Corey Stephan, Ph.D.


After Traditionis custodes, is it time for the Vatican to reconsider ‘extraordinary’ ministries writ large?

Corey Stephan

Pope Francis’s July 16 motu proprio Traditionis custodes (“Guardians of the Tradition”) overturned most of his predecessor Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (“Of the Supreme Pontiffs”). Pope Benedict made the celebration of the Usus Antiquior of the Roman liturgy, a.k.a. the Traditional Latin Mass or Tridentine Mass (when discussing only the Mass and not also the accompanying Breviary), available for all clergy in the Roman Rite of the Universal Church, but his successor has decided to curtail a great deal of its use.

Regarding both ecclesial documents and the extent to which Francis’s stands in obvious opposition to Benedict’s (and as a convenient shorthand for their differences), the past 12 days have held an unending stream of fiery written words. With this post, I do not intend to take a public stance on the rightness or wrongness of the documents themselves. I am a historical theologian — not a canon lawyer or a liturgist. I often jest that history ended in the late thirteenth century, specifically with St. Thomas Aquinas’s entry into eternal life in 1274. Why, then, might I take the political hazard of making any comment whatsoever on these contentious matters of the post-historical age? I wish to make one (very) small observation as a call for linguistic and legal consistency from the powers that be.

My observation (and, therefore, my call to correction) is that the Vatican is inconsistent in setting its expectations for how bishops ought to handle that which she officially defines as “extraordinary.”

In Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict repeatedly called the Usus Antiquior a “forma extraordinaria,” “extraordinary form,” of the one common Roman liturgy, so that became part of its official definition. He held that the Extraordinary Form is beyond the confines of the ordinary, but he granted it wide tolerance out of respect for the people’s “love and affection” for it, its long heritage, and its spiritual strength.

When I first learned of Benedict’s use of the phrase “forma extraordinaria,” I immediately thought of another corner of Catholic liturgical life. In many (if not most) parishes wherein the “forma ordinaria,” a.k.a. the Novus Ordo, is celebrated, “Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion” abound. Canon 910 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which introduced this term, could not be more clear about what it means:

Minister ordinarius sacrae communionis est Episcopus, presbyter et diaconus.
The ordinary minister of holy communion is a bishop, presbyter, or deacon.

Extraordinarius sacrae communionis minister est acolythus necnon alius christifidelis ad normam can. 230, §3 deputatus.
The extraordinary minister of holy communion is an acolyte or another member of the Christian faithful designated according to the norm of can. 230, §3.

An “extraordinary minister of Holy Communion” is so called because he/she is not the ordinary minister. The ordinary minister is always an ordained member of the clergy. Yet the use of extraordinary ministers has grown into a matter of custom to the point that it is effectively ordinary, and the Vatican seems to remain silent. In this situation, since the practice is so widespread as to be impossible to ignore, silence is the same as tolerance (if not quiet approval).

Traditionis custodes does not include the phrase “extraordinary form” in its body text, but it does in its final footnote. Thus, it seems that Pope Francis upholds the established definition of the Usus Antiquior. We face a bizarre situation in which the Vatican, or at least the current Pope, broadly tolerates one ‘extraordinary’ facet of liturgy but broadly rejects another. As matters stand today, the Vatican expects the Extraordinary Form of the one Roman liturgy to be eschewed, while she expects Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to be embraced.

If the Extraordinary Form of the Roman liturgy is able to be curtailed because it is only extraordinary, as the Holy Father seems to imply, will we see equal measure against Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion? As the former is a point of contention among Catholics who favor one type of liturgy, so too is the latter among Catholics who favor another type of liturgy. If Traditionis custodes is really about promoting “the concord and unity of the Church,” as it states, then I implore our hierarchs to use more consistency. Either allow extraordinary liturgical ministries or disallow them. Allowing some but disallowing others is a sure way to cause general confusion among the faithful.

Deus vos benedicat,
Corey Stephan



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