The Young Father Ratzinger

and the Two Motu Proprio

Part I: The Restoration of Divine Worship

The reaction to Pope Francis’s motu proprio on the Latin Mass, Traditionis Custodes, is a development requiring analysis, for the responses defending the traditional Mass are varied. They come from a variety of perspectives, sharing the same traditional Catholic Faith, but differing in the nuances of their application of the principles of canon and liturgical law.

In attempting to find the unifying principle behind the different opinions, we must examine the present liturgical controversy by turning to one of its central figures – not simply as Benedict XVI, or previously as Cardinal Ratzinger, but as the young Father Joseph Ratzinger in the 1950s. One of features of the theology that influenced Father Ratzinger’s thinking was an emphasis on positive theology, or the study of the history of theology, as distinct from the body of common teaching compiled under the generic name of scholastic theology. In those early years Father Ratzinger wrote two doctoral dissertations relating to the history of theology, the first on St. Augustine, and the second on St. Bonaventure.

An important contribution of these two doctors of the Church was the work they devoted to the theology of history – the study of what Divine Revelation made known about all of sacred history, including the last times of the Church, from which the present liturgical crisis cannot be viewed separately if it is to be fully understood. St. Augustine developed his thought on sacred history in The City of God. Furthermore, he is associated with a tradition that divided all of history into seven ages. But eight centuries later St. Bonaventure further developed this tradition by adding an additional seven periods of history, corresponding to the history of the Church following the Incarnation.

All of this is explained by Father Ratzinger in a book known in English translation as The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure.1 Because it was written in the decade before the Second Vatican Council, Father Ratzinger could not at the time have foreseen the liturgical crisis that was to follow the Council, nor the role that he personally was to play in confronting it. He would not have known that the Roman liturgical rite, which had been codified and unified by Pope St. Pius V, would once again become divided. Nor could he foresee that he himself would be the author of a motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, as a personal attempt to unify what was again divided, and that Pope Francis would then abrogate his motu proprio, and try to unify the Roman Rite in a different way, by attempting to suppress the traditional Roman Rite that St. Pius V had established as the norm.

It is in reference to this contemporary crisis that St. Bonaventure’s doctrine, as synthesized by the young Father Ratzinger in the 1950s, provides an indisputable clarification. The term that St. Bonaventure used, Father Ratzinger explained, was “reparatio divini cultus,” or “restoration of divine worship.” It was used by St. Bonaventure in conjunction with another term, “reaedificatio civitatis,” or the rebuilding of the city. This twofold restoration and rebuilding, to take place in the last times – according to St. Bonaventure in Father Ratzinger’s summary account of his doctrine – was prefigured in the Old Testament by the rebuilding of the Temple and of the City of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity.

Various members of the hierarchy of the Church have spoken about the present crisis in the Church precisely in terms of events relating to the last times, as we have pointed out in another article by citing the well-documented research done by John Henry Westen of LifeSiteNews. With the publication of Pope Francis’s Traditionis Custodes, the attention of Catholics worldwide turns more than ever to the internal crisis in the Church centered on the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

For Catholics devoted to the traditional Latin Mass, the obvious significance of what was foreseen by St. Bonaventure – not from a private revelation, but from what was already revealed in Sacred Scripture – is that such a “restoration of divine worship” could not apply to the liturgical changes following the Second Vatican Council, for the novus ordo missae was not a former liturgy that was restored but an entirely new liturgy. This “reparatio divini cultus” could only refer to the return of the traditional Roman Rite, which dates back not merely to St. Gregory, but in some form to the time of the Apostles. For this reason the noted British liturgist Father Adrian Fortescue, without demeaning in any way the various Eastern rites, could justifiably state more than a century ago regarding the traditional Roman Rite, that there is “not in Christendom another rite so venerable.”2

Traditional Catholics who are devoted to the traditional Mass of the Roman Rite recognize that such a rite of the Church can never be legitimately suppressed. Their confidence that it will continue for all times finds support in divine revelation regarding sacred history, in particular as it applies to the liturgy, which was explained eight centuries ago by St. Bonaventure, and brought to light in the 1950s by Father Joseph Ratzinger in a doctoral dissertation. Father Ratzinger’s study on St. Bonaventure is an essential contribution to clarifying the current uncertainties about the role of the traditional Roman Rite in the context of sacred history. For sound theological and liturgical arguments upholding the traditional Roman Rite, well founded as they are, are presented as logical deductions from universal doctrinal principles – but theology, according to Saint Bonaventure, includes not only universal theological principles, but also their application to historical events. Inasmuch as the Son of God entered into human history through the Incarnation, God’s plan for human salvation takes place in an ordered process guided by Divine Providence, which extends from the beginning until the end of time. Since Divine Revelation foretold an assault against divine worship in the last times, and also made known a restoration of divine worship, it is in Saint Bonaventure that the Church finds her description of these details in the context of the theology of history, the part of theology that makes known the trials of the Church in the last times. And St. Bonaventure’s theology of history describes very clearly the restoration of the traditional Roman Rite. The instruments that St. Bonaventure saw as bringing this restoration, and as described by the young Father Ratzinger, will be the subject of Part II in this series.


1 Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, IL, 1971. Later reprinted by Ignatius Press.

2 “Essentially the Missal of Pius V. is the Gregorian Sacramentary; that again is formed from the Gelasian book, which depends on the Leonine collection. We find the prayers of our Canon in the treatise de Sacramentis and allusions to it in the IVth century. So our Mass goes back, without essential change, to the age when it was first developed out of the oldest liturgy of all. It is still redolent of that liturgy, of the days when Caesar ruled the world and thought he could stamp out the faith of Christ, when our fathers met together before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a God. The final result of our inquiry is that, in spite of unsolved problems, in spite of later changes, there is not in Christendom another rite so venerable as ours.” The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy, Boonville, New York, 2009, reprint of 1930 edition.