Rorate Caeli

The Ottaviani Intervention Turns 50: A Perceptive and Still Relevant Critique

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Short Critical Study of the New Order of Mass, better known as the “Ottaviani Intervention” after one of the two cardinals who signed it (Alfredo Ottaviani and Antonio Bacci). The study bears the date of Thursday, June 5, 1969, which was the feast of Corpus Christi that year.

The study was, however, not delivered to Pope Paul VI until almost four months later, with a cover letter dated September 25, 1969. In this letter the Cardinals aver:

The accompanying Critical Study is the work of a select group of bishops, theologians, liturgists, and pastors of souls. Despite its brevity, the study shows quite clearly that the Novus Ordo Missae -- considering the new elements widely susceptible to widely different interpretations which are implied or taken for granted -- represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session 22 of the Council of Trent. The "canons" of the rite definitively fixed at that time erected an insurmountable barrier against any heresy which might attack the integrity of the Mystery.

As many have pointed out, and as Yves Chiron discusses in some detail, "the striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass" was found most obviously in the General Instruction attached to the new Missal, but it must be immediately added that the fashionable reduction or reinterpretation of the Mass as (primarily or exclusively) a memorial of the Last Supper is consistently carried through the entire Missal, as for instance in its deletion of the Offertory prayers and of the Placeat tibi. While the General Instruction was, in the event, modified in response to the Short Critical Study, the rest of the Missal was left untouched. To this extent, the Study still retains its force.

The Cardinals continue:

The pastoral reasons put forth to justify such a grave break, even if such reasons could still hold good in the face of doctrinal considerations, do not seem sufficient. The innovations in the Novus Ordo and the fact that all that is of perennial value finds only a minor place -- if it subsists at all -- could well turn into a certainty the suspicion, already prevalent, alas in many circles, that truths which have always been believed by the Christian people can be changed or ignored without infidelity to that sacred deposit of doctrine to which the Catholic faith is bound forever. The recent reforms have amply demonstrated that new changes in the liturgy could not be made without leading to complete bewilderment on the part of the faithful, who already show signs of restiveness and an indubitable lessening of their faith. Among the best of the clergy, the result is an agonizing crisis of conscience, numberless instances of which come to us daily.

This paragraph is a kind of commentary on the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi. Change the liturgy enough, and you touch the sacred deposit of doctrine; you distress the faithful and disturb their reception of the Catholic Faith. After fifty years of shrinking congregations, closing churches, and pervasive indifferentism and modernism -- especially in those parts of the world by which and for which the new liturgy was designed -- it would be difficult to dispute that the cardinals were justified in their last-ditch attempt to prevent the promulgation of a rite of Mass that was manifestly a rupture with the preceding Roman liturgical heritage.

We are also struck by the mention in this letter of clergy experiencing an agonizing crisis of conscience. This is happening in our own day, too, as more and more Catholics under this pontificate have been moved to seek clarity on the deeper sources of our ecclesial crisis. Their research and experiences are leading them precisely to the positions taken by the first generation of traditionalists in the 1960s.

After reminding Paul VI that a law harmful to the good of subjects should be repealed, the cardinals conclude with these haunting words:

At a time, therefore, when the purity of the faith and the unity of the Church suffer cruel lacerations and still greater peril, daily and sorrowfully echoed in the words of You, our common Father, we most earnestly beseech Your Holiness not to deprive us of the possibility of continuing to have recourse to the integral and fruitful Missal of St. Pius V, so highly praised by Your Holiness, and so deeply venerated by the whole Catholic world.

There would, of course, be no response from Montini to this reasonable request; he had pushed forward the liturgical revolution for years and was not about to engage the brakes. This earnest petition was to be answered only in 2007, with Pope Benedict XVI's Summorum Pontificum, which (contrary to Paul VI's oft-stated intention) declared that the Missal of St. Pius V had never been abrogated and could never be abrogated, and that any priest of the Catholic Church may always and everywhere have recourse to this "integral and fruitful Missal," which remains, thanks be to God, "deeply venerated."

One often hears misconceptions about the Intervention: it fails to prove its case; it proves only that the 1969 General Instruction was problematic; it was repudiated by Ottaviani later. As to the first, it can be admitted that while this brief Intervention is not sufficient by itself to clinch the argument and does have weaknesses that may be exploited, it nevertheless outlines and anticipates most of the lines of argument that have been followed consistently by critics ever since 1969. In that sense, it is a document of immense historical significance and effective of much subsequent good. As to the second, it certainly does showcase the errors of the General Instruction, but it devotes equal time to the flaws in the new rite of Mass itself. As to the last, the story circulated about Ottaviani's repudiation is highly suspect, as Cekada discusses in his edition of the Intervention (pp. 16-20). I also recommend Michael Davies' article.

The text of this important historical document may be found in a number of places online, such as here (original translation) and here (translation by Fr Cekada); in book form, here and here. Although Fr Cekada and I certainly have our differences of opinion, his edition is particularly helpful for its lengthy preface on the background and significance of the document, its improved translation, and its notes.

May God reward Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci for speaking a difficult word at a time when the reigning Pope was rending the fabric of the Roman rite -- and may He raise up courageous voices in our time, too, when a different Pope, cut from the same cloth, is tearing apart the fabric of Roman Catholicism.