Dismantling the Roadblocks
Interpreting the Motu Proprio... Precisely As It's Written

Romano Tommasi


(Graduate in Liturgical Studies from St. Anselmo in Rome)

Micromanaging Bishops

Appropriately enough, there is rejoicing in the whole Catholic world (“Catholic” taken here in a very restricted sense) over the Holy Father’s support of what has already become a cause célèbre—the freeing the authentic Roman liturgy. 

However, and, sadly without surprise, the Holy Father’s decision is not something that has been everywhere embraced.  It is sure to be subjected to a number of interesting interpretations in order to reduce (if not eliminate) its positive impact in the Catholic Church.

Among some of the comments in memos or diocesan letters from individual bishops to their priests and faithful, one finds that –prescinding from either good or bad intentions—several have correctly noted that they will require an appropriate knowledge of Latin and the rubrics of the old Missal and Ritual before they consent to its celebration. 

Most traditional priests would be in complete accord with such a precondition for obvious reasons; without these two conditions, in fact, no priest of any traditional society of apostolic life would himself celebrate the “extraordinary” form of the Roman rite.  These conditions, obviously, flow explicitly from the Motu Proprio issued by the Holy Father, as well as his explanation in his personal letter to the bishops of the Church[1].

Of course, the Holy Father mentions the fact that the motu proprio’s raison d’être is not merely to announce the “non-abrogation” of the old Missal, nor is it just to provide a framework for the same missal’s wider celebration.  It is precisely and emphatically his intention to take a rite of the Church which had been shackled at the juridical level of episcopal control[2] and apply the principal of subsidiarity to it (that which can be more efficiently and properly carried out at the local level should be done at that level). 

In other words, the current legislation “frees the bishops” from determining the circumstances for the celebration of the 1962 Missal within their own dioceses[3], and remands this prudential judgment precisely to subordinate persons holding certain types of jurisdiction within any one given diocese  (e.g. pastors, chaplains, etc.)[4].

With this in mind, it’s puzzling that some bishops have attempted an interpretation that takes a very terse and exact legal document and somehow twists it to mean that bishops themselves have retained the right to determine what constitutes the necessary pastoral conditions that allow for public celebration of the old Mass.

For example, one bishop wrote:

“Further, there will be need to ascertain that the common good of the parish prevails and to ascertain what constitutes a stable community of those requesting the 1962 missal.”[5]

This statement is cleverly worded, since “there will be need” slyly implies that it is the bishop who determines such a need.  This citation is located in the same paragraph and just after lines mentioning the bishop’s personal authority and requirement that adequate knowledge of Latin and the rubrics of the Missal be demonstrated  (quite reasonable in and of itself).  Nonetheless, by immediately following up with the above quoted sentence, the bishop’s statement implies that the “ascertainment” of what constitutes a pastoral need or stable community is also within the bishop’s power.

Of course the grammatical ambiguity–with which we are so familiar in our modern Church—provides this particular bishop with plausible deniability that he is attempting to circumvent the Holy Father’s decree. In reality, the bishop no longer has the right to determine the pastoral circumstances which call for the celebration of the traditional liturgy, since that authority has been lawfully conceded to his subordinate priests, having a specified juridical position within his diocese, to make that pastoral call ex officio. 

Certainly it is noble and responsible for any bishop to advise and assist those pastors of souls (et alii) who will want to make prudent decisions in this regard, but it is no longer the right of any ordinary to dominate the pastoral process by which prudential and pastoral judgments are now to be determined; now it is explicitly by pastors of souls within their own juridical boundaries. 

Bishops Determining Pastoral Need?

Even more disturbing than this bishop’s spin-doctoring was yet another liberal bishop’s interpretation of the document, blatantly contrary to its contents, where he states:

“Because it is an extraordinary use, any public Mass using the Missal of Blessed John XXIII (promulgated in 1962) requires the bishop’s judgment that there is sufficient pastoral need to justify the use of this missal and pastoral ability to provide for that need.”[6]

The problem here is two-fold.  An equivocal use of the term “extraordinary” is proposed by which it means according to the Archbishop: “not normally allowed”— “by way of exception.” The Archbishop then uses the analogy of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to compare to the Holy Father’s releasing of the Mass. He argues that just as there are extraordinary ministers, so too will the use of the Latin Mass be extraordinary; which is itself laughable, noting how “ordinary” such “extraordinary” ministers have become in nearly every “parish community”.

However, the analogy would have been somewhat correct were it to have underlined the fact that the Pastor is to determine whether or not an individual case warrants the use of extraordinary ministers, since it will be de jure the same with the traditional Latin Mass as of September 14 of this year.  Let us hope that, by way of His Excellency’s own use of analogy, he intended not to nullify the Church’s law.

Perhaps we can bring the good bishop’s analogy to its logical conclusion and help him save appearances.  The following employs his own formula: extraordinary celebration is to the Latin Mass as extraordinary ministers are to the New Mass = extraordinary ministers within the New Mass are ubiquitous in parishes as extraordinary celebrations of the Latin Mass are (to be) ubiquitous in parishes!

If this were His Excellency’s secret plan, we would sympathize with his misinterpretation of the motu proprio.  But, unfortunately, since all bishops will not apply such a wonderful, though inaccurate, interpretation in their dioceses, we must hold each bishop to be as liberal as the law is liberal, and as strict as the law is strict. No more, no less. 

To the above bishop’s credit, he does note the following in his article on the motu proprio: “I wish to give you my perspective[7].”  To be fair and generous, then, the bishop is not being dogmatic (perhaps his translation needs updating, or perhaps he’s a victim of the Holy Father’s own observations in his letter that few priests these days know Latin).  But it sure would be nice to have all the facts and to understand the history and consequences of such terrible and inaccurate interpretations.  After all, the Holy Father clearly states in his personal letter that interpretations just like this led to disunity and internal division in the first place[8]

To conclude on this first problem with our ordinary’s article, his incorrect application of the word “extraordinary” must rather be read in continuity (a new Benedict XVI catchword) with what the Missal of Pius V says of this rite of Mass.[9]  In the contents of the Missal of Pius V, this rite is lawfully declared (Quo Primum) the right of every Latin priest to celebrate = extraordinary.  The declaration that the old Missal was not abrogated is a declaration that Quo Primum established as the perpetual rite of the Latin Church (although not excluding other usages or celebrations).  Thus, it is considered extraordinary because it transcends other rites which may be of greater or lesser duration (e.g. Gallican rites –now defunct; Novus Ordo – to be one day defunct?).

Empowering Pastors

Secondly, this same bishop then insists he has the right to determine that certain pastoral conditions are met before public celebration of the old Mass can take place.  This, of course, is the exact opposite of what the motu proprio states as just such a restriction is the very thing that substantively differentiates between Ecclesia Dei adflicta and Summorum Pontificum.

Under Ecclesia Dei, the bishop could restrict the celebration of the old liturgy in both private and public, while the new document clarifies that he may not restrict any priest who celebrates in private and may only restrict Masses in public for those priests who do not have one of the juridical positions as outlined explicitly in the motu proprio

Determining the pastoral circumstances regulating public celebration of the traditional Roman rite is now explicitly within the local pastor or chaplain’s competence and right.[10]  For instance, in the citation below, could a Pastor possibly have more explicit power conceded to him and in language any clearer?

The pastor, having attentively examined all aspects, may also grant permission to use the earlier ritual for the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Marriage, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick, if the good of souls would seem to require it[11].”

Again the pastor holds exactly the same rights that the bishop formerly had over permissions within his territory.  As for others wishing to celebrate within a pastor’s jurisdiction, the Holy Father writes the following:

[T]he pastor should also allow celebrations in this extraordinary form for special circumstances such as marriages, funerals or occasional celebrations, e.g. pilgrimages[12].”

Clearly, even a minimally accurate translation of the Latin text leaves no room for doubt on this question: it is the right of the Pastor to grant permission to other priests within his own territory who wish to celebrate the traditional sacraments, which he himself is furthermore entitled to celebrate ad libitum, in public or private, ex officio.[13]

We could even go so far as to say that the intrinsic nature of the “right of the faithful” to such celebration means that a Pastor should publicly advise his parishioners of their rights, since they cannot exercise rights about which they are ignorant. Therefore a priest preaching and promoting these sacraments could not be accused of interfering with a “spontaneous” desire on the part of the faithful were he to mention publicly that they may ask for this Mass and sacraments, since he has to advise them of a right that has now been made explicit by the Holy Father.  This must be done so that the faithful can then decide for themselves if they wish to “spontaneously” request it.

In short, let us hope that—as a better translation is made available—bishops “liberal” enough to accept the fact that the former “law”[14] has been “loosened” will be assertive enough to apply pressure to their brother bishops so that a uniform interpretation and application of Summorum Pontificum can be achieved.  Such “liberal” bishops will bear witness to the fact that the clear and precise words of the document mean merely what they say and that we do not need a secret decoder ring to understand the letter and spirit.   In this case the spirit is one of liberality and the law is concessive by widening the celebration of the old rite, not by tightening and strengthening the bishops’ ability to shackle the Mass. Any other interpretation makes the meaning of Summorum Pontificum patently absurd, since it otherwise would not “loosen” restrictions but would merely repeat the conditions already in force by Ecclesia Dei adflicta

We really should be beside ourselves if anyone even suggests another interpretation since any other interpretation would presuppose that the universal Church is composed of imbeciles.  The principle of non-contradiction is at work in distinguishing the former legislation from the new.

Consider the absurdity inherent in interpretations like the one mentioned above:






Now, one could argue that this is a caricature of the bishop’s position, since he admits that priests can celebrate the old Mass privately. However, the Holy Father cannot logically make a law that merely states as fact that something isn’t impeded by law.  The Holy Father clarified a question of law—that the old Missal was never abrogated.  This ipso facto means that any priest can say it right now since it was never abrogated. 

An example: If it is now lawful to drive 55 miles per hour (since the law stipulating the same has always been in effect and was never abrogated), I can drive 55… I don’t need to wait for permission on September 14th to follow the 55 mile per hour law now in force!  Therefore this is not a law as such, but a clarification of already existing legislation. 

A Stable Group of Faithful?

Secondly, the old rubrics and the New Code of Canon Law currently in force both presuppose that Mass is said with at least one other person present. Furthermore, the liturgical texts presuppose the existence of more than one person at the Tridentine Mass (Dominus vobiscum; Orate fratres, etc.). The Code and Liturgical law can not forbid the faithful from attending a private Tridentine Mass, which the Holy Father acknowledges was always allowed to be celebrated, since their presence is presupposed for the liceity of the same liturgical celebration. 

Furthermore, the presence of more than one person is presupposed by the old liturgical formulas, even for private celebration.  By admitting that the private celebration of the old Mass is always licit without any permission from one’s bishop, one implicitly admits that the prerequisites for a licit celebration of the same Mass are allowed to be had; namely at least one person in attendance.[15]  A logical extension of this is that the “spirit” of the liturgical texts clearly envisages more than one person present.  In order to fulfill both the spirit and letter of the old Missal, then, at minimum a few people should be present; exactly the interpretation given by the Holy Father in the motu proprio[16]

Therefore the motu proprio in not new legislation in either allowing persons to participate in a private Mass, or a priest to celebrate privately.  The only other part of the document that can be then called a change in law is in regard to public celebration.  Formerly the conditions for such a celebration were the responsibility of the ordinary; now they are the responsibility of the parish priest.  It’s pretty simple.

Lastly, because of the pretentious statements cited above, it is important to assist the priests and faithful in understanding how one can determine whether or not there exists a “stable group of faithful who adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition”, which is but one of a host of terrible mistranslations in English of: “ubi coetus fidelium traditioni liturgicae antecedenti adhaerentium continenter exsistit.”[17]

First of all, the Latin uses the adverb continenter, not the adjective “stable”, meaning that the group of faithful “adhering to the preceding liturgical tradition”, only need exist “continuously” as opposed to, let’s say, haphazardly, hardly ever, not at all.  What constitutes a “location in which a group continuously exists?” Well, it certainly isn’t attendees at a summer camp or a bingo night.  It doesn’t consist of someone who would come but once or twice, but, rather, repeatedly without fixed limitation. But if someone were to attend the old Mass only once a year every year, even that would be continuous...coming continuously once per annum. 

You get the picture? This is plain English (or Latin!), and is not some surreptitious obscurity of the Latin language. With all parish groups a pastor prudently decides how many times a week, month or year the “men’s sodality” or “altar society” meet, and he plans to “continuously” celebrate the Mass or some sacramental for them for as long as they continuously meet or request it.  This isn’t rocket science.  The sad thing is that so many bishops cannot read this document in the Latin and so are unable to interpret it for their faithful.  That means they rely on persons or translations that may be more or less giving “equivalents” of the actual decree. 

Let us hope there are still more than a few bishops that can read the plain and simple Latin of this document, written in such a user friendly manner.

Let us hope, for the sake of the unity desired by the Holy Father that his bishops who were reticent about being “liberal” and “generous” with the application of Ecclesia Dei adflicta and Quattuor abhinc annos will understand that this “liberal” decree was prompted by these same bishops through their being illiberales liberales[18]They would do well to learn from past mistakes.


[1] Summorum Pontificum, art. 5 § 4: <<Sacerdotes Missali B. Ioannis XXIII utentes, idonei esse debent ac iure non impediti (emphasis mine).>> In Pope Benedict’s explanatory later he further references this fact, saying: “The use of the old Missal presupposes a certain degree of liturgical formation and some knowledge of the Latin language; neither of these is found very often (Letter to Bishops regarding the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum).”

[2]“Pope John Paul II thus felt obliged to provide, in his Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei (2 July 1988), guidelines for the use of the 1962 Missal; that document, however, did not contain detailed prescriptions but appealed in a general way to the generous response of Bishops towards the "legitimate aspirations" of those members of the faithful who requested this usage of the Roman Rite. On the other hand, difficulties remain concerning the use of the 1962 Missal outside of these groups, because of the lack of precise juridical norms, particularly because Bishops, in such cases, frequently feared that the authority of the Council would be called into question (Letter to Bishops).”

[3]Apart from those already required by Ecclesia Dei adflicta and Quattuor abhinc annos, and the ordinary conditions that are presumed for any priest to function in accord with the new Code for the Latin Church.

[4]“Thus the need has arisen for a clearer juridical regulation which had not been foreseen at the time of the 1988 Motu Proprio. The present Norms are also meant to free Bishops from constantly having to evaluate anew how they are to respond to various situations (Letter to Bishops).

[5]See: “Statement from Bishop Trautman on Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum” (Most Reverend Donald Trautman, 9 July 2007).

[6]See: “Pope Benedict’s document on use of the traditional Latin Mass”, East Tennessee Catholic (His Excellency Joseph Kurtz, July 2007).


[8]“Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to unable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew. I think of a sentence in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes: "Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return ¼ widen your hearts also!"(Letter to Bishops).”

[9]Once again, we are merely drawing emphasis to an interpretation already explained by the Pontiff: “Missale autem Romanum a S. Pio V promulgatum et a B. Ioanne XXIII denuo editum habeatur uti extraordinaria expressio eiusdem ‘Legis orandi’ Ecclesiae et ob venerabilem et antiquum eius usum debito gaudeat honore ( Summorum Pontificum, 1).”

[10]Summorum Pontificum, art. 5 §1; 5 §3; 9 §1.

[11]Summorum Pontificum, 9 §1.

[12]Summorum Pontificum, 5 §3.

[13]The only conditions being those that are presumed for the regular celebration of sacraments and sacramentals as required by canon law and particular law, with the further addendum that–as far a public Masses are concerned—that the faithful spontaneously ask for the celebration. 

[14]In some regard the former law was materially in error, since de facto Congregations and Bishops and Canonists did not permit even private celebration of the 1962 Missal.  Thus the admission is implicit that there was a common error in the interpretation of universal law on this point...no small admission!

[15]It is interesting to note, that although the New Code of Canon Law also technically requires the presence of at least one other person than the priest for Mass, canonists have reduced this requirement to being obligatory unless a “reasonable cause” excuses from such a presence of another person. Several commentaries note that “reasonable cause” can be equivalent to “a priests desire to celebrate Mass”, even though no faithful or clerics are conveniently available.  Thus the New Law is actually less “liturgically correct” and more “lenient” than the pre-Conciliar law as solemnly re-emphasized by P. Pius XII in Mediator Dei.

[16]Summorum Pontificum, 5 §1. “Celebrations of Mass as mentioned above in art. 2 [that is private Mass- sine populo] may – observing all the norms of law – also be attended by faithful who, of their own free will, ask to be admitted.”

[17]Summorum Pontificum, 5 §1.

[18]“Stingy Liberals” or “illiberal liberals”.