YOU DO NOT NEED me to tell you that this year has seen a storm of controversy about the liturgy. Not a naturally-occuring storm, but one manufactured almost ex nihilo. This points to an agenda being served. But it is not the agenda—real or merely apparent, right or wrong—that is the topic here. Rather it is the elephant in the room that commentators seem to be edging around. Perhaps they are distracted by the purely liturgical questions. Perhaps they wish to avoid going where angels fear to tread.
The first black clouds on the liturgical horizons appeared on 12 March this year with the posting on the sacristy door of St Peter’s Basilica an unsigned declaration under the letterhead of the Vatican Secretariat of State. This extraordinary notice, inter alia, banned “private” Masses at side altars of St Peter’s and consigned the celebration of the Extraordinary Form to the Clementine Chapel. There was so much about this Lutheresque posting on the door that was baffling, to put it politely: since when is posting notices on doors the proper way to promulgate decisions; by whose authority was the declaration made; what on earth did it have to do with the Secretariat of State; from what process or problem did this decree emerge? In fact, the document itself and its promulgation were so ridiculous that I felt sure it was fake. I still do not know who issued it, but it was certainly enacted and obeyed.
The storm that some had begun to sniff in the air broke on 16 July last with the promulgation in a formal way of Francis’ motu proprio, Traditionis custodes (TC). As we all know well enough, this severely restricted the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass under the appearances of returning competency for regulating its celebration to the bishops. It was a sloppy document, deficient in both liturgical and canonical terms,but nevertheless came with the papal signature. It is now law.
Then came the revelation on 5 November of a letter dated 4 August from Archbishop Arthur Roche, newly-installed as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, in reply to a letter from Cardinal Nichols seeking detailed advice on problematic issues and questions about the implementation of a document, issues and questions arising directly from the canonical mess of TC. The Prefect’s letter referred to the so-called Agatha Christie indult of 1971 which allowed some small concessions for those in England and Wales seeking to celebrate using the liturgy in force immediately prior to the new Mass of 1970. Gobsmackingly, the Prefect declared that there was no copy of this indult in the congregational archives.
Both Roche’s letter and TC are intended to shore up the new Mass, for which is identified as the liturgy of Vatican II. This identification itself is highly problematic, as the liturgy bears only a passing resemblance to the liturgical decree of the Council. It seems to be a blind application of post hoc ergo propter hoc, a principle that is inherently dangerous.
The storm is yet to abate. Much ink, real and digital, is being expended in defending the more ancient liturgy, and the emotion provoked by this manufactured storm shows little sign of waning, and is pushing some to make thinly-veiled de facto rejections of papal, and potentially conciliar, authority—precisely the authority this storm was seemingly manufactured to bolster.
The point of this little paper is to highlight two bold declarations, one in TC and the other in the Prefect’s letter to Cardinal Nichols. Remember, a curial prefect is appointed to exercise papal authority in his particular jurisdiction; in Roche’s case, it is the liturgy.
In TC Pope Francis decreed that,
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.Traditionis custodes, §1
There is no Latin version against which to measure the translation—itself extraordinary—but we can assume with confidence it was composed in Italian. The word unique translates the Italian unica, which means only or sole. In German the word is einzige, again with the sense of only. In other words, Pope Francis has overturned predecessor’s teaching that the lex orandi of the Roman Rite was expressed in two forms: the Ordinary, being the liturgy since 1970, and the Extraordinary, being the liturgy that preceded it. This was a logical teaching that accepted the organic development of liturgy over time.
TC has severed this organic liturgical thread and, in effect through without saying so explicitly, declared the liturgy prior to the conciliar reform (the Extraordinary Form) to be abrogated, a legal term meaning abolished. Thus Francis implicitly contradicts Benedict XVI.
In this light should the second bold declaration be read. Archbishop Roche laments the use of the old liturgy over and against the “Conciliar” liturgy, slipping in a parenthetical declaration:
[the promotion of the old liturgical texts] has been used to encourage a liturgy at variance with Conciliar reform (and which, in fact, was abrogated by Pope Saint Paul VI)…see below
Roche is making explicit what was implicit in TC. The two must be seen together.
So there is potentially even bigger, and more disturbing, issue beneath the surface matter of the liturgy; the elephant in the room we hesitate to acknowledge:
When one pope flatly contradicts the teaching of his immediate predecessor, the faithful are left with a big problem. While neither Francis’ nor Benedict’s teachings were vested with the marks of infallibility—both used the device of the motu proprio, a legal not a doctrinal instrument—the faithful are left with no less of a problem in being compelled to decide for themselves which pope was “right.”
If a papal act is not infallible, then it must be fallible. This is not to deny its legal authority. But it cannot of itself be said to express divine truth inevitably and incontrovertibly. It expresses, certainly, papal authority, which is exercised of course under the power of the keys as a successor of Peter. But it is not so certain that such acts express fully divine revelation.
This is why popes take great care to establish their acts and teachings in the context of previous papal and conciliar teaching, to demonstrate clearly the consistency of what they teach or decree with all that has gone before; in other words, to reveal the organic thread of tradition linking their acts with those of all the centuries prior. This shows that papal authority is invested more in the papal office rather than the papal person. Pope Francis is notoriously sparing in his references to tradition further back than the last 60 years. Indeed, in his encyclicals Francis very often quotes himself as an authority or precedent.
It strikes me that the scope of papal authority is the ground on which debate will have to be pursued. Whilever a pope’s authority and its exercise can be set apart and distinct from liturgy as a traditional authority in its own right, the Church will remain in crisis. Lex orandi is only half the issue; It is just as much about lex credendi.