A commentary on Universae Ecclesiae

SSPX's commentary on the instruction Universae Ecclesiae

Published on 5-19-2011.

Announced as early as December 30, 2007, by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the instruction Universae Ecclesiae on the application of the motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum (July 7, 2007) was made public on May 13, 2011, by the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. Signed by Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and by Msgr. Guido Pozzo, Secretary of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, this Roman document is being issued after the bishops throughout the world had the opportunity to send to Rome an account of their experiences in the three years that have passed since the publication of the motu proprio, in keeping with the wish expressed by Benedict XVI in his accompanying letter dated July 7, 2007.

This major delay shows the extent to which the application of Summorum Pontificum has met with difficulties as far as the bishops are concerned. So much so that the official purpose of Universae Ecclesiae is “to guarantee the proper interpretation and the correct application of the motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum” (n. 12), but also and above all to facilitate the application thereof, to which the Ordinaries [generally speaking] only grudgingly consent. The foreseeable discrepancy between the de jure right to the traditional Mass, recognized by the motu proprio, and its actual, de facto recognition by the bishops had been foretold by Bishop Fellay in his letter to the faithful of the Society of St. Pius X as early as July 7, 2007.

This factual situation obliges the Roman document to recall several points:

  • By this motu proprio, the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI promulgated a universal law for the Church, with the intention of giving a new regulatory framework for the use of the Roman Liturgy that was in effect in 1962. (n. 2)
  • The Holy Father returns to the traditional principle, recognized since time immemorial and necessarily to be maintained into the future, that:

each particular Church must be in accord with the universal Church not only regarding the doctrine of the faith and sacramental signs, but also as to the usages universally handed down by apostolic and unbroken tradition. These are to be maintained not only so that errors may be avoided, but also so that the faith may be passed on in its integrity, since the Church's rule of prayer (lex orandi) corresponds to her rule of belief (lex credendi).” (n. 3)

The motu proprio proposes:

  • a. To offer “to all the faithful the Roman Liturgy in the Usus Antiquior, considered as a precious treasure to be preserved”;
  • b. To guarantee and ensure effectively the use of the Extraordinary Form “for all who ask for it”, given that the use of the Latin Liturgy in effect in 1962 “is a faculty… granted for the good of the faithful and therefore is to be interpreted in a sense favorable to the faithful who are its principal addressees”;
  • c. To promote reconciliation at the heart of the Church. (n. 8)

Likewise, because of the legal disputes caused by the paucity of good will on the part of the bishops in applying the motu proprio, the Instruction grants the Ecclesia Dei Commission additional authority:

  • The Pontifical Commission exercises this power, not only by virtue of the faculties previously granted by Pope John Paul II and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI (cf. motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, articles 11-12), but also by virtue of its power to decide, as hierarchical superior, upon recourses that are legitimately sent to it against an administrative act of an Ordinary which appears to be contrary to the motu proprio. (Universae Ecclesiae, n. 10 §1)
  • In the case of a legal dispute or of well-founded doubt concerning celebration in the Extraordinary Form, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei will decide. (Summorum Pontificum, n. 11)

Provisions are made, however, for a possible appeal:

The decrees by which the Pontifical Commission decides recourses may be challenged ad normam iuris before the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura." (n. 10 §2)

It will be advisable therefore to watch carefully in the coming months whether these regulations prove to be effective and whether the de facto actions of the bishops really conform to the de jure regulations that the Ecclesia Dei Commission is in charge of enforcing.

The diplomatic character of this Roman document is easy to discern, since it is attentive to cases of resistance and very careful to treat divergent viewpoints with respect. Thus the reader finds several paradoxes which, despite the declared desire for unity, betray the dissensions that it had to take into account:

  • Oddly, the bishops interested in applying the motu proprio generously may not be able to ordain seminarians from their dioceses in the traditional rite. Indeed, n. 31 stipulates:

Only in Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life which are under the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, and in those which use the liturgical books of the forma extraordinaria, is the use of the Pontificale Romanum of 1962 for the conferral of minor and major orders permitted."

In this regard the document recalls the post-conciliar legislation that suppressed the minor orders and the subdiaconate. Candidates to the priesthood are incardinated only upon entering the diaconate, but it will nevertheless be permissible to confer the tonsure, minor order and the subdiaconate in the old rite, without ascribing the least canonical value to them, however.

This point is directly opposed to the principle recalled in n. 3 concerning adherence to “the usages universally handed down by apostolic and unbroken tradition”.

  • Paradoxically, the Roman document excludes from its regulations those priests who are most attached to the traditional Mass as a “precious treasure to be preserved” (n. 8), and who for that reason are not bi-ritual. Indeed, n. 19 declares:

The faithful who ask for the celebration of the forma extraordinaria must not in any way support or belong to groups which show themselves to be against the validity or legitimacy of the Holy Mass or the Sacraments celebrated in the forma ordinaria or against the Roman Pontiff as Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church."

The reader will note here a nuance: the Instruction speaks about “validity” or “legitimacy” in the same context in which the Letter of Benedict XVI to the bishops dated July 7, 2007, called for “recognition of [the] value and holiness” of the Novus Ordo Missae and the non-exclusive celebration of the traditional form.

Nonetheless this article n. 19 just might provide bishops with the opportunity to neutralize the Instruction effectively by paralyzing its stated wish for a broader application of the motu proprio “for the good of the faithful” (n. 8).

Certain rash commentaries led some to believe that the Priestly Society of St. Pius X was also excluded because of its opposition to the Roman Pontiff, which is not correct, since the “excommunications” of its bishops were lifted precisely because Rome considered them not to be in opposition to the primacy of the pope. The decree dated January 21, 2009, in fact, adopted the terms used in a letter by Bishop Fellay dated December 15, 2008, addressed to Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos: “firmly believing in the primacy of Peter and in his prerogatives”.

The paradoxes in this instruction reflect the diplomatic compromises made in order to facilitate the hitherto laborious application of the motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, but they substantially rest on the oft-repeated affirmation that there is doctrinal continuity between the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo Missae:

The Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI and the last edition prepared under Pope John XXIII, are two forms of the Roman Liturgy, defined respectively as ordinaria and extraordinaria: they are two usages of the one Roman Rite, one alongside the other. Both are the expression of the same lex orandi of the Church." (n. 6)

Now, on this point we can only note the opposition between two Prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, in his Brief Critical Study of the New Order of Mass [the “Ottaviani Intervention”], and his [remote] successor, Cardinal William Levada, signer of the present instruction.

In his study, submitted to Paul VI on September 3, 1969, Cardinal Ottaviani wrote, “the Novus Ordo represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was… definitively fixed” by the Council of Trent. And Cardinal Alfons Maria Stickler, librarian of the Holy Roman Church and archivist of the Secret Archives of the Vatican, wrote on November 27, 2004, on the occasion of the reprinting of the Brief Critical Study by Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci:

The analysis of the Novus Ordo made by these two cardinals has lost none of its value nor, unfortunately, of its relevance…. The results of the reform are considered by many today to be devastating. It was to the credit of Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci that they discovered very quickly that the change of the rites led to a fundamental change of doctrine."

Indeed, it is because of the serious failings and omissions of the Novus Ordo Missae and of the reforms introduced under Paul VI that the Priestly Society of St. Pius X seriously questions, if not the validity in principle, then at least the “legitimacy of the Holy Mass or the Sacraments celebrated in the forma ordinaria” (n. 19), since it is so difficult, as Cardinal Ottaviani had already noted in 1969, to consider the Mass of St. Pius V and that of Paul VI to be in the same “apostolic and unbroken tradition” (no. 3).

No doubt the instruction Universae Ecclesiae, which continues along the lines of the motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, is an important stage in recognizing the rights of the traditional Mass, but the difficulties in applying the motu proprio which the Instruction strives to address will be fully resolved only by a study of the profound divergence, not so much between the Society of St. Pius X and the Holy See, as between the traditional Mass and the Novus Ordo Missae. This divergence cannot be the subject of a debate about the form (“Extraordinary” or “Ordinary”) but about their doctrinal basis. (DICI no. 235, 5-19-2011)