Fr. Hunwicke and Mr. Smith appear to echo the same message in their respective articles on Summorum pontificum, whose decennial we were blessed to celebrate a week ago. Both arrive at the conclusion that the most significant contribution of the motu proprio was not the unfolding of the legal consequences of the fact that the Roman Missal of 1962 had never been abrogated. Nay, it was the pronouncement that it could not have been abrogated!
To this end, they both quote the statement made by Benedict XVI in the accompanying letter to the bishops:
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.
As they then argue in their own ways, this should be understood as a formulation of a pre-juridical principle which, even though it motivated and guided the introduction of the new legislation, does, of itself, follow from the very constitution of the Church. It is a truth immutable by any human authority, a truth which does in fact limit the authority of the Supreme Pontiff.
We tend to agree with this assessment, although it does not come without its own dose of questions and difficulties.
Firstly, it is our impression that the nature and scope of the “What” in Pope Benedict’s statement has not been made sufficiently clear. The provisions of Summorum pontificum restrict it to the last pre-Vatican II Missal, but would not a consistent application of the pre-juridical principles demand that, for example, a pre-1955 Missal be also permitted?
We can foresee two kinds of objections raised against the claim:
1. That the reforms of Pius XII and John XXIII were not so severe that they ought to be considered to constitute divergent formæ of the Roman Rite, in Pope Benedict’s sense of the term. In other words, unlike the rift caused by Paul VI’s Missale Romanum, the Pian and Johannine alterations managed to preserve that which was “sacred and great” about the pre-1955 liturgy, and hence the principle of Benedict’s cannot be invoked.
To which objection we must reply that it seems to be begging the question, since determining the criteria to evaluate which reforms are “severe enough” (so that their preceding usage should be made available as an optional forma) is precisely the issue at stake. Moreover, a similar “continuity” argument, emphasising the similarities between the liturgical usages, may have as well been employed to prove that everything “sacred and great” present in the traditional usages of the Roman Rite has been fully preserved with the Mass of Paul VI, until, of course, it was refuted by Benedict XVI himself.
2. That the pragmatic needs (i.e., majority of the requests of the faithful, the usage preferred by the FSSPX, &c.) required only the 1962 Missal to be permitted.
To which one could reply that if the pre-juridical principles of Summorum do really have a theological basis, and thus sacred liturgical traditions really cannot be abrogated, restricting them by merely pragmatic considerations should not be acceptable.
The actual theological reasons why the underlying theological principles should apply only to the 1962 Missal are therefore not quite clear from our perspective.
Secondly, it is rather strange how much care the Holy Father takes, especially in the accompanying letter, to stress that the 1962 Missal was never abrogated when we consider that the historical fact whether it was or not should not really matter. If it was not abrogated, then Summorum pontificum would be primarily a matter of rooting out misconceptions (but also of restoring justice inasmuch as some were denied their legitimate rights due to the misconceptions). On the other hand, if it was abrogated, it must have been abrogated unlawfully, as the pre-juridical principle suggests, and Summorum pontificum would then be primarily a matter of revoking the unlawful order (restoring justice as such).
In fact, this latter case seems to correlate with what Pope Benedict did with respect to the Divine Office. As Mr. Smith pointed out, the 1970 liturgia horarum was promulgated in much stronger terms than the new Missal, to wit:
We hereby decree that this new book for the Liturgy of the Hours may be put into use as soon as it is published. Meanwhile, the conferences of bishops are to see to the preparation of editions of this liturgical work in the vernacular and, after approval, that is, confirmation, of these editions by the Apostolic See, are to fix the date when the vernacular editions may or must be used, either in whole or in part. Beginning on the effective date for use of these versions in vernacular celebrations, only the revised form of the Liturgy of the Hours is to be followed, even by those who continue to use Latin. For those however who, because of advanced age or for special reasons, experience serious difficulties in observing this new Order, it is lawful to continue to use the former Roman Breviary, in whole or in part, with the consent of their Ordinary, but only when reciting the Office alone. [emphasis supplied]
There is no equivalent formulation in Missale Romanum, the absence of which is probably taken by Benedict to show that the old Missal was not juridically abrogated. Conversely, the old form of the Divine Office, we believe, can be said to have been abrogated. And yet, Benedict did not refrain from allowing its use by Summorum Art. 9, §3:
Ordained clerics may also use the Roman Breviary promulgated in 1962 by Blessed John XXIII.
With respect to the liturgy of opus Dei, there is therefore no “basic legal fact” to be observerd in the sense that the pre-1970 form was never abrogated. But the point is, it need not be observed – once the theological nature of the pre-juridical principle, that is the binding auctoritas of liturgical traditions, is admitted.
Let us give thanks to God for our Holy Father Benedict’s courageous decision. Let us pray that we never fail to be like the rich man, who knows how to bring things both new and old out of his treasure-house. And let us not forget that, even though the glorious traditional liturgies may not be lawfuly forbidden, they may still become irrelevant. It is our duty to prevent such an outcome.