The following fictional dialogue (by Peter Kwasniewski) between hyperpapalist “Rockmeteller” (apologies to P.G. Wodehouse for stealing the name) and papal critic “Traddeus” is based on many real dialogues conducted online. It’s not intended to be systematic but to provoke thought about key issues (pun intended) that will only gain in importance as the blight of synodality—a delivery device for a certain brand of papally-shoved progressivism—continues to afflict the vineyard of the Church. PAK
Rockmeteller: Traddeus, you’re always talking about “limits” to the pope’s authority over the liturgy. But what do you make of Pius XII’s Mediator Dei where he says in no. 58: “It follows from this that the Sovereign Pontiff alone enjoys the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification.”
Traddeus: It seems clear to me that this passage has a context. Before and after it, Pius XII is talking about how the Church has used her authority to accommodate and incorporate devotional trends, “to protect the purity of divine worship against abuse from dangerous and imprudent innovations introduced by private individuals and particular churches,” to defend “the legitimate rites of the Church” and to “prohibit any spurious innovation,” to reprove severely “the temerity and daring of those who introduce novel liturgical practices, or call for the revival of obsolete rites.” Most basically, the Church “has organized and regulated divine worship, enriching it constantly with new splendor and beauty, to the glory of God and the spiritual profit of Christians”; thus she “add[s] what appeared more likely to increase the honor paid to Jesus Christ and the august Trinity.” You see, there’s a tendency and a purpose noted here: through the devotion of the faithful and the encouragement of the pastors, the liturgy grows richer over time, more perfect at doing what it is supposed to do. The idea of chopping away the heritage of centuries or dumbing things down or turning the focus away from God to the “people of God,” as in (say) a versus populum communitarianism—all of that would be entirely foreign to the spirit of the Church, as we find it described in Mediator Dei.
Rockmeteller: Pius XII limits the role of everyone else in the Church to passive recipients of what the Apostolic See hands down to them: the bishops are to enforce it, and the laity are to accept it. Period.
Traddeus: If we took this to be truly the point of view of Pius XII, it would not make it right, it would make it simply the peak moment of ultramontanist concentration—clericalism on steroids. Nothing like that view was practiced for the first 1,500 years of Catholicism. It overlooks entirely the way in which episcopal subsidiarity operates, as well as the genuine right that the faithful have to their liturgical inheritance. The liturgy does not belong only to the pope, it belongs to the entire Church. He can be a shepherd but not a tyrant.
Rockmeteller: Let’s take an example. I’ve heard you say that it was tyrannical for Paul VI to displace the Roman Canon by adding multiple neo-anaphoras cobbled together from bits and pieces of old sources. But who made the Roman Canon such a big deal? It was only a big deal because the Church used it, and the pope in particular; and if the pope decides he wants to use a different prayer, or wants to make us use a different prayer, who cares? As long as it hits the main points…
Traddeus: We have to ask ourselves why this was never the attitude of anyone, anywhere, throughout all of ecclesiastical history for which we have records. Nobody questioned the continuing and exclusive use of the Roman Canon in the Western rites and uses. Either people in the past were stupidly uncreative and attached (almost sinfully so, it would seem) to doing things a certain way—or there was a good reason for their conservatism. To me, it seems self-evident that the more the Church prays a certain way, the better it is to continue praying that way. But I suppose that requires having supernatural faith in God’s guidance of the Church and her leaders over time. That’s why I wonder, at times, if the supporters of new rites have some obscure agnosticism or atheism in their mental mixture: God’s Providence seems strangely absent from their assessment of the history of the Church and her liturgy, and no more present is the immense confidence our predecessors had in speaking of the divine liturgy, the sacred rites, as if they were bequeathed to us by God or, at very least, with God’s abundant favor upon them. When did that attitude of pious respect disappear, and why?
Rockmeteller: It seems to me that what is missing here is the doctrine/discipline distinction. Doctrinal truth is per se immutable. Disciplinary matters, however, such as which orations are prayed on the Feast of Christ the King (or even whether or not there is to be such a feast), are not immutable. Therefore, the Pope has the authority to change them. Now, one might find a particular disciplinary change imprudent, and one can ask the Pope to change his mind or to give a dispensation for those who want to continue using the older discipline, but there is an essential difference between the pope (in a non-infallible statement) contradicting infallible doctrine (in which case his words are actually false) and the pope, as supreme legislator, changing discipline even in an imprudent manner. We are usually bound by the commands of our superiors, even when they seem foolish to us. Of course, we ought to explain to the superiors why their commands are foolish, but we cannot actually disobey them. The promulgation of the Novus Ordo and the restriction of the old rite may have been foolish, but it’s within the scope of the pope’s authority, so the proper response is to ask the pope for permission to continue using the old Mass, not to simply disobey him.
Traddeus: Two points in response.
First, I’ve often wondered if the distinction between doctrine and discipline can be so sharply maintained—especially in the area of liturgy. I have argued (though many others have made this point too) that, e.g., Pius V’s Quo Primum was no mere “disciplinary” document, because its intention was to canonize, as it were, a traditional form of the Mass known with certainty to be confessing the Catholic Faith and free of error. It would be difficult to maintain that there are not doctrinal ramifications of this move that go beyond “it validly confects the Sacrament.” Put differently, the tight connection between lex orandi and lex credendi suggests that, whatever freedom the Church may have to introduce new rites, the abolition of traditional rites is quite beyond the power of prelates.
Second, some prudential decisions can be so catastrophically bad that they lack the power to oblige subjects. So even if we admit the technical legality of a document like Traditionis Custodes, it may still fail to be binding on consciences because of its egregious violation of the common good. Deep waters here, but I recommend the Fr. Réginald-Marie Rivoire’s canonical treatment of these questions, which I find illuminating.
Rockmeteller: I’ll admit that most people out there who have thought carefully about the current situation of the liturgy in the Latin-rite Church seem to agree, practically, that Francis has done something terribly imprudent and indeed reprehensible—something that should be annulled. Still, it seems to me that you’re going too far to say a pope does not have ultimate authority over liturgical rites.
Traddeus: I find it striking that the Creed of Pius IV (which is a de fide document) includes the sentence “Receptos quoque et approbatos Ecclesiae catholicae ritus in supradictorum omnium Sacramentorum solemni administratione recipio et admitto”: “I receive and admit the received and approved rites of the Catholic Church [used] in the solemn administration of all of the aforesaid sacraments.” That looks to me as if it would make the suppression of any existing rite by any putative ecclesiastical positive law altogether ultra vires.
Rockmeteller: It seems to me that both Quo primum and the Creed of Pius IV show that the older form of the Roman Rite is doctrinally sound, and that its ceremonies have a certain fittingness for divine worship. One cannot reject that form, therefore, in the sense in which some liberal theologians do who claim that it is doctrinally defective, or that its ceremonies are ridiculous. But I don’t see how either of those documents preclude ecclesiastical authority from making changes to the form, even extensive changes. Abolishing the prayers at the foot of the altar, for example, does not imply that there was anything doctrinally suspect or ridiculous in those prayers; it only implies that the authority abolishing those prayers thought it more opportune to have the rite of Mass shorter and simpler. Now, we can think that that was a foolish decision; I personally do. But I don’t think it was so bad that one can apply the principle “an unjust law does not bind.” It was certainly intended by the legislator to promote the Church’s common good, even if, as a matter of fact, it did not contribute to that good. The proper response, therefore, seems to me to petition the Holy See to restore those prayers, and to give permission for the use of the older Rite more generally. But it would be disobedience to use the older form in cases when permission is not granted.
Traddeus: It’s easy to isolate a particular thing (like the Last Gospel) and ask: “Is this really necessary for the integrity of the Roman Rite?” To which the answer is likely to be “No.” It’s quite another, however, to select a great many characteristic features of the Roman Rite from long periods of its use in the Church and to ask: “If we remove all of these things, and modify all the rest, do we still have the Roman Rite?” The sheer multitude and magnitude of changes that were made to the Roman Rite could have been seen by any intelligent person to be grievously harmful to the common good in relation to the entire preceding tradition. The fact that there were many observers at the time who came precisely to this judgment, plus the millions who “voted with their feet,” indicate that this is no exaggerated assessment.
If we want to ask about what popes may and may not do, we must take into account not only their legislative authority to make “some change,” but the rate and scope and nature of the changes. We would not want to say that a mere intention to do something “for the common good”—or a statement that such was the intention, whether it was or not—suffices to make it a credible claim. That is, if the Pope said: “I am liquidating the entire patrimony of the Vatican museums for the Church’s common good,” one could simply refuse to accept the statement as true or capable of being true. And the liturgy is worth far more than the museums are.
Rockmeteller: The line you quoted from the Creed of Pius IV wouldn’t support your argument if the Novus Ordo is, as its defenders claim, a revision of the Roman Rite rather than a replacement of it.
Traddeus: That’s what they attempt to claim; but it flies in the face of all the evidence. I show in my book The Once and Future Roman Rite that there is a concrete, historically definable thing called the Roman Rite; that we can identify the many characteristics that distinguish it from other rites; that the Novus Ordo lacks these characteristics by design, and, in fact, has even less in common with the Roman Rite than the Eastern rites have with it; and therefore the rest of the argument follows. That is: the changes in the liturgical “reform” are so extensive that they constitute a different rite; and the intention voiced by Pope Francis is to extinguish the Roman Rite completely and replace it with the new rite. That would be the equivalent of suppressing the entire Byzantine ritual Church, which Vatican II implies in solemn language is impossible and which would mean no longer accepting one of the Church’s received rites, contrary to the de fide Creed of Pius IV. Thus, the entire affair would fall outside of the domain of legitimate ecclesiastical positive law.
Rockmeteller: But aren’t you overlooking the rather obvious fact that all of the popes since the institution of the Novus Ordo have referred to it in their official documents as “the revised and reformed Roman Rite” (or some such language)—and even Pope Benedict XVI spoke of “two usages of the one Roman rite” (Summorum Pontificum, Art. 1). You are making a mighty claim by saying that the Novus Ordo is demonstrably not the Roman Rite!
Traddeus: Within limits, popes can create legal fictions if they think these fictions will help them with an intractable situation; and that, I believe, is what Benedict XVI attempted, and for good reasons. But I’m interested not so much in the legal positivism question as I am in the ontological question. Ontologically, there is simply no way to claim that the Rite of Paul VI is the same rite as the Roman Rite. They are too different from each other for that to be the case; as many have shown over the years, there is not one single thing that is proper to and characteristic of the Roman Rite that survives intact, as it was formerly done, in the Modern Rite. In the order of ontology, the only alternative is to let my brain turn into tapioca by becoming an Ockhamist, and declaring that the word “rite” has no intrinsic meaning at all; therefore, any two rites which are not the same at all can somehow nevertheless be “the same rite.”
Even by the standards of the strictest legal positivists, those who know of no law other than “The Pope wills it so,” the Church may have the power to declare that the Modern Rite IS the Roman Rite legally, but it simply has no authority to declare that that is the case ontologically. It has no authority to constrain us to believe something that goes against all the facts of history and the evidence of our senses (i.e., that two things radically different are actually the same), any more than it can constrain us to believe that Charlemagne was the Emperor of Russia or that the moon is made of cheese.
Note well: I am not contending that the lawgiver has no authority over the law. I am contending (because it is true) that the lawgiver does not have such authority over reality that he can legally require us to believe things that are manifestly not true. For example, adoption is a legal fiction; it establishes that in law, the absence of a genetic relationship between two persons is not meaningful, and that a parent-child bond does exist. Yet it does not accomplish this by creating a genetic relationship between them, which is ontologically impossible. By analogy, the Papacy can establish in law that the absence of a real “genetic” relationship between the Roman Rite and the Rite of Paul VI is not meaningful, and that all priests of the Roman Rite can celebrate either one; but it cannot as a matter of fact and history make the two rites the same rite, any more than it can as a matter of fact and history declare that the Byzantine Rite and the Mozarabic Rite are “two usages of the same rite.”
Rockmeteller: But what do you make of the YouTube apologists who hurl papal text after papal text at you about how the pope is the one in charge of everything liturgical… that he virtually creates liturgical rites (even over the 1,500 year period when no pope ever did—but he might have done!)… that we must all bow and submit to his rule, which is identical with Christ’s… that anyone who questions him is guilty of “defiance” of his “office”? They even say canon law is against you for “stirring up animosity against the Apostolic See”?
Traddeus: Such apologists treat papal authority totally in abstraction: they are looking at nothing except authority, as if it can be understood in a vacuum. But authority always has a context: a community, a common good, a set of duties and responsibilities, a history and tradition—all the more, it should hardly be necessary to point out, in the case of the Catholic Church.
The errors of hyperpapalists are of a philosophical order. They know their “proof texts” well, but they seem to have nearly no grasp of the basic concepts in play in any exercise of authority whatsoever. Their view amounts to saying that anything a pope does is (indeed, must be) both legal and right, and his subjects have no role but to be passive recipients of his action. He has no boundaries, no requirements, no duties; they have no good of their own, no rights, no “ownership.” Indeed, hyperpapalists are tempted to dismiss the statements of great theologians who talk about “resisting popes when they are tearing the Church apart” or when they are “going into schism or overthrowing rites,” etc., because they would say either those theologians are wrong or they were talking about purely hypothetical, extreme, and impossible situations.
Irrational views like that can have no possible place in Catholicism precisely because faith is not contrary to reason, even as grace does not contradict nature. In general, it would help if people who wish to wade knee-deep into theology would also have some serious political philosophy under their belts, not to mention the basics of anthropology, psychology, and sociology. Understanding man, society, culture, and tradition would help in understanding the things that presuppose and operate on them.
Rockmeteller: Perhaps you’re not being entirely fair. Surely, the apologists in question could reply: “We’re not saying the pope couldn’t royally mess something up; but only that if he did, it would be tough luck for you, because you’d have to grin and bear it. You could respectfully protest and say ‘Your Holiness, you had the legal right to do this, but not the moral right; please reconsider.’ And if you won him over, splendid; but otherwise you’re stuck.”
Traddeus: Do you think this makes sense?
Rockmeteller: Well, there are situations where we have to accept imperfect laws until we can obtain their rectification…
Traddeus: No, it doesn’t make sense, and here’s why. The view of the papacy implied in that stance would be like having a marriage in which the husband has all authority and the wife none: even if he morally abuses his authority, she must accept it, and nothing she thinks or says or does needs to be taken into account by him. Really, any authority-subject relationship has the same analogous structure: husband/wife; parent/child; president/citizens; pastor/parishioners. There is a God-given authority in each case that nevertheless can be used well or badly, and the subjects themselves have a certain dignity that must be respected, which includes the goods of the Church that Providence has bestowed upon them for their use. If the ruler in each case is not ruling for the actual benefit of the subjects, then his commands or prohibitions lose, to that extent, their validity.
Rockmeteller: I don’t know what to say; you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about, and challenged my conceptions.
Traddeus: Iron sharpens iron, and all that. (glancing at his watch) Oh, look at the time! I need to get going to schola practice for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Can you make it to the solemn High Mass tomorrow at noon?
Rockmeteller (smiling): Yes, as a matter of fact, I heard about it and was planning on it. The ancient Roman Rite seems a most fitting way to celebrate the apostles of Rome. I’ll be there. See you then!
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.