The Forthcoming Motu Proprio

(This is Neil.) I suppose that I should say something about the forthcoming motu proprio, in which the Pope will presumably extend permission for the celebration of the Mass of Pius V. The Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, having participated in a meeting about the document, tells us that “in the United States the number of people who participate in the Latin Mass even with permission is very low.” Cardinal O’Malley also says, “The Holy Father was very clear that the ordinary form of celebrating the Mass will be the new rite, the Novus Ordo.” For many of us, then, the obvious question might be: What difference does this make for me? Of course, even for those who have no immediate plans to attend a Latin Mass, the motu proprio might have a myriad of effects – it can indirectly, perhaps purposely, affect the manner in which the Mass of Paul VI will be celebrated, and its anticipated promulgation has already raised concerns about Catholic-Jewish relations.

Here, though, I want to ask a question about a possible (and somewhat ironic) conceptual effect that the motu proprio might have.

Let me be speculative. I think that a non-Catholic observer of discussions on liturgy will notice two things. First, especially if these discussions happen to be recent, our hypothetical listener will point out that the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo are almost inevitably seen as rivals, playing now-familiar roles in narratives of progress or decline centering on either “reverence” or “participation.” Second, the observer will notice something similar to what Rowan Williams, the (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, pointed out after a recent visit to Rome as “one of those Counter-Reformation things.” Regarding translation issues, he told the Tablet that there is “a level of anxiety about getting the words right,” and went on to say, “It isn’t characteristic of the early or medieval Church: there’s not a fear of getting it right nor even is there is a sense of one model against which everything else has to be tested.”

Perhaps, then, we can suggest (again, let me be speculative) that we possess a certain level of anxiety about liturgy that makes us continually search for “one model against which everything else has to be tested,” that this anxiety dates from the contentious period of the Catholic Reformation, and that it makes the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo seem mutually exclusive.

Might the motu proprio, intentionally or not, dispel this anxiety? It will presumably, in the words of Cardinal O’Malley, establish “one Roman Rite celebrated with different forms” (my emphasis). So, then, it will serve as a clear sign that, as Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1999, following Newman, “the Church, throughout her history, has never abolished nor forbidden orthodox liturgical forms, which would be quite alien to the Spirit of the Church.” Beyond reiterating that particular theological point, since the Church does have the power to “define and limit the use of such rites in different historical situations,” the motu proprio’s encouragement of a once marginalized liturgical form might also implicitly suggest that it is pastorally unwise for the Church to unnecessarily restrict liturgical practices. Thus, the motu proprio, without embracing liturgical anarchy, might dissuade us from searching for “one model against which everything else has to be tested” by proposing that liturgical unity actually exists through a multiplicity of forms.

Since the motu proprio will be the words of Joseph Ratzinger, we might also suspect that it will express another view clearly expressed in his memoirs. “Enormous harm,” he opines, occurred because the imposition of the Mass of Paul VI made the liturgy appear “to be no longer a product of living development, but the product of erudite work and juridical authority.” We might expect that the motu proprio will consequently show a real caution about the juridical and erudite certainties that once “demolished” the “old building” – a skepticism towards what we might call the “one model against which everything else has to be tested” that easily emerges from the desire for institutional centralization and the pretensions of expertise. This “new construction,” after all, often comes at the expense of the joyous (if theologically imprecise) customs of the Bavarian countryside.

The irony, though, is that we will then have a Tridentine Mass whose use is broadened in the name of an authentic liturgical pluralism – and against the abstract clarity of the novel constructions of erudite work and juridical authority. We can add that we will have a Tridentine Mass that is self-consciously countercultural. This might be a good thing, but it is somewhat ironic because the Mass promulgated in 1570 was meant to be the decisive product of expertise and a felt need for papal centralization. It was meant to create widespread uniformity under the motto “uni deo, una & eadem formula, preces, & laudes adhibendi.” And it hardly ended up as countercultural.

Let me quote from Nathan Mitchell’s article on “Reforms, Protestant and Catholic” from The Oxford History of Christian Worship (2006):

The principles that guided the liturgical commission in its work of reform are evident in the papal bull Quo primum, which introduced the new missal. Five cardinal principles are announced. First, a single rite for mass and office is to be used throughout the Latin church. Second, the antiquity, quality, and probity of the missal’s contents are to be guaranteed by the work of scholars. Third, the commission’s primary goal is to restore the mass to the “pristine norm of the ancient Fathers.” Fourth, this patristic norm will be strictly interpreted by papal authority, for the regulation of liturgical practice in the Western Church belongs to the pope and is contained in the official books (editiones typicae) he approves and promulgates. Fifth, nothing may be added or subtracted either from the rites and rubrics found in the missal or from the bull Quo primum, except by direction of the pope. In short, the Roman rite was redefined as a papal rite – papal in its origins (the liturgy of the papal court), papal in form and norm, and papal in its promulgation and regulation. By remanding reform of the liturgical library to the pope in its final session, Trent had (perhaps unwittingly) created a new liturgical universe, a style of reform based on political principles that would later serve the emerging “nation states” of early modern Europe. In sum, the Missale Pianum of 1570 redefined the art of politics in matters liturgical. In the medieval world such politics had been local, with responsibility for worship in the hands of the local ordinary (the bishop); in the post-Tridentine world, liturgical politics became global, international, with final responsibility vested in the pope.

These were, of course, quite “modern” principles that reflected influences from both the new technology of the time (printing) and enlightened humanist scholarship. The pope blatantly admitted the missal was the work of a professional class – liturgical “experts,” scholarly librarians combing through “ancient manuscripts contained in our Vatican Library,” not pastors responding to the needs of their people. He assumed, further, that the model of “historical repristination” – the “return to the sources” (which the Reformers themselves also esteemed) – was the proper one for such scholarly work. Moreover, despite warnings against “lasciviousness” in church music, both Trent and the post-Tridentine reform actually embraced many modern (“secular”) innovations in art, literature, architecture, and music. On many levels, Trent’s reform of Catholic worship, which took the form of purging late medieval rites of their disturbing “muddle” and “rubbish,” represented Renaissance humanism’s love for “clean, unadulterated forms.” One is not surprised, then, to read, in Quod a nobis, the papal bull which promulgated the reformed Breviarium Romanum, that Pius V lamented “divini cultus perturbatio” and wished to rid public worship of orandi varietas.” To achieve such goals it was necessary to remove liturgy from the turgid flow of daily life and to make of it a kind of “political performance” – the “official cult” of the church as a public institution, rather than living worship by a holy community whose every member contributes to the action.

What does this mean? This means that the motu proprio might present an opportunity to re-receive the Tridentine Mass and our own shared liturgical history as something very different than as “one of those Counter-Reformation things” and its predictable aftermath. It might actually – perhaps ironically – liberate all of us from our liturgical anxieties and our desperate search for, in Rowan Williams’ words, “one model against which everything else has to be tested.” We can become more conscious that the richness of our tradition lies in an irreducible diversity that need not lead to disunity. We can become happily – if messily – medieval again.

(Once more, please let me be speculative.)

Well, what do you think?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to The Forthcoming Motu Proprio

  1. I agree with your surmise that the upcoming motu proprio may give us the means of seeing Roman liturgy as being within a continuum of spiritual development.

    However, the cynic in me thinks that the more likely result will be that priests and people will have the opportunity of incompently serving two liturgies now, instead of just one.

  2. sorry, that was supposed to be “incompetently”

  3. John Heavrin says:

    A very thoughtful post, Neil; a “re-receiving” of the traditional Mass in open hearts is what I’m hoping for, and a bearing of fruit for all the members of Holy Church.

    I will observe that “marginalized” is way too weak a word for what was done to the traditional Mass in the wake of Vatican II. They crushed it, or tried to. Didn’t quite manage it, fortunately.

  4. Todd says:

    John, to be fair, the intent of the liturgical reforms of the 1960’s was not to crush the Mass, but to reform it. Able arguments may be made and debated about whether or not the 1970/75/2002 missal effectively supplanted what was used before. Or if it was seen more as a jump–however radical–as part of a continuous–however apparently broken–Roman Rite.

    Lots of ink and cyberprint is expended about what the council bishops really intended. We might be fairly sure that giving Catholics an option between two missals was far from the minds of the prelates in 1963 and the years that followed.

  5. John Heavrin says:

    Not sure and neither are you what the council bishops “intended;” am very sure of what happened in the years after the council, and you bet they didn’t want to give Catholics an option between two missals. They forcibly imposed one, and sought to fully suppress the other. I repeat: they crushed it, or tried to. You’re ignoring reality if you don’t recognize this. And, for many years, the suppression appeared to have been successful. Fortunately, it wasn’t.

  6. Liam says:


    I think the intent Todd alludes to is fairly induced from the facts: there was no precedent in the Church’s history for publishing a new edition of a universal missal yet allow the communities that used that missal’s previous edition to continue to use it once the new edition became available. (This is quite different from the issue of communities that had their own uses and missals.) There is absolutely nothing in the Conciliar documents that indicates the Council Fathers intended to introduce such a novel arrangement.

    That said, the pastoral solicitude encouraged by the Council also encouraged people (prelates, clerics and laity) who found the postconciliar missals wanting to request this novel arrangement. That request was often not met with pastoral solicitude but with Roman habits that resist non-legislative novelties even when legislation had direct them to engage other novelties. Which has been a mess.

  7. michigancatholic says:

    John is right. They tried to impose a “right way” on the rest of us and call us fools, while suppressing the tradition of mass & devotions on the other. It was intended to “tidy” us up and make us less embarrassing. Didn’t work. They embarrassed themselves.

  8. michigancatholic says:

    But, I don’t need to argue with you. History is getting it right.

  9. Neil says:

    Dear All,

    Thanks for writing. I take Bernard’s comment to be a reminder that any liturgy can be celebrated badly – liturgy is not a machine that runs of itself. This insight is rather helpful and seemingly confirmed by all the anecdotal evidence. One cannot legislate everything.

    Regarding the reforms, someone like Nathan Mitchell would point out that the Roman Rite was hardly ever in a set of stasis and that the actual principles behind the conciliar and postconciliar reforms date back to the 18th century: the recognition that all languages are potentially “liturgical,” a continuous revision of texts on the basis of scholarship, the pressure to avoid useless repetition, etc. Thus, Mitchell will write, “If the postconciliar reshaping of Roman Catholic worship caught many by surprise, it is perhaps because more than two centuries of papal proposals for reform had gone largely unheeded.”

    To this, we can add Liam’s comment that “there was no precedent in the Church’s history for publishing a new edition of a universal missal yet allow the communities that used that missal’s previous edition to continue to use it once the new edition became available.”

    Nevertheless, I think we can say that something was (perhaps inevitably) lost during the postconciliar reform. For instance, Peter Jeffery would note that the importance of non-verbal communication (gesture, movement, etc.) does not seem to have been sufficiently grasped by the reformers.

    And, for a minority, the Missal of Paul VI was experienced as painful and sudden disruption. This has to be acknowledged. While I would argue that disruption is sometimes necessary (Nostra Aetate in the history of doctrine comes to mind), it is rarely pastorally preferable.

    Therefore, a situation where the validity of the Novus Ordo is unquestioned and it remains the ordinary form, but the Tridentine Mass is retained as an extraordinary form, seems desirable to me.

    Did it have to take this long? I think that we need to reflect on the sort of ecclesiastical mindset that sees change and diversity as threatening. Change then either needs to be so slow and imperceptible that it can be safely called “organic” and unmanaged, or it has to be revolutionary, so that one certainty can be quickly replaced by another. My sense is that, after Vatican II, a process of gradual and managed and locally contextualized reform would have been seen as unpreferable because of its “uncertainty” and the apparent loss of “universality.”

    But wouldn’t that have been the best solution?

    Thanks again.


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