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Liturgy, papal infallibility, and terminology

In what way can a pope declare that “liturgical reform” is “irreversible”?

Pope Francis gives a blessing during an audience with participants in Italy's National Liturgical Week in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 24. (CNS photo/Giorgio Onorati, EPA)

Some years ago I stated: “The liturgical renewal movement that preceded the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) has been repeatedly and authoritatively recognized as a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”* What catches my eye about Pope Francis’ recent remarks to an Italian liturgical conference is not, therefore, his strong endorsement of liturgical renewal, but rather some of the language he used to make that endorsement, language that one often associates with the exercise of the Church’s teaching office.

In phrases typically associated with formal, even infallible, teaching exercises, Francis purported to invoke his “magisterial authority” to “affirm with certainty” that the process of liturgical reform was “irreversible”. Such terminology, I suggest, coming from such a figure, predictably occasions questions about, among other things, whether such authority extends to declaring formally something (indeed, anything) about what is actually a process like “liturgical reform”. A blog post cannot, of course, do justice to all of the questions raised here, but it can perhaps contextualize some issues as a service for those interested in looking further into the matter.

Infallibility is a charism given to the Church by Christ which assures that some assertions, made by some persons, under some conditions, are asserted with the certainty of being without error and should therefore be accepted as certain (CCC 891-892). In itself, infallibility does not admit of degrees so a statement either satisfies all of the prerequisites for infallibility or it is not infallible (however likely or even true it might otherwise be). Infallible assertions, being certain in themselves, require Catholics either to believe the assertion (if it concerns faith) or to hold the assertion (if it concerns matters required to support the faith). See generally 1983 CIC 749-750. Finally, infallible assertions, although they might be clarified over time, are fundamentally irreversible, or irreformable, and so can never be cancelled or contradicted.

Now, setting aside some important points such as “subjects of infallibility” (briefly: the pope alone per Canons 331 and 749 § 1; the college of bishops—which of course always includes the pope—per Canons 336 and 749 § 2; and even the Church herself per, e.g.,CDF’s 1973 declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae, n. 2) and “modes of infallibility (chiefly: “solemn” or “extraordinary” in regard to papal and collegial teaching, and “ordinary” especially in regard to collegial teaching), it is in regard to the “objects of infallibility” that the pope’s rhetoric about affirming with certainty and with magisterial authoritythat the liturgical reform process is irreversible strike me as remarkable.

As mentioned above, infallible assertions, being certain in themselves, demand, depending on their content (i.e., the ‘object’ of the assertion) one of two responses from the faithful: either the assertion demands belief if the matter being asserted is “contained in the Word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church [and] proposed as divinely revealed …” per 1983 CIC 750 § 1—and no one can think that the liturgical reform process is “divinely revealed” so it is not possible that the pope was implying otherwise—or the assertion must be “embraced and retained [i.e.,] held definitively” if it is “required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith …” per 1983 CIC 750 § 2.

Examples of infallible assertions that must be believed (credenda) are the points in the Creed, the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady, the foundation of the Church by Christ, the precise number of sacraments, and so on. Examples of infallible assertions that must be held (tenenda) are canonizations, determinations as to which councils should be deemed “ecumenical”, the invalidity of Anglican orders, and so on. While infallible assertions demanding belief and infallible assertions demanding definitive retention are distinguishable from each other, their very close connections are equally obvious. As a result, among the many, many things that the Church asserts with various degrees of authority, relatively few are recognized as being asserted with certainty and, in that regard, as being irreversible. See 1983 CIC 749 § 3 and CDF’s 1998 “Doctrinal commentary on Ad tuendam fidem. But while it is fairly easy to spot matters of belief infallibly asserted (so-called “primary objects” of infallibility), matters requiring definitive retention (so called “secondary objects” of infallibility) are trickier to assess.

To offer some negative examples, the Church would never declare infallibly that the sun rose in Ann Arbor today at 6:5am local time—even though the assertion is true—because such an assertion is not divinely revealed nor is it necessary to defend or expound the deposit of faith; she would never affirm with certainty that St. Peter’s Basilica is the most beautiful church in the world because such an assertion is not divinely revealed nor is it necessary to defend or expound the deposit of faith (not to mention it being difficult to assign the notion of “most” to any judgment about the beautiful); and she would never affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the New Evangelization is “irreversible” because such an assertion is not divinely revealed nor is it necessary to defend or expound the deposit of faith (not to mention that the New Evangelization is a phenomenon that does not admit of easy categorization and is in part a response to its times).

And so I think it can be confusing to the faithful for any prelate to “affirm with certainty” and/or with “magisterial authority” that liturgical reform is “irreversible” precisely because such language connotes in Catholic minds the exercise of a charism given not to underscore the importance of what is being asserted, but rather, to identify certainly and without error either what is divinely revealed and thus to be believed or what is required to safeguard reverently the deposit of faith and thus to be definitely held.

To repeat, with Pius XII, Vatican II, St. John Paul II, and doubtless with Francis, a faithful Catholic may regard liturgical reform (properly understood, and apart from the travesties committed in its name) as springing from a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church; but whether it is prudent for any pope, in virtue of his “magisterial authority”, to “affirm with certainty”, that such reforms (whatever exactly those are) are “irreversible” (whatever exactly that means here) is, I think, a different issue.

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* See my “The Communion fast: a reconsideration”, Antiphon 11 (2007) 234-244. The footnote for my claim records that: The Council itself made this assertion in its constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, when it said: “Zeal for the promotion and restoration of the sacred liturgy is rightly held to be a sign of the providential dispositions of God in our time, as a movement of the Holy Spirit in his Church.” … [See] Sacrosanctum Concilium (4 December 1963), n. 43, … Just a few years earlier, Pope Pius XII addressing the International Congress of Pastoral Liturgy (1956) had observed: “The liturgical movement is thus shown forth as a sign of the providential dispositions of God for the present time, of the movement of the Holy Ghost in the Church, to draw men more closely to the mysteries of the faith and the riches of grace which flow from the active participation of the faithful in the liturgical life.” Pope Pius XII, Allocution “Vous Nous avez demandé” (22 September 1956) …, [and] Twenty-five years after the Council, Pope John Paul II reiterated this theme, saying: “[W]e should give thanks to God for that movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church which the liturgical renewal represents.” Pope John Paul II, apostolic letter Vicesimus quintus annus (4 December 1988), n. 12.

Some other good discussions of this matter include those by Phil Lawler and Fr. Zuhlsdorf.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.


  1. The liturgical “reform” is waiting to be done, and will be accomplished sometime after the current pontificate has spent itself.

    SP was a step in the right direction to fix what Laszlo Dobszay correctly calls “Bugnini Mass.”

    JP2’s last book was called “Memory and Identity.” Memory is a very important thing for authentic Catholic faith.

    The contemporary Church is – among other things – very bored and very boring – because it is just stuck in the superficiality of the 1970s.

    Contemporary “Catholic-ism” is a commodity that is past its shelf life. If it wasn’t – Churches would be packed like they were in the old days.

    Real reform will come – from authentic Catholic people very unlike Bugnini.

  2. Of all of Bergoglio’s inane remarks, this liturgy = magisterium is not only the silliest, it is also the most damning, as it reveals just how little he understands the Faith and the role of the pontiff in the Church.

  3. A thorough exposition of the absurdity, “No one can think that the liturgical reform process is ‘divinely revealed'”. Just covered the Doctrinal Commentary in response to an article on another site and infallibility always references the Deposit, or as noted revealed truths like the Immaculate Conception. Unfortunately what’s occurring seems related to what has been called a Paradigm Shift on doctrine in which logical sequence, previously held standards for defining doctrine are being advanced to meet current exigencies, e.g. a broken human condition. Although what the Pontiff said doesn’t fit canon law it doesn’t matter in the new Paradigm. It all has a Messianic tone perceived by myself and others, today by Aaron Taylor in a First Things article, “Revelation on Tap: Vatican I and the ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Controversy”. A quote from the article, “Responding to a question about the Messianic expectations surrounding him, Pope Francis says: ‘I am a sinner and I am fallible, and we must not forget that the idealization of a person is always also a subliminal type of aggression.'” So those who criticize the Pontiff may be subliminally aggressive. So the Pontiff answers your question. Or does he?

    • “The idealization of a person is always also a subliminal form of aggression”. Where does Pope Bergoglio derive this astonishing and bizarre conclusion that in fact seems to be utter nonsense? What empirical basis does he have for formulating what appears on its face to be a clinical psychiatric judgment? It is precisely these pretentious and rash claims to specialized expertise in economics, geophysics, political philosophy, meteorology, and other similar fields by a complete novice like himself that have caused the orthodox Catholic faithful such anguish, confusion, anger, and embarrassment. The meaning seems in fact to be: “Don’t expect me to act like the Supreme Roman Pontiff and Vicar of Christ that I am supposed to be.”

  4. Thanks you Dr. Peters.

    I was wondering What this even meant?:

    After this teaching, after this long path we can affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.

    – A Primer on the Magisterium of the Catholic Church – The WAR Our Time – Bits & Pieces

    – A Primer on the Infallibility of the Catholic Church – The WAR Our Time – Bits & Pieces

    – Church Terms: doctrine, dogma, infallible, irreformable – The WAR Our Time – Bits & Pieces

  5. Bergoglio’s comments were not meant to abstractly defend the irreversibility of the Vatican II reforms (inclusive of the historical predecessors as detailed by Dr. Peters). No they were meant to address a particular bugaboo to the liturgical experts at the conference: Cardinal Sarah’s leadership of the Congregation of Divine Worship.

    Recall that Bergoglio has had to maintain Cardinal Sarah as the prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship for a variety of reasons beyond his control. But he has undermined and contramanded him several times. These comments are first and foremost pointed against the good Cardinal’s attempt to introduce reforms in the current crazy-quilt disciplines for the liturgy. Cardinal Sarah’s promotion of a priest standing Ad Orientem during Mass, his remarks on Holy Thursday foot washing, his discussion of reintroducing the prayers at the foot of the altar, etc, had some progressive liturgy experts shaking with rage. To them these were signs that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II were being undone. Reassuring these theological progressives was the proximate goal of Bergolio’s remarks. Other more distant targets may have been Benedict’s theology of the liturgy and even Summun Pontificorum, but that’s unclear.

    This Pope behaves like a autocrat, not like a Pastor. That’s why he plays fast and loose with “phrases typically associated with formal, even infallible, teaching exercises.” His intent is to reassure his allies, and punish his opponents. Thus his use of the Papal power-words: “magisterial authority … affirm with certainty … irreversible”. He acts as if his patron, rather than being a Christian saint, is Juan Peron.

  6. I wonder how the vatican II reform is irrevocable but the Trent reform isn’t? or is that just one of those Francisisms, like I’m not changing doctrine, just what we believe.

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