Tuesday, September 15, 2015

On the Use and Abuse of the Terms “Ordinary” and “Extraordinary” in Summorum Pontificum

On Friday, October 26, 2007, only six weeks after Summorum Pontificum had become the law of the Church, the founder of this blog, Shawn Tribe, made some perceptive comments about the meaning of the terms ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ as found in the motu proprio.[1] I remember thinking at the time that he was getting too worried about the possible misunderstanding of this pair of terms, but eight years of experience have convinced me that he was right. I’ve had first-hand experiences with people who argue along these lines: “Benedict XVI was saying that this liturgy is out of the ordinary and should remain that way.”

While “extraordinary form” has become a common way to refer to the traditional Latin Mass (and one can understand why: it has the advantage of brevity and an easy symmetry with “ordinary form,” particularly when one abbreviates them as EF and OF), nevertheless, the phrase can be misleading, because it is an extrinsic description, based on the current liturgical situation, in which one form has de facto prominence over the other: the ordinary is that which is more commonplace, and the extra-ordinary that which is relatively uncommon. But if we put ourselves in mind of a parish run by the Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, or another such society of apostolic life, the opposite situation obtains: the “extraordinary form” is the ordinary liturgy for the people, indeed the only one, for all intents and purposes.

Shawn drew our attention to a point of vital importance that deserves to be brought forward as soon as a conversation starts hinging or fixating on the OF/EF terminology — namely, that Pope Benedict XVI in Summorum Pontificum and its explanatory letter to the worlds’ bishops makes use of other expressions as well: the Missal of St. Pius V[2], “the Missal of Blessed John XXIII” (in fact, he uses this phrase more often than any other[3]), “the old Missal,” “the ancient Latin liturgical tradition,” and the “usus antiquior.” The clarifying instruction Universae Ecclesiae of 2011 speaks of “the older liturgical tradition” and frequently calls it the “usus antiquior” or “older use.”[4] There is no evidence that Pope Benedict was legally and officially giving a single or a privileged name to the traditional Latin Mass any more than he was doing so for the modern Roman Rite. The official documents of the Church use multiple names for them, and for good reason: each name conveys something important that the other names do not convey. The unofficial names also add to the portrait: Gregorian rite, Tridentine rite, classical Roman rite, etc.

A failure to recognize the diversity and purpose of Pope Benedict’s nomenclature can lead to a situation where the “extraordinary” of “EF” is used to fend off ordinary Catholics who desire, or desire more regularly, that which Benedict XVI asked the clergy generously to offer. “No,” responds the nay-sayer, “the Church says this Mass is out of the ordinary — rare, marginal, exceptional, not the norm for us.” If the nay-sayer went on to suggest that the “E” in “extraordinary form” meant somewhat the same as in the “E” in “extraordinary minister of holy communion,” one could disprove the claim by pointing to the fact that there are whole communities and even an entire diocese (Campos, Brazil) that are permitted to celebrate exclusively the extraordinary form, while there is not a single church in the world where EMHCs are legally allowed to be the ordinary ministers of holy communion — for the simple reason that it is metaphysically impossible for them to become so without first changing their state in life (or, for many, their sex, quod absit). But such an argument would be specious and disingenuous; after all, when’s the last time you saw EF’s multiplied the way that EMHC’s are multiplied? In reality, the “E” of EMHC means one thing and the “E” of EF means another; we call this an analogous use of language. It happens a lot in poetry, and, by the way, in theology, too. Just ask St. Thomas Aquinas.

I knew a priest who took the “E” of “EF” in a restrictive sense, as if it meant “that which should remain marginal or rare,” but the logic of Summorum Pontificum and the wide range of permissions the Vatican has granted since approximately 1988 shows that the “E” has a descriptive rather than a prescriptive force; it is factual, not restrictive. In contrast, the restrictive sense is employed in the phrase “EMHCs,” which are supposed to be for emergency situations and rare.[5] But since there are whole parishes, religious orders, and even a diocese that exclusively employ the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite, the “E” here must not mean for emergency situations or rarely permitted, but simply that, socially and institutionally speaking, it is out of the ordinary. Put differently, OF and EF are sociological or demographic terms: they state what the global pastoral situation is, but do not prescribe how it should be, or imply a judgment on which form should be more normal in a particular community.[6]

The comparison I like to use is this: driving the wrong way down a one-way street is certainly extraordinary and can be justified only by an emergency, but driving to work taking the scenic country road rather than the speedy interstate is also extra-ordinary in that most people don’t do it, but it is completely legal and, in fact, more beautiful. And some people may choose to drive exclusively on the country roads. Perhaps, like Mary of Bethany, they have chosen the better part.

Summorum Pontificum is a fine example of papal diplomacy. It assumes that the OF is the norm for the vast majority of Catholic communities, and that, for now at least, it must remain in currency, while the EF is gradually added back to the life of the Church. Thus, it seems to me that, given standing liturgical law, a pastor of a parish could not, on his own authority, declare that his parish will be exclusively EF from a certain point onwards. On the other hand, it seems equally clear from the motu proprio that if there is a stable coetus fidelium capable of supporting an EF parish (particularly if there is an empty church or a church in danger of closure), the local bishop could not reasonably say: “Sorry, this is not the normal liturgy of our diocese and you can’t have it.” The fact that the OF is, so to speak, the default setting does not mean it must be the default for every Roman Catholic believer or community of believers. We know this cannot be so because of parishes and religious houses that exclusively celebrate the EF, with the Church’s permission.

Let us consider some of the implications of postconciliar Church policy. Under Pope Paul VI, it was thought by most Catholics that the whole liturgical life of the Church had been overhauled, in such a way that the old was definitively retired and the new authoritatively imposed. Gone, defunct, inoperative, impermissible, was anything for which a new equivalent had been created. But this strong line had already started to wane under the Polish pope, and it was permanently retired by the Bavarian. Today, the traditional Roman calendar (as of 1962), the old Martyrology, the old Divine Office (including the Office of Prime), the rite of tonsure, the minor orders, the subdiaconate, all of the sacramental rites and blessings of the Rituale Romanum, the Pontificale—all of this is back in use, deemed fully legitimate[7]; according to Pope Benedict XVI, none of it was ever abrogated or abolished.

Consequently, all of this heritage can be taken up again by a community and become normative for that community. For Catholics who belong to an FSSP parish, Epiphany is not the Sunday after New Year’s, but January 6 (as it had always been, prior to recent decades); Ascension Thursday is not bumped to the Sunday after Ascension, but takes place forty days after the Resurrection (as had always been the case)—and this, regardless of the OF Ordo; the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas is March 7, not January 28; and so forth. The real calendar for these EF-attending Catholics is the 1962 calendar; they are not, as it were, pretending or playacting. There is, at this time in the Church’s life, a unique coexistence of two forms of the Roman Rite, each with its own structure of Mass and Office, feasts and ferials, sacraments and sacramentals—and therefore it cannot be said that one of these forms is normative in an unqualified sense for all Roman Catholics. The OF may be the norm for most Catholics, but it is not obligatory and it is certainly not in itself superior, as if it dictates the conditions under which the EF is to be allowed, or as if it is always to be preferred whenever there is a choice of forms. Such views would contradict the equality of the forms and the now-widespread existence of exclusively EF communities, both parochial and religious, permitted by the Apostolic See.

When Pope Benedict in his Letter to Bishops of July 7, 2007, speaks about “the actual situation of the communities of the faithful” and their “degree of liturgical formation,” he is admitting that the nature of a given community has to be taken into account when determining the proportion of the OF to the EF. There isn’t a “one-size fits all” blueprint that could be superimposed on every group of Catholics. Some will not enjoy the presence of the EF; others may have the EF exclusively. The Church permits both extremes and every permutation in between—although Universae Ecclesiae does imply that every Catholic should be exposed to the EF when it says, apropos Summorum Pontificum, that “the Letter has the aim of bestowing[8] on all of the faithful the Roman Liturgy in the usus antiquior, considered as a precious treasure to be preserved” (8a).

On this eighth anniversary of the going into effect of Summorum Pontificum, we can perform a simple thought experiment. The number of traditionalist priests ordained each year in France is steadily rising and the number of diocesan clergy is falling precipitously. Years down the line, it is almost certain that the former will outnumber the latter.[9] What will the bishops do? Close more and more churches, or bite the bullet and entrust them to priests who celebrate only the EF? If country parishes over time went in the EF direction simply out of necessity, would there not eventually be a tipping point when the OF and the EF were, say, 50/50 in their representation? And if that were possible, why not a century in which the EF becomes the norm and the OF a permitted alternative? Whatever shift takes place, we can be sure that a day will come when the terminology of OF and EF will seem quaintly old-fashioned.

Back on that fateful day of March 7, 1965, when Pope Paul VI celebrated the first mostly-Italian Mass at the parish of Ognissanti in Rome, he said in his homily: “Today’s new way of prayer, of celebrating the Holy Mass, is extraordinary.” Less than five years later, the “extraordinary” vernacular Mass had become altogether ordinary, in spite of centuries of tradition and the clear teaching of Pius XII’s Mediator Dei and the Second Vatican Council. Now, fifty years later, we see a striking reversal happening at the grassroots level: for an increasing number of Catholics, the “extraordinary” Latin Mass is becoming altogether ordinary once again, in a development that can only be called natural, normal, and healthy, with plenty of youthful momentum.


[1] Shawn Tribe, “'Ordinary' and 'Extraordinary': A Discussion about Interpretive Keys to Their Meaning.”

[2] In Art. 1: “the Roman Missal promulgated by St. Pius V and reissued by Bl. John XXIII.”

[3] Pope Benedict XVI defines the older form of the Mass in reference to John XXIII eight times in the motu proprio and once in the accompanying letter. In contrast, he uses the expression “extraordinary form” only three times in the motu proprio and twice in the accompanying letter.

[4] See Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, Universae Ecclesiae, nn. 5, 8a, and 15.

[5] See my article at EWTN, with all the pertinent statements on EMHCs from 1969 to 1997.

[6] When Benedict XVI cites “juridical norms” as indicative of the status of the OF (“Already from these concrete presuppositions, it is clearly seen that the new Missal will certainly remain the ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, not only on account of the juridical norms, but also because of the actual situation of the communities of the faithful,” Letter to Bishops, July 7, 2007), he is referring to the fact that Paul VI instituted the new Roman Missal for the universal church, and it has been given in such a way that it is understood to be the default. If a new church is built and a priest is assigned to it, the default is that he will celebrate the OF. However, this is a far cry from saying that the OF is “what believers ought to be following,” and they may follow the EF “by way of exception.”

[7] Albeit with some restrictions, most notably this one: “Only [or At least] in Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life subject to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, and in these where  the use of the liturgical books of the forma extraordinaria is maintained, is it allowed to use the Pontificale Romanum of the year 1962 for conferring major and minor Orders” (Universae Ecclesiae 31).

[8] The Latin original says: omnibus largire fidelibus—the usus antiquior should be “bestowed on all the faithful,” not merely “offered” to them, as the official translation at the Vatican website has it. The difference is significant. The official translation is misleading at times, as is the case with many Vatican documents. The Latin Mass Society has prepared a more literal translation.

[9] See the data and projections here.

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