Justice and Reconciliation

An analysis of the Holy See’s Instruction on the Latin Mass

In May 2011 the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, the Roman dicastery responsible for questions connected with the traditional Latin Mass, issued the instruction Universae Ecclesiae. That instruction concerns the implementation of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI’s landmark 2007 apostolic letter granting full freedom to the traditional Latin Mass.


The faithful devoted to the older form of Mass (often called “traditionalists”) generally greeted Universae Ecclesiae with gratitude, but it was a gratitude that sometimes seemed restrained or cautious. Some worry about the Holy See’s announced intention to incorporate some of the newer prefaces into the traditional Mass, and fear that it will open the door to further modifications of the older form.


A few others fretted over the fact that the instruction does not resolve every question connected with the traditional Mass. Within days of the issuance of Universae Ecclesiae, some were already hoping for a new instruction or for the formal submission of inquiries (dubia) to the Ecclesia Dei Commission to resolve all of the open questions. The anxiety of these traditionalists may be understandable, but it would be unfortunate if it were to prevent them from appreciating the full significance of Universae Ecclesiae.


In actual fact, this instruction is a cause not only for gratitude on the part of traditionalists, but indeed for enthusiasm. It resolves the most important questions that have arisen since the publication of Summorum Pontificum, and significantly, it repudiates the onerous norms and obstructive guidelines that many bishops issued in the wake of Summorum. Most importantly, the instruction reaffirms in ringing terms the Holy See’s determination to make the older form of Mass available to all Catholics who wish to attend it.


Summorum Pontificum (2007)


Soon after the 2005 election of Pope Benedict XVI, speculation began over what that election would mean for the traditional Latin Mass. Two years later the answer came. Despite the opposition of many highly placed churchmen (especially in France, and reportedly throughout much of the Roman Curia), the Holy Father declared full freedom for the traditional Mass in his 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum.


Why was this apostolic letter necessary, given that Blessed John Paul II had issued his own apostolic letter on the same subject almost 20 years earlier? Benedict gingerly addressed this question in a letter to bishops. While the earlier 1988 apostolic letter of John Paul, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, had appealed to the generosity of bishops in urging them to make the older form of Mass available, Benedict saw that two decades of experience had demonstrated the need for a clearer juridical regulation (Letter to Bishops Accompanying SP).


The reason for the greater juridical emphasis of Summorum was simply that many bishops had disregarded John Paul’s earlier call for respect and generosity toward the older form of Mass and toward the faithful attached to it. In his letter accompanying Summorum, Benedict diplomatically attributed resistance to the traditional Mass to those bishops’ fears that the spread of the older form of the Mass might amount to a calling into question of the Second Vatican Council, or might cause division within parishes.


Years before his papal election, however, Benedict had addressed the subject of resistance to the traditional Mass in less diplomatic terms. In the mid-1990s, he had called for greater access to the older form of Mass, and he had deplored the widespread tendency to treat it with disdain. “A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent” (Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth [1997], 176).


In fact, the future pontiff expressed his complete bewilderment at the prejudice against the traditional Mass that many bishops harbored. The faithful devoted to this Mass, he said, were being treated like lepers, and the unreasoning intolerance of these bishops was preventing necessary reconciliation within the Church (cf., Ratzinger, God and the World [2002], 416).


Summorum Pontificum was Benedict’s response both to the injustice with which many bishops were treating the traditionalist faithful, and also to the Church’s need for reconciliation. This need for reconciliation stems from a common misunderstanding of the Vatican II era as a rupture with the Church’s previous history and tradition. The Holy Father, by contrast, insists that Vatican II must be interpreted in continuity with Catholic tradition. Accordingly, the Holy Father issued Summorum Pontificum to make clear that  the traditional Mass never had been abrogated and that priests could freely celebrate it as a legitimate usage of the Roman rite.


The response to Summorum


In the United States many bishops greeted the Holy Father’s liberation of the traditional Mass with willing acceptance. The number of Sunday Masses in the traditional form increased in the months following Summorum Pontificum, and in some dioceses, priests were given access to resources to help them learn to celebrate this Mass.


However, many other American bishops continued to resist the liberation of the Latin Mass, and what ensued in the summer and fall of 2007 was a unique spectacle. Bishop after bishop enacted norms for the application of Summorum Pontificum, and the purpose of these norms often seemed to be to circumvent Summorum and to persist in restricting access to the traditional Mass.


The specific provisions of these norms are discussed below, but before proceeding to them, it is worthwhile to note the singularity of this norm-issuing activity. What is strange about this race to regulate is that, by its terms, Summorum calls for no such diocesan regulations. The document is brief; its terms are clear; and it contains no indication whatsoever that bishops should (or even may) issue their own norms for its application. The issuance of norms and guidelines was not confined to the United States, but the obstructionist American bishops exhibited a zeal for bureaucracy that none of their brother bishops throughout the world could match.


As a reaction to these norms, rumors began to circulate that the Holy See would be preparing an instruction on the proper interpretation and application of Summorum Pontificum. These rumors were a mixed blessing to traditionalists. On the one hand, they held out hope that the Holy See understood and appreciated that many bishops were continuing to stand in the way of the faithful having access to the traditional Mass. On the other hand, traditionalists had had to wait more than two years for the Holy Father to issue Summorum, and how much longer would the wait now be for the instruction? Moreover, once the instruction appeared, would the Holy See have the will to put an end to the tactics of the obstructionist bishops?


Four years after the publication of Summorum, the Ecclesia Dei Commission issued the instruction Universae Ecclesiae in May 2011. The instruction sounds the same note of reconciliation as Summorum, but one should make no mistake about its immediate purpose. That purpose is to put an end to the tactics of the obstructionist bishops—tactics that manifested themselves in the extraordinary flurry of diocesan norms that followed the July 2007 publication of Summorum. This purpose is clear from a careful reading of the instruction, many of the provisions of which were direct responses to the provisions in the diocesan norms that tended to keep the traditional Mass shackled.


Scheduling parish Masses


The primary innovation of Summorum Pontificum in 2007 had been to decentralize decision-making in the matter of the traditional Mass. The decision to schedule a regular celebration of the older form of the Mass no longer would rest with the bishop, the Holy Father stated, but now would rest in most cases with the pastor of a parish (cf., SP art. 5 §1).

Despite the clarity of the Pope’s decision to commit this choice to pastors of parishes, many bishops nonetheless continued to claim the authority to decide whether to schedule a traditional Mass in a parish. Some of the dioceses whose bishops made this claim were Dallas, New Orleans, St. Augustine, and Altoona-Johnstown. The bishops generally attempted to justify themselves by claiming that they needed to test the celebrating priest’s knowledge of the rubrics and his facility with the Latin language.


Summorum did indeed require the celebrating priest to be qualified (idoneus), but it nowhere suggested that this requirement allowed the bishop to make himself the gatekeeper to all celebrations of the Latin Mass. On the contrary, the requirement that the priest be “qualified” is contained in Article 5 of Summorum (cf., SP art. 5 §4), the very same article that commits the decision to schedule traditional Masses, not to the bishop, but to the pastor of the parish (cf., SP art. 5, §4). The clear implication is that, if any oversight of the priest’s qualification is required, then that oversight falls in the first instance to the pastor of the parish. The bishop is to become involved, if at all, only when the pastor proves unable to satisfy the desire of the faithful for the traditional Mass (cf. SP art. 7; Letter to Bishops [the local bishop may intervene “should some problem arise which the parish priest cannot resolve”]).


The 2011 instruction Universae Ecclesiae made clear the illegitimacy of the regime of Latin and rubrical examinations that bishops had established in many American dioceses. “Every Catholic priest who is not impeded by canon law,” the instruction declared, “is to be considered idoneus (‘qualified’)…” (UE 20). The only Latin language requirement is the ability to pronounce and understand the words, and, most importantly, priests who previously have celebrated the traditional Mass are presumed to be idoneus (ibid.). Thus, the instruction wrests back from the obstructionist bishops the faculty that the Holy Father had taken such care to bestow on the pastors of parishes.


“Private” Masses


What was even more striking in many of the 2007 diocesan norms was that they claimed for the bishop the authority to regulate not only scheduled parish Masses (so-called “public” Masses), but also unscheduled Masses celebrated by an individual priest with no congregation or with only a few of the faithful present (so-called “private” Masses).


This was an area in which the Holy Father had granted almost total freedom to individual priests. With Summorum, Pope Benedict had declared priests free to celebrate the traditional Mass on their own initiative, without permission from any other authority. Pope Benedict could not have been clearer on this point: “[T]he priest has no need for permission from the Apostolic See or from his ordinary” (SP art. 2).


Despite the clarity of Summorum, many US bishops attempted to deny their priests the very freedom that the Holy Father had declared:


  • Bishop Ronald Herzog of Alexandria, Louisiana issued norms requiring priests to obtain a certificate from the diocese before beginning to celebrate the traditional Mass, even privately (cf., R. Herzog, Memo to Priests [September 11, 2007]). (N.B. Some or all of the norms discussed in this section now have been removed from the diocesan websites, but they still can be found elsewhere online. For a seemingly comprehensive compilation of diocesan norms, see the website of Father John Zuhlsdorf, www.wdtprs.com/blog.)
  • Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati issued norms requiring priests to appear before a committee and to demonstrate their facility with Latin and with the rubrics before beginning even private celebrations of the traditional Mass (cf., Cincinnati Norms [August 2007] §1).
  • In the Diocese of Peoria, the director of the office for divine worship issued a memorandum to priests stating that Bishop Daniel Jenky would not allow them to celebrate the traditional Mass, even privately, without first demonstrating knowledge of Latin and the rubrics. 
  • In the diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, the director of liturgy, Father Thomas Willis, issued an equally onerous memorandum on behalf of Bishop Victor Galeone. That memorandum required priests to obtain the bishop’s permission to celebrate the traditional Mass, even privately (cf., T. Willis, Memo to Pastors, Priests & Deacons [August 1, 2007], 2). At a public meeting on September 18, 2007, Father Willis further alienated traditionalists by reportedly suggesting that the older form of the Mass is better suited to people with Attention Deficit Disorder than is the Novus Ordo (cf., “Crash and Burn,” http://thebarqueofpeter.blogspot.com/2007/09/crash-and-burn-diocese-of-st-augustine.html, accessed June 28, 2011).
  • Perhaps most prominently, the former chair of the US Bishops’ Liturgy Committee, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, issued 16 pages of excruciatingly detailed and repetitive norms. In them, he claimed no less than three times that he had the authority to determine whether priests could celebrate the traditional Mass, even privately (cf., Erie Norms [October 5, 2007] §3.2, 3.4, 3.7; cf., ibid. §3.1, 3.5).
  • Bishop Robert Conlon of Steubenville deserves special mention. Like his brother bishops discussed above, he too purported to prohibit priests from celebrating even private Masses in the traditional form unless they first obtained his permission. However, he went a step further by requiring these priests to tell him how often they planned to celebrate the Latin Mass privately and which of the faithful might attend those celebrations (cf., R.D. Conlon, Memo to Priests [July 20, 2007]). Perhaps traditionalists no longer were being treated as lepers, but in Steubenville, it seemed that they now were being treated like criminal suspects.

This resistance to the Holy Father was striking. Summorum Pontificum had contained some minor conditions on the celebration of so-called public Masses (those regularly scheduled in a parish) (cf., SP art. 5), but its grant of authority to individual priests to celebrate the traditional Mass privately (without a congregation or with a small one) was virtually unconditional (cf., SP arts. 2 and 4). Moreover, the Holy Father had gone out of his way to specify that a priest did not require his bishop’s permission (cf., SP art. 2). In dioceses like Erie and Cincinnati, however, the bishops were issuing norms that flatly contradicted Summorum. These bishops seemed to be grasping for themselves the authority that the Pope had granted to all Roman Catholic priests.


The 2011 instruction Universae Ecclesiae directly repudiated this encroachment. The instruction reaffirmed that Summorum had provided to all priests the faculty to celebrate the older form of the Mass privately, and that priests required no permission from their bishops to do so (cf., UE 23). One cannot call this provision of the instruction a “clarification,” for there never was any ambiguity that lacked clarity. Rather, the instruction simply repeated in clear language what Summorum already had declared in equally clear language four years earlier.


Perhaps the remedy is as disconcerting as the infection, however. What will prevent the bishops who ignored the plain meaning of Summorum from ignoring in turn the instruction’s plain meaning? We find the answer in the signature provisions of the instruction.


The new juridical order


With the instruction Universae Ecclesiae, the Ecclesia Dei Commission has put the finishing touches on the legal or juridical reform that Pope Benedict inaugurated with Summorum Pontificum. That is, the instruction provides a cure for the weakness inherent in John Paul’s earlier attempt to promote the traditional Mass solely by exhorting the bishops to generosity.


John Paul’s 1988 apostolic letter, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, had urged the bishops to show respect for the traditional form of Mass, but many simply ignored him. John Paul established the Ecclesia Dei Commission to promote the Latin Mass, but he bestowed no authority on the commission to review and rule upon the actions of the bishops. If a bishop refused a request for the traditional Mass for any reason, or even for no reason at all, the Holy See under John Paul invariably allowed that decision to stand.


Pope Benedict’s announcement in Summorum of a clearer juridical regulation of the traditional Mass amounted to an acknowledgement of the failure, or at least the clear inadequacy, of a system based solely on exhortation and appeals for generosity.


However, even Summorum left open the question of how far the Holy Father was prepared to go toward this new juridical ordering of the traditional Mass. In his 2007 apostolic letter, Benedict declared that, if the traditionalist faithful were unable to obtain access to the Mass from their pastor, then they could bring the matter to the bishop’s attention. Summorum urged bishops to accommodate the faithful, but what if they refused to do so?

The answer was somewhat ambiguous. “[T]he matter,” Summorum said, “should be referred to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei” (SP art. 7). What did this mean? Who was to do the “referring,” the bishop or the lay faithful? And what was the role of the Ecclesia Dei Commission? Did it remain merely a facilitator to exhort bishops to provide for the faithful, or would it now have authority actually to overrule obstructionist bishops? Summorum did not provide direct answers to these questions. It did signal an elevation of the commission’s stature (cf. SP art. 12), but it stopped short of specifying whether the commission would have the authority actually to adjudicate disputes arising from dioceses.

However, four years later, we have the answers. The 2011 instruction Universae Ecclesiae makes clear that the faithful indeed may challenge the decisions of their bishops, and that the Ecclesia Dei Commission now has been granted the authority to review and, if necessary, overrule local bishops (cf., UE 10 §1).


The augmented juridical status of the commission is the true centerpiece of the instruction. To be sure, provisions such as the instruction’s clarification on what makes a priest qualified (idoneus) to celebrate the Mass are important. However, it is only the increased juridical profile of the commission that can break the cycle of obstructionist bishops resisting, evading, and circumventing the pronouncements of the Holy See.


What about altar girls?


Some of the traditionalist faithful greeted the instruction Universae Ecclesiae with a measure of alarm because it did not directly address such matters as whether females could serve at the altar in celebrations of the traditional Mass. The instruction provided that post-Vatican II changes to liturgical law do not apply to the older form of the Mass, but that changes to disciplinary norms do apply (cf., UE 27 and 28). However, the instruction does not state directly whether the use of female altar servers is a question of discipline or of liturgical law.


Why did the Ecclesia Dei Commission not address the question of altar girls more directly? The most likely reason is that, while the prospect of altar girls may be a theoretical concern of the faithful, it is barely a live issue in actual practice. Hardly anyone in the world actually has attended a traditional Mass in which females have served at the altar. Instead of addressing largely hypothetical abuses, the commission wisely decided to focus on the concrete measures that obstructionist bishops actually were using to restrict access to the older form of the Mass.


As chance would have it, however, at the very time of the instruction’s publication, reports began to circulate widely about one instance in which females were indeed serving at the altar for celebrations of the traditional Mass. The story arose in England, where a chaplain at the University of Cambridge, Father Alban McCoy, was insisting on having females serve at the altar. However, even this circumstance illustrates the wisdom of the commission’s approach. The instruction may not have addressed the use of altar girls directly, but once the issue arose in a concrete case, the commission was prepared for it.


A group of Cambridge students wrote to the Ecclesia Dei Commission to protest their chaplain’s introduction of altar girls into the traditional Mass. This practice is foreign to the tradition, and is universally opposed by the traditionalist faithful, both men and women. The commission quickly decided in the students’ favor and responded that it is not permissible to have females serve at the altar in celebrations of the older form of Mass.

The faithful devoted to the traditional Mass are, of course, grateful for the resolution of the question of altar girls. However, they should be even more grateful for the increased juridical profile of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, for the authority that the Holy Father has bestowed upon it, and for the evident willingness of the commission’s personnel to exercise that authority with speed and vigor.

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About R. Michael Dunnigan 9 Articles
R. Michael Dunnigan is a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, and he lives and works in Indiana.