Monday, 27 October 2014

Quo Primum and Liturgical Tradition

Traditional Catholics, as we often call ourselves, have made many different arguments criticizing the recent liturgical reforms. Some arguments have been theological, focusing on the textual content and ritual symbolism of the Novus Ordo. Some have been aesthetic, pertaining to more of the liturgical externals. Others have been Canonical, questioning the Canonical status of the Pauline rite. Some trads, along these lattermost lines, have argued that in virtue of Pope Pius V’s bull Quo Primum, the liturgy of the Roman Rite may not be changed, and therefore that Paul VI’s promulgation of the Novus Ordo was illegitimate. This argument comes in various forms. There are some who seek to attribute dogmatic force to Quo Primum, others who argue that it is a practical application of dogmatic teaching – either way that it may therefore not be changed. Yet others, admitting it to be merely disciplinary, seek to provide a canonical argument that Quo Primum is still in force, or at least partially so. I used to be attracted to this basic argument (I think I may have even adhered, at different periods, to several of the variants of this argument), but now I have come around to seeing that it is ultimately quite weak, for the following reasons. (Note: what follows must also apply to Pius V’s bull Quod a Nobis, which is the equivalent of Quo Primum in regards to the Roman breviary.)

First, Pius V’s legislation was a disciplinary act that could technically be modified or even revoked by future popes. Thus, to call upon Quo Primum in order to establish in principle that the Tridentine liturgy must not be changed is a flawed argument. This principle cannot be drawn from one particular act of mutable legislation. Now, as I said before, some have argued that Quo Primum amounts to a dogmatic declaration, and was therefore binding even on future popes. I believe this sort of argument was proposed by the likes of the late Fr. Gregory Hesse. But this cannot be, because that would mean that the previous 1600 years of liturgical development prior to Trent was a process of continual dogmatic revelation, which is impossible: for the Church teaches that revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. A dogmatic declaration can only be of a truth or practice that is part of the immutable deposit of faith that was bequeathed to the Church by God, through Christ and the apostles. After that, there is no new revelation (though there may be changes in the manner of communicating that revelation). So it is impossible for Quo Primum to have dogmatically declared, all of sudden, that in the 16th century, the liturgy could not be changed, when for the past 1600 years it had been changing.

Others have argued, not that Quo Primum was a dogmatic declaration or a theological teaching, but that it was the application of such a teaching. The teaching in this case would be regarding the close connection between liturgy and faith, and the necessary consequence of tradition. Fr. Paul Kramer makes this argument in one of his books; I have seen Dr. John Salza say likewise. This argument, though slightly different from the above one, nonetheless seeks to establish the same conclusion, that Quo Primum bound future popes. However, while the liturgy is certainly closely connected to faith and thus closely embedded in tradition, these principles do not of themselves call for the dramatic measures that were enacted by St. Pius V in Quo Primum. That no one may dare alter the missal in any respect whatsoever is not something that can be drawn, pure and simple, from the theological and liturgical principles of Catholic tradition. As will be shown below, this tradition itself welcomes a certain degree of change, even (perhaps especially?) at the local level; so change can never, as a matter of principle, be excluded in the degree that Pius V excluded it. It can, however, be legitimately excluded for prudential reasons, which is precisely what I think happened. I will speak more on this below.

Secondly, after Pius V, the liturgy indeed continued to change, with papal approval; suggesting that Quo Primum did not in fact bind future popes. Pius V himself slightly changed the Missal after Quo Primum when he added the Feast of the Holy Rosary. Thereafter, new feasts were constantly being added to the Missal, and Popes Clement VIII and Urban VIII also made some other changes to both the Missal and Breviary. Then in the 20th century, the more radical changes began: the reform of Pius X heavily affected the breviary (which was protected by the same kind of legislation as the Missal, due to Pius V’s bull Quod a Nobis), and the reform of Pius XII heavily revised the ancient rites of Holy Week. Many traditionalists in fact celebrate the very liturgies which resulted from these reforms, namely those enshrined in the books of 1962. If Paul VI violated Quo Primum, these changes violated it too. It is no use to argue, in the style of Michael Davies, that all of these changes were minor and insignificant, for first of all, Pius V’s legislation speaks of any change whatsoever, and secondly, some of these changes (Pius X’s and Pius XII’s) were in fact very great – comparable even to the Novus Ordo. Thus it is historically inaccurate to pinpoint Paul VI’s reform as the first to “violate” Pius V’s legislation.

Thirdly, if the liturgy of its nature possesses some sort of a character of unchangeableness – and I would be the first to argue that it does indeed possess this – this unchangeableness has not historically been determined by legislation, but by tradition. It is not Pius V’s Quo Primum which renders it wrong in principle to change the liturgy – and even in this regard we have to make distinctions about kinds of “change” – but it is tradition which makes this wrong. This tradition is higher than and prior to any formal legislation in the Church. Thus, the rules of the liturgy are first determined by this tradition. Quo Primum was a prudent and practical call for a needed liturgical stability in a time of liturgical chaos; thus, the best possible argument that can be made about the Novus Ordo insofar as it relates to Quo Primum is that it was imprudent, and even this is not easy to establish on firm premises. Traditionalists would therefore make a much better argument if they were to point out, not that Paul VI’s reform violated a 400 year-old piece of papal legislation that was promulgated for prudential and practical reasons, but that it violated a 1500 year-old tradition, and a 2000 year old pattern of liturgical development, and that this was wrong in principle.

Likewise, they would make a much better argument if they were to point out, not that Paul VI’s reform violated the wishes of another individual man, namely Pius V, but that it violated the principles of a tradition that transcends all individuals. In general, traditionalists rightly recognize that the old liturgy is traditional, but strangely enough, some of them do not adequately recognize that the source of this traditional-ness is in tradition itself; rather, they see it as originating in positive legislation, e.g. Quo Primum.

Which brings me to the fourth point: tradition and unchangeable character of the liturgy has never been of such a nature as to rule out all change. In fact, history shows that tradition has always been very intimately linked with the organic development of the liturgy. Pius V’s legislation forbade any sort of change only as a needed practical measure in a time of liturgical anarchy, but not necessarily as a definitive brake on liturgical development, as if the liturgy had finally reached a state of perfection in the year 1570. To make this argument presumes that Pius V had some sort of theological or liturgical principle by which he could judge what is a perfect liturgy. The liturgy historically is something which develops continuously – not always at the same rate, granted. By analogy this development is said to be “organic,” insofar as it resembles the growth of living organisms: they grow, but ever remain the same entity. But the analogy can really only go so far. For living things, there is a way to determine what is the “perfect” stage of development, what it is to be “in one’s prime,” as it were. The liturgy, however, because of the nature of what it is, has an inexhaustible potential for the expression of faith. This inexhaustible expressive potential is what has always allowed the liturgy of the Church to exhibit a certain kind of variety, locally and temporally. The faith and spirituality of the Church receives a variety of expression in the liturgy throughout the world and throughout time, and thus produces a variety of fruits which are all conducive to the growth of holiness in the Church. There is a way in which this temporal and local variety is a beautiful and positive thing – a case could even be made for its necessity. That is not to say that it is unlimited (as it is apparently thought to be today), or that it may not be regulated for prudential reasons (as it was by Pius V). But it can never be totally excluded on the basis of any liturgical principle. For these reasons (which have only summarily been explained here), liturgical tradition not only does not oppose change and variety, but it even welcomes a certain kind of variety, and this is due to the very nature of liturgy. So the development of the liturgy can never be legitimately brought to an absolute halt. In practice it may have its legitimate pauses in history, for whatever reasons of circumstance, but it may never be absolutely excluded in principle.

Thus, if we take Quo Primum to be mandating an absolute brake on all liturgical development and change whatsoever, on the basis that liturgical development had finished then and there, then yes, Paul VI’s reform would be wrong for having violated Quo Primum. But if we take Quo Primum to be mandating only a temporary and prudential pause for liturgical development and change – even the good kind of change – then I do not think the Novus Ordo would be a violation of Quo Primum. If, again, Pius V had set down objective rules and principles, founded in the tradition of the liturgy, for what is the right kind of change, then it would be possible to judge the Novus Ordo in light of such legislation. But the fact is that Pius V did not do so: he merely prohibited anyone besides the pope to change the missal, reserving to the pope alone the authority to do so. Thus, Paul VI’s reform would not even violate Quo Primum at all, if the latter was not even intended in the first place as a brake on liturgical change in principle. Indeed, Paul VI’s reform was in many ways in conformity with the legal situation that Pius V began: for those changes were all sanctioned by the authority of the pope. What Paul VI’s reform did violate, however, are the laws that tradition has dictated for the right kinds of change and legislation in the liturgy, that is, organic development in continuity with tradition. And it is in virtue of that violation that the creation of the Novus Ordo must be judged a mistake.

I would like to make a final point, clarifying something I just hinted at. Some traditionalists, while admitting that Quo Primum does not amount to divine law, nonetheless attribute to it the force of a positive ecclesiastical law which is still binding. Whether or not Quo Primum is still binding legally is not my concern at the moment (although I think the answer is in the affirmative). Rather, I would prefer to draw attention to the fact that the view according to which the liturgy is something regulated primarily by legislation is itself part of the reason that the Novus Ordo was made possible in the first place. Legislation has an important place in the Church, of course, but that place is at the service of tradition. The riches of liturgical piety have been given to us in an organic tradition by God, working through the ages in the devout hearts of the Christian faithful. Piety is not something that can be imposed by law, but it grows from the heart that subjects itself to the inspiration of God. Law has the role of protecting and preserving the sources that have grown out of the traditions of Christian piety, but it does not fabricate or originate them. To attribute to it this role is to allow man to be the arbiter of the liturgy, which is precisely what enabled the present crisis. The argument for the Tridentine mass which is founded on the fact of legislation is therefore weak, because a similar argument can be made for the Novus Ordo: the pope approved it, therefore it may not be rejected. So again, the traditionalist argument has to ultimately fall back not on the notion of legislation and positive ecclesiastical law, but on the notion of liturgical tradition, which has a dignity and importance that is higher than that of human ecclesiastical law. It is this tradition primarily, and legislation only secondarily, which establishes the limits of change in the liturgy, and the obligation of adhering to the traditional liturgy.


  1. I have to admit, this is persuasive. Well done. It's obvious that St. Pius V intended future popes to adhere to Quo Primum and believed, himself, that the had the authority to bind them. But even if he did not, it is concerning that, so far as I know, this legislation has never been repealed - just violated.

  2. Excellent, Maestro! In my brief neo-con days following my decade in the SSPX, a diocesan priest was able quickly to shut down my argument for the TLM (as "protected" by Quo Primum) by dismantling the notion of the typical trad interpretation of "in perpetuity". I had no good defense and succumbed to the ultramontanist view for a time, though inconsistently I also still held the Novus Ordo to be inferior/illegitimate. It would be another decade that I realized that the 1962 Missal and the Pian Holy Week changes in particular, were indefensible vis-a-vis rejecting the Novus Ordo, the logical conclusion is to take the view which transcends liturgy controlled by Papal fiat, no matter how saintly the particular pope happens to be.

    I suspect that the better informed trads know too well that they would have to concede the arguments of the "Nine" concerning the pre-conciliar changes if they were to change their argument away from Quo Primum and back to immemorial custom/liturgical Tradition. Even today, 31 years after that debacle, it is very difficult for them, the SSPX in particular, to distinguish the Nine's liturgical position (which is true) from the theory of sedevacantism (which is false).

    Great read again; I am going to pass this along to my pastor.

  3. Excellent piece! Best reflection and essay on the topic I have seen in a long time.