Facing Reality in Liturgy and Authority

WHATEVER ITS FUNDAMENTAL INTENT, Traditionis custodes (TC) has stirred a storm of comment and controversy as great as any other document issued over the signature of Pope Francis. It has caused both glee and gloom, merriment and mourning, resignation and resistance.

Before you read on here, please read Dr Shaun Blanchard’s piece at Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal. He identifies that TC is about liturgy only as liturgy offers a casus belli: the real issue is the reception of Vatican II. Dr Blanchard recalls the tradition of papal appropriation and steering of ecumenical councils and their decrees. German, as ever, has a word that covers this phenomenon: Deutungshoheit: literally “interpreation sovereignty,” Dr Blanchard defines it in English as “sovereignty over a narrative, which is the power to control meaning.” TC is thus just the latest in a papal tradition of controlling conciliar narratives.

Dr Shaun Blanchard

Dr Blanchard sees that the old Mass, in its liberalization by Benedict XVI, has been used, from Francis’ perspective, as cover for a theological rejection of Vatican II. He raises Newman’s thesis of the development of doctrine, and its adoption in the Council’s decree Dei verbum, as the point at issue and in the context of which Benedict’s insightful “hermeneutic of continutity” must be read. Thus, Blanchard states that,

Francis links rejection of Vatican II (whether de facto or explicit) to a broader rejection of doctrinal development and, crucially, of the conciliar and papal authorities under which such developments are formally sanctioned.

In this light must, for example, the canonizations of the concilar and post-conciliar popes be seen. Of course, in bolstering their authority by canonizing them, Francis bolsters his own papal authority as well as that of the Council. The premise behind St Paul VI’s refusal to allow the old Mass to Lefebvre is recalled by Blanchard: that allowing the continuation of the old Mass “becomes a symbol of the condemnation of the Council.”

Do read the article in full. I am not doing it full justice.

The upshot is that Francis, in issuing TC, is not acting in a way that is novel or unprecedented. Despite all the many, and clever, arguments against this exercise of authority by Francis over the liturgy, it comes up against a fundamental contradiction: if one denies Francis the authority to legislate for the post-Vatican II liturgy, then one must deny St Pius V’s authority to legislate the post-Tridentine liturgy. It is post-Trent that we see the first fully-conscious exercise of papal authority over the liturgy of the Roman Rite. St Pius X, Pius XII, St John XXIII, St Paul VI, Benedict XVI and even Francis all act on this precedent set by St Pius V.

Denying Francis’ authority over the liturgy is a non-starter it seems to me. You would have to deny Pius V’s authority too. The reality of papal authority to bind and loose must be faced objectively. The nuanced arguments about the apparent traditional or historic limitations on the exercise of papal authority vis à vis the liturgy are all very well, and often very cogent indeed. Yet, ultimately, they are futile. Blanchard quotes Adam De Ville’s insightful aphorism:

a papacy big enough to fulfill your wishes can also destroy them.

So is that the end of all debate? Surely, no.

Another reality is that while arguing against the authority of the pope – or even more against the authority of the largest and most repsentative ecumenical council in history – might be futile and self-defeating, there remains another question that is in fact moot, and very live indeed. In the case of the liturgy the question is so familiar as to be too easily overlooked:

Is the Novus Ordo Missae of 1969 actually identifiable as the Mass mandated by Vatican II, as the missal promulgated in 1570 can be adequately identified as the Mass mandated by the Council of Trent?

The question then is not one of papal or conciliar authority, but liturgical identity.

In this regard Article 1 of TC is crucial:

The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.

Read forensically, this statement of principle is surely correct: insofar as the liturgical books promulgated by Paul VI and John Paul II are in conformity with the decrees of Vatican II, they do express the lex orandi of the Roman Rite. The use of “unique” is the word that is misplaced here. It says more than it can justifiably be allowed to; a better word would have been “contemporary”.

Let us look rather at “liturgical books”. While I cannot find a Latin version of TC, the versions in German (liturgischen Bücher), Italian (libri liturgici), and Spanish (libros litúrgicos) all offer cognate forms of the English. It includes more than typical editions of Roman missals.

So which post-conciliar liturgical books can be said to be in clear conformity with the decrees of Vatican II? This is where the debate needs to be resumed and re-invigorated. Certainly Missale Romanum 1970 claims such conformity for itself. But the mere statement is not proof. As many commentators over the years have shown, MR 1970 can be shown in a multitude of places to be very much not in conformity with the “decrees of Vatican Counicl II”. There can be no talk of any nebulous “spirit of Vatican II,” as Francis himself has narrowed the criteria down to the formal decrees of Vatican II.

My contention has been, and remains, that we need to look afresh at the Ordo Missae of 1965. OM 1965 is impeccably post-conciliar, and a direct, immediate and unmistakable fruit of the conciliar liturgical decree Sacrosanctum concilium. Its “conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II” can be easily and amply demonstrated. No less a figure than Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre agreed.

I would maintain that, prima facie, the scope of the designation “liturgical books” is providentially wide enough to include OM 1965. In fact, since the provisions of TC are explicitly concerned with use of the “Missal antecedent to the reform of 1970” (art. 3), which is to say the “Missale Romanum of 1962” (art. 5), the OM 1965 is by implication given a free pass. If the OM 65 was celebrated with the new calendar and propers, it is hard to see how its use could justifiably be criticised as pre-conciliar. Its conformity with the conciliar decree is impeccable. It passes the TC test, as TC is written.

So, the reality is that any attempt to deny the authority of either pope or council is at best futile, and even more self-defeating. When a pope confirms an ecumenical council then, absent any corrective cvlarification subsequently, the authority of both is a done deal in plain terms. The feasible and realistic argument to be made in light of TC regards the degree to which any of the post-conciliar “liturgical books” are in conformity with the “decrees of Vatican Council II.”

This poses an argument about identity not authority. Much of the reaction against the new Mass stems precisely from its failure not only to accord with the decrees of the Council, but also with its celebration in many places in absolute contradiction to the decrees of the Council. This seemed to leave MR 1962 as the only liturgical safe harbour from the liturgical offspring of the Consilium. TC implies that the challenge is not a simple matter of pitting MR 1962 against MR 1970, but rather accepting the conciliar and papal authority behind both (as one must), and then determining what best embodies identity with the conciliar liturgy the authority of which TC seeks to uphold. Is it MR 1962, MR 1970, or OM 1965?

My suggestion is that it is OM 1965. Perhaps much of the energy being expended in heat might be profitably directed to shining light on this Mayfly Mass, the lost liturgy of Vatican II.

Join the Conversation

  1. If the premise is granted that the Pope’s control over the liturgy is essentially total, I don’t see that asking whether the Mass promulgated by Paul VI conformed to the intentions of the Council advances us very far.

    Whether it did or did not conform to the intentions of the Council, it did to the intentions of Paul VI, which is all that is necessary. Or, to move it to the current day, Pope Francis could affirm both of these:

    1. The 1965 Missal perfectly embodies the letter and spirit of Vatican II. It is exactly what the Council Fathers wanted.

    2. Also, I don’t like it at all. Gauged by the letter and spirit of V2, the 1970 Missal is inferior in every way. But *I* like the 1970 Missal better, and I have the authority to enforce what I like, so that is what we are going with.

    To be clear, I am not at all saying PF believes that. All I mean, is once the premise is granted that the form of the liturgy is dictated by the Pope, well, V2 was a long time ago, and it just doesn’t enter the picture. All that matters is what the current occupant of the throne wants.

    1. I thought that the “Liturgy Wars” had calmed down, if not disappeared at all. In England under the 2007 M.P. it seems that most people got what they wanted. Pope Francis’s idea of unity is splendid but hardly rings true even in the brave new church of Vatican II. In the area in which I live (unlike, for example, East Anglia) we have many Catholic churches but they are all VERY different. Each one could be described as being either High,Middle or Low Church. In one at the end of Mass the priest calls out whose birthday it is and if no-one answers he stares in an accusing way, then we all have to cheer and sing Happy Birthday.In another, a few miles away, no Altar Girls are used and they have [a modern liturgist’s nightmare] a Missal stand and burses and veils. I could go on about the liturgical and the DOCTRINAL variety. So, does the New Mass foster unity ? As we young fellows say: Get real,man.
      In 1976 there was a very long leader in The Times which supported the easy use of the Old Rite on grounds of real liberalism – still worth reading – it concluded with the famous words: Let them have their Mass.

      1. I would agree with the Times’ leader. As I have argued in my latest, Francis is repeating the mistake of Paul VI.

  2. This is an interesting thesis, but a document as poorly written as TC is perhaps not the best basis on which to argue your case. You write above that:

    “I would maintain that, prima facie, the scope of the designation “liturgical books” is providentially wide enough to include OM 1965. In fact, since the provisions of TC are explicitly concerned with use of the “Missal antecedent to the reform of 1970” (art. 3), which is to say the “Missale Romanum of 1962” (art. 5), the OM 1965 is by implication given a free pass.”

    But in the following link, for example, the text of TC is used to argue the exact opposite: https://canonlawmadeeasy.com/2021/07/29/the-enormous-loophole-in-traditionis-custodes/

    The advantage of the latter argument is that it seems to recognize that the 1965 missal was not a mere ‘interim’ edition. As far as I know, the qualifier ‘interim’ was not used by any issuing authority when the 1965 missal was published. This would work in favour of your own position.

    1. But David, 1965 was not a Missal at all, but an Ordo Missae. The typical editions of the Missale Romanum go from 1962 to 1970, with none in between. So Cathy builds a case on a mistaken premise. OM 65 is not a missal, and is very much a liturgical book “promulgated by Paul VI” after and responding to the Council. It is the Council that Francis is really interested in; liturgy does not really interest him when all is said and done.


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