Rorate Caeli

Rorate Exclusive: Letter Exchange between Msgr. Eugene Clark and Neil McCaffrey in 1977 on the Old Mass

[Rorate thanks Roger McCaffrey for sharing with us these letters from his father's archives from January 1977 and for providing the following introduction.]

The letters below are part of an epistolary exchange between Neil McCaffrey, Jr. and one of his oldest friends from minor-seminary days in New York, Msgr. Eugene Clark, both protégés of Msgr. Florence Cohalan, noted New York archdiocesan historian and pastor. Both men rather quickly succeeded in their chosen paths, Neil as an executive at Doubleday and Macmillan publishers before founding his own companies; Gene Clark as secretary to Cardinal Spellman and then communications director and aide de camp for Cardinal Cooke. Vatican II liturgical changes were embraced by neither man at first, but Clark eventually took up the party line, and the two old friends quarreled, eventually committing their thoughts to a letter exchange that had several back-and-forths, of which we publish below a pair. The reference to The Wanderer was to the way that newspaper leveled criticism at traditional Mass partisans like Michael Davies while not, McCaffrey complained, giving equal time for responses. The full exchange between Neil and Msgr. Clark will be published in the next print edition of The Traditionalist magazine, in Spring 2017. For the current edition of The Traditionalist, visit -- Roger McCaffrey

January 19, 1977

Dear Neil:

Back to the question of Pope Pius V and the Tridentine Mass.

What you said about Paul VI acting ultra vires in establishing the new order cannot be maintained, I am sure, without damage to the essential commission of Christ to the Church. I am saying this on the principle that there is no way in which the commission of Christ given to the apostles can be any different in one age and another.

That steadiness and permanence of the Church's basic constitution and commission require not only a constant principle but the assurance that no one, not even a Pope, can, in fact, diminish or contract the operational commission of Christ to Peter.

We all accept that the custody, protection and regulation of the sacraments and mass [sic] are part of the commission Christ gave to Peter and the Church. The question you are posing is whether or not a Pope anywhere down the line of history can, by anything he says or does, restrict or reduce the jurisdiction and responsibility that Christ gave to the Church. Parallels are poor, but could one Pope decide that no future Popes will have the right to absolve the sin of theft or the right to annul marriages of certain categories? It is inconceivable precisely because no Pope has the power to reduce the area of competence of the Head of the Church, no matter what he said or implied or planned to do.

It is unhistoric to suggest that Pius V could have intended to do what he certainly knew, and what all Christian theology recognized without exception in his time, was beyond the power of any man, i.e., deliberately to revise by reduction the original commission of Christ to the Church. If, per impossibile, he adopted a unique and eccentric view of his powers, it matters not at all what he said or thought. He could not invent, much less exercise, a power he did not have. This would be true also of a Pope who attempted to enlarge Christ's commission. We are more familiar with that. A Pope who announced that he was in charge of economics (a few have hinted it) is quietly and constitutionally ignored.

What is binding on our consciences is the final product of the Church's direction. There is nothing infallible in a Pope's believing, if he did, that he could restrict or enlarge future Popes' jurisdiction.

There is no parallel here with final infallible doctrine which, of course, reduces the options of doctrinal interpretation. The regulation of the mass is a jurisdictional and regulatory matter, and forever open to revision since permanence and infallibility are alien concepts in the area of regulations.

What do you say?

Kindest personal wishes,
Msgr. Eugene V. Clark


January 25, 1977

Dear Gene:

I suppose I should be grateful for your letter. It isn’t often that you give your debating opponents a standing target.

But really, sometimes you are impossible. I made it clear, four or five times, that I do not dispute the right of any pope to concoct a new Mass. I finally raised my voice to underscore this. And now, your letter. You argue like Kingsley (though here, I regret to say, the analogy breaks down).

Very well then, Dr. Kingsley, let me give it one more try. I do not dispute the right of a pope to concoct one new Mass, or a dozen. My point was and is altogether different. You will discover it if you haven’t burned your old Roman Missal. Pius V, in establishing the Tridentine Mass, made two points. He established this Mass as standard for the Latin Church for all time, and he decreed that no priest should ever be penalized for offering it. I did not address myself to the first point, the permanent validity of which is I suppose arguable. I did insist, however, that no priest can be banned from saying the Tridentine Mass in view of the second decree. You scoffed, but I take papal prerogatives more seriously. What a pope binds on earth is bound in heaven. If a pope says, with due solemnity, that a grant is perpetual, I’m afraid I find no way of making it shorter than that. If a successor pretends to be able to, I think he is acting ultra vires.

Did Paul VI have the right to concoct a new Mass? No question. Was he imprudent? By their fruits you shall know them. Was he heartless? Without a doubt. Was he barbaric? Quintessentially. Was it an act of pristine liberalism, either malevolent or utopian (if there is any difference) or both? The question answers itself. But for all that, it was not quite illicit. But your letter does raise another, trickier question. May one pope bind or limit another in matters of discipline? You put the case well for the principle that he may not. Yet I see arguments for the other side. If a pope may not bind in such matters, what you are really saying is that every pope’s works die with him. This is profoundly untraditional and unCatholic. (As you say, doctrinal matters are not, indeed cannot be, in question here.) The genius of the Faith, even on the level of discipline and administration, is continuity. Tradition. If we cannot always and necessarily be bound by the customs of an earlier century, neither are we free to toss them away like a used kleenex.

So we should look for guidance in Catholic history. And sure enough, your aprioristic statements find no resonance there. Quite the contrary. Papal power, while in theory absolute in its own sphere and in all that is not sin, is in fact hedged in by law and prescription, custom and usage. Newman circled around this point in his reply to Gladstone. The Vatican just admitted as much a couple of weeks ago when it protested that all that Roman property was owned not by the Pope but by religious orders. (Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.) And it was decreed in marble by Martin V and the Council of Constance. 

I think this Council will give you more problems than you can handle. Not that I mean to line myself up with the papal enemies, though reform was long overdue. (I never line up with enemies of the papacy: least of all with its worst enemy, bad popes.) The Council was called under auspices that were doubtful at best; and it soon turned into something like an antipapal, and therefore anti-Catholic, orgy. (The parallels between Constance and Vatican II, and especially the “spirit” of each, are too obvious to need laboring. At least the liberals are consistent in embracing both. But when the papolaters of the Right (among whom I know better than to number you) bow down before Vatican II, heedless of its resemblance to Constance and the latter’s grave consequences for the papacy and the Church, I can only think of Cleopatra clasping the asp to her bosom. (Except that Cleopatra knew it was poison.) Constance is ranked among the ecumenical councils because Martin signed seven decrees. Now watch closely. Every decree he signed disciplined the papacy. Every decree undertook to limit the papacy: not just his papacy, but that of his successors, in perpetuity.

Poor Kingsley is in trouble again. These decrees have nothing to do with infallibility, so leave that red herring by the roadside. But the Pope, and the teaching Church in solemn assembly, apparently saw this as a perfectly legitimate exercise of papal and Church authority. It was only after more than five centuries that Dr. Kingsley was able to put them right. 

And note that this Council is doubly awkward for you. Not only do Pope and Council formally circumscribe many papal powers; they do so in perpetuity.

Thanks to good Pope Martin, I think we now may amend the terms of the dispute. Not only is there little question that Pius V was quite within his powers to give every priest henceforward the right to say the Tridentine Mass. We have at least an interesting argument that that Mass itself must be normative. Not perhaps a conclusive argument, but one that must give sober men pause.

And here, I think, we may be on to something. Forget for a moment the narrow question of liceity. Do we seriously suppose that the Holy Spirit is informing a Pope who scorns prudence, overturns tradition, and abandons souls? A Pope who flouts the solemn prescriptions of a sainted predecessor? To say that is to flirt with blasphemy. (That they canonized Pius V is impressive but, I grant you, not finally germane to this discussion; though when they canonize the present Pope [Paul VI], figs will whistle and pigs will fly.) Our Lord told us what sort of fruit to expect from poisoned trees. At Mass Sunday one of our priests, several leagues more enthusiastic for the New Church than you, admitted that he would be surprised if he had more than ten confessions a year -- ten a year! -- from people between eighteen and thirty-five. (But, he neglected to add, thousands of Communions.) And yet there are bishops who can look out over this devastation and pronounce it the springtime of the Faith.

One interesting thing about your letter: it puts you in company you will welcome like the itch. Or do you relish having The Wanderer for an ally? The Wanderer cannot bring itself to state the  arguments of its adversaries without travesty: much less to let the adversaries state their own arguments for themselves. This does not, I’m sure you will agree, argue for the strength of one’s case. You do not belong, certainly, among the papolaters; but your letter reads like one of theirs. (By the way, I think it is time we stopped treating the papolaters as pious but misguided. Why do we assume that simple folk must be virtuous? How does one serve the truth by refusing to confront serious arguments from men of good will? We are accustomed to think of the papolaters as infantile, or unlettered, or sycophants. We ignore their radical lack of charity. They deny a bad pope the grace of fraternal correction. They turn away from souls abandoned by faithless or frightened shepherds. And if these strictures don’t apply to you, at least you should know something about your new friends.)

All these legalistic arguments are interesting, and so important in their own right that we are in danger of missing the real point. Pope Frankenstein made a monster, and you are trying to fix it up with cosmetics. On a certain level, I view with alarm, just like the next anguished soul. But on another level, I view with something like equanimity. God is not mocked. And God’s will is done, somehow. The hydra of liberalism is the quintessence of man’s rebellion against God. For God to let us see it in all its vileness, perhaps He had to let it invade and moreover corrupt the Church. Perhaps we need to be scourged with it (for a season, or a century, or more). But none of this will begin to have its ultimately benign effects until we see the evil for what it is. And abase ourselves for our part in it.

So maybe the next archbishop will be a divorcee. And maybe your job will be to look after her bastard children. If that happens, offer it up. For Lefebvre.


Neil McCaffrey

P. S. Is the form of the Mass wholly a matter of discipline? The Mass pushes up against doctrine at every point. So score another big one for the Old Mass.