Thoughts on Summorum Pontificum

From my perspective, the reactions and responses of the Catholic hierarchy to Summorum Pontificum have been anything but predictable. I honestly did not expect to see so many bishops making a good-faith effort to come to terms with this. Considering that SP has the potential to shake their world to the very core, I surmise that many of these prelates had to muster a large helping of humility and courage – more than most of us, unfortunately, will readily appreciate. Bishops who have invested their whole lives in upholding a particular worldview do not usually re-examine things just because the pope in Rome issues another document. Why should SP be any different? It wouldn’t be any different if the Holy Ghost were not hard at work in the midst of this.

Another surprise has been the response of the secular media. There have been all the usual errors and misunderstandings, and a fair amount of hostility, but the amount of generally positive coverage was totally unexpected. Also encouraging are the “fair and balanced” stories which, under the guise of a false objectivity which requires giving the modernist point of view exaggerated importance, nevertheless genuinely strive to understand what motivates people who are attached to Catholic tradition. There are many, many people who are capable of reading between the lines and finding the jewels in stories like these.

Just as the immediate responses to SP were unpredictable, the long-term results for the Church are equally unpredictable. Much depends upon the will of the Ecclesia Dei Commission to enforce the precepts of this document. The EDC is going to need some teeth, and Rome will need to find a new willingness to discipline intransigent bishops. Much also depends upon the movement of priests and laity toward tradition, and the attachment of Novus Ordoians to a liturgy that isn’t radically incongruent with the rest of their lives.

Success will depend upon the ability of traditionalists to make their case with patience and charity. It will be necessary to preserve a traditional atmosphere in new situations while, at the same time, making all Catholics feel welcome. This is not easy to accomplish. Some will be tempted to compromise by giving way to chatter and socializing in church, “dressing down” to fit in with the natives, forsaking their chapel veils, and otherwise displaying their “regular Joe” credentials so as not to appear holier-than-thou. Others might be tempted to defend the purity of the traditional liturgy by behaving rudely and uncharitably toward those who haven’t yet assimilated all the finer points of traditional Catholic culture. I hope we can avoid these errors. Let’s not only be zealous for our beautiful Catholic tradition, but also gracious and tolerant towards those who, though curious, find the ancient rite puzzling and even foreign to their thinking. In this way new friendships can develop and the restoration will advance one soul at a time.

As to the future, permit me to outline what I think are the most likely possibilities:

1. Nothing much changes. This seems to be a very common prediction among the bishops who have publicly responded to SP. Despite the Holy Father’s clearly expressed desire that the Extraordinary Form influence the Ordinary Form for the better, many bishops have been eager to assure their parishes that the liturgy is not going to change. There may be a few disaffected malcontents here and there, and accomodations will be made for them, but for most people the liturgical renewal will continue apace, ever reaching for the heights “full and active participation”.

If the EDC proves to be weak and ineffective, this scenario seems most likely.

2. Reform of the reform. Pope Benedict XVI apparently hopes that a wider use of the traditional liturgy will lead to a reform of the Novus Ordo along traditional lines. Put another way, the two forms of the liturgy will eventually coalesce into a single form that represents what the Second Vatican Council really intended. The same line of thought holds that the culture of the Novus Ordo, now so permissive, will be restrained by the culture of the traditional liturgy, just as the rigidity of the latter will be softened by the influence of the former. This may be the “internal reconciliation” the Holy Father has in mind.

If the demand for the traditional Mass increases markedly – and if the EDC is strong, swift and effective – the traditional liturgy will be widely introduced to Novus Ordo parishes and a “reform of the reform” is a real possibility.

3. Increasing division. When it comes to the traditional Latin Mass, neutrality seems to be impossible without shutting down vital parts of the brain. It could be that the expansion of traditional liturgy and culture will be seen as more of a threat, positions will harden, and increasing numbers of Catholics will be forced to choose their side. Bishops will opt for creating personal parishes rather than tolerating a traditionalist invasion of Novus Ordo communities. The Novus Ordo will get worse in many places, since the traddies now have what they asked for and they can leave everyone else alone. Conservatives who had hoped for a reform of the reform will find the traditional liturgy to be their only practical option. The invisible schism will become increasingly visible and Rome will finally have to act.

A growing demand for the traditional Mass, combined with a slow but moderately effective EDC, makes this outcome the most probable in my opinion.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Summorum Pontificum

  1. I was surprised you didn’t hold out hope of the missal of John XXIII returning to the standard position.

    As with most things, it will be necessary to be patient.

    I suspect that in the rather immediate term, not much will seem to change. My parish, which performs the NO quite reverently within the priest facing the people, speaking in English model, hasn’t even mentioned Summorum Pontificum. Perhaps, with a reverent Mass, there just isn’t much demand for the missal of John XXIII.

    In the longer term, though, I suspect the ranks of folks who really can’t stand the missal of John XXIII and think the Church is some sort of democracy, will thin considerably as many of them pass on. After all, a lot of the “spirit of Vatican II” crowd are getting up there in years. I’ve met younger priests who celebrate the Mass rather poorly, but they don’t seem to have drunk the “spirit of Vatican II” Kool-Aid; it’s just that they haven’t had proper models. As this older generation leaves the scene, the average parish Mass will probably improve considerably.


  2. “I was surprised you didn’t hold out hope of the missal of John XXIII returning to the standard position.”

    That’s sort of implied in scenario #3, where the division widens and the NO deteriorates to such an extent as to be intolerable to the orthodox.

    “I suspect that in the rather immediate term, not much will seem to change.”

    Undoubtedly true.

    “Perhaps, with a reverent Mass, there just isn’t much demand for the missal of John XXIII.”

    For that reason I hope that preference for the TLM will one day be the prerogative of the bishops rather than the laity. The problem isn’t that the NO can’t be done in a reverent or traditional way: the problem is that tradition is merely an option. If you attend a traditional NO, then you are attending Fr. Smith’s NO, not the Church’s NO, because Fr. Smith chooses to celebrate the NO the way he likes it. The idea of flexibility is intrinsic to the NO itself.

    “I’ve met younger priests who celebrate the Mass rather poorly, but they don’t seem to have drunk the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ Kool-Aid; it’s just that they haven’t had proper models.”

    Yes, indeed. I’ve met such priests myself. They don’t have the visceral prejudice against the TLM that so often characterizes the Vatican-II generation. There is every reason for hope.


  3. The greatest effect will be to break the back of the Certified Liturgist cabal that mandates poorly-celebrated Masses. I used to serve on the Liturgy Committee in my parish, and every few months, along would come the diocesan liturgist, with yet another bad idea for livening up the folks in the pews. The TLM–excuse me– the Extraordinary form, has no need for liturgists or liturgy committees.


  4. We may get a little of each of the three options, depending on the diocese and the year. But eventually, the young will recreate the Church–as has happened so many times in the past.


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