Newsletter of the District of Asia

 September 1997

The Legal Status of the Traditional Latin Mass

Was the Traditional Latin Mass suppressed in 1969 when the New Mass was promulgated?  Was it rendered illegal until the ‘Indult’ of October 3, 1984 as the Commission Ecclesia Dei has repeatedly stated?  Absolutely not.  The following study proves it without difficulty.  It consists of two parts:  first, one needs to define the canonical notions of law, of custom and of privilege, three capital notions which will be used in our demonstration.  Secondly, these notions will be applied to our case in a scholastic fashion: the thesis is stated and all its parts subsequently explained and proven.  All the canons quoted come from the 1917 Code of Canon Law which was in vigour in 1969.  Moreover, this is strictly a legal study of the legitimacy of the Traditional Mass; we are not considering the numerous other aspects of the act promulgating the New Mass on April 3, 1969.  For this, see the August 1997 Newsletter article “the labyrinth of illegalities in the imposition of the Novus Ordo Missae”.  The source of this article is the course of Canon Law, given by Fr. Thomas Glover, DJC, at Econe, in the 1980’s.

I - Important Notions

A) Law

1) Definition

A law is an "ordinance of reason for the common good made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated."  St. Thomas, 1-2, q.90, a4.

2) Promulgation

Promulgation is the official publication of a law which makes it possible for the subject of the law to learn of it.  "The promulgation is necessary for the law to obtain its force."  St. Thomas, 1-2, q.90, a.4.

3) General and particular laws.

Canon 13 §1:  "All those for whom general laws are made are bound by them everywhere."

A general law is one which is not limited to a particular territory, it is a universal law of the Church.  While these general or universal laws bind everywhere, they do not always bind every individual Catholics but only those for whom they are made (eg. clerics).

A particular law is one which is made for a particular territory or for certain persons.  (For example, St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, is a holiday of obligation in Ireland and Australia).

4) Cessation of the law.

There are three ways in which legislation can cease to apply:

                a. abrogation i.e. abolished completely.  If a law is abrogated the new legislation must say so specifically and clearly.

                b. derogation i.e. the previous legislation still remains in force but is modified in some ways.  It is a partial abrogation.

                c. obrogation.  This is the substitution of new legislation which automatically replaces previous legislation without any specific words of abrogation.

                d. Principles - canon 22.

                                1. If the later law is equally general or equally particular with the former one, then the later law repeals the former one in only three cases:

                                                i. if it contains an explicit statement to that effect, a repealing clause;

                                                ii. if it is directly contrary to the former law so that it is evidently impossible for the two to stand together;

                                                iii. if it deals with the entire subject matter of the former law.

In all other cases, or if the matter is doubtful (c.23), the two laws stand together and are to be reconciled as far as possible.

                                2. If the later law is particular and the former general, the later law prevails for the particular place or persons to whom it applies.  This is a general principle not stated in the canon but understood.

                                3. If the later law is general and the former one particular, no repeal is effected unless the later general law expressly repeals the former particular one.

                e. Doubtful revocation of a law - canon 23.

                                In doubt the revocation of the former law is not presumed but later laws are to be considered in connection with earlier ones and as far as possible to be reconciled with them.  The reason for this rule is that law is for the common good and hence the repeal of a law is considered an odious thing (in canonical language), not to be presumed, nor admitted without proof.

B) Custom

1) Notions

Custom may be considered in two ways: as a fact and as a legal norm.

                As a fact, custom means a practice or way of acting which is common in a certain community,

                As a legal norm, it means a norm or law introduced by such practice.  It is an unwritten law, founded upon the common practice in the community and approved by the superior.

Custom is the best interpretator of law (can.29), especially if laws are doubtful or incertain.

A custom can be relatively recent or very ancient.  Some are called "centenary and immemorial customs".

2) Cessation of custom (Canon 30)

                a) It can cease intrinsically if the matter of the custom changes in relation to honesty or the common good.

                b) It can cease extrinsically

                                i. By a legitimately approved contrary custom;

                                ii. By a law which removes the custom;

                                iii. By direct revocation by the competent superior;

                                iv. By neglect.

                c) Precisions on the cessation of customs

                                i. A general law removes a general custom, a particular law a particular custom, when they are contrary to each other even if there is no mention of them.

                                ii. For a general law to remove a particular custom, it is necessary that it expresses this custom by name or that it has a clause such as "notwithstanding any custom whatsoever".

                                iii. To remove a centenary custom, a particular clause is required -"notwithstanding any custom whatsoever even centenary and immemorial".  This clause is required even for the revocation of a general custom by a general law.

                                iv. A new custom removes an earlier one if it is totally opposed to it, if not totally opposed, they must be reconciled.

C) Privilege

1) Notions (canon 63)

A privilege is a special disposition lawfully made by competent authority granting to some person or persons a right which is contrary to or beyond the common law.

A privilege can be granted by law, by a particular indult, or orally.

2) Cessation of privileges

There are five modes of cessation:

                by revocation of the competent superior

                by renunciation of the privileged person

                by extinction

                by prescription or by tacit renunciation

                by privation.

Note: A privilege is to be regarded as perpetual unless the contrary appears (canon 60).

II - The Legal Status of the Traditional Mass


Major: The Traditional Mass in the Tridentine rite

                1) is a general law - with the Bull Quo Primum

                2) is a perpetual privilege - with the clauses included in Quo Primum

                3) is a centenary and immemorial custom.

Minor 1 :  Now, to be abolished, all these three legal grounds must be abolished together.

Minor 2 : a) Now, Paul VI with the Constitution Missale Romanum of April 3, 1969, did not abolish any of the three legal grounds.

                b) He merely derogated to the prohibition to offer the Holy Mass in any other way than imposed by St Pius V.


                Therefore, a) the Traditional Mass in its Latin Tridentine rite is perfectly legal.  Pope Paul VI did not abolish it.

                b) The Constitution Missale Romanum merely derogated to Quo Primum by promulgating a new rite of Mass.

Proof of the Major

The Bull Quo Primum makes of the Tridentine Mass a General Law:

“We specifically command each and 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 of pre-eminence, and We order them by virtue of holy obedience to sing or to read the Mass according to the rite and manner and norm herein laid down by Us, and henceforward to discontinue and utterly discard all other rubrics and rites of other missals, however ancient, which they have been accustomed to follow, and not to presume in celebrating Mass to introduce any ceremonies or recite any prayers other than those contained in this Missal.

“Consequently, it is Our will, and by the same authority We decree, that one month after publication of this Our Constitution and Missal, priests of the Roman Curia shall be obliged to sing or to read the Mass in accordance therewith; others South of the Alps, after three months; those who live beyond the Alps, after six months or as soon as the Missal becomes available for purchase.”

The Bull grants a perpetual privilege:

“Furthermore, by these presents and by virtue of Our Apostolic authority We give and grant in perpetuity that for the singing or reading of Mass in any church whatsoever this Missal may be followed absolutely, without any scruple of conscience or fear of incurring any penalty, judgment or censure, and may be freely and lawfully used.  Nor shall Bishops, Administrators, Canons, Chaplains and other secular priests or religious of whatsoever Order or by whatsoever title designated, be obliged to celebrate Mass otherwise than enjoined by Us.  We likewise order and declare that no one whoever shall be forced or coerced into altering this Missal; and this present Constitution can never be revoked or modified, but shall forever remain valid and have the force of law, notwithstanding previous constitutions or edicts of provincial or synodal councils, and notwithstanding the uses of the churches aforesaid, established by very long and  even immemorial prescription, saving only usage of more than 200 years.” Quo Primum.

Moreover, the Traditional Mass is a centenary and immemorial custom:

“We resolved accordingly to delegate this task to a select committee of scholars; and they, having at every stage of their work and with the utmost care collated the ancient codices in Our Vatican library and reliable (original or amended) codices from elsewhere, and having also consulted the writing of ancient and approved authors who have bequeathed to Us records relating to the said sacred rites, thus restored the Missal itself to the pristine form and rite of the holy Fathers.  When this production had been subjected to close scrutiny and further amended, We, after mature consideration, ordered that the final result be forthwith printed and published in Rome.”  Quo Primum.

Proof of the first minor

This is the result of the notions set above in the first part.  One legal ground is sufficient for the legality of the Traditional Mass.

Proof of the second minor

a) Now, Paul VI with the Constitution Missale Romanum of April 3, 1969, did not abolish any of the three legal grounds.

This is the conclusion of Missale Romanum: “It is Our will that these decisions and ordinances should be firm and effective now and in the future, notwithstanding any Constitutions and Apostolic Ordinances made by Our predecessors, and all other decrees including those deserving of special mention no matter of what kind”.

1. It did not abrogate the general law promulgated by Quo Primum:

"It is Our will that these decisions and ordinances..."  Nowhere in Missale Romanum is it decided and ordered that the Bull Quo Primum  itself or the general law promulgated by the Bull have been abrogated, let alone the Mass which St Pius V codified with this Bull.

2. It did not suppress the perpetual privilege.

The word 'privilege' is not present in Missale Romanum.  Therefore it is not revoked according to canon 70:  "A privilege is regarded as perpetual unless the contrary appears".

3. It did not suppress the centenary and immemorial customs.

The clause necessary to suppress centenary and immemorial custom "notwithstanding any custom whatsoever even centenary and immemorial" is no where to be found in the Constitution Missale Romanum.

b) He merely derogated to the prohibition to offer the Holy Mass in any other way than imposed by St Pius V.

As seen above (see Proof of the Major), St. Pius V forbade the use of any other Missal for the reading or singing of Mass.  Pope Paul VI derogated to this prohibition by his new Mass.  Let it be noted that he has the power to do so.  It does not mean however that it was morally right or wise to do so nor that the new Missal is doctrinally sound.


If any one disputes this conclusion, let him prove it by quoting the name of the Pope who did abrogate the Bull Quo Primum and the centenary and immemorial custom, together with the title of the document, the date, and the specific words of abrogation used.  If there were a doubt about the abrogation, then canon 23 should be used: In doubt the revocation of the former law is not presumed but later laws are to be considered in connection with earlier ones and as far as possible to be reconciled with them.

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