When I first read Summorum Pontificum in 2007, I remember thinking ‘This is not going to end well.’ Before I go on, I must explain that years ago I was a priest of the Society of Saint Pius X, until I left the Society in 1999 and was subsequently laicized at my own request. Also, unlike many former SSPXers, I wholeheartedly support the liturgical reforms of St. Paul VI following the Second Vatican Council. Presented with the choice, I should prefer to worship according to the 1970 rather than the 1962 missal. I will also mention that I am neither a theologian nor a liturgical expert. Indeed I concede that my training in both of these areas in the SSPX seminary was woefully inadequate. Yet having followed the history of the SSPX and its relationship with the wider Church for 34 years—including 12 years as an insider—I believe my opinions might have some value, limited as they are.

I have intimated that I think Summorum Pontificum was a mistake. I have no desire to malign Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI or question his motives. Yet his motu proprio, designed to head off a threat to unity, only exacerbated a problem that until then had largely been confined to the SSPX and its small number of supporters. The leaders of the SSPX—and traditionalists generally—did not see Benedict’s decree as an olive branch. Rather they saw it as an admission of the righteousness of their cause. True, His Holiness made it clear that the missal of Saint Paul VI remained the norm for the Roman Rite, but in effect the liberalization of the old rite by Summorum Pontificum was seen by traditionalists as papal admission that the liturgical reform had failed.

Most damaging, in my opinion, are the two words of the text ‘numquam abrogatam’ (‘never abrogated’), referring to the missal of St. John XXIII. Is this an opinion or the determination of canon lawyers? This is not explained. The unprecedented use of the terminology ‘Ordinary Form’ and ‘Extraordinary Form’ of the Roman Rite put the Vatican II and Tridentine Missals on equal footing. This alone gave radical traditionalists all the ammunition they needed. If the missal of 1962 had never been abrogated, then the legality of the 1970 missal could be thrown into doubt. Summorum Pontificum, along with the lifting of the excommunications of the four Lefebvrist bishops, legitimized criticism of Vatican II. Moreover it told Catholics that the reconciliation of a small band of recalcitrant clerics and their supporters was for the Holy See a higher priority than the defense of the reformed liturgy.

I repeat that I do not doubt Benedict’s noble intentions, and I certainly do not think he sought to undermine the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Neither do I suggest that it is a mistake to invite the SSPX back into the fold. I pray for the return of my brothers and sisters daily. Yet I confess to being baffled by what appeared to be an obsession to rehabilitate the Society. There is an opinion that a sanitized SSPX could be the vanguard of Catholic renewal. A number of clergy and lay folk – including bishops and even cardinals – seem to think it could spearhead a new counter- reformation. I find this sentiment disturbing. It ignores the fact that the SSPX is riddled with anti-Semitism (many of its members give credence to the forged Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion), supports political authoritarianism and disseminates dangerous conspiracy theories. Moreover it is marred by in-fighting and crippled by isolationism. In fact it might be suggested that it serves as a microcosm of what might have been had the Second Vatican Council never taken place. We might have had a myopic Church incapable of reaching out to the world and – like the SSPX – expecting the world to come on bended knee.

In my opinion the gesture of Pope Francis during the Year of Mercy was far more appropriate – and powerful – than Summorum Pontificum. In the Extraordinary Year of Jubilee 2016 he granted priests of the SSPX faculties to hear confessions and to absolve validly, and later extended those faculties indefinitely. This act of mercy was appropriate and fitting. It told the faithful that they were remembered and loved by the Church and by its Supreme Pontiff. It also communicated a powerful message to the leadership of the Society. Francis reminded them that it needed the universal Church. The SSPX claims that it receives its faculties directly from the Church, bypassing the bishops. In accepting faculties it is challenged to acknowledge the irregularity of its situation.

The irony of Summorum Pontificum is that at the time it was being prepared the SSPX was in crisis. From its very inception Lefebvre’s creation has been beset by division. Many in its leadership wish to reconcile with Rome while others regard any sort of recognition of the Second Vatican Council as anathema. The Society is thus paralyzed and incapable of moving forward. I suspect Francis realizes this. My own opinion is that the SSPX will return to Rome piecemeal, and that a small number will always remain intransigent.

Francis’s own motu proprio, Traditiones Custodes, restricting the use of the 1962 missal, has not undone the damage inflicted by Summorum Pontificum. That, I fear, can never be repaired. Still, his action was necessary. As the Holy Father has stated many times, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council are the expressions of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. They cannot be reversed. Neither is a reform of the reform (at least in the sense of reversing the changes) possible. Vatican II, authentically interpreted, enriches the Church for our own time, as other councils did for theirs.

Does that mean that modern liturgy has become just as untouchable as traditionalists believe the pre-conciliar liturgy is? I don’t think so. In many places liturgy could certainly be improved, but in accordance with the typical edition and the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. The revision of the English language missal to agree better with the Latin was, in my opinion, welcome. Abuses need to be rooted out and—in many places—a sense of solemnity restored. There may even be a case for Mass ad orientem (as presumed by the General Instruction) to be tried experimentally, and for Latin to be used on regular occasions as happens in Rome. That said I do believe the vernacular is here to stay and is part of the reform mandated by the Second Vatican Council. I have noticed that in a number of places the tabernacle has been restored to the sanctuary behind the altar and this change seems to be bearing fruit. I believe that could be an appropriate reform (contrary to a common misconception, Vatican II did not mandate Eucharistic chapels). A number of priests still fail to observe the periods of silence mandated by the General Instruction. When these are implemented the Mass of St. Paul VI becomes a truly contemplative experience.

About 10 years after I was reconciled to Rome, I decided to attend an approved Extraordinary Form Mass, celebrated in a parish church. By then I was very comfortable with the Vatican II liturgy (as a layman) but I wanted to see what effect the form of the Mass I once regularly celebrated would have on me. I felt disconnected, pushed to the periphery of the sacred mystery as if I really had no right to be there. It was jarring. I appreciate that this is not everyone’s experience. Yet for me the reformed rite places me with Christ in the majesty of His incarnation, death and resurrection. I thank God for the Mass of St. Paul VI. There will be no going back.


Image: By Servus Tuus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28508704


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Gary Campbell is a freelance writer living in Australia, writing history and educational literature. He has also worked as a schoolteacher. Gary was a member of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) for 12 years, including as an ordained priest for five years. He was reconciled to Rome in 1999 and laicized.

Summorum Pontificum: An Unforced Error
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