ASK FATHER: When a pope dies, what happens to the motu proprios that he may have written? Do they die with him?

From a reader…


When a pope dies, what happens to the motu proprios that he may have written – do they die with him?

For example, when Pope Francis dies, what happens to the motu proprio on the TLM?

Which motu proprio about the Traditional Latin Mass?

The Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio by John Paul II called “Ecclesia Dei“?

The Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio by Benedict XVI called “Summorum Pontificum“?

The cruel Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio by Francis called “Traditionis custodes“, his Plessy v. Ferguson and now a shameful landmark in his legacy?

motu proprio, as the term suggests, is something issued on the legislator’s “own initiative”.    An MP can be for the sake of establishing some Pontifical institution or perhaps proclaiming a saint to be patron of this or that, as John Paul II did in 200o for St. Thomas More, Patron of Statesmen and Politicians, which carried with it liturgical honors as well.  They are often “rescripts” used for all sorts of tasks, particularly in response to some issue or exigency.

What legitimate Popes establish endures, unless they indicate a time frame for it to expire.

When Popes die, their legacy of law continues in force unless something that a subsequent legitimate Pope changes, overrides or undoes.

Hence, whatever is established by a legitimate Pope by means of an MP continues to be in force after the death – or I guess resignation, now – of the same until his successor makes changes.

I’m reminded of a great line in the murder mystery Gosford Park.  The Maggie Smith character, true to form in her quintessential dowager role, comments to the lady of the house about their little canine.

“You’ve still got that vile little dog, I see.”

“Yeah, the ones you hate last forever.”

So, too, with certain MPs and certain other aspects of this wonderous, indefectible, luminous Church in the 21st century.

And it has ever been so.

But the clock keeps ticking and the Church still belongs to Christ and in Heaven these worries do not trouble the blessed.

An important thing about MPs should be clarified, however.  Although an MP can still have force even when the grounds it is based on are false or even lies, it cannot overturn other rights which have been acquired through custom or through law unless the MP manifestly says it does.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Sobieski says:

    I wonder why Pope Emeritus Benedict is silent on the dismantling of his life’s work

  2. It is possible that he isn’t silent. Perhaps his comms and visits from certain people have been curtailed.

    Perhaps he thinks that the Church, like her Lord, has to undergo a Passion.

    Hard to say. I am not sure how helpful speculation is.

    That said, we can go by what he has said in the past. Some of the powers that be have openly told falsehoods about why Benedict issued his own MP, Summorum Pontificum. They say it was just to deal with SSPXers or to satisfy a nostalgia that some might have. That’s false. He said why he did what he did, but they ignore it and try, in an Orwellian way, to rewrite reality.

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  4. James C says:

    @Father Z,
    Remember this letter that he wrote to the leader of the Summorum Pontificum pilgrimage?

    Benedictus XVI
    Papa emeritus
    Città del Vaticano

    Most honorable Delegate-General,

    I have at last found the time to thank you for your letter of last August 21. I am very glad that the Usus antiquior now lives in full peace within the Church, also among the young, supported and celebrated by great Cardinals.

    I will be spiritually with you. My state as a ‘cloistered monk’ does not allow me a presence that is also exterior. I leave my cloister only in particular cases, [when] personally invited by the Pope.

    In communion of prayer and friendship.

    Yours in the Lord,
    Benedict XVI

  5. Ave Maria says:

    Obviously at present the man with the power of the papacy can not only undo previous pope’s work but even attempt to undo the Traditions of the Holy Church from thousands of years. While a pope is to uphold and hand on the Apostolic teachings and traditions, it seems he can do otherwise if he has a different agenda apart from the salvation of souls.

  6. WVC says:

    @Ave Maria

    There are some very good articles at Rorate & Crisis discussing true and false obedience and the scope of a Pope’s or bishop’s authority, quoting folks like St. Robert Bellarmine.

    No, a pope does not have the legitimate power to try to destroy the Church.

  7. Lurker 59 says:

    An MP can do a lot with ecclesial law, but it cannot overturn or undo divine law (which TC attempts to do). Look to the ordination rite of the bishop (in conjunction with the baptismal, confirmation, diaconate, and presbyterate, rites) to see the divine law that the bishop is configured to. The ordination rite(s) is the solution, canon law is a temporary solution.

  8. Andrew says:

    I’ve read comments mentioning the Pope’s “moto proprio” which makes me wonder: “what happens to the Pope’s motorcycle after his death?” Who gets it?

  9. Charles E Flynn says:

    It would be appropriate for Pope Francis’ motu proprio to be printed on paper that produces white smoke when it reaches 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

  10. summorumpontificum777 says:

    What genuinely surprises me is that the Vatican apparatchiks haven’t released or leaked some phonier-than-a-three-dollar-bill story that Benedict XVI is fully supportive of Traditionis Custodes and is eternally grateful to Pope Francis for mopping up the mess that he had inadvertently created with his utterly misguided attempt to pacify the deplorable, undeserving traditionalists who are a cancer on the Church.

  11. Not says:

    Thank you Andrew and Charles E. Flynn. As the attacks on our faith by Pope Francis keep coming a little levity is the best medicine.

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