At New Liturgical Movement, Gregory DiPippo has a lengthy post, arguing that the legal fiction that the two forms of the Roman Rite—ordinary and extraordinary—constitute one rite, is the legal achievement of Summorum Pontificum. It is basically his argument that the Mass of Paul VI is so different from the traditional Roman Mass that it is impossible to say that it is but a use of the Roman Rite in the same way as historic uses. Indeed, it appears, DiPippo says, to be another rite altogether, but the establishment of a new rite would in fact cause all manner of problems. Benedict’s establishment of forms, therefore, was an elegant legal solution to a vexing problem.
However, in our view, there is a much more significant legal achievement in Summorum Pontificum. It is in two words in article 1 of the motu proprio: numquam abrogatam—never abrogated. This is a recognition that at no point in Paul VI’s 1969 apostolic constitution Missale Romanum did that pope ever abrogate the Missal of St. Pius V and St. John XXIII. One can compare the language in Laudis canticum, Paul VI’s 1970 apostolic constitution promulgating the Liturgia Horarum to see just how ambiguous Missale Romanum is. And it is the recognition that the Mass of St. Pius V and St. John XXIII was never abrogated that served as the tool for Benedict to reorient the Roman Rite. Indeed, Summorum Pontificum simply follows the logic of this basic legal fact. If the traditional Mass was never abrogated, then surely any priest can say it. And surely the faithful who want it have a right to request it.
Of course, the signs were there all along. The 1984 indult, Quattuor abhinc annos, did not address the question directly, while authorizing diocesan bishops to permit use of the 1962 books under fairly onerous conditions. Likewise, John Paul’s 1988 response to the Écône consecrations, Ecclesia Dei adflicta, does not touch upon the status of the 1962 books, but encourages a broad application of the Quattuor abhinc annos indult. One could conclude from Paul VI’s ambiguity and Rome’s subsequent silence that the traditional Mass had never actually been abrogated, and that it remained valid and licit. But such a conclusion would be contrary to the attitude and behavior of both the liturgical experts and the various bishops who were staunch partisans of the post-Conciliar changes in the liturgy. Summorum Pontificum made it official, however: the traditional Mass was never abrogated.
As a result Benedict XVI was able to come along and liberalize its use. This was a great defeat for the liturgical progressives who, on the strength of some broad mandates in Sacrosanctum Concilium, completely remade the Roman Rite. As far as we can tell, they have not forgiven and will not forgive Benedict for the direct application of clear logic. But there is a lesson here for anyone who wants to do anything radical, as the liturgical progressives did: you have to do it. You cannot leave it implicit, you cannot rely on pressure, subtle or otherwise, and you cannot assume that everyone will always toe the line. Benedict shows us that Catholics’ common sense needn’t be checked in the vestibule. Not doing something is, in fact, not doing something.
Benedict went farther and explained that the traditional Mass could not have been abrogated. In his letter to the bishops regarding Summorum Pontificum, he famously observed:
In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place. Needless to say, in order to experience full communion, the priests of the communities adhering to the former usage cannot, as a matter of principle, exclude celebrating according to the new books. The total exclusion of the new rite would not in fact be consistent with the recognition of its value and holiness.
(Emphasis supplied.) This point has been much repeated in the last ten years, but it bears repeating still. The Church is not a legislature or a court, which has the authority to change everything as needed. To be sure, our understanding of the tradition may deepen and the pastoral needs of the faithful may require different emphases, but that is not a commission to tear down and rebuild to suit the fashions of the world at any given moment.
This is, in fact, a supremely important legal achievement, going to the very heart of power in the Church. As anyone who has read Pastor aeternus knows, the pope is not an absolute dictator within the Church. There are limits on the authority of the Church. Benedict presents two of these limits. First of all, mere suggestion is not enough. Those in authority may not imply something and expect it to have the force of law. Second, the Church cannot suppress outright holy things in the tradition. The progressives and modernists will, naturally, consider these reactionary tenets, though both seem to us to be double-edged swords. Of course, DiPippo identifies an important legal question in Summorum Pontificum, but it seems to us that Benedict has as much to say about the very nature of law in the Church as he does about forms and uses and rites.