Benedict XVI and Tradition: An Analysis of His Approach to the Traditional Liturgy

Father Claude Barthe, an expert author on traditional liturgy, reflects on the late pope's motu proprio, ‘Summorum Pontificum’ calling the text ‘the most important of the pontificate.’

Pope Benedict XVI carriies an incense burner during Mass celebrating the Solemnity of the Epiphany in St.Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Jan. 6, 2007.
Pope Benedict XVI carriies an incense burner during Mass celebrating the Solemnity of the Epiphany in St.Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Jan. 6, 2007. (photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP/Getty)

VATICAN CITY — One of Benedict XVI’s most controversial achievements was his liberalization of the ancient liturgy through his 2007 apostolic letter issued motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum.

To understand its significance and Benedict’s approach to the liturgy in general, Register’s Rome correspondent Edward Pentin interviewed Jan. 4 Father Claude Barthe, an expert author on the traditional liturgy and priest of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon in France.

Father Barthe discusses the many fruits of Summorum Pontificum, Benedict’s reaction to Pope Francis’ efforts to restrict the traditional liturgy through his 2021 apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes, and why Benedict never celebrated the traditional Latin Mass in public as pope.

Father Barthe, who is chaplain of the annual Summorum Pontificum pilgrimage to Rome, also shares his views on what could happen now in this area now in a Church without Benedict’s contemplative presence.

What was the impact of Benedict’s 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum? What were its fruits?

The successive documents concerning the official celebration of the traditional Mass, in 1984 and again in 1988, all prepared by Cardinal Ratzinger, granted ever greater tolerance.

The strength of Summorum Pontificum, in 2007, came from its recognition of a right: any Latin priest could celebrate the pre-Vatican II traditional Mass privately and, under certain organizational conditions (a group making the request, a parish priest agreeing), it could be celebrated publicly.

The fruits have been considerable: in 10 years, from 2007 to 2017, the number of traditional Sunday Masses had doubled in the world. We must insist on the fact that this text has been liberating for many diocesan priests, and that this Mass, in many places, at the price of many difficulties, has become part of the very fabric of the parish.

Priests and faithful have been able to benefit from the spiritual and doctrinal treasures contained in the traditional liturgy. Its celebration has provoked conversions, especially among the young. This is a point that always surprises the French bishops, especially the archbishop of Paris: “This Mass appeals to young people.” A significant anecdote: I know a young priest who does not want to try to celebrate the old Mass, because he feels that afterwards he would only be able to celebrate that one and never the new Mass again...

Given the growth of support for tradition since he published the apostolic letter, how do you rank it among Benedict XVI's achievements as pope?

In essence, this little text is the most important of the pontificate. Paradoxically enough, Joseph Ratzinger’s doctrinal achievement, an effort of “refocusing,” was mostly accomplished under John Paul II: all the great doctrinal documents of this pontificate (Donum vitae, in 1987, Veritatis splendor in 1993, Evangelium vitae in 1995, Dominus Iesus, on the uniqueness and salvific universality of Jesus Christ in 2000, Fides et Ratio, etc.) were written over a period of twenty-five years, under the direct responsibility of Joseph Ratzinger, to the point that he appeared as a kind of second pope, and one can speak in this regard of a kind of ‘pre-pontificate’ of Joseph Ratzinger under John Paul II. On the other hand, the pontifical texts were paradoxically less striking under his own reign (three encyclicals, of great spiritual height: Deus Caritas est in 2006, Spe Salvi in 2007, and Caritas in Veritate in 2009). But there was Summorum Pontificum, a text of compromise, a bit flawed like all compromises, but a great start in restoring liturgical peace in a Church torn apart since the Council. In truth, this text had the seeds of a post-Council reversal.

What was Benedict XVI's approach to the liturgy in general?

I think Benedict XVI was very interested in the liturgy in two ways. He was very influenced by the ceremonies of his childhood in Catholic Bavaria, by the Corpus Christi processions, by the hymns of a whole people of Christianity at prayer. Moreover, as soon as he became aware of the crisis that followed the Council, he was convinced that the liturgy, the vehicle of faith, the lex orandi [the law of prayer], could serve powerfully to repair the damage.

The first intervention about which Joseph Ratzinger was called “conservative” dates from 1966: conciliar theologian that he was, gave a lecture at the Katholikentag, denouncing the “new ritualism” of liturgical experts who were replacing the ancient customs by the fabrication of suspicious “forms” and “structures” (obligatory versus populum [priest celebrating the Mass facing the people] for example).

Later, as a professor in Regensburg, he became acquainted with Klaus Gamber, the specialist in sacramentals and other ancient liturgical texts, who was very hostile to the liturgical reform and especially to the “turning of the altars.” He then made friends with other defenders of the traditional Mass, such as the philosopher Robert Spaemann and Heinz-Lothar Barth. It was the radical nature of the reform that he found unsustainable from the beginning: “The old building has been destroyed in order to build a new one,” he would later write.

And in 1982, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he took up the question of the ancient liturgy and the Lefebvrist affair, so important did these problems seem to him.

How realistic was Benedict XVI's “reform of the reform” and his “hermeneutic of continuity”?

This is a difficult point to understand about Benedict XVI. Summorum Pontificum is certainly a text intended to bring liturgical peace by liberating the ancient Mass, but it is also part of his great project, pursued since he has been in Rome, namely the framing of the Council.

J. Ratzinger had become a moderate conciliarist, but he remained conciliar. In his December 2005 address to the Roman Curia, he explained, rather vaguely, his project: to apply to Vatican II a “hermeneutic of progress in continuity.” This is for the lex credenda [law of believing]. Moreover, according to him, one of the effects of the liberalization of the old liturgy should be to allow, by emulation, by contact, “enrichment,” to correct and interpret correctly the new liturgy. This was utopian. For, no matter how it is celebrated and interpreted, the new liturgy retains its intrinsic failings, which are doctrinal failings.

But Benedict XVI also favored the celebration of the pre-conciliar liturgy, a lex orandi attached to a lex credendi that was also pre-conciliar. Benedict XVI has unwillingly, or perhaps in part willingly, laid a mine under the Council edifice.

As for the process of “reform of the reform.” it has this same double face. If it was intended to lead to a new, more relaxed liturgy, without “excesses,” it remained within the utopia I have just described: the new “relaxed” Mass nevertheless contains a weaker expression of the sacrificial value of the Eucharistic action. If, on the other hand, the “reform of the reform” is intended to be a process of transition to allow a gradual return to the Roman liturgy in all its strength and purity, it will be a useful and even necessary pedagogical tool for the faithful in the parishes.

Indeed, Benedict XVI has spoken of “reforming the reform” but did not actually implement it, except by his distributing Communion on the tongue at his own Masses and by a more careful way of celebrating, with beautiful ornaments. Unquestionably, he saw this process primarily in the first sense, that is, as a means of softening the liturgical reform. But the second — to return to the liturgy of his childhood — was not totally foreign to him. It was not in Pope Ratzinger’s psychology, unlike that of his successor, to lead great battles: he was essentially a teacher, who wrote courageous texts, gave high-quality lectures, and thus opened up avenues, leaving it to the priests, bishops and faithful to follow.

Do we know why, despite Summorum Pontificum and his love for a reverent liturgy, Benedict XVI never celebrated the traditional Latin Mass in public?

True, he’d celebrated the Traditional Latin Mass many times as a cardinal, but he never did so as pope. It is true that a solemn papal Mass according to the ancient rite, which would have been extremely lavish, would have been extremely difficult to organize, even if it had been greatly simplified. Together with his friend Robert Spaemann, I tried to get him to celebrate a low Mass in public, or at least to celebrate a Mass that would have been filmed or widely photographed. To no avail. I must say that his master of ceremonies, Bishop Guido Marini, conservative but not traditional, was never very enthusiastic about the project: he should have learned the ancient rite, which he did not know. It was a great, missed opportunity. Celebration by the Pope of the Tridentine Mass, even in a very modest way, would have been an extremely powerful act.

What do we know about his opinion on Traditionis custodes, the apostolic letter of Francis that severely restricted the TLM and which sought to abrogate Summorum Pontificum?

Traditionis custodes wanted to abrogate Summorum Pontificum. It was easy to assume that Benedict XVI suffered from this. But he said nothing, or at least nothing was reported of what he said: the few visitors to the Pope Emeritus reported only insignificant things from their conversations. One of them suggested that Benedict XVI was “worried about the situation of the Church,” which is vague. He maintained a very strict attitude since his resignation. Only once did he step out of it, when he cooperated on Cardinal Sarah's book on ecclesiastical celibacy, for which his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, was put on leave from his duties as prefect of the Papal Household.

But after his death, things have changed. Little by little, much will become known. [Archbishop] Georg Gänswein will give his recollections in one way or another, and the privileged people who had access to the Pontiff Emeritus will inevitably recount many things that will interest historians. Already Archbishop Gänswein, in an interview he gave to the German publication Die Tagespost [published after Benedict’s death], has said that Benedict XVI was very upset when he read the motu proprio restricting the Mass according to the old missal. I think this declaration [Traditionis custodes] should be seen as a “political” act: the heir to the legacy of Benedict XVI will now have to reckon with it.

What do you think will happen now? Will Summorum Pontificum and freedom to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass ever be restored, or will Traditionis Custodes probably lead to further restrictions and provoke the “liturgical wars” that, until recently, seemed to be receding?

It was often said that the survival of Benedict XVI kept the enemies of Summorum Pontificum from going too far. This is not certain. Benedict XVI’s deliberately silent presence was also a pacifying guarantee for them. Now dead, he may be more dangerous for them than alive. For example, in the United States, whose ecclesial situation you know much better than I do, Francis has constantly tried to repress the conservative and traditionalist currents that worry him so much. It is possible that the opposition to Traditionis custodes and more generally to the line of the Bergoglian pontificate will become virulent there. And after the present pontificate, what will happen? The situation of the Church after half a century of the “spirit of the Council” is catastrophic. But because the Lord does not abandon her, there is still life in the midst of the ruins. Among other things and very much alive, though in a minority, is the traditional liturgy with all the things it supports: catechisms, vocations, seminaries, schools, families, religious communities. As George Weigel notes in The Next Pope, in the context of Christianity's confrontation with modernity and postmodernity, only those communities that are well aware of their identity in matters of doctrine and morals continue to survive and even flourish.

In the short or medium term, in a fragmented and weakened Church, these communities, these movements, will be able to assert full freedom to live and develop, especially full freedom for the traditional liturgy. And in a longer term future — one that I hope is not too distant — pastors, bishops, a pope, among those you mention in your book The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates, will take in hand a recovery of Christ’s Church, her preaching, her mission, of which the traditional Roman liturgy, pure of all error, will necessarily be the backbone.