What is meant by “abrogate”?

St. Pope Pius VIn earlier entries I offered that the Pope might simply make a statement about the older form of Mass not ever having been "abrogated".  I got some mail on that asking me what "abrogate" means, and what it means here.  I am not a canonist by training, but here goes.  I am sure that one of the frequent participants here, a canonist, will jump in.

First, suffice to say that a Pope is not bound by his predecessors in matters of discipline (the legal ordering of the life of the Church).  The 1570 Bull Quo primum of Pope St. Pius V, by which he promulgated the older "Tridentine" form of the Missale Romanum, is a matter of discipline.  Neither Paul VI nor Benedict XVI (now happily reigning) are bound by Quo primum.  A Pope is free to promulgate a missal as he deems it useful for the life of the Church.  As a matter of fact, Pope Clement VIII put out a new edition in 1604.  The changes made were not huge changes (like those of the Missal of Paul VI), but they were changes nonetheless.

Pope Paul VIAt the same time, the words of the laws that govern the Church need to be interpreted.  When clear, they are easy to understand.  When vague, they ought to be clarified when questions of the laws application arise.  "Abrogate" means to abolish completely, in such a way that you cannot appeal even to long-standing custom.  A good example of this is found the Congregation for Divine Worship’s widely ignored document entitled Redemptionis Sacramentum:

[65.] It should be borne in mind that any previous norm that may have admitted non-ordained faithful to give the homily during the eucharistic celebration is to be considered abrogated by the norm of canon 767 §1. This practice is reprobated, so that it cannot be permitted to attain the force of custom.

["Reprobate" means to abolish something in a quite severe way so as to make it impossible to appeal to custom even after future violations of law over a long time (as was the case with altar girls, etc. etc.).  But we are not talking about "reprobate" here, but "abrogate".]

Holy MassIn Quo primum Pius V established three basic things: 1) he established use of the Missale Romanum everywhere in the Church (while providing for the use of ancient rites in some places), 2) he established its use in perpetuity, and 3) he acknowledged that the use of the texts and rite was ancient and venerable (and thus it can be called an immemorial custom). 

There is no question that a subsequent Pope had the authority to abolish the legal force any or all of these things done by Pius V in 1570.  However, it has to be clear that he intends to abolish them.  A Pope could abolish all of the points, or only some of the points.  There is a question about the intent of Paul VI’s promulgation in 1969 of the so-called Novus Ordo.  Did Paul VI intend that the older form of Mass was "completely abolished"? 

Apparently not, since Pope Paul immediately permitted use of the older Mass under certain circumstances.  For example, older priests could still use the older Mass and some places in England could continue its use.  What Paul VI seems to have done is derogate from part of Quo primum in promulgating a new order of Mass.  "Derogate" means abolish just part of a law.  He did not abrogate, or abolish all of the points.

If this is true, and Paul VI in promulgating the Novus Ordo by means of his Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum then it can be argued with some conviction that the older form of Mass is still entirely usable by priests of the Latin rite. 

Pope John Paul IIAt the same time, the interpretation of law is governed not just be the specific words, but also by praxis or the way in which laws are actually applied.  The fact is that in his 1988 Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta the late Holy Father Pope John Paul II intended to "broaden" the legislation he had already provided in 1984 concerning use of the older form of Mass.  This means that, if he broadened it, he must have thought it was too narrow.  And if it was narrow, there must have been some restrictions on use of the older Missale.  That is, priests weren’t completely free to use it any time they wished after all.  Furthermore, the Holy See issued faculties to use the older form of Mass.  I have those faculties.  The Holy See would not issue faculties if there were no need to do so.  So, even if there were somewhere a total mistake in the interpretation of both Quo primum of Pius V and Missale Romanum of Paul VI, the praxis of the Curia during the reign of Pope John Paul II and now Benedict XVI implies there are restictions.

This is a good foundation for why His Eminence Jorge Card. Medina Estévez said that although the older form of Mass "was never abrogated", and that the use of the old rite "is consequently legitimate," nevertheless it still seems necessary to "maintain some norms for the good order of liturgical life in the dioceses." 

Note that last point: good order.

Pope Benedict XVIWe know what would happen if blanket permission was declared by Benedict XVI.  Some imprudent priests, perhaps even a few wackos, would immediately subject their people to the older Mass (celebrated more or less properly) despite the fact that a) the people haven’t seen it for nearly 40 years and b) many don’t want it and c) the priest is not perhaps thinking of what is truly best for the people in the parish.  There would no doubt be some dust-ups and fights here and there.  People would get mad.  Bishops would justly or unjustly, directly or by indirection, hammer the priests in question.  Eventually things would settle down, of course.  Let’s not blow these kerfuffles into hurricanes, after all.  Still, given the present lack of ability of many priests and bishops to deal directly with each other in a manly and respectful way, many bishops will want to avoid even the possibility of a scrum. 

That is understandable, I guess, even if it is a bit stingy.  I don’t think we should, at any cost, avoid conflict over important issues.  Sometimes (not al the time) what avoiding conflict costs is growth.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Cardinal Arinze has also cautioned against a blanket indult and many have taken this to indicate a hositily on his part to the older rite.But it was Arinze who said that the older rite should be called the “classic rite” and that it should be aavailable wherever people want it.The Pope should allow every pastor to have one mass in the old rite;he would need the permision of the Bishop to have more than one.Also the bishop must make sure the priest knows latin and the rite.We should not foist the classic rite on people,we should draw them to it.

  2. Jeff says:

    I would note that Msgr. Gamber says that in “The Reform of the Roman Liturgy” that it is highly questionable “to say the least” whether any Pope would even have the POWER to, not abolish, but even CHANGE, a legitimate rite of the Church. Gamber, P. 39. Cardinal Ratzinger responded to this outrageous claim by writing the Preface for the book, which is full of praise and without a note of even cautious criticism.

    Ratzinger himself says that rites of the Church develop like Scripture did, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They are like the Creeds, he says. Can a Pope abrogate the use of a Creed? The Pope is not some kind of absolute monarch, but a servant of Tradition, he says. This is in the “Spirit of the Liturgy”, the chapter titled “Rite”

    I think part of the argument against abrogation is that it is impossible, in part because it is unthinkable!

    Let me add that I am quite comfortable with the Novus Ordo and have no beef about it when well celebrated. I quite see the arguments for reform and in some ways I prefer the reforms to to the older practices. I merely note the authorities and the arguments involved and point to their surprisingly radical nature. Most of us, including myself, simply assumed for years that the Pope had reformed the Mass and loyal Catholics should shut up and obey. Now I have to argue with a Pope in order to think that: so… I give up!

Comments are closed.