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Summorum Pontificum: What Will Its Impact Be?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 13, 2007

Perhaps the most interesting question surrounding Summorum Pontificum is what its impact is likely to be. This Motu Proprio is a disciplinary decree concerning the liturgy. In other words, it is a policy decision, and its wisdom and effectiveness will be decided ultimately by the results. In the end, therefore, the future will decide this question. Still, speculation is rife, and rightly so.

For a summary of what has been decreed, see What Does Summorum Pontificum Say?. For an explanation of why Benedict ruled as he did, see Why Was Summorum Pontificum Issued?

Feared Consequences

In the letter to the Bishops accompanying Summorum Pontificum, Benedict notes that during the consultation period preceding the Motu Proprio, many people opposed his impending decision and tried to dissuade him from making it. The Pope says that the opposition was based primarily on fears of two specific potential evil consequences. Benedict issued the document anyway, and he makes clear that he regards both fears as unfounded. Therefore, we ought to begin our own analysis with the consequences feared by many that Benedict does not expect to occur.

The first fear is that expanded use of the 1962 Missal would detract from the authority of the Second Vatican Council, “one of whose essential decisions—the liturgical reform—is being called into question.” Benedict regards this fear as unfounded because the Missal of Paul VI will continue to be the normal form (forma ordinaria) of the liturgy. The 1962 Missal will be used as an extraordinary form (forma extraordinaria). He stresses that these are two forms of the same rite, not two different rites, that the 1962 Missal was in truth never abrogated, and that the primary experience of the Church’s liturgy will continue to be the Missal of Paul VI as revised by John Paul II.

The second fear is that expanded use of the 1962 Missal would lead to “disarray or even divisions within parish communities.” This Benedict again denies by stressing that “the use of the old Missal presupposes a certain degree of liturgical formation and some knowledge of the Latin language; neither of these is found very often. Already from these concrete presuppositions, it is clearly seen that the new Missal will certainly remain the ordinary Form, not only on account of the juridical norms, but also because of the actual situation of the communities of the faithful.” In other words, the answer to both fears is the same: the novus ordo will remain the overwhelmingly normal liturgical experience of the Church.

Included in both these fears is, to be frank, what we might call the fear of giving the “wrong idea” to Traditionalists. Benedict is aware of this concern, and he addresses it in two different places in the letter. Thus he notes that while the old missal has become a mark of identity for the movement led by Archbishop Lefebvre, the “reasons for the break…were at a deeper level” (a level not addressed in Summorum Pontificum). He also says that while “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”, he expects the charity and prudence of the bishops to be “an incentive and guide for improving these.”

Benedict’s Intended Results

In the overall context of the letter and the Motu Proprio, Benedict’s expectation is clear: His decision is directed primarily at the many people who are attached to the old liturgy while clearly accepting “the binding character of the Second Vatican Council,” and who remain “faithful to the Pope and the Bishops.” It is up to the bishops to provide proper pastoral care for these persons, and so effect greater charity and unity. A line from Summorum Pontificum itself drives the point home: “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).” As a strict statement of causation stemming from properly celebrated Masses, this is undoubtedly true, yet practically speaking it remains perhaps as much a command as a statement of fact.

In fact, the one consequence that Benedict both foresees and desires is that the wider use of the old Missal will help to establish greater continuity and reverence in the ongoing renewal of the Church’s liturgy. The Pope states point blank in the letter that the chief cause of the intense liturgical pain of many of the faithful has been such widespread infidelity to the prescriptions of the novus ordo as to lead to “deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear.” His hope is that the older Missal of Blessed John XXIII can be enriched by the new saints and new Prefaces which have come into use since 1962, and that the newer celebration of the Mass of Paul VI, by virtue of our growing appreciation for the older liturgy, “will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.”

To this end, Benedict issues something of a challenge. “The most sure guarantee that the Missal of Paul VI can unite parish communities and be loved by them,” he says, “consists in its being celebrated with great reverence in harmony with the liturgical directives. This will bring out the spiritual richness and theological depth of this Missal.” If this becomes the norm, the future is bright indeed.

What Will Really Happen?

As has been clear since long before he was elected pope, Benedict XVI places great stress on proper continuity with tradition in any authentic liturgical renewal. He has made it clear that Summorum Pontificum is aimed at reinforcing the idea of continuity and eliminating the problem of rupture. He clearly expects the future to be marked by increased respect for tradition, growing liturgical harmony, greater reverence, mutual charity and an effective “reform of the reform” which stresses these goals. What stands in the way?

Human nature, of course, is the main obstacle. For this reason, only the future can prove one way or another whether Benedict has read the signs of the times rightly in moving in this particular direction at this particular time. While it appears to me to be difficult for a sound Catholic to quarrel with Benedict’s principles and aims, it is certain that many on both sides of the liturgical divide will quarrel with them. Moreover, in such potential quarrels they may be aided by two small but significant ambiguities in the text of the Motu Proprio.

The first ambiguity is found in the first paragraph of Article 5 of Summorum Pontificum, where it specifies that the pastor should willingly provide the Mass according to the 1962 Missal “where there is a stable group of faithful who adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition.” This wording would seem to imply the pre-existence of a significant number of persons who have for some time been going to some trouble to attend Mass elsewhere according to the older Missal. At least it is not clear to me what else “adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition” can mean, for the word “adhere” does not mean the same thing as “prefer”. In other words, this provision seems directed only toward those who have not already been able to reconcile themselves to regular celebration of Mass using the Missal of 1970. I can see this becoming a flash-point of controversy.

The second ambiguity is found in the fourth paragraph of the same article, which specifies that “Priests who use the Missal of Bl. John XXIII must be qualified to do so.” As we have already seen in his accompanying letter, Benedict suggests that the liturgical formation and knowledge of the Latin language presupposed by the old Missal are not “found very often”. It is possible that he was referring only to the laity in that statement, but it would seem on its face also to apply to many priests who have been trained in the last generation or two, whose liturgical formation may at least be questionable, who have little knowledge of Latin, and who have never spoken it in their lives. I can see this as another flash-point, especially when "stable groups" come into conflict with priests who choose to excuse themselves on the basis of poor qualifications.

But the biggest question of all remains what it has always been. Will these changes stimulate a more rapid retreat from egoism and absurdity in the celebration of the novus ordo, as Pope Benedict so earnestly hopes? Will the tension between reverence and lack of reverence, dignity and frivolity, incense and balloons, in persona Christi and in persona Bozo the Clown continue? It is this tension, wherever it still exists, that primarily causes the rupture and the breach. Now Benedict has taken his first measures. Only time will tell whether these policies will succeed in establishing continuity by increasing what he himself has called sacrality in the Church’s liturgical life.

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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