ROME, 31 OCT. 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
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Q: "Quo Primum" is a papal bull decreed by Pope St. Pius V on July
14, 1570, which set in stone for all time the exactness of the holy
sacrifice of the Mass to be said in the mother tongue of the Church. To
quote his instruction: "[I]t shall be unlawful henceforth and forever
throughout the Christian world to sing or to read Masses according to
any formula other than that of this Missal published by Us; ..."
Another: "... which shall have the force of law in perpetuity, We order
and enjoin under pain of Our displeasure that nothing be added to Our
newly published Missal, nothing omitted therefrom, and nothing
whatsoever altered therein." Another: "In the case of those resident in
other parts of the world it shall be excommunication 'latae sententiae'
and all other penalties at Our discretion ..." Finally: "Should any
person venture to do so, let him understand that he will incur the wrath
of Almighty God and of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul." In the
light of the foregoing: 1) Can an ancient papal bull be amended,
changed, modified, abrogated, etc., by future popes? If yes, then what
are the conditions? 2) Is the Mass of Pope Paul VI licit and valid?
A.D., Carindale, Australia
A: A papal bull (from "bolla," the leaden seal attached to the document)
is a solemn instrument that popes use for various questions such as
doctrinal decisions, canonizations, disciplinary questions, jubilees and
the like. Only occasionally have they been used for the liturgy.
A bull's influence on later popes depends on the nature of its content
and not the legal force of the document as such.
Thus a bull such as "Ineffabilis Deus" through which Blessed Pius IX
defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 is a definitive
and irreformable act.
Other bulls may contain a mixture of doctrinal and disciplinary matters.
An example would be Pius IV's 1564 document "Dominici Gregis Custodiae"
containing the rules for forbidding books, among which was the norm that
reading a translation of the Old Testament was restricted to learned and
pious men with permission from the bishop.
Such norms are evidently tied to the circumstances of time and place and
may be adjusted, attenuated or abrogated by future popes as situations
St. Pius V's bull "Quo Primum" is above all a legal document although it
also contains some doctrinal elements. As such it is not intended to be
definitive in the same way as a doctrinal definition would be and would
not bind St. Pius V himself or future popes if they decided to further
fine-tune the missal.
The saintly Pope's concern was to ensure as much unity as possible for
the liturgy in a time when such unity was sorely needed. Even so, the
same bull contains a clause exempting any Church which had its own ordo
more than 200 years old. Many local Churches could have availed of this
concession but most preferred to adopt the new missal for practical
Some religious orders and some dioceses such as Lyon in France and Milan
in Italy did opt to legitimately maintain their own rite. Thus
expressions such as "it shall be unlawful henceforth and forever
throughout the Christian world to sing or to read Masses according to
any formula other than that of this Missal published by Us" cannot be
interpreted in an absolutely literal sense.
Likewise, legal expressions such as "which shall have the force of law
in perpetuity, We order and enjoin under pain of Our displeasure that
nothing be added to Our newly published Missal, nothing omitted
therefrom, and nothing whatsoever altered therein" cannot be literally
interpreted as binding on possible later actions of Pope St. Pius V or
upon his successors. The strictures fall only upon those who act without
If it were otherwise, then Pope St. Pius V would have excommunicated
himself a couple of years after publishing "Quo Primum" when he added
the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary to the missal following the Battle
of Lepanto in 1571, not to mention Pope Clement XI who canonized Pius V
in 1712, thus altering the missal.
Among the many other Popes who would have thus incurred "the wrath of
Almighty God and of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul" would have been
St. Pius X for reforming the calendar, Pius XI who added the first new
preface in centuries for the feast of Christ the King, Pius XII for
completely revamping the rites of Holy Week as well as simplifying the
rubrics, and Blessed John XXIII for adding St. Joseph's name to the
Certainly, the reform undertaken under the Servant of God Pope Paul VI
ranged more widely than anything done under earlier Popes since St. Pius
V. But Paul VI acted with the same papal authority as all of them.
As the Roman proverb goes: "Popes die, the Pope never." Each individual
saint or sinner though he be
holds the same authority, granted by Christ, to bind and loose, forgive
or retain, so that the Lord's flock may be fed through the centuries.
It is for this reason that, except in matters of faith and morals, a
pope's disciplinary decrees in matters such as the non-essential
elements of liturgical rites are never "set in stone" and can be changed
by a subsequent Supreme Pontiff whenever he believes that the duty of
feeding Christ's flock requires it.
Finally, the answer to the second question should be already clear, the
so-called Mass of Paul VI is both valid and licit. ZE06103140
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Follow-up: Pius V's 1570 Bull [11-14-2006]
Some readers wrote to corroborate our comments (Oct. 31) on the legal
force of Pope St. Pius V's bull "Quo Primum."
A Cincinnati correspondent wrote: "The instruction printed in the Roman
Missal of 1570 was for the benefit of the printers who worked the
presses. This was to ensure that everything would be printed exactly as
the Church intended without serious mistakes, intentional or otherwise."
This is true, above all, of the final part of the document containing
some of the more severe expressions of excommunication and especially
regarding printers who were outside of the Pope's civil jurisdiction.
Those under his authority were subject above all to fines and loss of
their printing license.
The earlier part of the bull refers to printers as well as to "every
patriarch, administrator and all other persons of whatsoever
ecclesiastical dignity, be they even Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church
or possessed of any other rank or pre-eminence," who were henceforth
obliged to follow the new missal and forbidden to change anything.
It is worth noting that the decree nowhere mentions that it has any
binding force on future papal action.
Another correspondent writing from the Middle East offers the parallel
case of the 1568 document "Quod a Nobis" which introduced the new Roman
breviary two years before the new missal. This document contains many
expressions similar to "Quo Primum" regarding, for instance, the
perpetual force of law, the obligation of use in all places, and the
total prohibition of adding or omitting anything.
Our reader then comments: "As you are undoubtedly aware, St. Pius X
radically rearranged the ancient Roman Psalter and changed a few lessons
for a few days, and provided contracted lessons, among other changes in
1913. Moreover, he forbade the use of the old Psalter. This clearly
shows that he was not bound by the prescriptions issued in 'Quod a Nobis'
and since these are similar to those of 'Quo Primum,' those must not be
"I have found using 'Quod a Nobis' more effective because the adherents
to 'Quo Primum' argue that it is restricted to the Ordinary (either
whole or from the Offertory to Last Gospel), or to the Temporale only
(despite evidence in encyclicals like 'Grande Munus' to the contrary).
Since the Psalter is the most fundamental part of the breviary, no such
statement can be made with regard to 'Quod a Nobis.'" ZE06111422