Seven Years Later

For very understandable reasons, a number of people are today celebrating the seventh anniversary of Summorum Pontificum (SP), though the document didn’t enter into force until September 2007. I already wrote some thoughts on SP here. Contrary to certain claims, I do not believe SP is a flawless document, but my quibbles with it are minor. In fact, they are so powerfully overshadowed by the real problems of SP’s implementation and the active hostility of bishops, priests, and layfok toward the Tridentine Mass that I really see no point in discussing them. Were SP met with open arms by the hierarchs of the world and every diocese on earth committed to offering the vetus ordo regularly, I doubt very much that anyone, even nitpicking traditionalists, would care that much about SP’s marginal tensions. But that is not the case. I can’t remember a week going by since I entered the Catholic Church in 2011 where I didn’t read or hear some Catholic, conservative or otherwise, popping off about SP, the Tridentine Mass, those who attend it, or all of the above. Their criticisms, more often than not, were visceral, not intellectual. And in those rare circumstances where some degree of intelligence was applied to the alleged “problem” of the old Mass, the arguments often rested on rickety premises (“Only old people like it…”) or (potentially false) claims which utterly miss the point: “Nobody understands Latin!”; “The old Mass creates too much distance between the priest and the faithful!”; “What do you mean we can’t sing ‘On Eagle’s Wings’?”

A new, more serious, line of attack has been opened up against SP and those faithful Catholics who perceive that document as a life raft in troubled waters. Whether it takes the form of recklessly charging certain clerics with “crypto-Lefebvrianism” (whatever that means) or implying that there is a spiritual disorder to be found among those faithful who not only “prefer” the old Mass to the new but, because they have eyes to see and minds to think, believe that the Tridentine Mass is superior to the Novus Ordo. It’s a deranged charge, but one that is finding a lot of currency in certain circles which have become emboldened by our current Pontiff’s rather callous and flippant remarks about those under his care and protection who regularly attend the TLM.

Going back to what I noted earlier concerning my quibbles with SP, it is true that some of the document’s language could lead one to assume that Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI made a magisterial pitch for the substantive equality of both forms of the Roman Rite currently in use. Here I am thinking about SP’s “equality” and “dignity” language. While juridically speaking SP, and its follow-up instruction Universae Ecclesiae, demand dignity and equality for both forms of the Mass, neither document goes to any length to determine which one ought to be endorsed by a particular Catholic or why. It’s agnostic on preferences. After all, if SP was committed to promoting the substantive equality of the two Masses, why does it not call on the faithful to regularly attend both forms or request that Catholics deny that one Mass is liturgically superior to another? Perhaps the reason is because a motu proprio is not an appropriate instrument to resolve debates which are, in many respects, quite academic (even when they are centered on aesthetics).

You have to be careful, though; talking too freely about the defects in the Novus Ordo Mass while calling to mind the absence of such defects in the vetus ordo will get you into hot water. You’ll be called an ideologue who uses the traditional Mass as a weapon (or something). When such nonsense breaks out, I admit I feel a tinge of jealously over the relatively free capacity of my Eastern Catholic brethren to laud the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom/St. Basil the Great over the Novus Ordo Missae without fear of reprisal. In fact, some in the Catholic East who follow the Byzantine Rite argue, with some force, that their rite is superior to the Roman Rite—old and new—on substantive grounds. Even if I am strongly inclined to disagree with those Eastern critics on that score, I do not reject their right to hold to and argue for that view so long as it does not come packaged with some of the specious claims of certain Eastern Orthodox who reject the validity of any Mass which doesn’t come accompanied by a Byzantine-style epiclesis.

Because their near-apocalyptic predictions of what might happen to the Church following SP never came to pass, the opponents of the Tridentine Mass and those Catholics who embrace it have resorted to spiritual name calling. It’s childish and uncharitable, but it’s to be expected. The perpetuation of the old Mass in the “new Church” is a strong sign that mistakes were indeed made in the late 1960s when a committee of supposed “experts” devised what we might today call, with a heavy drip of irony, “The Mass of the Springtime” or “The Mass of the New Pentecost.” Given how far certain Catholic apologists will go in trying to deny that there is a legitimate crisis in the Church today, it’s not surprising that they will also go to incredible lengths to bury the old Mass, even if it often means avoiding substantive engagements in favor of armchair psychological evaluations of traditional Catholics. As harmful as such behavior can be, it does not wipe away the great gift our previous pope gave us nor, I pray, weaken our resolve to see its undiluted implementation throughout the universal Church.