Priests learning from the past: De Defectibus

As we come to the 2nd anniversary of Summorum Pontificum it is good to review some of the motives behind Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio, his "emancipation proclamation" for the older, traditional forms of the Roman Rite.

Pope Benedict is concerned that there had been a break in the organic development of the Church’s worship.  This rupture in the Church’s worship life has affected every other aspect of the Church, how Catholic perceive themselves and how they act in the world.

One of the reasons why the Holy Father issued Summorum Pontificum was to effect a course correction in the way the newer, post-Conciliar forms of liturgy. 

He foresees that side by side celebrations of the older form will have a "gravitational effect" on the way the newer forms are celebrated. 

This is, in fact, what is taking place, especially as younger priests – free from the baggage of the 60’s-80’s – are learning about the older forms which they never experienced in their youth.  Through a familiarity with the older forms, they are learning more about what Holy Mass is, what they are doing at the altar and who they are as priests.

This is part of Pope Benedict’s "Marshall Plan" for the Church.

These younger priests, and lay people as well, are absorbing something of the wisdom of past centuries.  For example, say a person wants to learn about the older form of Holy Mass, the TLM.  He picks up some old books – maybe found in used bookstores (such at Loome’s) or maybe the seminary library or the basement of a rectory.  Maybe he orders the reprint of Fortescue-O’Connell, or Reid’s new verison of the same, or an older edition of the same and starts to read. He peruses a volume such as O’Connell’s The Celebration of Mass (1959).

Right away he discovers a very different attitude about the way Mass is celebrated. 

Once upon a time, the Missale Romanum itself contained directives, in the section called De defectibus, which indicated that some defects could be either venial or mortal sins.  That is, there was a moral judgment about some defects.  This section, still present in the 1962 Missale Romanum, was removed from the post-Conciliar editions of the Missale Romanum. That is to say, it is not in any edition of the Novus Ordo. 

The argument was, if I understand correctly, that since that was an issue of moral theology, the distinction did not belong in the Missale Romanum.  I think this is one of the reasons why experimentation began to deform the way the Novus Ordo was celebrated.  Once "changing the rite" was separated from "sin"… the floodgates opened.  This took place in an environment in which there may have been an overly rigid approach to liturgical rites, perhaps inculcated by instructors with jansenist tendencies.  There was, subsequently, a sharp backlash in the minds of some priests against any rubrics.

Back to my point….

If you look in pre-Conciliar editions of manuals designed to help seminarians and priests learn how to say Mass, to train seminarians and priests in the art and concrete crafts of the Church’s worship, you usually find a chapter on defects.  I maintain that a review of these old books can be very useful today.  Reading these old books especially through the lens of Pope Benedict’s Sacramentum caritatis (which presents us with a reflection on the priest’s ars celebrandi) could be of enormous practical use to seminarians and younger priests today.

Let’s have a look at a snippet of O’Connell’s The Celebration of Mass (1959) focusing on the section which concerns…


10. Despite a custom to the contrary – which is expressly reprobated in the Code of Canon Law (Canon 818 [that is, the old Code, now superseded by the 1983 CIC]) – the Celebrant of Mass is "to observe accurately and devoutly the rubrics" of the Missal, "and take care not to add other ceremonies or prayers by his own authority".  Arbitrarily to change in any way – by addition, omission, or transposition – the rite of the Mass is unlawful.  So strict is the interpretation of this law that the S.R.C. [Sacred Congregation of Rites] refused to allow the Celebrant of Mass, for the purpose of gaining a rich indulgence, to pronounce, even in a low tone, the words "My Lord and my God," while looking on the Sacred Host at the Elevation, and cited Canon 818 to justify this refusal.

11. Whether the mutilation of the rite of Mass would be a grave sin, or a venial one, or no sin at all (for a sufficient cause) is discussed by the moral theologians.  Their reply is that this will depend on: (a) the motive for changing – is it due to contempt for the rubrics, to culpable ignorance of them, to gross indifference and carelessness, or from mere human frailty, like inculpable forgetfulness, or inattention, or from "devotion" of a wrong kind?  (b) The nature and extent of the change – is it one that seriously concerns the reverence due to the Blessed Eucharistic, does it occur in an important part of the Mass (important in itself or because of some extrinsic reason, such as the mystical meaning of the part), is the addition, or omission, serious because of its length?  It is regarded as grave to make even a comparatively small change in the Canon of the Mass, because of its intimate connexion with the sacrifice; and it is more serious to have omission in the ordinary parts of the Mass, the parts that occur in every, or almost every Mass, than in extraordinary parts which occur sometimes only.  Thus the omission of all the Prayers of Preparation at the foot of the altar, of the Gospel, of several of the Offertory prayers, would be regarded as a notable omission; to omit the purification of the paten (unless there were no visible participles on it) or chalice, would be a grave want of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament; to omit the addition of water to the wine in the chalice, or the Fraction of the Sacred Host, or the commingling of the two Sacred Species, would be a serious omission because of the mystical meaning of these rites.  But to omit the Gloria, or Creed, or prayers of commemoration, or the last Gospel would not, ordinarily, be regarded as a grave omission.


12. Arbitrarily to add prayers or ceremonies, with the intention of introducing a new rite, or to a notable extent (especially prayers not found in the Missal), would be a grave violation of liturgical law. To add the Gloria (on days when it should be omitted), or collects not allowed by the rubrics, or ejaculatory prayers would not, ordinarily, be grave.  In general, private (vocal) prayers may not be introduced into the rite of Mass, except where the rubrics provide for it, e.g., at each memento, after the reception of the Sacred Hosts.


13. The directives of De Defectibus do not, generally speaking, encourage the repairing of nonessential omissions (cf. e.g., V, 2). If the Celebrant should omit anything belonging to the validity, or the integrity (e.g., the Offertory), of the rite of Mass, he must, of course, repair the omission.  If an omission be trivial, it need not be supplied, and may not be, if it is not noticed at once.  If an omission be notable (though not concerned with the validity or integrity of the sacrifice) and can be easily made good – because, e.g., it is noticed almost at once – and without causing scandal, it should be.  Thus, if the Celebrant omitted, in error, the Gloria, or a commemoration, or the Creed, he must not interrupt the Mass to repair the omission; but he may, indeed should, repair it, if he adverts to it almost immediately.

The book goes on to describe defects in the matter for Mass, the bread and wine, what is necessary for validity, how to determine of the bread and wine are still good to use for Mass, what to do if there is some problem during Mass.  It describes defects of form, that is, in the words for consecration, and also defects in intention.  There is a section on the defect of the state of soul for Mass and in bodily preparation.  What to do in the face of interruptions in the celebration of Mass such as if the celebrant is taken ill or even dies.  What to do if there are accidents with the Host or Precious Blood. … You get the idea.  I have written about some of these points in a humorous way here.

This is all very useful.  The point is not – as some claim – to make the celebrant nervous or scrupulous in an unhealthy way.  Rather, it conveys something of a deeper attitude about what Holy Mass is, about how important it is.  It reveals something as well of the intimate connections which exist between the Sacrifice, the rites, the matter, form and the priest himself.

Even though this section seems to have been dropped from post-Conciliar editions of these famous manuals, it strikes me as being important for every young priest and seminarian to have read this chapter at least once.  There are within some very practical pointers.

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  1. FrCharles says:

    Through a familiarity with the older forms, they are learning more about what Holy Mass is, what they are doing at the altar and who they are as priests.

    Ordained priest as I was on the Saturday preceding the appearance of Summorum pontificum, you have described my journey thus far. Thanks for the encouragement! Oh, and yes, I have my bilingual, FSSP copy of the Ritus servandus and the De defectibus right here lying around on my desk.

  2. Mitchell NY says:

    It has been removed from the Novus Ordo Missal, however still remained in the 1962 version. Are we to assume then that any Priest learning the 1962 rite of Mass will also come across De defectibus in their preparation or do they have to seek it out? And having been determined as “moral thology” not belonging in the Missale Romanum, then do Seminarians learn this in a moral theology class in their formation?, or has it just been disregarded completely in NO formation?

  3. The Digital MC says:

    I find that both the “Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described” by Adrian Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell & Alcuin Reid OSB and “The Celebration of the Mass” by Rev. J.B. O’Connell are exceedingly helpful for advanced altar-boys and MCs as well. I own both books and avail myself of them often.

  4. Tina in Ashburn says:

    After reading something like this, I have to wonder how all our rituals got changed at all.

  5. Tina: I think what happened was, perhaps, the systemic separation of liturgical abuses from the concept of sin.

  6. beez says:

    It’s also true, however, that #22 of Sacrosanctum Concilium states:

    22. 1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.

    2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.

    3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.

    I would like to see the addendum back in the Missale Romanum, I think it’s quite clear that “Spirit of the Council” concepts not withstanding, the Holy Council never intended or authorized priests to experiment with Christ’s Mass when they are celebrating it.

    At my seminary, we’re thinking of slipping this part of The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy into a few of the faculty member’s mailboxes. :)

  7. FrCharles says:

    In my limited experience, mostly as a younger religious, it has seemed to me that the culture of liturgical abuse–as I have experienced and suffered it–derives from an incomplete idea of the liturgy (whether it be Mass or the Hours). Liturgy is seen as the communal prayer of the immediate participants, sometimes without a strong connection to the rest of the Church, much less the Churches suffering or triumphant. When it is just us gathered in our comfy circle, all hugs and songs that exalt us ourselves, then it makes some sense to adjust, omit, and change that which does not suit our fancy.

  8. Hidden One says:

    Where could one find De defectibus online?

  9. lmgilbert says:

    Whether in De Defectibus or some document derived from it, I remember reading that it was a mortal sin for a priest at Mass to extend his hands beyond his shoulders when praying!

    A good case could be made that this kind of moral theology killed our liturgy. Who would not want to throw off such a deadly weight of oppressive minutiae?

    While we are reforming the reform, I hope that we do not fail to maintain legitimate aggiornamento. The hermeneutic of continuity also includes this concept, I would hope! Presumably, there is also a legitimate “Spirit of the Council,” that can save us from falling back into the kind of mentality that is the annihilation of “the freedom of the sons of God.”

  10. Frank H says:

    There are four good columns on this topic on the website of Detroit’s St Josaphat Church, the heart of the TLM community in Detroit. Scroll halfway down the page…

    While you are there, there is a LOT of good material to peruse.

  11. ssoldie says:

    I am so tired of the so called ‘spirit’ of the council enough, enough, I have always wondered if the Holy Spirit of the council was with those who did the clapping and laughting that took place when Cardinal Ottiavani’s microphone was cut off? I believe they were called the progressive’s. But as for me, I will pray the 1500 year ‘Gregorian Rite Mass’, not the banal, on the spot manufactured, fabricated liturgy, that came out of the pastoral council of Vatican II.

  12. Sid says:

    We MEFers need to pony up and to help priests and seminarians who are willing to learn and then to offer the MEF; that is, we need to help pay for these books. Cheap they ain’t.

    Likewise, if a priest or seminarian wishes to attend instruction for the MEF, we need to help with his tuition. That usually ain’t cheap either.

  13. Miles Dei says:


    I assume you meant no harm with your comment, but I think you may want to do a little self-editing before making a comment like that as it paints a very bad picture of not only the traditional liturgical practice of the Church but also those who care for it. If you have a citation, please share it – otherwise, you might do well to actually read De Defectibus so you may see the types of defects mentioned therein. I am by no means an expert on the liturgy, and I hope others may be able to chime in about this, but I have never seen the defect of bodily gesture you mentioned (hands held too far apart) listed as a mortal sin. If you search for “De Defectibus” via, you will immediately find several websites with the original Latin text or one of several English translations.

    The reason I wanted to point this out, lmgilbert, is that too many people have decried the supposed pharisaical-nature of the TLM, more often than not, to disparage the liturgy or those who are fond of it. Other examples I have seen or heard include an obsession with correct bows, methods of holden the paten, proper way of folding hands, the tone and level of voice, and so on. While all these items are important to a varying degree, they are important not in-and-of-themselves or for self-righteous reasons, but because the priests and other ministers take the sacrifice of the Mass very seriously. I would venture a guess, though have no hard evidence, that more often than not those priests that are precise liturgically are also precise spiritually (good confessors, good preachers, and so on). If there were not a concern for precise liturgy, nobody would have ever heard about abuses at Mass, “reform of the reform” and so forth.

  14. RichR says:

    Fr. Charles makes an insightful comment above. I wonder if fabricaring a new liturgy and excisin many cherished rituals of the Mass has destroyed any sense of connection with generations past – and as such the best people can do is to simply vcerlebrate their connetion with te physically present at that Mass.

    My schola sang for a Nuptial Mass(EF) this weekend, and the Groom and Bride were converts. Since most in the congregation were Protestant, the printed program had a lot of groundwork to lay so that the congregation would understand what was happening. In the introduction, the program pointed out that this was the litury that Catholic couples like Marie Antoinette had, St. Thomas offerred, and even Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer while they were Catholic. You really felt the connection with Christian history.

  15. lmgilbert says:

    Miles Dei,

    Thanks for your comments and kind fraternal correction. However, I have seen that statement in print, though I cannot find it now.

    Correctness is one thing, and a desirable thing, but to achieve that correctness by minutely circumscribing the movements and words of the celebrating priest under pain of mortal sin is quite another. Whether this was done by decrees of legitimate authorities or whether I was only reading the opinion of a particularly severe moral theologian, I do not know at this point, but I am pretty sure that that sort of teaching was prevalent.

  16. Joshua08 says:

    Well neither O’Connell nor the De Defectibus list that as a mortal sin.

    That mentality was not prevalent, as can be seen by how badly the old Mass had often been celebrated. Indeed, very few places were meticulous in their rubrics

    I also want to point out that the minutiae are important. A thing here and there not as much, but added together it creates a general effect of solemnity when movements are deliberate and ordered. I have been to many Novus Ordos which are in many ways ideal…complete following of rubrics, Latin, kneeling for communion, but the casualness that the priest carried himself with detracted. There is a middle path, and Fortsecue I think had a healthy attitude, as did O’Connel and as does Alcuin Reid (who are together the most influential English speaking rubricists for the old rite). They describe things in detail, but at the same time avoid ulcers by not being perfect

    The following was said about O’Connell “for all his punctiliousness over detail he was never a fanatic and could laugh at himself and others at their outrageous infringement of ceremonial law”. Fortescue actually mocked his own work as a rubricist “My cat was spending time in sane and reasonable pursuits, chasing birds in the garden, climbing trees, or sleeping in his basket, while I was describing the conduct of the second MC at pontifical Vespers not at the throne. And they affect to believe that we lead a nobler life than beasts…”

    Are there those that are overly-fastidious, sure. But to not care at all about minutiae is also an error. When I went on my first date I must have passed my face with a razor with 5 passes, to be as well shaved as possible. I cleaned my car, brushed my teeth a third time, flossed (and I rarely floss), etc because I care for the person I was to be with and wanted to do my very best. How much more care should I give to the worship I offer God? Yes, avoid scruples. Mistakes will happen. But should I not at least be as fastidious with God as I would be on a date?

  17. Mike Morrow says:

    It was asked: “Where could one find De defectibus online?”

    An English translation is at:

    The original in Latin may be easily found with a google search.

  18. Rellis says:

    One minor correction: the Pope has not called for a “gravitational pull,” bringing the new form closer to the old. That is a term of art unique to this blog.

    Rather, he has called for “mutual enrichment” of the two forms. In the new form, the traditional practices should be revivified. In the older form, some of the organic development present in the 1970 M.R. might be used (new saints, new prefaces, some slimming down, etc.)

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