The New Motu Proprio: the Antithesis of Authentic Liturgical Development

A new papal motu proprio letter on the liturgy was released today. It’s called Magnum Principium, and in my opinion, it’s a ticking timebomb.

But to better understand it, we must first have something to contrast it against.

If you’ve ever read Pope St. Pius V’s famous apostolic constitution on liturgy, Quo Primum (1570), you know that the Tridentine liturgical reforms were focused on the unification of the Latin Rite of the Mass, in order that the same Missal would be used everywhere throughout the universal Church. Some highlights:

[B]esides other decrees of the sacred Council of Trent, there were stipulations for Us to revise and re-edit the sacred books: the Catechism, the Missal and the Breviary. With the Catechism published for the instruction of the faithful, by God’s help, and the Breviary thoroughly revised for the worthy praise of God, in order that the Missal and Breviary may be in perfect harmony, as fitting and proper – for its most becoming that there be in the Church only one appropriate manner of reciting the Psalms and only one rite for the celebration of Mass – We deemed it necessary to give our immediate attention to what still remained to be done, viz, the re-editing of the Missal as soon as possible.

Hence, We decided to entrust this work to learned men of our selection. They very carefully collated all their work with the ancient codices in Our Vatican Library and with reliable, preserved or emended codices from elsewhere. Besides this, these men consulted the works of ancient and approved authors concerning the same sacred rites; and thus they have restored the Missal itself to the original form and rite of the holy Fathers. When this work has been gone over numerous times and further emended, after serious study and reflection, We commanded that the finished product be printed and published as soon as possible, so that all might enjoy the fruits of this labor; and thus, priests would know which prayers to use and which rites and ceremonies they were required to observe from now on in the celebration of Masses.

Let all everywhere adopt and observe what has been handed down by the Holy Roman Church, the Mother and Teacher of the other churches, and let Masses not be sung or read according to any other formula than that of this Missal published by Us. This ordinance applies henceforth, now, and forever, throughout all the provinces of the Christian world, to all patriarchs, cathedral churches, collegiate and parish churches, be they secular or religious, both of men and of women – even of military orders – and of churches or chapels without a specific congregation in which conventual Masses are sung aloud in choir or read privately in accord with the rites and customs of the Roman Church. This Missal is to be used by all churches, even by those which in their authorization are made exempt, whether by Apostolic indult, custom, or privilege, or even if by oath or official confirmation of the Holy See, or have their rights and faculties guaranteed to them by any other manner whatsoever.


We specifically command each and every patriarch, administrator, and all other persons or whatever ecclesiastical dignity they may be, be they even cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, or possessed of any other rank or pre-eminence, and We order them in virtue of holy obedience to chant or to read the Mass according to the rite and manner and norm herewith laid down by Us and, hereafter, to discontinue and completely discard all other rubrics and rites of other missals, however ancient, which they have customarily followed; and they must not in celebrating Mass presume to introduce any ceremonies or recite any prayers other than those contained in this Missal. [emphasis added]

Magnum Principiumon the other hand, is not concerned at all with the “original form and rite of the holy Fathers”. Instead, it references the “great principle” (from which the name of the letter is taken) of the Second Vatican Council “according to which liturgical prayer be accommodated to the comprehension of the people so that it might be understood”. This means, of course, to the liturgical revolutionaries (then and now) “the weighty task of introducing the vernacular language into the liturgy and of preparing and approving the versions of the liturgical books, a charge that was entrusted to the Bishops.”

I do not plan here to offer an in-depth analysis of the new motu proprio. I have no doubt that others far more qualified than I will come forward soon, taking the letter apart piece by piece. My purpose here is instead to leave you with my sense of what it will mean for the Church.

The upshot of this letter — clearly not written in the pope’s usual meandering, loquacious, and incomprehensible language, and therefore, almost certainly the work of someone else’s hand — is that the pope is ordering canon law be amended as follows:

Can. 838 – §1. The ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy depends solely upon the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and, as provided by law, that of the diocesan Bishop.

§2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books, recognise adaptations approved by the Episcopal Conference according to the norm of law, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.

§3. It pertains to the Episcopal Conferences to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.

§4. Within the limits of his competence, it belongs to the diocesan Bishop to lay down in the Church entrusted to his care, liturgical regulations which are binding on all.

As some noted very early in this papacy, one of its key themes was an abuse of the principle of subsidiarity — the otherwise laudable notion that matters should be decided by the lowest or least central authority competent to do so. But the key word here is “competent.” Bishops’ conferences, which have never had real authority, have demonstrated anything but competence over the past half century. Of course, this isn’t the sense of the word used when examining subsidiarity – it instead refers to the question of whether the body making the decisions has the legal qualifications and authority to do so. When it comes to the liturgy of the Universal Church, episcopal conferences are quite simpy out of their depth.

It should be noted that this false subsidiarity has been a feature of the present pontificate from its earliest stages. Bishops’ conferences were identified by Francis almost immediately as a means of decentralizing the power rightly concentrated in the Apostolic See.  See, for example, Evangelii Gaudium 32:

The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”.[36] Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated.[37] Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.

We saw this again, in a more concrete and damaging way, in Amoris Laetitia 3:

Since “time is greater than space”, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied”.3

This is moral relativism, plain and simple.

And we have seen how well it has worked out for the faithful, haven’t we? With the decision on whether it is permissible to offer the sacraments to the divorced and remarried becoming the purview of individual bishops’ conferences, local ordinaries, and even parish priests, chaos has ensued. What is permitted in Poland is forbidden in Germany. And so on. The fundamental moral teachings of the Church were never intended to be relativized and parceled out through delegation. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, and this perversion of subsidiarity dangerously erodes in an obvious way both her unity and Catholicity, while at the same time undermining her holiness and her apostolic charge.

And now we are witnessing the delegation of authority over liturgical texts to groups of bishops that are all too often morally compromised or otherwise unwilling to prioritize the Divine Will, and thus, the good of the Church and the souls entrusted to her care. The accretions and substitutions and variations that Quo Primum sought to definitively end through the enforcement of a single liturgical missal for the Church’s primary and most ancient rite are now being willfully re-introduced. Only this time, they almost certainly won’t be well-meaning but misguided manifestations of regional piety, but rather a competitive race to the bottom to banalize and desacralize the Mass. What the Second Vatican Council did to the liturgy was bad enough, by giving license to the consilium to dissolve its structure and form and to replace its magnificent prayers with ersatz fabrications, ecumenical and interfaith gestures, and an overarching diminution in sacramental theology. But at the very least, one could say that the Novus Ordo had a singular missal, and a general instruction on how it should be followed. It was still possible for liturgical reformers to argue that what had been happening in so many parishes around the world were abuses, because they could point to texts from Rome indicating the way Mass should be offered if one wanted to incorporate reverence (which has always been, alas, only an option in the new rite, not a requirement).

Now, however, these abuses can become a true grassroots effort. Think globally, abuse locally — with ecclesiastical approval! Does anyone really believe that the completely gutted Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments won’t put its stamp of approval on any changes submitted? I don’t know if it’s standard practice for the secretary of the CDW to add the explanatory note on a papal motu proprio on liturgy, but the prefect of that congregation’s name — Cardinal Robert Sarah — was conspicuous by its absence. And it is hard not to wonder if it is because he wanted nothing to do with its contents.

Some are already speculating that the battle over “pro nobis” and “pro multis” in the words of the Consecration will come back with gusto, with individual conferences potentially allowing even more substantive changes to this most important prayer of the Mass — changes significant enough that the validity of the sacrament could be called into question. How naive must we be to hope that the damnable scourge of inclusive language won’t rear its ugly head after we thought it had breathed its last? It takes only a little imagination to envision just how unpleasant things might become.

Nevertheless, let it not be said that Catholics are not optimists. I have also already seen arguments that nothing of substance has really changed here. This delegation of the translation of texts is still supposed to be faithful to the originals, and still has to be approved by Rome, so why are people worried? This argument sounds strikingly similar to the one advanced by those who said that Amoris Laetitia didn’t change doctrine. The truth is, it didn’t. And that has done nothing to slow down the devastation to praxis that has followed in its wake.

And so it will be with the liturgy.

There is, however, a hopeful note in all this mess. The intentional balkanization of the Church’s “ordinary form” of the liturgy will undoubtedly only weaken it further. It will become harder and harder to sustain. It will create preferences and peculiarities, potentially pit diocese against diocese, and cost the Novus Ordo what little integrity it yet retains.

Perhaps this is the intention. Perhaps knowing that the vast majority of Catholics attend the so-called “ordinary form” of the Mass, the forces hell-bent on the deconstruction of the Catholic faith think this will “lay the axe not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is, to the faith and its deepest fires.” But as my friend Hilary White has so often said, “The Church couldn’t have survived another ‘conservative’ pope.” Francis has woken people up, and they will never be able to sleep again. And once they began to evaluate why what he was doing was wrong, many began examining with a more critical eye all that has happened since the council that made the present moment possible.

The same may be true of the liturgy: the Church could not survive this ongoing divide between two forms of the same rite, expressing two discordant visions of liturgical theology and anthropology. I’ll never forget speaking with someone who only attends the Novus Ordo, and he surprised me by saying, “The future of the Church is the old Mass.” He hadn’t made the change in his own life, but he saw the handwriting on the wall.

And so, as these changes begin rolling out, more people will be turn their eyes to the Traditional Latin Mass. And while the fear exists — and I see it growing — that Summorum Pontificum will be revoked, I do not believe this is truly possible. Because as Pope Benedict XVI said, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

For those of us who have found the Mass of the Ages, there is no turning back. And if they try to take it from us, they will fail. If they remove us from the churches, we will have Masses in schools, in auditoriums, in fields, in people’s homes.  We will do so with the confidence that others have trod this via dolorosa before us:

Matters have come to this pass: the people have left their houses of prayer and assembled in the deserts, — a pitiable sight; women and children, old men, and men otherwise infirm, wretchedly faring in the open air, amid most profuse rains and snow-storms and winds and frosts of winter; and again in summer under a scorching sun. To this they submit because they will have no part of the wicked Arian leaven.

– St. Basil the Great; Epistulae 242, 376 AD.

I, for one, will not go back. The ancient liturgies of the Church nourish and sustain us. They are our armor and armament. And if they come for them…Molon Labe!

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