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Background to Ecclesia Dei

20 December, 2010 0 Comments


We have come a long way since Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. In those days the traditional Roman Rite was the norm.

Subsequently, an attempt was made to abolish that Rite. Then, in a partial about face, Rome was obliged to decree, on 2 July 1988, that Latin Catholics were allowed, after all, to use these same “forbidden” rites of worship.

How did we come to be in this sorry condition?

The “reform”

The story begins with a decision by the Second Vatican Council to reform the liturgy of the Western Church. The enabling instrument for this was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, promulgated on 4 December 1963.

Sacrosanctum Concilium was, on the face of it, a conservative document. Even Archbishop Lefebvre signed it. In all its essentials – or so it seemed – the traditional liturgy was to remain in tact. Moreover, Latin was to remain the language of worship. Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony were still to be its music.

The trouble was that the document was full of other provisions which looked reasonable at the time but which, ultimately, provided the means for making a new kind of liturgy. The liturgical books were to be “revised”; bishops would be able to decide whether, and to what extent, vernacular languages were to be used (with the right of confirmation reserved to Rome); local variations in the liturgy were to be allowed in order to accommodate local customs (conditional on preserving the “substantial unity” of the Roman rite); etcetera.

This new normative missal was in Latin. It was translated into vernacular languages and these translations were, in effect, made obligatory.

Meanwhile, the traditional liturgy, which had been the common usage of Western Christendom for over a 1,000 years, was widely believed to have been abolished by the Apostolic Constitution, Missile Roman, of 3 April 1969, with which Pope Paul VI launched his new missal .

To justify what was done, a false historical argument was contrived. According to this, the “old” liturgy was not a truly ancient form of worship, but had been formulated in the sixteenth century to implement the liturgical decrees of the Council of Trent. On this view Paul VI was merely emulating what St. Pius V had attempted with his 1570 missal, though of course succeeding where the latter had failed.

St. Pus V, however, did not oversee the designing of new Mass; with a scrupulous respect for liturgical tradition, his missal merely sought to codify, for the first time in history, the liturgical customs of the Roman Church. No two approaches to liturgical reform could have been more different.

Of course most of us then implicitly accepted this false official history and we knuckled down obediently to the new liturgical regime. As time passed, though, we discovered that liturgical change was really an “on going process” with Eucharist prayers and sacramental rites to be continuously reinvented in order to conform to the ever-changing cultural norms of the present moment.


Moreover a growing, if small, number of Catholics were gradually coming to the conclusion that the new liturgical style was proving ambiguous about fundamental Catholic beliefs. Disillusion was setting in.

There was, however, nowhere to go for most Catholics who thought this way. They were not attracted to Archbishop Lefebvre because, however unjustly treated he had been, instinct told them to steer away from a movement which appeared at risk of going into schism.

By 1980 traditional Catholics had not dwindled to nought as they were supposed to do and Pope John Paul II sought to inquire into the matter. He requested that all the bishops of the Western Church investigate, among other things, how well the new missal had been received and how widespread was criticism of it, or resistance to it.

It will be interesting for historians to read the reports he received for, as far as one can tell, no bishop undertook any consultation with the laity, unless of course it was done in great privacy. Doubtless the Pope was advised that there was little demand for the traditional Latin Mass and, in any case, it would be a retrograde step to grant freedom of worship to the few who wanted it.

The Indult

If the Pope was thus advised, he chose to take his own course. In 1984 came the first breakthrough. On 3 October that year a circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship (Quattor abhinc annos) decreed an indult for tradition-minded Catholics. Under strictly limited and rather harsh conditions they were allowed to have the Mass according to the traditional Latin rite as set forth in the John XXIII (or 1962) Missal.

Commission of Cardinals

Two years later the Pope was preparing to liberalise this indult in a radical way. A commission of Cardinals had investigated the matter and had recommended in December 1986 a series of new guidelines which amounted to a virtual recognition of traditional rites equal status with the new. The Pope was preparing to implement these guidelines when bishops began descending on Rome in protest. In 1987 the proposals were shelved, for the time being.

Ratzinger-Lefebvre Agreement

The next year, however, the main breakthrough came. It appeared that Rome and Archbishop Lefebvre were at last on the point of agreement and, in fact, the Archbishop and Cardinal Ratzinger had signed a protocol on 5 May 1988 setting out the terms of agreement which included freedom of worship for those attached to the traditional liturgy. It was an exciting moment.

In the end, however, Archbishop Lefebvre reneged on the agreement and went ahead with episcopal consecrations without the required Roman mandate. For this he incurred the penalty of excommunication.

Ecclesia Dei Decree

In response, however, the Pope issued, on 2 July 1988, his Apostolic Letter “Ecclesia Dei”. In this he recognised the “rightful aspirations” of all Catholics who wished to worship according to traditional forms and he called upon bishops to apply both widely and generously the 1984 indult.

The Pope also announced the setting up of the Ecclesia Dei Commission to conduct relations between the Holy See and traditional Catholics and to work for full communion with those who had been linked to Mons. Lefebvre. (Consult library for the Ecclesia Dei Decree.)

What the Pope meant by a “wide and generous” application of the indult was spelt on 18 October 1988 when he formally granted the Ecclesia Dei Commission its various powers. These included the “granting to all who seek it” the use of the Roman Missal according to the 1962 edition.

May 1989 Episcopal Intervention

Up to this point the Pope – still under the influence of proposals made by the 1986 Commission of Cardinals – seemed ready to grant the traditional liturgy near equality of status with the new. The Ecclesia Dei Commission was the intended instrument for this purpose. However, on 16 May 1989 there was a confrontation between curial officials and representatives of the European episcopal conferences over the equality of status question. The European bishops would have none of it and the Pope backed down.

From this point onward the Commission’s power to grant permission to use the traditional missal was, for all intents and purposes, delegated to local bishops and with that any attempt to recognise in a practical way equality between the rites fell from the papal agenda.

Whether this delegation has turned out well or ill for the traditional liturgy only time will tell. Given that Rome has recognised – belatedly, as some would argue – the collegiality of the bishops, it can hardly conduct a liturgical policy which they do not support. If, on the other hand, bishops can be persuaded to implement Ecclesia Dei, however reluctantly, then the position of the traditional Mass will be that much more secure.

Roman action

Despite delegation of a key power of the Commission to the bishops, Rome has not been inactive. In fact, it has taken decisions of enduring significance. These include the pontifical erection of three religious communities exclusively attached to the traditional liturgy: the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter with its seminaries in Bavaria and Pennsylvania; the Institute of the King and Sovereign Priest; and the Servants of Jesus and Mary.

In addition, Rome has regularised the situation of several important religious communities which had either always been attached to the traditional liturgy or which returned to it after an initial attempt to implement the new liturgical policies.

These communities (all French) include the Benedictine monks and nuns at Le Barroux, the Benedictines of Fontgombault and its daughter houses, the Benedictine nuns in communities at Jouques and Rosans, and the Dominican nuns of Pontcalec and their daughter houses, and the Society of St Vincent Ferrer, a foundation of Dominican inspiration.

Finally, Rome, not without wavering and reluctance to act as final court of appeal in disputes over the matter, has endorsed the broad interpretation of the Ecclesia Dei Decree espoused by The Ecclesia Dei Society and by similar organisations throughout the Catholic world.

Whatever the difficulties traditional Catholics face today, their position has improved immeasurably since Ecclesia Dei. And while the road ahead promises to be hard, it is no longer one without hope.

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