Friday, March 28, 2014

Is the Novus Ordo a New Rite of the Church?

The term Novus Ordo is often used by “traditionalist” Catholics as a sort of pejorative, but it is most interesting to note that Paul VI himself referred to his new Mass as the “Novus Ordo”. [1] In light of this fact, I think we can charitably make use of the term as a means of distinction. But is the Novus Ordo a new rite of the Church?

The Vetus and the Novus, as Pope Emeritus Benedict has said, are “two expressions of the Church’s Lex orandi” [Law of praying]. Benedict sees that, while there is one law of prayer, it finds two expressions in the one Roman Rite. He says that their relationship is such that it “will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s Lex credendi [Law of believing]. They are, in fact two uses of the one Roman rite.” [2]

From this quote, it seems the question posed is all but answered. And yet, how can Paul VI be correct and Benedict XVI also be correct? Is it a new rite, as Paul VI has said, or is it merely another form of the same rite, as Benedict has said? The two seem to be in contradiction on the matter. Perhaps in order to resolve the conflict we should look more deeply at what a "rite" in fact is.

For Catholics in the West, to speak of the Roman Rite and the Latin Church is synonymous. However, it is important to note that in the East, a “church” refers to a particular people who are legally autonomous, and so they refer to a “church sui juris” (of one’s own right). There are multiple churches sui juris that share a common rite. It may be easier to see in terms of genus (rite) and species (church) - Under the genus, “Byzantine”, there are the species of Ukranian, Melkite, Ruthenian, Romanian, etc., all of whom, while sharing a common liturgical patrimony, are in fact legally autonomous from each other. In addition to the churches of the Byzantine Rite, there are also other rites, such as the Alexandrian, Antiochene, or Chaldean rites, and which are composed of various autonomous churches.

The Eastern Code of Canon Law defines a rite as thus: “A rite is the liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage, distinguished according to peoples' culture and historical circumstances, that finds expression in each autonomous church's way of living the faith.” [3]

In the West, we have used the word “ritus” to mean something different. Historically, we have referred to the one Latin church sui juris (whose Patriarch is the Bishop of Rome), with many “rites”, or liturgies, attached to it. So, we find that there was once not only the Roman Rite, but the Gallican Rite, or the Carmelite Rite, or the Sarum Rite - in effect, rite and church have the opposite hierarchical structure in the West from what is found in the East! We also use the word to speak of particular liturgical ceremonies, such as the "rite of baptism" or the "rite of communion", etc. The Old Catholic Encyclopedia treats of “rite” in this manner, defining it as “comprising the manner of performing all services for the worship of God and the sanctification of men” - in effect, a particular type of liturgy. [4]

If we take rite to be used in the Western sense, as defined by the Old Catholic Encyclopedia, we would have to say that Paul VI is entirely correct in calling the Novus Ordo a "new rite" of the Church. From this, can we conclude that Benedict in Summorum Pontificum was simply in error on this distinction - that the Novus and the Vetus should most properly be referred to as two rites, and not one? There are many canon lawyers and Bishops, who, following the Pauline definition of ritus, would say that Benedict was simply not a good canonist, that there are manifold problems surrounding the legislation Summorum Pontificum, and use this in order to prevent its implementation. However, to simply do this is not only incorrect, it is to miss the real genius behind the motu proprio given to us by Benedict. Let's take a closer look.

Returning to the definition for the word given in the Eastern Code of Canon Law, we find that in order to refer to something as a rite, we not only have to evaluate the liturgical patrimony, but also the “theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage, distinguished according to peoples' culture and historical circumstances” in order to make a determination on the issue.

In light of the greater qualifications necessary for the constitution of a rite as laid down by the Code, we should perhaps endeavor not to speak equivocally of the word “rite”, and try to harmonize these two different definitions in order to see that, in fact, Paul VI and Benedict XVI are speaking of the same reality, albeit with different things being signified by the word "rite". In harmonizing the two, Benedict gives us a different word, “use”, as the more proper term pertaining to the various liturgies of the West, since he understands "rite" as having a more broad scope. As “particular liturgical usages” of the Roman Rite, the Vetus and the Novus should witness to the same “lex orandi” of the one Roman Rite. This distinction which Benedict is making between the two forms of the Mass has great implications, far beyond the liberation of the traditional missal, although they may not at first be apparent. These implications, I think, lie in the other qualifications of the constitution of a rite (as given in the Eastern Code), and bear greatly on our question, "is the Novus Ordo a new rite of the Church?"

Dear friends, I don’t think that I have the space in order to adequately explicate and argue one way or the other for the answer to this question - perhaps we are still too close in history to the Council to be able to judge such a thing. However, please allow me to make a few observations. After the Council, we were given a new liturgy, formed, not organically, but by a committee of “experts”. The substantial difference between the Tridentine Missal and the Missal of the post-Vatican II reform is sufficient enough for nearly all to agree that the Novus Ordo is in fact a formally new, albeit perhaps materially similar, usage of the Roman Rite.

But not only were we given a new liturgy, we were also given a new Code of Canon Law, adopting the legal language of modern political theory. Furthermore, the seminaries almost universally dropped St. Thomas from their formation programs in favor of modern philosophy and a “new theology” based upon the foundation of these modern philosophies.

In the implementation of all of these changes, an euphoric “spirit” of the Council was adopted as the new path to holiness in the modern world, throwing off the shackles of a “repressive” spirituality obsessed with peoples’ sins and medieval devotions while replacing it with an “all you need is love” sort of spirituality - one which could be summed up by the phrase “who am I to judge” as the modus vivendi for the Church in the modern world.

Fifty years after the Council, we are at a critical time in the history of the modern era of the Church. The answer to the question, “Is the Novus Ordo a new rite?”, I fear, is still very much an open one, and while the friction may rear its head most heatedly in the discussion of the Tridentine Mass versus the Mass of Paul VI, we should take care to have greater reference to the theological, spiritual, and disciplinary traditions in order to resolve the question. Benedict saw that, while a new rite could never be created de jure in the Church, [5] if things did not change dramatically, the West was well on its way to celebrating a new rite de facto.

This, I think, is the real mens behind the legislation Summorum Pontificum, and the particular genius of a Pope who, by his taking part in the reforms of the Council saw the dangers that accompany the adoption of a doctrine of progress. It is for this reason that we need Catholics who are not only devoted to the traditional liturgy, but also to the theological tradition accompanying the liturgy - to do anything less is to live a sort of duality within one’s own soul that will ultimately sow utter confusion and discord.

Benedict proposes that we must understand these new theologies, liturgies, and disciplines in the light of a hermeneutic of continuity. This, of course, is true - it is the only way to maintain the integrity of the one Roman Rite; and with regard to the Mass, it is the only way in which "These two expressions of the Church's Lex orandi will in not any way lead to a division in the Church's 'Lex credendi'". But especially with regard to those things which do not bear the charism of infallibility, perhaps the surest and most direct path to continuity with the patrimony of the Roman Rite that is given to us in the tradition is to be begin to discern which of those branches of the vine have not born the fruit that had been hoped for, and begin the pruning process, so that the whole vine might begin to bear good fruit once again.

The particular legislative genius of Summorum Pontificum has not yet been fully realized or appreciated - the recent unprecedented moves on traditional religious orders and academic institutions witnesses to this fact. I think that, in light of the particular reality that the Latin Church has found itself in at the beginning of this new millennium, Pope Benedict has shown us that the only way to stave off the natural schism (a “hermeneutic of rupture”) that occurs from two fundamentally opposed philosophical foundations is to be found in forming an intentional relation, a hermeneutic of continuity, between the Vetus Ordo and the Novus Ordo (and their accompanying theologies) as two forms of one rite.

The "auctoritas" [6] that the usus antiquior possesses will become the anchor for authentic liturgical renewal and reform, and, in turn, since lex credendi follows on lex orandi, the renewal of Catholic theology and life will continue to be enriched - proportionally, I would say - by the regularization of the particular theological and spiritual patrimony of the Vetus Ordo into the life of the Church as a whole.

The answer to the original question, “Is the Novus Ordo a new rite?” should be a simple one: “no, of course not!” The means of making this answer true lies in the work ahead, moving forward in faith, hope, and charity, and using the blueprint given to us by Benedict in his theology, his pastoral praxis, and in what will be perhaps the legacy of his pontificate, Summorum Pontificum.

[1.] Address of Paul VI at the Consistory for the naming of Cardinals, 24 May 1976.
[2.] Summorum Pontificum, a. 1.
[3.] CCEO 27
[4.] Griffin, Patrick. "Rites." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 21 Jan. 2014 <>.
[5.] The rites all have their origin in apostolic foundations, and thus, a truly new rite could never legitimately be erected.
[6.] Pope Benedict refers to the “auctoritas” possessed by the Vetus Ordo when he says “What was sacred for prior generations, remains sacred and great for us as well, and cannot be suddenly prohibited altogether or even judged harmful.” The question of what “auctoritas” the Novus Ordo might possess could be a fruitful subject for future reflection.

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