What Does the Motu Proprio Really Say?

A Rome-based expert explains what Catholics can expect Sept. 14 when the Church allows the Latin Mass anywhere.

FATHER JOHN ZUHLSDORF’s blog has been the go-to point for people seeking insight into the Pope’s new document extending permission to say the Old Mass. Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was released July 7, and its changes take effect Sept. 14.

Father Zuhlsdorf worked as a collaborator for some years with the Vatican department charged with the pastoral care of those devoted to the older form of the Latin Mass, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. He was incardinated in Rome’s Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni, and is pursuing a doctorate at the Patristic Institute “Augustinianum.” He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake.

Is there anything surprising in the motu proprio?

Not really. A lot of the things were in place already. For example, it was already possible for a priest to say Mass privately with the old Missal. This was a disputed question. The motu proprio just resolves the issue. In addition, bishops were already able to set up parishes or oratories exclusively for the use of the older Mass.

Also, it had already been made plain by the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei that the new lectionary could be used with the older Mass; at the same time, it wasn’t obligatory.

Is there anything new in it?

There are some new things. For example, for a long time people have debated about whether or not the artificially created Novus Ordo constituted such a deep break in the natural, organic development of liturgy that it actually constituted a different rite. People can make good arguments on both sides. With this document, the Pope talks about one rite of Mass in two different expressions or uses. We already have this description of a rite of Mass as a use with the Anglican use, where the Book of Common Prayer was adapted for those Anglicans who came into union with the Church with their priests under the Pastoral Provision.

What do you expect critics will say?

Critics will say that this will create division in parishes or dioceses and that the Second Vatican Council will be undermined.

What the Pope is trying to do is create unity.

All of the theory aside, the main concern of some bishops was that this would limit their own authority. That was worrisome to some bishops — that they wouldn’t be able to control this use. The bishops were right to be concerned about this, but at the same time it was perhaps too easy not to respect the rights and aspirations of laypeople and priests.

To a certain extent this document safeguards the authority of bishops while also stressing in a unique way the rights and aspirations of laypeople and priests.

It demonstrates Pope Benedict’s great confidence in laypeople and priests very much in union with Pope John Paul II’s 1988 motu proprio where he called for respect and generosity for those who are traditionally minded.

So, while this document doesn’t have much that is new, it changes the whole playing field. It bumps the needle toward the priests and laypeople in a way that simply was not present before.

So, what are this document’s aims within the Church?

One of the things this document aims to do is heal hearts that were broken after the conciliar reforms and the divisions that happened within families, parishes, dioceses, and even more formally with the break of unity with the Society of St. Pius X.

This document is really about healing different things — ecclesial unity, people’s hearts and the rupture in the Church’s life that came about after the end of the Council. The novus ordo constituted a break with the way that liturgy had always developed — slowly, patiently, organically over long periods of time. Because the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, to make such a huge change had profound ramifications for Catholic identity.

In 2005, during his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict spoke of a hermeneutic — a lens through which we view a question — of discontinuity and rupture. Many people in places of influence adopted a false hermeneutic. Pope Benedict is calling for a hermeneutic of reform or continuity. He’s calling for a reintegration of our traditions and past, not in an uncritical way, but in a good and holistic way. He is trying to reinvigorate, rediscover and re-propose a Catholic identity.

We’ve had ruptures in every institution of our Church — schools, universities, seminaries, parishes, chanceries, hospitals, Catholic media and publishing. There are wounds and breaks in our Catholic identity that are definitely in need of healing.

When you want to nourish Catholics, you have to nourish them on the Eucharist — both in the Blessed Sacrament and its celebration. This move on Pope Benedict’s part has as its aim to re-propose our Catholic identity.

The secular press will report that the Church is turning back the clock or that the priests are “turning their backs on the people.” What does this document tell the world?

We know that for a long time the Church as a whole, and Catholics as individuals, have been marginalized, pushed to the edges of the public square and denied a voice. There has been a massive effort to try to reduce faith to the private sphere and keep it there, and not let it be expressed publicly in any legitimate way.

The Pope believes that Catholics have a right to their own symbols, language, doctrines, forms of expression and prayer, and that they have a right to express themselves as Catholics in the public square. They have something to contribute and offer that the world needs.

In order for Catholics to contribute to the public square, we need to re-propose to ourselves what it means to be Catholic. Who are we now? Where are we from? Where are we going?

We have to have an identity that we can grasp and we need to know how to express ourselves.

This is profound, and it goes far beyond who gets to say what Mass where. This is one dimension of a much larger project of Pope Benedict’s.

The Pope is very gently pressing forward his proposition that Catholics have a right to be Catholic and express themselves as Catholics.

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.