How comes it that an institution inherently dedicated to what is fixed in life has been such a splendid example of all that is changeful in it? Nothing, apparently, alters like the unalterable.

— Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed (Chicago, 1971), p. 56

Even to begin a debate about Summorum Pontificum (SP) we have to bracket some obstacles about Catholic Traditionalism (CT).

First: CT, and even more, Internet Catholic Traditionalism (ICT) are exemplars of modernity: lifestyle choices rather than life in a living tradition. The very term “traditionalism”, which CTs now embrace with enthusiasm, is fundamentally modern. It’s no accident that ICTs, especially, traffic in near-pornographic photos of liturgies and in liturgical accoutrements or “gear”. It’s no accident that the CT movement has been powered by the very engine of modernity, the Internet. The best analogy may be with the period instruments movement or with fancy dress parties that attempt to be “authentic” recreations of, say, the Tolkein novels. But it would be rare to find a player dressed in a pointy hat and a robe who insisted that he was truly Gandalf the Wizard.

Second obstacle: CTs cannot agree what is traditional. SP authorized the use of the 1962 Missal. But a quick look at the ICT world will turn up lively debate even about this liturgy. Some insist that everything started to go wrong in the 1950s, when the Holy Week rites were changed. Others want to go further back. Some blame Pope Pius X. How many changes do we have to undo to find the unchanging Mass of Ages?

Set all that aside. My concern with SP, and even more, with the ill-conceived Universae Ecclesiae, is that you can’t separate a part from the whole. Change one element and it’s very tough not to change more.

Consider a hypothetical parish where the 10 am Sunday Mass is celebrated with the 1962 Missal, the 11 am in the Ordinary Form. The laity receive the chalice at the second Mass, not the first, where they are told that the priest’s hands are consecrated to touch the chalice, but theirs are not; it would be a sacrilege for them to do so … at least until the 11 am Mass. I won’t start on female lectors or altar servers.

The clash here is not between two different liturgies, but two different belief systems. This is why most CTs now insist that SP is simply a step toward rolling back the Ordinary Form. How far is another question, but rolling it back for sure; or that, as one ICT exponent recently put it, that despite the legal fudges of two forms of the Roman Rite, we might as well call them two distinct rites.

In this specific regard, the most rabid ICTers agree completely with Anthony Ruff: there is a theological contradiction here. Anthony would assert, and I agree, that the way forward is fully to accept the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical developments that flow from it. Many CT and ICT proponents challenge this. They are well aware that SP was indeed divisive (“a sign of contradiction”, as Peter Kwasniewski puts it in a recent post at New Liturgical Movement). But they claim that this division is for the good.

Send to Kindle