinary" Pope, who understands the recalcitrant nature of some bishops who just will not grant the new form, having used excuses like how many comprise a stable group! In my county in NJ there is not one traditional Mass - wonder why?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Aug. 18, 2011 7:33 PM ET USA

    I want to emphasize that jdieterich616502 is right to raise this question. The CWR article I cited put these diocesan regulations directly in the context of attempting to suppress the extraordinary form. I softened this considerably in my presentation, because there could be a variety of reasons, good and bad, for such regulations.

  • Posted by: jdieterich616502 - Aug. 18, 2011 10:38 AM ET USA

    I'm not questioning the facts in this arcticle, but I would be curious how long those rules have been on the books in those dioceses and what the rationale is behind them. At least 3 of those dioceses (Alexandria, Peoria, and Steubenville) are known to be solid dioceses, though of course not exactly known to be bastions of traditional liturgical renewal (though specifically to Steubenville Franciscan University is embracing it, and St. Peter's parish downtown Steubenville has for many years)