The scope of Summorum Pontificum

The question is raised: Is Summorum Pontificum‘s liberalization of the usus antiquor aimed solely at those whose attachment to it predates Vatican II and the reforms it set in train? And if so, may younger Catholics attend? In my view, it is not, and they may.

It’s true that Summorum Pontificum is a link in a chain of indults and allowances that, as PCED puts it in the most recent link in that chain, Universæ Ecclesiæ, were primarily aimed at the “[m]any … faithful, [who,] formed in the spirit of the liturgical forms prior to the Second Vatican Council, expressed a lively desire to maintain the ancient tradition.” Nevertheless, those documents always had broader reach than it first appeared. Ecclesia Dei (John Paul II, 1988), for instance, expressly concerned itself with “all those Catholic faithful who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition.” Id., no. 5(c)(emphasis added); accord no. 6(c).

This trend continues and strengthens in the Benedictine documents. Summorum Pontificum itself says that “in some regions, no small numbers of faithful adhered and continue to adhere with great love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms”; it’s not hard to see why, at first blush, this could be read as implying preconciliar attachment, but the text has no such limitation. Nor is such a limit to be found in the motu proprio’s active provisions, which are broad. Similarly, consider the Holy Father’s accompanying letter to the bishops. True, it sounds notes similar to Ecclesia Dei: “Many people who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the Pope and the Bishops, … desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them.” And it’s true that the letter cites “reconciliation” as a motivation for liberalizing use of the older form. But the Holy Father continues:

Immediately after the Second Vatican Council it was presumed that requests for the use of the 1962 Missal would be limited to the older generation which had grown up with it, but in the meantime it has clearly been demonstrated that young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them. Thus the need has arisen for a clearer juridical regulation which had not been foreseen at the time of the 1988 Motu Proprio.

(Emphasis added.) Thus the need for an expansion of the usus antiquor has arisen! Not just for the older generation who grew up with it, noy just for reconciliation, but because the usus antiquor has had a broader appeal. And bringing us right up to date, PCED’s directive on implementing the motu proprio, Universæ Ecclesiæ, tells us that SP “aims to … offer to all the faithful the Roman Liturgy in the Usus Antiquior, considered as a precious treasure to be preserved” and of “effectively guaranteeing and ensuring the use of the forma extraordinaria for all who ask for it….” We are told that “the use of the 1962 Roman Liturgy is a faculty generously granted for the good of the faithful”—the faithful, without qualification, not merely those who grew up with it.

What’s more, several provisions of the Benedictine documents make little or no sense if it is true that celebration in the older form is no more than a temporary sop to those who can’t shake an attachment formed in a distant youth. For instance:

  • Summorum Pontificum and its accompanying letter insist that the older form of the rite was never abrogated and in principle could always have been celebrated. It seems hard to reconcile such language with the notion that celebration in the extraordinary form is a temporary indulgence.
  • Universæ Ecclesiæ insists that the “stable group of the faithful who adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition” required for celebration need not predate Summorum Pontificum. (See UE15.) If that’s so,  it imples that a new group could form after SP, which would plainly antedate Vatican II.
  • If the allowance is simply to meet the needs of those attached to the older Mass, why would we need to train new priests in it, as UE21 directs? Let’s be candid about this. Although Paul VI would not issue Missale Romanum until 1969, the widespread celebration of the usus antiquior effectively came to an end four years before that with the Instruction Inter œcumenici in 1964. And for someone to have become so thoroughly attached to the older rite as to be unable to let go, they must have been immersed in it for a reasonable number of years before 1964. To be quite frank about it, then, the theory that SP is aimed solely at those who were attached to the Tridentine Mass at the time of Vatican II is a theory that SP is aimed solely at those who were middle-aged or older more than four decades ago—a generation now entering its twilight. The Church might certainly seek to accommodate such such people as a pastoral measure, but training a new generation of priests? Starting in 2011? For a measure aimed solely at people no younger than their seventies? That doesn’t add up.
  • And along similarly morbid lines, one might also speculate that the very existence and attention given to the usus antiquior is telling. If the liberalization of access was no more than a ministry to Pre-Vatican II hold-outs, one would expect it to become a less pressing issue with each passing decade. To the contrary, however, year-by-year the Holy See has grown more insistent on access.

The consensus seems to be that “Benedict XVI’s intention … is not, in fact, that of making the two forms of the rite, modern and ancient, coexist indefinitely. In the future, the Church will again have a single Roman rite. But the journey that the pope sees ahead in order to integrate the two current forms of the rite is long and difficult.” And therein lies the rub: The goal is not to allow the usus antiquior to wither with the pre-Vatican II generation. It is to integrate the two expressions of the Roman rite as one “reform of the reform.” And in the meantime, both forms appear fully permissible for any Catholic to attend.