A significant number of supporters of the traditional Roman Rite have always held the opinion that the rite of 1970 is a new creation and represents a break with the traditional Roman Rite. There are good arguments for this. However, until now this has never been stated authoritatively.
There are no obstacles to create a new rite for the Mass (provided that this is done by the competent church authorities). Such a new rite can apply to certain regions, it can apply to certain orders, or it can support the reunification of separated Christians. There are also no obstacles to change an existing rite (for example by adding further feasts). However, significant changes were strictly avoided in the past. Likewise, nothing speaks against bringing a rite closer to its original form by removing duplications and later insertions; the great figures of liturgical reform – Pope Gregory the Great and Pope Pius V – have carried out precisely these types of reform, however they avoided self-serving liturgical archeology. The careful handling of the Roman Rite in the past has resulted in the Roman Rite showing a high degree of continuity dating back to early Christian times.
The essential immutability of the liturgy was so self-evident that in the 19th century the Magna Carta of papal rights – the Constitution Pastor aeternus of the First Vatican Council – did not even mention liturgy as a field in which a pope has any kind of freedom to make changes. A pope making significant changes in the liturgy would have appeared as absurd as a pope recognizing a fifth gospel or deleting St. Paul’s letters from the canon of the Bible. In the section on papal infallibility it is clearly noted that the Pope’s freedom of action and infallibility are only given with regard to preservation, but not with regard to new creations. The First Vatican Council thus indirectly confirmed the ban on changes of the Roman Rite, as expressed in the Apostolic Constitution Quo primum by Pius V from 1570.
As with many topics, Pope Paul VI has shown a considerable ambiguity in the choice of words: In the Apostolic Constitution Missale romanum (1969) he spoke of a renovatio (“revision”) and a compositionem novam (“new composition”) of the Roman Missal. Reform, revision and new composition are expressions that stand for fundamental continuity. At the same time, however, at the general audience on November 19, 1969, Pope Paul VI described the liturgical reform beginning with the upcoming Advent as nuovo rito della Messa (“new rite of the Mass”).
Pope John Paul II convened a high-ranking commission of cardinals in 1986 to review the legal status of the “old rite.” Their conclusions were never published, but can be identified from subsequent events: In 1988 the papal letter Ecclesia Dei removed obstacles to the celebration of the Mass in the Rite of 1962 and became the founding document for many communities following the traditional Roman Rite. Above all, the conclusions of the commission are reflected in the apodictic statement by Pope Benedict (as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger member of the commission) in the letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum (2007) that the old rite “was never (…) abrogated (replaced).”
Benedict XVI has also stated in his accompanying letter that the forma ordinaria (rite 1970) and forma extraordinaria (rite 1962) are two expressions of one and the same rite. Although his reasoning leaves some questions (wide) open, this was at least a noble attempt to put the unresolved relationship between the rites on a sustainable basis. In Pope Benedict’s view, the rite of 1970 must be seen in the light of the traditional Roman Rite. This ultimately rules out that the lex orandi of the new rite – if it is celebrated properly (and maybe even if not celebrated properly) – differs from the lex orandi of the traditional Roman rite. The subtlety of the deliberations of Pope Benedict XVI lies in the fact that he imposes the recognition of the rite of 1970 on the followers of the traditional Roman Rite, and – at the same time – he embeds the rite of 1970 in the theology and ecclesiology of the traditional Roman Rite.
Against this view Pope Francis is now taking action in Traditionis custodes: “The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite,” says Article 1 of Traditionis custodes. The Pope does not even notice that this sentence contains a logical impossibility: If the rite of 1970 is a (reformed) continuation of the Roman Rite, it must – out of necessity – adhere to the same law of prayer (lex orandi). If, on the other hand, it represents a different law of prayer, then there is no continuity between the traditional Roman Rite and the rite of 1970. Then it is impossible that the Roman Rite was renewed “in faithful observance of the Tradition,” as Pope Francis wrote in the accompanying letter to Traditionis custodes: The rite of 1970 cannot be both faithful to tradition and incompatible with the traditional Roman Rite regarding the lex orandi.
What remains somewhat vague in the Motu proprio Traditionis custodies and in the accompanying letter was made crystal clear by Pope Francis on August 30, 2021 in an interview with COPE, the radio station of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference: In this interview the Pope said that priests, who want to celebrate Mass in the traditional Roman Rite, need a permiso de bi-ritualismo, a permission for the celebration in two rites, from Rome. For the first time ever a pope indicated that the traditional Roman Rite and the rite of 1970 are two distinct rites.
While Pope Benedict XVI struggled to preserve unity in Summorum Pontificum, Pope Francis cuts this unity and describes the traditional Roman Rite and the rite of 1970 as two rites that represent an incompatible law of prayer (“lex orandi”). This raises the question (which will not be addressed here) whether the faith of the Church has remained the same: “lex orandi, lex credendi (…). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays” (CCC 1124).
If the rite of 1970 is a separate rite, with a lex orandi separate from the traditional Roman Rite, this means basically two things: First, Pope Paul VI created a new rite, which is also (confusingly) called the “Roman Rite.” Whether this rite has its merits or shows deficits is as irrelevant, as is the question of whether this rite corresponds to the ideas outlined in the document Sacrosanctum Concilium decreed by the Second Vatican Council; in any case, the rite of 1970 is undeniably new. Second, the traditional Roman Rite has not been reformed into the new rite, but – as Pope Benedict rightly recognized – it continues to exist and can’t be abolished.
The traditional Roman Rite continues and is not subject to the mood swings and wishes of popes. The traditional Roman Rite is protected by the venerability of its long tradition. Protected forever. The rite of 1970, on the other hand, was only protected by wrapping itself into the cloak of the venerable traditional Roman Rite, claiming to be its rightful (reformed) continuation. In Summorum Pontificum Pope Benedict XVI did not only hand back the traditional Roman Rite its legitimate place, but also tried to integrate the rite of 1970 into the history of the development of the Roman Rite.
By smashing the work of his predecessor, Pope Francis is removing the historical integration of the 1970 rite into a two-thousand-year history of the Roman Rite, and leaves the rite of 1970 naked and defenseless. With reference to Pius V – ironically quoted by Pope Francis – every future Pope could remove the rite of 1970 with the stroke of a pen. That might not seem likely in view of the current balance of power within the Catholic Church. But looking at the enormous and often rapid upheavals within the church in the last 150 years, such a constellation cannot be ruled out even within a foreseeable period of time.
This raises the question of the providential role of the present Pope in a completely new way. It is obvious that Pope Francis is not a friend of the traditional Roman Rite and apparently he wants to push it back or even dispose of it. With Traditionis custodies he has presented an extremely harsh, downright hostile document. However, in the end, he was not able to shake the traditional Roman Rite, but rather robbed the rite of 1970 of its historical anchoring. Are we just seeing an impressive demonstration of how God is writing straight with crooked lines?
Photo: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, Paris, France by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash.
 Pastor Aeternus, Caput IV: “Neque enim Petri successoribus Spiritus Sanctus promissus est, ut eo revelante novam doctrinam patefacerent, sed ut eo assistente traditam per Apostolos revelationem seu fidei depositum sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent.”
 Quoted according to Revista Ecclesia (magazine of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference), vol. LXXX, No. 4.087, special edition because of the Pope’s interview from September 4, 2021, p.8.
Christoph Hartmann is a journalist from Austria. In his career, spanning 35 years, he has written for different types of print and internet media and has produced radio programs. Following his studies at the university he specialized on writing about economics, ultimately serving 15 years as editor-in-chief of economic publications. However, he has always looked beyond economics and has written frequently about history, the long term development of society, religion – his first article published in this field was about Sollicitudo rei socialis, an encyclical letter by Pope John Paul II, in 1987 – and philosophy. He is a lifelong Catholic and became a Catechist in 2010. Christoph Hartmann is married and has one daughter.