In recent days, with the rumors of a possible suppression or rollback of Summorum Pontificum, there has been a great deal of discussion about its status and meaning. I therefore thought it might be useful to reprint this consideration of the matter, originally published on the tenth anniversary. The short version is that the motu proprio is not a document about the history of the liturgy, but a legal provision, and should be read and understood as such.New Liturgical Movement: The Legal Achievement of Summorum Pontificum : Reprint from 2017
I propose here to consider what Pope Benedict XVI meant, and what he achieved, by categorizing the traditional Roman Mass and the post-conciliar reform of it as two Forms of the same Rite, the one Extraordinary and the other Ordinary. Before doing that, I believe it is necessary to establish a distinction between the terms which have historically been used to describe variations within a liturgy or liturgical family, namely, Rite and Use.
To the best of my knowledge, the distinction between Rite and Use has not been officially laid out anywhere in law by the Church; this is therefore purely my take on the matter.
For clarity’s sake, the variants of the same Rite should properly be called Uses, like the Sarum Use or Carmelite Use; this is what they were most commonly called before the Tridentine reform. For example, the frontispiece of the Sarum Missal says “Missale ad usum insignis ecclesiae Sarisburiensis – the Missal according to the Use of the famous church of Salisbury.”
It is true that even before Trent, there was some confusion between these terms, and Rite was occasionally said instead of Use; after Trent, the term Use became rare. The terminology was certainly never uniform, and many liturgical books do not use either term, and have just an adjective modifying the words Missale, Breviarium etc. The Dominicans said either “according to the Sacred Order of Preachers,” or “according to the Rite of the Sacred Order of Preachers.”
However, if we wish to establish a distinction between different liturgies on the one hand, and variants within a given liturgy on the other, while still keeping to some kind of historical terminology, it seems obvious that Rite is the more appropriate for the former, and Use for the latter. It would be absurd to describe the liturgies of the Eastern churches as “the Byzantine Use, the Coptic Use etc.,” when comparing them to “the Roman Use”; they are clearly and entirely different Rites. “Use”, on the other hand, was the predominant term for variants of the Roman Rite when there were many such variants celebrated throughout Western Europe.
All of the essential characteristics of the Roman Rite, such as the Ordo Missae and the structure of the Office, are the same from one Use to the other. They are not the same in other Rites. This applies not just to the Canon, but the whole structure of the Mass: Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, Collect(s), Epistle, Gradual, Alleluia etc. With minor variations, which are more variations of order than of wording, the bulk of the liturgical texts is the same as well. Searching through every missal or antiphonary of every Use of the Roman Rite, one will find the Introit Ad te levavi on the First Sunday of Advent, Populus Sion on the Second, etc. It is true that some of the later features of the Rite, mostly notably the Offertory prayers and the Sequences, differ considerably from one Use to another. These variations are nevertheless confined within certain clearly recognizable limits, have much in common with one another, and can therefore be grouped into families.
Furthermore, any proper Mass or Office written for one Use can be transposed into any of the others with no difficulty at all. (The same is true for any set of Offertory prayers or any Sequence.) For example, St Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, and wrote the Office and Mass of Corpus Christi according to the medieval French Use followed by his order. (The Office had nine responsories at Matins, rather than eight as in the Roman Use, a versicle between Matins and Lauds, etc.) Almost nothing needed to be done to adjust these texts for the Missal and Breviary according to the “Use of the Roman Curia”, which in the Tridentine reform became the Missal and Breviary of St Pius V.
However, when the Mass of Corpus Christi was added to the Ambrosian Rite, all kinds of adjustments had to be made: the addition of a first reading, the antiphon after the Gospel, the Oratio super sindonem, and the Transitorium, none of which exist in the Roman Rite, and the removal of the Sequence, which has never existed in the Ambrosian Rite. Vice versa, if one wanted to take the Ambrosian Mass of St Ambrose, for example, and transpose it into the Roman Rite, one would need to change it very considerably, adding a psalm verse and Gloria to the Ingressa to make an Introit, and removing the first reading, the antiphon after the Gospel, the Oratio super sindonem, and the Transitorium.
If we accept these definitions of Rite and Use, it seems to me very clear that neither of them is appropriate to describe the relationship between what we now call the two Forms of the Roman Rite. On the very basic level of what we usually see and hear in a Mass of the Ordinary Form and a Mass of the Extraordinary Form, they immediately appear to be two different Rites. The liturgist Fr Joseph Gelineau SJ famously declared à propos of the reformed Mass, “This needs to be said without ambiguity: the Roman Rite as we knew it no longer exists. It has been destroyed.” A statement of this sort cannot be glossed over as just the opinion of a single man; Fr Gelineau was a prominent figure in the liturgical reform, and highly esteemed by its most famous architect, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini. Similar statements, pro and con, have been made by many others. I cannot imagine any serious liturgical scholar applying similar language to any previous change within the Roman Rite.
On the basis of my transposition argument given above, (texts can easily be moved from one Use to another, but can be moved from one Rite to another much less easily, or not at all), it can be said that the EF and OF do share a certain identity. Most of any given block of Mass texts can be moved from one to the other fairly easily, or at least, much more easily than they could be moved between the Byzantine and Ambrosian Rites. However, considering that the post-conciliar reform was a far greater displacement of liturgical texts than had ever taken place before in the Roman Rite, and the significant ritual differences, it is much harder to argue that the EF and OF share an identity. Historically, this is an absolutely anomalous situation; there has never been a case of two Rites or Uses which shared so much and yet were so radically different.
Because of this, the identity of the two Forms of a single Rite as established by Summorum Pontificum has sometimes been described as a “legal fiction.” I submit that this is a wholly appropriate way of describing the situation, that the identity of the two Forms as a single Rite IS a legal fiction, and that this is a good thing.
A legal fiction is not the same thing as a lie. Adoption, for example, is a legal fiction, which states that in terms of law, this person is the child of that person. This is most emphatically not a false statement, even though the adopted child is not the natural offspring of the parent. The law’s recognition of the bond between a parent and child is perhaps the least significant thing about it, precisely because it does not create such a bond and cannot dissolve it. In this sense, adoption simply declares that the absence of a genetic relationship between two specific people is legally irrelevant, and that a parent-child relationship exists between them.
In a similar way, Pope Benedict’s action in creating two “Forms” was not intended to speak to the relationship between the EF and OF as a matter of liturgical or historical scholarship, but solely as a description of the relationship between them in law. It simply declares that the tenuous relationship between the two Forms is legally irrelevant.
As a matter of law, a priest of one Rite needs special faculties to celebrate Mass in another. This is a useful and perfectly sensible legal provision for a variety of reasons, and a long-standing one, but hardly a moral necessity per se; where deemed pastorally useful, the Church has been fairly flexible in granting such faculties. However, the whole point of Summorum Pontificum was to establish that a priest of the Roman Rite does not need any special faculty or permission to say the Mass according to the traditional Missal, as was the case under the indult Ecclesia Dei. I believe that Pope Benedict acted very wisely and conscientiously in adopting a completely different category from any other previously used, Form instead of Use or Rite, to get around an important legal problem, namely, that by any other solution, he would have made the vast majority of Catholic priests “bi-ritual.” That would have been a legal abomination without precedent.