Traditionis custodes and “reception theory” – or – When a law is no law at all.

Paul III (1534-1549)

Have you ever heard of “reception theory”?

Reception theory states that a law, in order to be a law, a binding law, must be received by the community for which it is intended.  If they community does not receive it, that is, they reject it outright or it fails to have any effect on how they live, the presumed law is non-binding and is really no law at all.

This doesn’t apply to moral law, because it flows from above reception or rejection by mere human beings.   In the late 1960’s and after, dissidents from Humanae vitae infamously tried to apply “reception theory” to the Church’s teaching on contraception.  Fail.

Reception theory does not apply to moral teaching, but it can apply to certain of the Church’s disciplinary law, which includes liturgical law.

Examples of non-reception of law are when in 1535 Paul III published a new Breviary which departed from tradition.  It was criticized and ignored and in 1568 Pius V withdrew it.

Let’s have a mind exercise and think about reception theory in view of Traditionis custodes, 

Popes make mistakes.  The faithful can see that they make mistakes.  The faithful have the right to express themselves about those mistakes, even when they have to do with disciplinary laws.  Sometimes the faithful respectfully and quietly vote with their feet.  Sometimes they organize and take action.  Sometimes they organize and quietly resist.  But Popes make mistakes.

Fr. James Coriden, who has written on reception theory, uses John XXIII’s ill-fated Apostolic Constitution Veterum sapientia (on the preservation and promotion of Latin, especially in seminaries) as a example of norms which were not received.  That was an Apostolic Constitution signed on the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica.  BTW…  Veterum sapientia was decidedly NOT a mistake, but it was subject to wholesale neglect.

Moving forward, get your mind around this.

The Modern Roman Rite, the Novus Ordo, was clearly not received with universal acceptance.

Yes, it was pretty much brutally imposed universally, in one form of experimentation after another, through the 70’s and 80’s.  However, it was not universally received.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you papalotrous Rahnerians are whimpering, “That’s not true!  If it were you could prove it but you can’t.  Besides, deep down inside every one really wants the Novus Ordo without all that Latin … or they would if they truly had the Spirit.  The Spirit of Vatican II has engendered so many fruits! But YOU HATE VATICAN II!”

I agree completely.  The Spirit of Vatican II has produced a great many fruits.

Almost 5 years after the imposition of the Novus Ordo Missae by Paul VI, on 28 October 1974, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Notification Conferentiarium Episcopalium which insisted that bishops “should …endeavor to secure the acceptance of the Order of the Mass of the New Roman Missal by priests and laity.”

“…endeavor to secure the acceptance…”?!?

The Novus Ordo had not been universally received.

In 1980, another document was issued, Inaestimabile donum, outlined the many abuses which had arisen over the decade.   Where there are abuses there is non-reception, ironically by those who say they accept it – and only it – and then twist it into something that it is not.  When you receive, you “Say The Black – Do The Red”.

In 1984, John Paul II issed Quattuor abhinc annos which gave an (as we now know unnecessary) “indult” for the use of the 1962 Missale Romanum.   Apparently the Novus Ordo Missae wasn’t universally received, if enough people wanted the old ways that even John Paul II acquiesced.

In 1988, John Paul II issued the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta opening up greater use of the traditional Missal and even commanding “generosity” on the part of bishops.  How you command generosity from bishops is a good question.

In 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, which, as various document before, had to deal with manifestations of non-reception of the Novus Ordo, that is, abuses.  Remember: liturgical abuses are manifestations of non-reception.

In 2007 Benedict XVI issued the Traditional Roman Rite’s “Emmancipation Proclamation” with the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum.

In 2021, Francis issued his landmark decision about the growing desire for the Traditional Roman Rite in his “Plessy V. Ferguson” called Traditionis custodes.   The fact that he is trying to suppress the TLM is more proof that, far from being universally received, the Novus Ordo Missae is being rejected.  Some reject it because of what they see as doctrinal deficiencies.  The majority of those who want Tradition reject it, not out of disdain but simply because they prefer the older form.

That’s some background and data about “reception theory” applied to the liturgical disciplinary issues we see today.

Moving on, I note with great interest today that Marco Tosatti, cites “dubia” Card. Brandmüller at “To be valid, a law must be accepted”.

Also, at NLM, my friend Nancy Llewellyn, a fine Latinist, brings up the issue of Veterum sapientia in the light of Traditionis.  She points out that Pope John died before the regulations he commanded were able to go into effect.  Hence, it went the way of all flesh.  She also says that those norms, hard to find, are now available in translation, which should be pretty interesting.  I suspect that reading them will be like one of those movies in which the other side won… except the other side is, in this case, the good guys.   BTW… Veterum sapientia was never abrogated.   It was, however, obviously not received by the community for which it was intended (especially seminaries).

My prediction is that Traditionis custodes is not going to be received in the long run.  It will prove to be no law at all. 

Sure, there will be some zealous bishops who turn on the faithful who want Tradition.  It is inevitable, considering.  However, my sense is that there are so many young priests and young people who now know and love the TLM that they will find a way simply to keep going.  It might be as simple as Father leaving the doors open when he says Mass privately (that is, not on the schedule) and people happen to wander in for some time in church.   It might be that the bishop will strike down that young priest.  A couple others will spring up.

I don’t think this can be stopped.

Mind you, there are going to be a lot of tears and anguish because of these bishops.  But in the end, they are only bishops.

Friends, when your bishops do something good and generous regarding the Traditional Roman Rite, thank them.  When they do something stingy, work on them with spiritual bouquets, fasting, sincere requests.  Be the woman at the door of the judge before you turn to more drastic measures.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Canon Law, Hard-Identity Catholicism, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Our Catholic Identity, Save The Liturgy - Save The World, SUMMORUM PONTIFICUM, The Drill, The future and our choices, Traditionis custodes and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. FranzJosf says:

    Yes! Another unfortunate example is altar girls. Many who want to zealously enforce this new disciplinary ruling simply ignored the prohibition of females serving at the altar. That law is gone in the NO.

  2. docsmith54 says:

    You need to believe in Vatican II as much as you need to believe in private revelations.

    But I can see discipline meted out to sneak TLM Masses while communion for reprobate politicians continues. The chicken has been away for 50 years and is now coming home to roost at chanceries everywhere.

    Insofar as altar girls are concerned, the special service once only for boys has caused 90% of them to leave the field. We have about three boys left: home-schooled and from a single family.

  3. Grateful to be Catholic says:

    Thank you very much for this. We have been lied to, bamboozled, bullied, ignored, and generally abused. But this isn’t 1969 any more. We have learned and we have tools that we never had before. We cannot be driven from the field so we should never retreat. Bishop Schneider explains that TC is an abuse of power. Our obedience is owed to the Church and her authentic Tradition.

  4. Reception theory is an interesting (and for some surprising) legal concept. For years, when I used to teach medieval canon law, the students were always surprised (shocked?) to learn that medieval canonists, even before Gratian, considered reception essential to the complete promulgation of a legal rule. If you are interested in Gratian’s understanding of what steps (including reception by the community) are necessary for a law to bind you can read about them directly, along with the glosses on them in my translation of Gratian here.

  5. defenderofTruth says:

    When Cardinal Cupich was lukewarm in his response, it was clear to me: TC had no authority. I have long thought of Quo Primum, and how many popes who amended the Missale Romanum only did so after explaining that their amendments did not violate Quo Primum. In short, those popes viewed Quo Primum as infallible (which makes sense, considering the connection between the lex orendi and the lex credendi, which was solidified and dogmatized in Session XXII of Trent) and forever binding. That would me that at an ontological level, on a REAL level that TC would have had absolutely no authority whatsoever.

    With that in mind, the lukewarm reception indicates that the Holy Ghost is at work. While we can debate the reasons why the bishops are acting the way they are, to me, it is clear the Holy Ghost is preventing this from being received…just like He prevented the NO from being universally received.

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    Some of the many fruits of the Spirit of Vatican II bring to mind the graphic used to denote negative reviews of films at a website devoted to film reviews.

  7. Fr AJ says:

    Do the new rules apply to private Masses? Our bishop told us verbally in a meeting no one may say the TLM privately without his permission.

    [I don’t believe it applies to private Masses. The document is poorly written. We read it narrowly. Besides, that’s something that no bishop could possibly control anyway.]

  8. Kerry says:

    “…endeavor to secure the acceptance…”

    Chief Dan George endeavors…

  9. kurtmasur says:

    I personally suspect that TC will eventually go down the way of archaic laws that many jurisdictions currently have, but which nobody knows about, much less enforces them.

    I could imagine a scenario 100 years from now, in which the TLM will be the dominant form of the mass, even the new “ordinary form”, and people will say to each other after mass at their local parish: “did you know that technically the mass is not allowed to be said in a parish church? Ha!”

    @Father AJ: even if your bishop didn’t give you permission to celebrate the TLM privately, would that even be enforceable?

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  11. Kathleen10 says:

    “The Spirit of Vatican II has engendered so many fruits!”
    I’ll say.
    I believe that rule about disregarding a law exists in the secular world as well, and I may be wrong but it speaks to “nullity” if enough citizens ignore a law. We are going to need that concept going forward if we are to rid ourselves of the pestilence of our paid officials acting as if they are now somehow our masters. All people who love freedom must now do something that protects that freedom, ignore edicts (they aren’t even laws) that come from on high and are intended to turn us into bleating sheep.

  12. Chrisc says:

    Reception theory strikes me as a more developed understanding of the promulgation aspect of a law according to St Thomas. For a law to be just, it must be promulgated by the competent authority to those affected by the law. Many will see this in a minimalistic way- as long as the lawgiver says it loudly enough, this aspect is satisfied. However, as law is educative and not merely acts of power, laws must also conform to our minds such that our actions can then conform to our own minds. If the promulgated law is unintelligible, or unimaginable, then unless the lawgiver as teacher disposes the people to the law, then it will never truly be promulgated in their actions except by fear and not by it becoming a measured measure.
    I think one could argue the claim that the lex orandi of the latin church is only/uniquely found in the novus ordo is a departure from the tradition of where a pope has competency, and the nature of the lex orandi, and the rejection of the vetus ordo as to be effectively unimaginable. TC certainly didn’t explain how these things are so.

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  14. Elizium23 says:

    We can’t even get the faithful to receive minor revisions such as the 2011 English Missal.

    Look at how many were unable to receive the Holy See’s definitive pronouncement on “blessings” of same-sex unions.

    I think we shall never see unanimous reception until today’s schism is de jure and the Church is decimated, or at least reduced to half her membership.

  15. Fr. Reader says:

    TC might have the unexpected effect of causing many to celebrate with the Missal of Paul VI as much as possible with the spirit of the Pre-VC2 Missal, because it will be the only option. An unintended “enrichment” that Benedict XVI foresaw years ago.

  16. Amateur Scholastic says:

    Fr Thompson, many thanks for your comment. Great to hear from experts in the field.

    For anyone who’s interested in a beginner’s summary of the great differences between the ancient/medieval understanding of law, and the modern (as in post-Renaissance) understanding that ‘the will of the sovereign is law’, this is a good summary:

  17. Kate says:

    I just noticed Summorum Pontificum, in speaking of the Novus Ordo, states, “…these were willingly received by the bishops as well as by priests and the lay faithful.”

    I think it shows that it is, indeed, important for laws to be “received”.

  18. docsmith54 says:

    Yes, Gratian said it 800 years ago: a law must first be promulgated, but then it has to be accepted to BE law. I’ll take a long-dead 12th cent. western law and canon code stalwart over all the contrary Vatican sycophants. Several notable cardinals have referred to Gratian’s take without saying his name. They get it.

  19. kurtmasur says:

    Father Z, I found this interesting news article that you *may* want to post about as a blog entry. Although it has nothing to do with anything Church related, it did strike a chord regarding TC and its reception.

    Specifically, it mentions that one of the Roman emperors (Claudius) had decreed that there would be three new letters added to the Latin alphabet.

    And then it mentions this:

    “…Claudius’ introduction of new letters was seen as part of a tradition whereby language and the alphabet developed over time. Tacitus tells us that it was once Claudius “discovered that not even Greek writing was begun and completed at one time” that he decided to design “some additional Latin characters.” Unlike those devised by other peoples, however, they didn’t catch on. Ironically, even the sizeable power of the emperor could not guarantee that people change the alphabet. It’s only on border stones and similar imperially mandated inscriptions that we can see evidence of Claudius’s failed innovation. His display of power is also a testimony to the limits of his authority.”

    Other than this association with TC’s reception, the article itself is quite interesting. You can read the rest here:

  20. TonyO says:

    I have heard of “reception” theory before, and I must say, it was used badly – wrongly – by liberals of many different stripes, for a 1000 different rejections of law since the 1950’s. Because of this, I have always been in doubt that it is really cogent. Also, at least with respect to law in general, it really doesn’t work AT ALL, as we see from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, in the Summa Theologica. However, because ecclesiastical law has some special characteristics compared to law in general, I admit that there could theoretically be some room for reception theory in that context as a special case.

    But when you look at all the cases of historical examples of church law that were repudiated in practice, I think that St. Thomas’s approach to law works better to explain them, i.e. why they were not valid law. See this link for discussion.

    Happily, Thomistic theory of law also gives us plenty of room for doubting that Traditionis Custodes is binding law.

    On a side note, I have a new idea for any bishop who wants to “implement” TC: in every single parish, he announces that he wants EVERYONE to understand exactly what it is that Francis is about in TC. To accomplish this, he intends to go to every parish (serially, throughout the year or whatever, one weekend at a time). For every mass on that weekend, he or his delegate will say the mass, and he will SHOW them what a TLM mass looks like. He will also provide mass booklets that show EXACTLY how to follow along, show the parts of the TLM mass that correspond to a part of the NO mass, with translations. With gregorian chant on the mass booklets, with translation. He will explain (ever so carefully) that the NO mass is “perfectly fine”, [he may use the form perfected by Marc Antony with: “Brutus is an ‘honorable man’.”] and that everyone is free to attend the NO masses because they are the ordinary form. But of course, the TLM is “extraordinary”.

    Then, as exit polls, he has his people collecting data on how many people found the TLM “interesting”. At any parish that has a total of more than 40 people interested, he discusses with the pastor the possibility of initiating a TLM. “Possibility” meaning “did I mention that your advancement depends on this?”

    He will not be creating “new groups” by this: these are just ordinary parishes. With (in most cases) extraordinary masses. He relieves the difficulty of Article 3, p.2 by making such masses “in the parish church only temporarily, as an interim measure”, i.e. only until a new shrine can be constructed. (Current estimates suggest about 70 years temporary.)

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