Order, preference, authority heirarchy of documents in liturgical matters

There is a very good post by Fr. Christopher Smith at The Chant Café raised by, but not limited to, the norms issued by the Diocese of Phoenix for Communion under both kinds.

Some excerpts:


People all over the blogosphere were quick to turn to Church documents to support their positions for and against Olmstead’s now reversed decision. I was one of them, and even posted some of the pertinent documents in a post on Chant Café. As I watched the commentary on this issue develop, I came to realize something which frankly makes me quite uncomfortable. Everyone could appeal to authoritatively binding Church documents, without modifying or falsifying their meaning, for their position.

So this begs the question: what is the proper hierarchy of documents related to the liturgy? Theologians before the Second Vatican Council often used a system to rank the relative gravity of theological propositions: de fide divina, de fide ecclesiastica, and so on. That system has disappeared, and so there is a lack of clarity as what the weight of a papal encyclical is as opposed to, oh, for example, a note of the Vatican dicastery Iustitia et pax, or a comment made by the Pope in an interview on an airplane and an instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


Against the bewildering plethora of liturgical documents in different times and places, with no discernible ranking as to their weight and authority, we have several levels of actual practice, which are in turn sometimes enshrined in law. We have the practice of the Roman Pontiff, we have the norms of the Universal Church, the norms of the Episcopal Conferences, the norms of individual Ordinaries, the policies and praxis of individual pastors, then of individual celebrants, and then the idiosyncracies of all of them. In turn, again, we have the multiplication of endless options in the liturgical books themselves for everything under the sun, and then the reality that there are many priests and communities that just do whatever they want.


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  1. Papabile says:

    Maybe we don’t commonly use the old dogmatic way of clarifying levels of theological belief (though I am aware that it is formally still generally used by the CDF in evaluating propositions).

    But please…. comparing an Encyclical to a white paper from Iustitia et Pax? And not knowing which one binds more? It’s very clear which one constitutes the magisterium vs. which one constitutes simply papal policy.

    Do not get me wrong…. I am all for the Holy Father exerting his secular power. I am all for him binding Catholics to certain secular positions. But Iustitia et Pax can’t do it.

    Next, with respect to liturgical documents and which have binding authority…. In the past it was pretty clear when the SRC published it’s Authentic Decrees. However, the vast majority of dubia that are now answered are considered private responses, even if they were published in Notitiae. Therefore, they apply only to those that received them. The value of knowing these exist is it gives insight into the general mind of the Church.

    With respect to liturgy, one can turn to the truly magisterial documents, and the IGMR to see what binds generally. Keeping in mind, of course, that the general national differences in the IGMR are derogations from the general liturgical law, and it may never ultimately supersede the Universal law.

  2. jmgazzoli says:

    We’re talking about praxis, man!

  3. Papabile,

    I would be careful in using the term ‘Liturgical Law’ because it doesn’t adaquately reflect the character of rubrical norms in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. There are, of course, laws in the CIC that pertain to the Liturgy, however, there was a deliberate move to exclude Rubrics from Laws in the publication of the current CIC.

    I think this goes to the point that Fr. Z makes in his post. There was a way to differentiate the authority of documents that pertain to the Liturgy. However, with the seperation of rubrical norms from the law of the Church it has made things a lot more hazy.

    Of course, there is a bit of common sense that must be applied. The general principles of interpretation of laws, directives, norms, etc, lead us to understand that a document’s proximity to the law, directive, etc, giver is to be accorded with greater authority than one more removed. This is true unless there is a provisions where a more remote authority/document is granted greater authority for some good reason (Pastoral Necessity comes to mind).

  4. Fr. Smith not only states the problem, but also identifies its source:

    “If the Second Vatican Council in Lumen gentium was all about helping us to discover the Church once again as Communion, which Joseph Ratzinger’s theology so eloquently argued that it was, then is it possible that the liturgical reform after Sacrosanctum concilium has hidden within it germs which threaten that very same communion?”

  5. Andy Milam says:

    Yes Henry. I completely agree. There is another part of this post which I responded to, which is directly above that particular paragraph. I make mention, because I fit his mold as a theological and liturgical nerd:

    “This is not just a question for theology or liturgy nerds. Its answer is vital to communion in the Church. Now that Pope Benedict XVI’s principle of the hermeneutic of continuity has become the cornerstone for what some see as a proper interpretation, not only of the Second Vatican Council, but of everything in the life of the Church, we have to ask: how do we establish that hermeneutic?”

    I think that the steps are these:

    1. The rubrics of the Novus Ordo must be reworked to eliminate any and all ambiguity. I know that is a mighty undertaking, but necessary. Understanding of course that the GIRM isn’t Liturgical Law, but merely guidelines or suggestions, but returning the proper idea of Liturgical Law works here too.
    2. The orientation of the Mass must return to an oriented position.
    3. The communion rail (or some facsimile therein) must return.
    4. The use of Latin must become mandatory except for the most extraordinary of reasons.

    That starts the discussion on the Liturgy. Now on to Catechesis:

    1. I think that the Holy Father must create a universal and complete catechetical program.
    2. He must oblige his bishops to follow this program.
    3. He must oblige his bishops to TEACH the faithful as opposed to be an administrator of a conglomerate. (That is why bishops have chancellors, FYI).

    This starts the discussion on catechesis. Now onto Catholic life:

    1. Until recently, there was a time when there was a Catholic life in most towns, that needs to be resurrected.
    2. This will fall on pastors and their “teams” to do. It really isn’t that hard, most pastors grew up in that era and would recall how things were done. But, this cannot be done out of nostalgia, or simple reminiscing, but rather it must be done with an authentic goal of bringing a Catholic life back to the faithful.
    3. This can be done in several ways…a) Devotions. Start them up again. If people have a reason to gather, they will. b) The Extraordinary Form. The Holy Father wants it, and it is a way to do “something new, different and en vogue” from a Catholic point of view. c) Offer Confession. I don’t mean 15 minutes before Holy Mass, or by appointment. I mean putting hours a week in “the box.” Confessions will rejuvenate a parish if the faithful know it is available. BTW, by doing the appointment thing, the secretary is then made aware of who is coming for confession and people don’t come to confession, well, unless there is something to confess. And that starts the gossip mill, because we all know that the secretary is the biggest gossip in the parish, next to the curate (tongue-in-cheek, most parishes don’t have a curate). d) Get girls out of the sanctuary. The existence of sodalities leads to grown up things for women like Altar and Rosary Societies, Legion of Mary, etc…If sodalities exist and the girls are encouraged to join, then several things happen….boys will start serving again, girls will have something special (because that is all the girls want), and vocations can be fostered (in both directions).

    That starts the discussion on Catholic life. And finally:

    We must get the faithful out of the sanctuary. Bottom line. There is no reason the priest (or deacon) cannot read the readings, bring the gifts over from the credence (eliminate the offertory procession, it is useless), and distribute Holy Communion. And for God’s sake, please kick the cantor to the choir loft, with an organ….that is where they belong. (Pianos are still verboten, I have yet to find a document from the Holy See (recognitio) which lifts that little tome from Tra le Sollectitudini.) These are all extraordinary ministries which have been granted de facto status of being a right of the laity. Prior to the Bugnini reforms, the priest handled all of these things, why can’t he today? The short answer is, he can. And the even shorter answer is that it is in his privy to do so. Will there be hurt feelings, sure; but that will last a week. Will there be talk, sure; but there will be talk anyways. So, I think that the sooner the pastor bites the bullet and does it, the better off he will be.

    This is how we establish the hermeneutic. Can it be done? You bet. Will it sting? You bet. Will the faithful be better off for it? You bet. Now is the time, with the new translation, they will be more open to change…but alas…we’re just talking and realistically, nothing will be done….unless priests become more bold and start taking risks…there is more to being a pastor than making sure the parish reaches $5000/Mass per Sunday.

  6. AnnAsher says:

    I think I’ll go over to Chant Cafe and see if he offers a succinct answer for my friends who can not comprehend the complexity of the Church.

  7. Lurker 59 says:

    I agree with what Fr. Christopher Smith has to say — there is and can be confusion over the proper hierarchy of documents, especially when we are dealing with documents that are “pastoral” rather than “doctrinal”. My BA and MA in theology come from different universities and the way each university used the various Church documents was different, even from within the department at my undergraduate university. I can say though at neither university was a proper hierarchy of documents explicitly taught — it was more so implicit. I also find that an individual is more traditional or more modern depending on how they personally view which documents take precedence.

    When we look at documents, there is often the problem of legalism — because a document says that it is ok it is ok to do. Most of the time the question of whether or not a practice is being tolerated is ignored.

  8. Johnno says:

    The Devil loves to sow confusion!

    What was that Biblical line? About not messing up the simplicity that is Christ? Only once the basics are drilled into the laity, will it then be possible to elevate them spiritually to comprehend more complex things.

    Adding to what Andy Milam said:

    1. Parents should raise their children in the faith at home! DO NOT count on your pastor, or Sunday School, and ESPECIALLY NOT your ‘Catholic’ Schools to do that for you!

    2. Start embracing the Bible and its inerrancy. It’s not just some Protestant thing! It goes hand in hand with the teachings of the Church. It’s not one and not the other. It’s both together! Get down to Bible classes! There are many great DVD programs from good Catholic Resources! Get together with people in your parish/neighborhood and pitch in money to get them. Keep them for years to come to instruct more people in your parish. If the priest is too busy, or worse, too lazy, I’m sure someone is capable of popping a DVD in and letting good lecturers do the job! Start embracing this long existing technology known as the internet and television! Get stuff on the Bible, Catholic Theology, Apologetics, Science and Creationism, there is so much good stuff out there. Find reliable resources and take advantage of them!

    3. BRING BACK THE HOLY INQUISITION! If you won’t change the CDF’s name back, then start a new office, Lord knows we have a whole bunch already… The Inquisition returning will send a clear message and get everyone talking and hopefully scared a little (the misconceptions about the Inquisition so permeated in today’s culture could actually work to our benefit a little by making a serious impression). Make this group specifically answerable to the Pope, and they are to be intimidating with no room for niceties (we have enough of those, and if people persist in their apostate actions despite the nice warnings, then upon the third strike call in the Inquisitors). Their job is to investigate and purge the ranks of all heretics who do not recant or those trapped within misconduct through firing some people or suspending some people who are found to be in clear violation (Of course if anyone should honestly reform, or be found to have been misudged, then of course take action to apologize and reinstate them, but of course we’ll want to keep the latter thing to a minimum). Open branches of the Inquisition worldwide formed of clerical and even lay members, trained to investigate the facts only and relay them to the Vatican directly (depending on the complexity of the case or ramifications, otherwise most things should be obvious).

  9. Hidden One says:


    To many, perhaps most Catholics, an encyclical and a white paper both mean, “The Vatican/Pope said ___ in a document called ____.” It might be obvious to at least most WDTPRSers which one is vastly more important, but that’s not because the word ‘encyclical’ is etymologically related to the word ‘important’. I know that papal encyclicals are important, but that’s because someone told me so.

  10. Cheesesteak Expert says:

    The Pope authorized the Novus Ordo. Aren’t you a protestant if you don’t like it?

  11. JonPatrick says:

    Firstly, the Holy Father has authorized two forms of the Roman rite, the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo) and the Extraordinary Form, so one can attend the latter primarily or exclusively and be completely faithful to the Church’s teaching.

    A broader question might be whether participating in the OF as it is offered in many parishes, with a lack of reverence, removal of the tabernacle from the sanctuary, and the absence of language that presents the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, might actually be closer to Protestantism. This is not to say that the OF is a Protestantized mass, it certainly can be offered reverently using the traditional Canon and so on, and thereby be in keeping with Catholic Tradition.

  12. irishgirl says:

    Amen to what Andy Milam and Johnno both said! Right on all counts!

  13. Bea says:


    You should be Johnyes

    1. Parents should raise their children in the faith at home! DO NOT count on your pastor, or Sunday School, and ESPECIALLY NOT your ‘Catholic’ Schools to do that for you!

    We did THAT and it worked for us 100%. My friends are now bewailing the loss of their children’s Faith and still can’t see where they went wrong. They TRUSTED others when they should have trusted in their own selves and sense of duty as “Parents being the prime educators of their children” They were betrayed by those they trusted, who should have known better and whom they assumed DID, but DID NOT. (know better, that is)


  14. Might I suggest: http://www.canonlaw.info/a_labyrinth.htm

    Best, edp.

    [Returrrrrn of the Canonicallll DeFENderrrrr!]

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