by Matthew Walther

A specter is haunting Rome—the specter of the pope emeritus. Whatever one’s feelings about the former Joseph Ratzinger, one must admit that his case is a singular one. When he announced his resignation from “the power of office for the governance of the Church” in February 2013, many of us assumed that what remained of his life would be spent in silent contemplation as Monsignor Ratzinger, an anonymous retired bishop.

This is not what occurred. Instead the ghostly figure of Benedict XVI continues to speak (as Cardinal Manning once put it in a different context) with “the voice of one from the dead.” The pope emeritus has granted interviews, some of them exceptionally long; he has published books and allowed his name to be appended to statements affirming traditional doctrinal and disciplinary positions on the burning questions of the age (and those of the early 1970s).

More to the point, he has continued to wear white and to insist, in addition to his unprecedented title, upon the style of “His Holiness.” He meets with the newly created cardinals, and it would be absurd to deny that his book-length treatment of clerical celibacy was anything but an attempt to beleaguer progressive clergy. Archbishop Gänswein hints that the Petrine office is in some sense indelible, that amid this “divine state of emergency” some strange and unexpected magic has been drawn from the deposit of the faith, bifurcating the papacy into “an expanded ministry, with an active member and a contemplative member.”

Many of the faithful will be inclined to dismiss Gänswein’s speculations as so much windy nonsense, pseudo-mystical rubbish or (more charitably) as the devoted words of a trusted servant who cannot accept that his master’s great task has come to its end. But a certain guardedness and equivocality hangs upon Benedict’s own utterances. Consider the following comments from his Last Testament:

Of course a father does not stop being a father, but he is relieved of concrete responsibility. He remains a father in a deep, inward sense, in a particular relationship which has responsibility, but not with day-to-day tasks as such. . . . If he steps down, he remains in an inner sense within the responsibility he took on, but not in the function . . . one comes to understand that the office [munus] of the pope has lost none of its greatness.

This is a good reminder of why previous living ex-popes were either locked away or exiled to distant shores. Whether in wisdom or folly, Benedict’s abdication has forced him into a position in which he would no doubt prefer not to find himself: as the ultimate arbiter in a dispute about which he himself must surely be considered the final authority, at least in a moral sense. I mean of course, his own words, and the deepest intentions of his heart in 2007. Even those with a more exalted understanding of papal power than mine would surely agree that it is the living pope emeritus, and not the prefects of various Roman congregations, who is the most reliable guide to what he himself meant in Summorum pontificum.

There are really only two possible interpretations of Summorum pontificum. One of them is what I will call the “normative” understanding for the simple reason that until very recently it seemed to be the one that had gained the widest acceptance even by those who were not themselves in sympathy with it. The other I will call the “novel” interpretation.

To take them in reverse order, the novel interpretation reads Summorum pontificum in narrowly juridical terms. On this understanding, the only thing established by this motu proprio was permission for the widespread use of the older liturgical books, undertaken in the hope of reconciling the Society of Saint Pius X, one that was revocable at any time, for any reason—by Benedict himself or, since his resignation, by any of his successors. It is on the basis of this reading, which seems very difficult to square with various phrases (numquam abrogatam) in the text and with his own subsequent comments (“My intentions were not of a tactical nature, they were about the substance of the matter itself”), that Traditionis custodes was promulgated.

The normative interpretation would seem to put the question of the so-called “extraordinary form” beyond the purview of mere legislation. What Benedict seemed to be arguing in 2007 was that the right of celebrating Mass and the other sacraments according to the older books belonged to priests inherently as part of the patrimony of their ordination. This is a doctrinal rather than a disciplinary or juridical statement, and one that animated the faithful for nearly a decade and a half as the number of parishes offering the traditional Mass grew exponentially along with vocations to the various indult organizations. The seemingly inexorable logic of Summorum pontificum continued to unfold in one direction with the celebration of the pre-1955 rites of Holy Week, the creation of new propers for the traditional Mass, and the quasi-regularization of the S.S.P.X.

These two positions cannot be reconciled. One of them must be true and the other false. Either all the talk about how “What earlier generations held as sacred remains sacred and great for us too” was ornamental rhetoric and Benedict really was aimed only at the S.S.P.X. (as Archbishop Roche and others claim); or else, he was arguing for all time. As far as I am aware, he is the person best suited to answering the question and thus extricating us from the present dilemma.

This binary question does not exhaust the difficulties raised by Summorum pontificum viewed in light of subsequent legislation. (This is to say nothing of the maximalist interpretation of such legislation in such far-flung places as Costa Rica and Hamilton, Ontario.) Many of us have already asked ourselves how Benedict’s insistence that “there is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal” can be reconciled with what the professionalist “liturgists” tell us again, after a thankful respite of some years, about the expanded horizontal dimension of the Mass and the new theology of assembly and so on; the calls issuing forth from My Lord of Chicago and many others for traditionalists to be catechized in light of these developments only re-inforces one’s sense that either Benedict was wrong in 2007 or various prelates are today.

Finally, there is the question of “mutual enrichment” of the two “forms” of the Roman Rite, as Benedict termed them. I myself can think of two means by which such enrichment has taken place: celebration of Mass with the books of 1970 in a manner that would have been at least outwardly recognizable to Catholics of a previous generation—with the ancient Canon of the Mass designated as “Eucharistic Prayer I” to the exclusion of others, the ordinary in Latin, Gregorian chant, Communion administered kneeling and on the tongue, and so on—and the offering of the traditional Mass in ordinary parish settings.

The so-called “reform of the reform” had begun in many places long before 2007, but, with a handful of exceptions, most vigorously in settings where the traditional Mass would also be offered after Summorum pontificum. The offering of the traditional Mass in places other than oratories or chapels set aside specifically for its use, by priests who are not members of the various indult organizations, presents a more interesting case. Such celebrations not only enliven the liturgical lives of those parishes and cathedrals, and bring what had once been a rumor or a distant memory before the eyes of the ordinary faithful (I have seen it bring tears to the eyes of men and women who believed that it had vanished from the face of the earth); they also draw those attached to the Old Rite more closely into the workaday life of the Church, placing a check upon the exclusivist and (I daresay) occasionally rigid mentality that sometimes betrays the theological notes of what Monsignor Ronald Knox called “enthusiasm.”

The most common interpretation of Traditiones custodes seems to render both Benedict’s insistence upon non-contradiction and his call for mutual enrichment not only untenable but absurd. There can be no such enrichment because we are told there is only a single “unique” expression of the Roman Rite (the question of the Ordinariate liturgical books or the Mozarabic Rite is always conveniently elided in these discussions somehow). It is not only licit but salutary for bishops to forbid the celebration of Mass ad orientem and other practices (including the wearing of cassocks) that are sources of unspeakable corruption. Such contagions must not be introduced into the hygienic space occupied by the new irreformable rite.

As I say, most of this will strike most fair-minded observers as untenable, to say the least. But for all that, one suspects that more than a few readers—including, indeed perhaps especially, those who sympathize with my presentation of these difficulties—will respond that an intervention by Benedict himself would be disastrous. It would (they argue) give rise to the Church equivalent of a constitutional crisis; it would encourage speculations even more outré than those of which Gänswein has unburdened himself. Worse still, it might elicit an unexpected answer. 

This last fear should be faced head on. It would of course be painful to learn that we had been quite mistaken, that high altars had been restored and Glorias chanted and candles held aloft in the dark, while he sat, silent and misunderstood, politely scornful of our youth and folly. If this happened, I think the overwhelming majority would accept a hard truth and continue as best they could according to their lights. Some would almost certainly take refuge in the Eastern Rites (at least until some new juridical mechanism prevented such transfers); others still would embrace the Orthodox schism. A minority would perhaps incline toward sedevacantism. But for some untold number the bottom would simply fall out, and the faith would be lost.

All of that sounds rather gloomy, so I should be clear about my own views. I find it very difficult to believe that, if asked, Benedict would say that an entire generation of priests and laymen had simply been mistaken. (Indeed, in interviews he has already offered a more or less explicit refutation of the argument that he had been narrowly concerned with the S.S.P.X.: “That is just absolutely false! It was important for me that the Church is one with herself inwardly, with her own past; that what was previously holy to her is not somehow wrong now.”) Rather, I suspect that his response would be that of Prufrock’s female interlocutor: “That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.”

Which is why, with further restrictions upon the traditional Mass rumored for Ash Wednesday, I repeat my central contention that Benedict must speak about his intentions, and that he must do so unequivocally, without regard for the consequences of doing so. Such a clarification from him might not be enough to prevent the enemies of the old Mass from carrying out their plans. And it would certainly not have any obvious juridical force, even if it would expose the central premise of the other side as a preposterous fiction. But it would also be a moment of sublime clarity, and the last desperate fulfillment of that continuing paternal responsibility to which he has alluded.

Thus would the pope emeritus find himself in the position of Odin in C.S. Lewis’s hypothetical vision of a pagan end time: “They have misled you. I can do nothing of that sort for you. My long struggle with the blind forces is nearly over. I die, children. The story is ending.”

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