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Roche's Rules: Does the new Extraordinary Form instruction line up with Vatican II?

The new instructions from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, issued Saturday to implement Pope Francis’ motu proprio on the celebration (or not) of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, have made waves among Catholic clerics and Mass goers. 

But while the document has elicited a broad range of reactions, the most interesting question has thus far gone mostly unasked, and unanswered: How in line with the principles of Vatican Council II is the new instruction?

Priests of the Fraternal Society of St. Peter celebrate Mass at Douai Abbey, 2010. Credit: Matthew Doyle/ Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)


When the Council Fathers of Vatican II convened in 1962, they were adamant that they would exercise their solemn charism as an ecumenical body — and opted to throw out texts prepared by the Roman Curia, and insisted on working together to discern what the council would produce.

A key point of the Council’s ecclesiology was a re-emphasis of the role of the diocesan bishop as a successor to the apostles, and as both pastor and governor of his particular church. 

One of the oft-repeated phrases of the Council was that bishops were “vicars of Christ, not of the pope.” Many of the conciliar texts expounded on the necessity of the diocesan bishop exercising discernment on the needs of his local flock.

“The pastoral office, or the habitual and daily care of their sheep, is entrusted to [the local bishops] completely,” says Lumen gentium, the Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church. “Nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them.”

“In virtue of this power,” the Council said, “bishops have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them and to moderate everything pertaining to the ordering of worship and the apostolate.” 

While the authority of a diocesan bishop is exercised with - and under - the authority of the pope, the notion that local bishops understand best the pastoral and practical needs of the local faithful has been a hallmark of the so-called “spirit of the Council.”

Yet Rome’s Saturday responses make a number of striking departures from this principle.

Saturday’s already-famous regulation on which Masses can be listed in parish bulletins became instant fodder for online mockery by traditionalists, and also spawned a new kind of snitch-posting by Twitter commentators who aimed to name and shame local pastors for not adapting to the instruction within hours. 

But away from social media, the rules issued by Archbishop Arthur Roche, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments, could be seen to erode the prerogatives of diocesan bishops in a number of striking ways.

Perhaps the most notable is the explicit expectation that bishops receive permission from Roche’s department before they can authorize any priest ordained after the promulgation of Traditionis custodes to celebrate the older liturgy. 

As a general principle of pastoral governance, it is diocesan bishops who know their clergy best - as spiritual fathers - and are best placed to judge both their spiritual needs and their individual suitability for different kinds of ministry. Some bishops may well read the new requirement as an intrusion, not just into the governance of their local Churches, but into their paternal relationship with their own clergy.

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Even more controversial may prove to be the prohibition on saying the Extraordinary Form of the Mass for any priest who “does not recognize the validity and legitimacy of concelebration – refusing to concelebrate, in particular, at the Chrism Mass.”

Vatican Council II’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, affirmed concelebration as a true sign of “the unity of the priesthood,” and explicitly encouraged priests to concelebrate the annual Chrism Mass with their bishop. 

But it also expressly stated that “the regulation, however, of the discipline of concelebration in the diocese pertains to the bishop,” and provided that “each priest shall always retain his right to celebrate Mass individually.” 

While Saturday’s text is careful to tell bishops to “take care to establish a fraternal dialogue with the priest, to ascertain that this attitude does not exclude the validity and legitimacy” before taking any further action, it seems likely to provoke spurious denunciations of priests who exercise their right, established by the Council, not to concelebrate if they don’t want to.

Similarly, the new rules on bination, the occasions on which a priest can say Mass twice on a weekday, might seem to some bishops to undercut Vatican Council II’s general principle of subsidiarity — that decisions are best and most effectively made at the level closest to those whom they affect.

The Code of Canon Law allows priests to say Mass twice on an ordinary weekday when there is a “just cause” or “pastoral necessity” demands it. However, the congregation’s instruction makes clear that offering the Extraordinary Form of the Mass can never constitute a “just cause” for the bination of a priest who offers Mass in the Ordinary Form

At the level of general principles, it is striking that a Roman department would try to issue a directive telling every bishop in the world what qualifies as a legitimate pastoral need among his own flock. And some bishops have already told The Pillar this would seem to undercut the bedrock principles of pastoral proximity and episcopal discernment which were so central to Vatican II.

At the practical level, the ruling may be seen to be a recipe for discrimination.

On the whole, it remains to be seen how bishops will welcome an order from Archbishop Roche to, effectively, bring conflict to their own dioceses — especially when many have worked hard to avoid it.

While debate over the availability of the Extraordinary Form is often a minority concern (on both sides) it oftens burns hotter than many other issues. 

Since the promulgation of Traditionis custodes, bishops in many dioceses have worked hard to forge a status quo which suits local needs, fosters harmony, and avoids the kind of division and bitterness that leads to the sort of frenzied denunciation of perceived opponents which is already surfacing among some Catholic media. 

Even bishops who are either uninterested or even reflexively unsympathetic to the Extraordinary Form may resent being told what is or isn’t a legitimate pastoral need among their own flock. Some may intend to remind Archbishop Roche that they are, in the spirit of Vatican II, shepherds of their flocks, and not his local branch managers.

Of course, the obvious place where such feedback might be given, from bishops, clergy, and local Catholics, is the ongoing global synodal process — itself rooted in the ecclesiology of the Council. But, given the tone of the congregation’s Saturday instruction, there is little indication that Rome, or at least Roche’s department, is open to dialogue. 

Ironically, it seems, Saturday’s intervention could provoke the same kind of episcopal demands for subsidiarity which came to influence Vatican II in the first place.

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