Vatican Instruction Released: The Good and the Bad

 

The long-awaited (and occasionally feared) Instruction on Summorum Pontificum was published earlier today, addressing some of the questions that the ultra-slow motion return of the Traditional Latin Mass has occasioned. So what do we learn?

First, the good: Bishops can’t stymie a Latin Mass group just because their visiting priest doesn’t have the Latin fluency of Marcus Aurelius. Bishops are to presume that priests who want to say the Mass are competent to do it. No altar girls, extraordinary ministers, or any post-1962 norm are to be regrafted onto the 1962 Missal. The “group” of faithful asking for the old Mass doesn’t have to be big, doesn’t have to be all from one parish, and should be welcomed. They can request the Easter Triduum liturgy and confirmation in the old form. Religious orders can return to their 1962 books as well (we’re looking at you, Dominicans).

A close reading of this instruction seems to reduce bishops to a welcoming committee. It’s almost as if Pope Benedict XVI has built a bridge between himself and these small groups of faithful through the office of Ecclesia Dei, and this structure is built over the bishops.

 

The uncertain or bad: There are phrases in this instruction that can be latched onto by bishops who oppose any whiff of incense to cause trouble. The Instruction should never have even mentioned that the need for the old liturgy had anything to do with people who were “formed by it,” even if it clearly announces that Summorum Pontificum is for the entire Church.

The document also contains this: “The faithful who ask for the celebration of the forma extraordinaria must not in any way support or belong to groups which show themselves to be against the validity or legitimacy of the Holy Mass or the Sacraments celebrated in the forma ordinaria.” Bishops could use this line to deny faithful access to the old Mass. Validity and legitimacy are legal terms, but bishops can construe these words to mean that the faithful who prefer the Old Mass are not really allowed to prefer the old Mass, to think it better in any respect, or to give off too many Lefebvrist vibes.

The document also states that new saints and new prefaces can and ought to be inserted into the 1962 Missal. This is dangerous stuff, I’m afraid. Sure, some would like to have Divine Mercy Sunday in the old form, for instance. But there is just not enough trust built between traditionalists and the larger Church to begin making revisions to the old Mass yet. I even wonder if these will be followed at all. Certainly the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) won’t follow them, and they do have the influence of example on Ecclesia Dei communities. The Extraordinary form Masses I’ve attended haven’t even incorporated Benedict’s revision to the Good Friday prayer for the Jews.

The Instruction makes training for seminarians in Latin and the Old Rite a strong suggestion and not a requirement. It also limits ordination in the Old Rite to the societies dedicated to it, which is probably wise in order to avoid fears that the new rite is deficient to make a priest.

Overall, the instruction is just okay for hard-bitten traditionalists. It has the besetting fault of all recent Vatican documents: It is verbose, bureaucratic, and managerial. The traditionalist movement in the Church does best when the obstacles are cleared out of its way. Each time that Church authorities try to explain every detail along the way, they inadvertently set up nets for us to get tangled in. They make us more and more dependent on offices like Ecclesia Dei, which is fine so long as the character of the bishop leading it is great.

But the traditionalist movement has succeeded with self-generating and largely self-directed institutions: the SSPX, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), the Institute of Christ the King, and individual priests and pastors taking an initiative. Traditional Catholics don’t need management, we need freedom and recognition. If Benedict would like to give leadership, he doesn’t need to manage us, but rather he should manage the seminaries and Catholic universities that continue to produce anti-Traditional Catholics.

This Instruction affirms our freedom and recognizes some of our desires, but in some cases it also tries to manage us. We’ll continue to run the race, but we’ll occasionally buck and chafe.

 

Update: A previous version of this article misidentified Archbishop Raymond Burke as the president of Ecclesia Dei. We regret the error. Image

Michael Brendan Dougherty

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Michael Brendan Dougherty is a contributing editor at The American Conservative and the founder of The Slurve, a site on baseball. He blogs at The Unreal. His work has appeared in The Awl, Politico, Newsweek, and ComedyCentral.com.

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