Did Pope Paul VI Abrogate the Traditional Latin Mass?

A letter from the Vatican’s top liturgical official, Archbishop Arthur Roche, discussing the application of Pope Francis’ new decree restricting its celebration has sparked a debate over the validity of the letter’s arguments.

A Traditional Latin Mass being celebrated in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome on September 15, 2017
A Traditional Latin Mass being celebrated in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome on September 15, 2017 (photo: Edward Pentin)

VATICAN CITY — A letter from the Vatican’s liturgy chief on the application of Pope Francis’ decree restricting the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass has been criticized by prominent adherents of the older liturgical form for being contradictory and factually incorrect, while a senior Vatican official and a well-known American canonist have upheld one of the letter’s central claims.

Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition), published “motu proprio” (of his own volition) July 16, made sweeping restrictions to the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, reversing previous papal decrees that had liberalized the Mass celebrated before the liturgical reforms of Pope St. Paul VI in 1970, and urging a “return in due time” to the liturgy instituted after the Second Vatican Council. 

The Holy Father said he felt impelled to take such a drastic step “in defense of the unity of the Body of Christ” after previous liberalizations of the old rite had, he believed, been exploited to expose the Church “to the peril of division.”  

Archbishop Arthur Roche, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote to Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, Aug. 4 to offer clarifications on how the “motu proprio” should be applied in England and Wales.

Cardinal Nichols had written to Archbishop Roche on July 28, asking him six questions: whether the Congregation would be issuing any guidance on implementing the document; whether the decree abrogates use of the older rite for other sacraments as well as the Mass; how the liturgical calendar is to be applied with regard to feasts and holy days of obligation falling on different days in the two forms; which texts to use for scriptural readings; what the decree means by “groups”; and whether the requiem rites of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, permitted since 1971 under the “English Indult,” would still be allowed.

In his response, first published by Gloria TV and co-signed by Archbishop Vittorio Francesco Viola, the congregation secretary, Archbishop Roche began by emphasizing that his letter was “of a personal nature” as the congregation had not yet issued guidelines on interpreting the document. 

He then made three statements that have been most contested: that the traditional liturgy was “abrogated by Pope Saint Paul VI” and so has an ecclesiology that is not part of the Church’s magisterium — a claim that runs contrary to the past guidance of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI; that Traditionis Custodes allows the older rite to be granted by means of “exceptional concession” but “not by way of promotion”; and that he could find “no evidence” of documentation in the congregation’s archives regarding the English Indult, more popularly known as Agatha Christie indult on account of Christie and other celebrities who pressed for it in 1971, which allowed the older rite to occasionally continue in England and Wales with modifications introduced in the 1960s. 


Regulated, Not Suppressed

Archbishop Roche prefaced the first of these claims by saying the liturgical texts of the older form of the Roman rite have been “regulated and not suppressed” by Traditionis Custodes. He singled out “misinterpretation and promotion of the use of these texts” which, he said, took place “after only limited concessions by previous pontiffs” and has been used to “encourage a liturgy at variance with Conciliar reform (and which, in fact, was abrogated by Pope Saint Paul VI), and an ecclesiology that is not part of the Church’s magisterium.” 

Father Claude Barthe, an expert author on the traditional liturgy and priest of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon in France, told the Register Nov. 9 that this was both the “most interesting” and the “weakest part” of the letter as Archbishop Roche “says that the ecclesiology of the vetus ordo [the traditional liturgy] ‘is not part of the Magisterium of the Church’ — that is, it is not conciliar.” Such a perception, Father Barthe said, shows that Archbishop Roche “has remained in the Paul VI era” as if no further development in liturgical reform has occurred.  

Regarding Archbishop Roche’s assertion that Paul VI abrogated the traditional liturgy, commentators such as Father John Hunwicke have noted that this directly contradicts Pope Benedict’s words in Article 1 of his 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum (The Supreme Pontiffs) that lifted restrictions on the celebration of traditional liturgy according to the 1962 Missal. 

That “typical edition” of the Roman Missal, Benedict wrote, was “never abrogated.” Benedict also stressed this point in an accompanying letter to bishops, writing: “I would like to draw attention to the fact that this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted.”

Father Hunwicke, writing on his blog Liturgical Notes, wondered what the faithful are meant to believe when presented by these two contradictory statements. “This is not a slight matter,” Father Hunwicke asserted. “It is yet another example of the problems we all find ourselves in when one pontificate directly, fully frontally, contradicts, in a matter of historical fact or of doctrine, what the previous pontificate made clear.” 

As well as referencing Benedict’s past statements, Peter Kwasniewski, an author and expert on the traditional liturgy and sacred music, noted Archbishop Roche’s omission of John Paul II's 1986 commission of nine cardinals, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which studied the legal status of the traditional Mass. It determined Paul VI had never abrogated the old rite and, according to Kwasniewski, their conclusion informed Benedict XVI’s decisions in Summorum Pontificum

In this sense, Kwasniewski believes that what is “problematic in Traditionis Custodes” is “reaffirmed” but with “no greater coherency.” Archbishop Roche, he told the Register, “seems to honestly believe that the old rite was abrogated by Paul VI and that Francis is simply doubling down on this fact, to bring about the necessary and fitting ‘unity’ of the Roman Rite.” 

“Naturally, popes cannot contradict one another doctrinally,” argued Kwasniewski. “This is the basic reason why Traditionis Custodes is erroneous: it denies that the great liturgical tradition is the lex orandi of the Church's lex credendi [the law of what is prayed is the law of what is believed]. To say that is to undermine the entire claim of Catholicism.” 


Paul VI’s 1976 Address

The Register contacted Archbishop Roche for comment but as of press time had received no reply. However, another senior Vatican official argued that Paul VI did indeed abrogate the old Mass and cited a consistory address the former pontiff gave on loyalty to the Church and the Council on May 24, 1976. 

In that address, Paul VI criticized those who claimed Vatican II had “no obligatory force” and should be disobeyed in order to “safeguard certain traditions.” Such a position, Paul VI said, “calls into question the divine will that made Peter and his lawful successors the head of the Church.” 

Paul VI added that also use of the reformed Mass is “in no way left up to the choice of priests or people,” and that the older form of the Mass would, according to a 1971 instruction, only be permitted “by faculty from the Ordinary, only for aged or sick priests offering the sacrifice without a congregation.”  

The new Mass, he continued, “was promulgated in place of the old after careful deliberation and to carry out the directives of Vatican Council II,” and he “command[ed] the same ready obedience to the other new laws, relating to liturgy, discipline, pastoral activity, made in these last years to put into effect the decrees of the Council.” Furthermore, Paul VI added that “any course of action seeking to stand in the way of the conciliar decrees can under no consideration be regarded as a work done for the advantage of the Church, since it in fact does the Church serious harm.”

Father Gerald Murray, a canonist at Holy Family Church in New York, said Paul VI “had the clear intent and expectation that the use of the previous Ordo Missae was no longer authorized,” notwithstanding the exception he made in 1971. “There is no logical or canonical sense in requiring the obtaining of a faculty to celebrate the previous Ordo Missae unless the celebration of previous Ordo Missae were no longer authorized by the Supreme Authority in the Church, the Pope,” Father Murray contended.

He added that the Pope is “not bound” to use the word “abrogate” in any specific form of canonical decree in order to prohibit the use of the old Mass or command the use of the new one “as he is the supreme legislator.” All that is required, he said, “is that the Pope's intent be made known” when he decides to accomplish something, something Father Murray said he clearly did in his 1976 address when he said, “The new Ordo Missae was promulgated in place of the old...”

Father Murray noted there could be “an academic canonical dispute” as to whether, in the absence of papal canonical legislation “expressly” abrogating the old Mass when the new one was promulgated, that the old missal was not canonically prohibited. However, he disagreed with this argument, as he believes Paul VI's promulgation of the new Mass and his subsequent public remarks “established that the use of the previous Ordo Missae was no longer permitted, apart from any exceptions granted by the Holy See.”

Kwasniewski “respectfully disagree[d]” with Father Murray, saying that although Paul VI’s speech shows “he clearly thought the new missal was to replace the old one,” the Pope refused to say it was abrogated when pressed to do so by Annibale Bugnini, the chief drafter of the liturgical reforms, and “he contented himself with insisting on obedience alone.” This is according to Bugnini’s book La Riforma Liturgica 1948-1975.

He also pointed out that as well as John Paul II’s commission of nine cardinals, the “great canonists Neri Capponi and Cardinal Alfons Stickler, among others, publicly argued that Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum never abrogated the older missal, and they were never refuted.” 

Kwasniewski stressed: “It's not what a pope thinks he's doing that matters, or what he wishes to be the case, but what he actually does. So, if a pope promulgates a document thinking to himself ‘This is an infallible statement - that will settle it!’ but he does not take pains to signify that he is exercising the infallibility of his office and is binding people to his decision, then it does not enjoy that exalted status.” 

The expert in the traditional liturgy believes the same is true with “something as serious” as abrogating a Missal. “The canonical principle that everything must be interpreted by the exact letter (not by ‘penumbras formed by emanations’) comes into play, as well as the principle that things that restrict the rights of members of the Church are to be interpreted as favorably and generously as possible,” Kwasniewski said. 


Promotion Halted?

The second controversial claim Archbishop Roche makes, that the old rite is an exceptional concession that is not to be promoted, has also disturbed some traditional Catholics who wonder what the Vatican might deem as “promotion” in the future. 

Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, said his organization “promotes” the older liturgy by facilitating its celebration by training laity and priests in their respective roles, which helps make any liturgy “more reverent and beautiful to encourage people to attend it.”  

He told the Register it is therefore “incomprehensible that anyone should regard this work with suspicion,” adding that they “always avoid denigrating the reformed liturgy, and since the number of Masses celebrated in the older rite are a tiny proportion of the total the question of pushing the reform aside does not arise.”  

Shaw nevertheless welcomed that Archbishop Roche stressed the need for “a delicacy of care and direction” in applying the new law, and that the archbishop said the old Mass “has been regulated and not suppressed.” It was regulated, Shaw said, even under Summorum Pontificum, and if these are more restrictive than before, “regulations by their nature can change, in their implementation they may make no difference on the ground”

“This is unequivocal good news,” Shaw wrote on the website OnePeterFive, “and we must not allow any negative phrasing in these letters to distract us from that.” 

The third controversial point also mystified many observers: Archbishop Roche’s claim not to have any documentation on the English Indult in the Congregation. This is “quite ridiculous,” said Father Barthe, as he believes it shows that neither Archbishop Roche nor Archbishop Viola had “heard of it.” A possible hypothesis, he said, is that the documentation was stolen so that it could not end up in the hands of researchers. Shaw said the absence of documentation was a “poor showing” especially as the Latin Mass Society has kept a record of the Indult, “dated and with its protocol number, on our website.” 

Overall, Father Barthe said the letter shows Archbishop Roche to be not fully up to speed on the traditional liturgy as well as a “declared enemy of the vetus ordo,” especially as the Vatican prefect sees it as an “exceptional and limited concession” and the entirety of Traditionis Custodes directed towards the “return and stabilization of the liturgy as decreed by the Second Vatican Council.” Father Barthe also noted how Archbishop Roche effectively denies in his letter the extension of the old rite to any new groups. 

Shaw was more optimistic, writing that although “some of the contents are a little technical and obscure,” Archbishop Roche’s letter should come as no surprise. Due to the fact that it does not point to suppression of the old Mass but rather tighter regulation, he believes "the basic message is positive and it also gives us a chance to respond to arguments currently being developed to limit what we can do.”