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Ecclesia Dei

Interpreting Ecclesia Dei

20 December, 2010 0 Comments
Interpreting Ecclesia Dei


The Ecclesia Dei decree seems always under attack. A recent article in Sydney’s Catholic Weekly – “Why do we have old Latin Mass?” (17 September 1995) – is just the latest.

In a sense, this recent sally is hardly news. It merely instances the disinformation campaign which has been waged against Ecclesia Dei since it was promulgated on 2 July 1988.

Criticism, condescension, minimalist interpretations: these are the reactions one would expect such a document to evoke. Why? Because Ecclesia Dei calls into question the life-time labours of people who have worked hard to bury the Catholic past and to build a new Church on present-orientated foundations (and that, in a nutshell, is what aggiornamento means).

Ecclesia Dei lets history of the bag which is the last thing that the advocates of a “modern church” want. They all know that anyone serious about living their religion – like anyone serious about doing anything well – instinctively looks to the past for models even if, in the end, they finish up doing something different. They all know that the Church of history is, even with all its disasters, an Aladdin’s Cave of inspirations. They are all acutely aware that in comparison, their “new church” is a grey world of jargon, conformism and tedium. They all know that to make this fatuous present stick – and to deprive others of a standard against which to judge it – they have to kill the past.

So, we must accept it: Ecclesia Dei will be subject to continuing criticism and diminution in official church circles for some time to come. Bearing that in mind, we need to revise from time to time what Ecclesia Dei actually says so as not to be disheartened or deterred by propaganda to the contrary.

What critics say

Before, however, looking at this Ecclesia Dei decree we should make an inventory of what its critics are saying. They claim

  • that Ecclesia Dei was issued only to accommodate the “ecclesial unity” of people attached in some way to the movement of Archbishop Lefebvre.
  • that Ecclesia Dei was issued only to cater for people who, because of their education in the former Latin liturgy, are still attached to it and (or) still have problems adjusting to the new one.
  • that Ecclesia Dei was intended only for older people, certainly not for the young.
  • that Ecclesia Dei did not confer a “right” to the traditional liturgy, merely a concession.
  • that Ecclesia Dei did not confer “official Church approval” of the traditional liturgy as an equally available rite.
  • that Ecclesia Dei makes available the traditional Roman Rite of the Mass “only in exceptional cases”.
  • that, properly understood, Ecclesia Dei is about promoting the use of Latin, as a language of Catholic unity, in the New Mass.

The question is: Does the Ecclesia Dei decree provide any foundation for these positions?On page 4 we have published the main text of the decree.

Lefebvre: Main Focus

Now it is obvious that the basic spur to action behind Ecclesia Dei was provided by Archbishop Lefebvre. Furthermore, it is equally clear that the primary preoccupation of the document is with how to accommodate his followers. Hence the emphasis in the document on “facilitating ecclesial communion”.

Given this focus, is it not reasonable to conclude that Ecclesia Dei was intended primarily for Lefebvrists?

At first blush this interpretation appears to be sound. But on further investigation these initial impressions must give way to a wider view of the document. While there can be no objection to the claim that the Lefebvre problem represented the principle activating motive behind Ecclesia Dei, to argue that Lefebvre constituted the whole concern of the decree registers a blinkered view of the facts: facts about the document itself and, more importantly, facts about the Church at large.

The other Ecclesia Dei

With regard to the facts about the Decree, the document makes significant references to Catholics other than followers of Archbishop Lefebvre. The decree addresses:

    “all those Catholic faithful who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition…”

Now, it has been argued that the “all those” refers only to all those connected in some way with Archbishop Lefebvre and whose “ecclesial communion” the Pope wishes to facilitate. Perhaps. But then the document goes on to speak of measures to “guarantee respect for their rightful aspirations.” This is the most important phrase in Ecclesia Dei. It is the “rightful aspirations” which universalise the Decree.The reasoning behind this claim is compelling. If the desire to worship according to the Latin tradition is a “rightful aspiration” for a Lefebvrist, then it is equally a rightful aspiration for all other Latin Catholics as well. If Latin Catholics in general cannot have a “rightful aspiration” to retain their liturgical heritage – an absurd proposition, in any case – then particular Latin Catholics (including followers of Mgr Lefebvre) cannot have one either. What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.

Consequently, the address made by the Pontiff “To all those Catholic faithful…” takes on a wider dimension of significance. Rome was very much aware that there were Catholics throughout the western world – people not attracted to the Lefebvre movement – who cheered on May 5, 1988 when the Archbishop and Cardinal Ratzinger initialled a settlement of the long-running dispute.

Rome makes admission

Rome also knew that these same people were filled with gloom when the Archbishop reneged on the May 5 agreement. The traditional Mass constituency was far wider than Lefebvre’s and Rome could not risk driving more Catholics into his camp by letting the opportunity slip. Thus Rome came to make the great, long delayed and ironical admission: that love for her own liturgical traditions did not disqualify one from being a faithful Catholic.

So Ecclesia Dei was not addressed to Lefebvre and his adherents alone. It was addressed to “all”. Consequently, the document declares that:

    “respect must everywhere be shown to the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition by a wide and generous application”

of the 1984 Indult which already provided access – albeit under limited conditions – to the traditional Roman Rite of Mass.But is it not possible that too much significance is being given to this document? Was Rome really aware of a movement for integral Catholic tradition which extended far beyond the confines of the Lefebvre’s own family? Has one little word – “all” – been made to bear too heavy a burden of meaning?

Powers ignored

Certainly, some people have thought so. But that is usually because they overlook a second document. This is a “rescript”, or written order, given by the Pontiff in audience on 18 October 1988 and it defined the powers of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei.

The first head of power given the Commission is significant:

    “The faculty of granting to all who seek it the use of the Roman Missal according to the 1962 edition…”

The text is referring to priests who apply for permission to use the traditional missal and the meaning is clear. The Commission is empowered to grant to any priest who requests it permission to use the traditional missal. There is no word here about old priests, or refugee Lefebvrist priests, or eccentric priests who cannot cope with change. The permission is there for any priest. All he need do is ask.The Commission also has other powers. Perhaps more important even than the first, the power of erecting seminaries and religious communities to train priests and religious irrevocably attached to the traditional liturgy.

The implication of this is devastating for those who try to minimise the meaning of Ecclesia Dei. For whom are seminaries and religious communities chiefly founded? They are founded for future priests, religious, and lay apostles. And from whence are those future vocations mainly recruited? From among the young. That is from among people most of whom have not yet experienced the traditional Roman Rite, let alone formed “rightful” aspirations for ways of life shaped by the traditional liturgy and religious disciplines.

In short, Ecclesia Dei was intended for “all” who wish to take advantage of it; and, moreover, it was intended unconditionally. There is not a word in these documents to suggest that the benefits of Ecclesia Dei are conditional upon one being an ex-Lefebvrist, of a certain age, or possessed of a certain archaic religious formation.

Needless to say, the documents we have been discussing, with their constant reference to the traditional Roman Rite – “the Roman Missal according to the 1962 edition” – have nothing at all to do with promoting the use of Latin in the new liturgy. A quaint hermeneutical fiction.

Hot from Commission

As it happens, Oriens can now report what amounts to an official interpretation of the documents from the Ecclesia Dei Commission itself. Recently, letters have been received in Australia from the Commission in response to requests for clarification of how the concept of “rightful aspiration” is to be understood.

The Commission’s ruling, dated 5 September 1995, states that:

  • The Motu Proprio “Ecclesia Dei” recognises that in itself the desire to celebrate and participate in the traditional liturgy of the Catholic Church as embodied in the liturgical books in force in 1962 represents a legitimate desire on the part of the faithful.
  • The Motu Proprio does not speak of any restrictions, including age limits, on those who aspire to worship according to the liturgical books of 1962. Neither does it state that only those who had previous experience of the Latin liturgical tradition could have such an aspiration.

It could not be simpler. The mere unconditional fact of having an aspiration “in itself” entitles anyone to benefit from the Ecclesia Dei decree.So, next time you are in your local diocesan chancery, petition in hand, have no fear. The facts are with you.

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Background to Ecclesia Dei

20 December, 2010 0 Comments
Background to Ecclesia Dei


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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