The Authority to Change a Liturgical Rite


I have been reading the book “The Reform of the Roman Liturgy” by Monsignor Klaus Gamber, a book that is lavishly praised by Cardinal Ratzinger in the preface. Monsignor Gamber poses an argument that the pope has no authority to change a liturgical rite, an argument I have not seen before outside of rabid traditionalist circles. I won’t bog down this post with all the proofs he uses to support his claim, but look at these paragraphs:

Beginning with the Council of Trent, the supreme authority of the Holy See also extends to the revision of liturgical texts, that is, the review of newly printed editions, and to making such minor changes as introducing the Propers of the Mass for new feast days. That is what Pope St. Pius V did when, following the task assigned to him by the Council of Trent, he reviewed the Curiae Missale, which had already been used in Rome and in many parts of the Western Church. In 1570 he published it as the Missale Romanum. We can definitely say that the missal published by this pope was not a “new” Missal…

Not only is the Ordo Missae of 1969 a change of the liturgical rite, but that change also involved the rearrangement of the liturgical year, including changes in the assignment of feast days for the saints. To add of drop one or the other of these feast days, as had been done before, certainly does not constitute a change of rite, per se. But the countless innovations introduced as part of liturgical reform have left hardly any of the traditional liturgical forms intact.

Since there is no document that specifically assigns to the Apostolic See the authority to change, let alone abolish the traditional liturgical rite; and since, furthermore, it can be shown that not a single predecessor to Pope Paul VI has ever introduced major changes to the Roman liturgy, the assertion that the Holy See has the authority to change the liturgical rite would appear to be debatable, to say the least.

Just to clarify, Monsignor Gamber never questions the validity of the Novus Ordo. What say ye?


Plain and simple answer is: YES. It is a discipline not doctrine or dogma. Many people get those confused. In fact, it was discussed near the end of the first hour of last night’s CAL.


Here is a portion of the preface by Cardinal Ratzinger:

in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over the centuries, and replaced it-as in a manufacturing process-with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product. Gamber, with the vigilance of a true prophet and the courage of a true witness, opposed this falsification, and, thanks to his incredibly rich knowledge, indefatigably taught us about the living fullness of a true liturgy.


It’s not entirely accurate to say the liturgy is a “mere discipline”, i.e., that can be utterly gutted or tossed on the whim of a pope (especially a pope who doesn’t do it himself, but delegates someone else to do it).

Could a pope tomorrow declare that no priest may use the Roman Canon starting at noon Sunday?

Of course not.

(And for those who think that a ridiculous idea…the Roman Canon came close to extinction in 1966).


Yes, but with some reservations. Clearly this does not mean that the pope “invents” liturgy. Rather, he refines liturgy. So a new translation is clearly OK, other adjustments to reflect new circumstances. This should be understood as the “organic growth”, not the imposition of arbitrary change. That notwithstanding, the decision regarding what changes are permissible or desirable is for the pope to make, not me.

Not even God makes arbitrary changes to law. For example, we know that God will not tomorrow decide that henceforth, Murder and Adultery are virtuous, and Charity is forbidden. But, we ask God to reveal to us each day how his law should be applied in the concrete circumstances we face. In the same way, we know that the Pope will not institute a new sacrament, nor replace Eucharist with some other sacrament. He may however clarify how we should be participating in this sacrament.


Of course the liturgy has been changed over the last 2000 years many times by popes. There are certain core elements that cannot be changed or removed. I doubt that even untra-traditionalist Catholics actually celebrate the liturgy in it’s original form. Where the Liturgy of the Word is celebrated with a community meal and then the same day but at a later time, in an undisclosed location to outsiders, the liturgy of the Eucharist is celebrated. As described by St. Justin.


What you describe is not what Monsignor Gamber argues. He fully accepts the organic development of the liturgy, and states that the liturgy has gone through change over the course of centuries. What he argues is that it is not within the prerogative of the pope to completely rearrange and innovate the mass. He states that historically the Holy See has only served to sanction authentic local liturgical custom, not to impose new rites, and that the actions of Pope Paul VI were unprecedented.

I guess the reason I did this post is to find out if there is anyone who can find a historical precedent for the pope innovating or changing a liturgical rite.


Since there is no document that specifically assigns to the Apostolic See the authority to change, let alone abolish the traditional liturgical rite; and since, furthermore, it can be shown that not a single predecessor to Pope Paul VI has ever introduced major changes to the Roman liturgy, the assertion that the Holy See has the authority to change the liturgical rite would appear to be debatable, to say the least

Wouldn’t this be covered in Canon 838:

Can. 838 §1. The direction of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, according to the norm of law, the diocesan bishop.

§2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church,…


The Pope does have the authority to make changes to the Rite, but he couldn’t just destroy the whole thing and do something totally different.

I read that book too, excellent read. I think his main point was that the “reforms” that happened after Vatican II weren’t was was really called for. The Concilium took and ran with it, Paul VI didn’t put his foot down enough when it came to Archbishop Bugnini’s “innovations” nor when bishops in the Netherlands and France started making up new Eucharistic prayers.

So, what we have now is not always organic development from the 1962 Missale Romanum. Especially since many priests or bishops decide that they can “spice up” the Mass if they feel so inclined. Much of what is now the Novus Ordo could use a lot of work.


I don’t want to get into another exchange over the TLM vs. the Pauline Rite, but this kind of question came up (only in reverse) about the “liberation” of the TLM. The questioner asked CA if the pope freeing up the Tridentine would be a “violation” of VII (he or she had been told by a “liturgist,” I guess, that it would). Here’s part of Michelle Arnold’s answer:

"1. Granting a general indult for the Tridentine Mass is within a pope’s disciplinary authority. Canon law states that the pope “has supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise this power” (canon 331). This means that the pope is not hamstrung in his disciplinary authority by a Church council. Even if Vatican II did proscribe the Tridentine Mass and the priest facing ad orientem (“to the east”), which it did not, a pope could legislate otherwise."

The pope cannot change the essentials, the proper form, of a sacrament. The words “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood” can’t ever be changed. The rest is a form which surrounds the essential and it can change and the pope has the authority to do so. I’m not arguing that he should, but he can. AND even if the Council did not call for everything that the Pauline Rite ended up being, it’s promulgation by the Pope makes it what it is: a legitimate Mass.


I’m not saying that he should, but the Pope could fully supress the Novus Ordo and say we are going to start with the 1962 MR and then go from there if he wanted to.


I don’t disagree with that. I hope he doesn’t, but I would never say he couldn’t.


Msgr. Gamber’s conclusion is that the Church should let the Rites exist side by side, but let the Novus Ordo take an ad experimentum standing and make the 1962 MR the standard Rite.


I guess that begs the question: What is essential? By essential I don’t mean what makes the sacrament valid, but what is essential to Catholic worship? Anything of Apostolic origin is authoritative and certain prayers (prayers at the foot of the altar) and behaviors (ad orientem) were always present in the Church’s liturgy and may be of Apostolic origin. Can we simply discard things that have such an early and consistent history? If so, what is the point of Tradition?

He didn’t question the NO’s legitimacy, only the way it was produced and how it completely replaced the TLM.


No pope has the authority, for example, to say that a Roman Rite priest may not use the Roman Canon…which is of APOSTOLIC origin.


In what way ‘Apostolic Origin’?


In the 1917 Code there was the Canon 1257 that reserved the right to the Holy See, and was used as the basis of Mediator Dei no. 58

It follows from this that the Sovereign Pontiff alone enjoys the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification


This was seized on by dear Bugsy and Co. and that is why some perhaps regard Mediator Dei as the beginning of the end.
I suppose though, the question is what exactly Pope Pius XII, of blessed memory, meant by modification and introduction. He himself introduced the new Holy Week rites, and certainly he comprehended reforms of the nature of the 1965 missal, with the suppression of Iudica Me and the Last Gospel, single collect (which started in 1955, came about in the 1962 missal but was regulated further in 1965) etc. Some even suggest that he had knowledge of a wider ferial lectionary.
It’s doubtful though that he would have approved of some of the newer aspects of the ‘reform’ that cropped up later such as the new Offertory and Eucharistic Prayers.


Historically no, there hasn’t been such a radical realignment of the Roman liturgy since the 4-7th centuries when parts of the Offertory were moved into the Canon, then the Canon itself realigned, the Lord’s Prayer (and possibly the Pax also) moved after the Canon rather than before and things like that. Particularly under Popes Gelasisus and Gregory if we are to believe the Liber Pontificalis and the conjunctions of verious liturgists. The difference is that at that time they had the fact that the liturgy was just evolving, whereas the revisers of the 60’s havenothing except a desire to eliminate what was deemed superfluous, non-Roman (many of the Gallician parts of the liturgy was purged, albeit slightly selectively) and an “accretion of the centuries”


Pax vobiscum!

You know, I find it absolutely hilarious that 4 people voted “No” on this…no doubt because they feel that the TLM should not or could not have been changed. Because, if you read the article on “Liturgy” on the Catholic Encyclopedia, it explains how big of changes the Mass undertook to get to the Tridentine Rite. Evidently that change was ok, but the change to the NO is not.

In Christ,


From the 1917 Encyclopedia:

To conceive these late developments as old compared with the original Roman Liturgy that has now again taken their place, is absurd. It was the novelties that Pius V abolished; his reform was a return to antiquity. In 1570 Pius V published his revised and restored Roman Missal that was to be the only form for all Churches that use the Roman Rite. The restoration of this Missal was on the whole undoubtedly successful; it was all in the direction of eliminating the later inflations, farced Kyries and Glorias, exuberant sequences, and ceremonial that was sometimes almost grotesque. In imposing it the pope made an exception for other uses that had been in possession for at least two centuries.

The big changes undertaken were to remove medieval additions to the mass.

And I wouldn’t be so quick to discount Msgr. Gamber’s arguments. Then Cardinal Ratzinger called him a “father of the new beginning of the reform of the reform” and called his insights invaluable (our new pope isn’t exactly a radical traditionalist).

I find Msgr. Gamber’s conclusions convincing simply because of the fact that the reforms of Paul VI were radical, monumental, substantive, and unprecedented.

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