I recently read through Pope Benedict XVI’s explanatory letter of Summorum Pontificum, and I discovered a striking line that I have never noticed before.
Many TLM lovers will be familiar with the famous line from the document: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”
This line has been used—rightly so—to justify the stance of resistance by traditionalists throughout the decades to the apparent abrogation of the Old Mass. In addition, a line from the Motu Proprio states that traditional communities could celebrate the Old Mass “permanently.”
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However, in Benedict’s letter that accompanied the Motu Proprio, he wrote something that is quite confusing. In the same paragraph where he spoke of the sacredness of the Old Rite, he then wrote the following: “Needless to say, in order to experience full communion, the priests of the communities adhering to the former usage cannot, as a matter of principle, exclude celebrating according to the new books” (emphasis added).
Hold on a tick. What does this mean?
Well, if we take Benedict at his word, at least in this instance, this will mean that traditional priests are not in “full communion” with the Church if they will not say the New Mass. It is easy for malcontents to pick on the SSPX and bandy about the term “full communion” as if belonging to the Church was a matter of degree or percentage points, but Benedict is not talking about the SSPX in this letter, or at least not only about the SSPX.
It is almost certain that there are priests in the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, and other traditionalists orders that will never say the New Mass. We cannot know for sure how many there are or what the ratio would be, but those who have been in traditional circles for a while know what I am talking about.
If you attend Masses offered by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, then you might want to ask your priest if he is willing and able to celebrate the New Mass. If he is not, then he might be out of luck if he wants to be in “full communion” with Rome.
We should ask ourselves: If a man attends a Mass offered by an FSSP priest who will not say the New Mass while following the Mass using a missal printed by Angelus Press (the SSPX publisher), is this man truly in communion with Rome?
Worse yet, what if a traditional parish uses hymnals printed by Angelus Press and the priests also won’t say the New Mass! Gasp! Schism!
Of course, this is taking the words of Benedict to absurdity, but it is also to take the absurdity of this post-conciliar understanding of “communion” to its logical conclusion.
I do not mean to be critical of Pope Benedict here, as he was really a great ally of the traditional movement, all things considered. However, even though he was great in many ways, we must admit that he was at times a “child of the ’60s” in a theological sense. Compared to the notorious liberals and modernists of the post-conciliar era, he was, of course, like a lion of orthodoxy; however, the confused ecclesiology and veritable Hegelian dialectical Catholicism of the New Springtime was the milieu in which he operated for decades.
Historically, it was not difficult to understand who was and was not in communion with Rome. In fact, it was utterly simple.
According to the traditional understanding, all that was necessary to be in communion with the Church was to be united in Faith, Sacraments, and Governance. If you believe Catholicism, attend Catholic sacraments, and recognize the authority of the pope and the bishops, then you are Catholic.
But, after the Council, this perfectly simple and helpful understanding of what it means to be in communion with the Church has completely changed.
Today, we hear of “full communion” and “partial communion” and “imperfect communion” and, of course, “perfect communion.” But what do these terms even mean?
What exactly does it mean to be in “full communion” with the Church? Well, according to Benedict’s letter, you could be a priest in a recognized traditional group, under a local bishop, and perfectly obedient; yet, if you do not say the New Mass on principle, you are simply not in enough communion.
Is being in “full communion” like being “fully pregnant” as opposed to being “partially pregnant”? Or is communion a spectrum like gender?
Could we say that a man is in “partial communion” with Rome if he accepts the doctrines of the Church but is still in RCIA? Perhaps we could say that a man who now identifies as a woman is only “partially trans” because he hasn’t finished his regimen of hormone blockers.
And what about “imperfect communion?” Is it possible for a man to be in “full communion” while not being in that full communion in a perfect way? Perhaps the traditional priests who do not say the New Mass are in “full communion,” but their communion would be more perfect if they simply said the New Mass.
Or maybe being in communion is like Critical Race Theory. In the same way that we are told white people harbor some sort of unconscious racial bias—unless they wear a George Floyd t-shirt—maybe traditional priests are simply unaware of their unconscious imperfect communion which they manifest by not saying the Novus Ordo.
So far, we have only considered the traditionalists. What about the innumerable Novus Ordo priests who have been malformed and don’t accept various doctrines of the Faith? Are they lacking in some communion? Better yet, would they also not be in full communion if they wouldn’t say the Old Mass out of principle?
Benedict’s reasoning for why traditionalist refuseniks do not “experience full communion” is that to reject saying the New Mass would be to reject its “value and holiness.” It stands to reason that a rejection of the Old Mass would be the same.
How many bishops and priests refuse to say the Old Mass? How many lay people reject the Old Mass?
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves, how many Catholics “enjoy full communion” under this logic?
I fully admit that I don’t; and I bet you might not either.