The Council of Trent anathematizes those who say that any pastor of the churches whatsoever may transform the rites wont to be used in the solemn administration of the sacraments into ‘other new rites’. This has been interpreted in two different ways. Some read it as a very weak condemnation which rejects only the idea that any person exercising pastoral ministry may alter the Church’s rites. On this reading a bishop or an archdeacon or a liturgist might do so, just not anybody. This is certainly a possible reading but it is very weak and would render the definition virtually pointless. It would be a bit like a slippery politician condemning those who support abortion on demand up to birth and then presenting himself as pro-life even though he actually supported abortion in almost all circumstances. the other reading is that this is quite a ferocious canon defining that no cleric whatever may create new rites. This interpretation is supported by paragraphs 1124-1125 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which read:

“The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine [5th cent.]). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition. For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy.”

Often this interpretation of Trent is rejected because of the Council’s words elsewhere in the Decree on Communion Under Both Species, and the Communion of Infants,

“It furthermore declares, that this power has ever been in the Church, that, in the dispensation of the sacraments, their substance being untouched, it may ordain, or change, what things soever it may judge most expedient, for the profit of those who receive, or for the veneration of the said sacraments, according to the difference of circumstances, times, and places.”

this objection assumes that the ‘substance’ of the sacraments means only the matter, form and intention. This would be rather like saying that a man who had had his arms, legs and nose cut off was ‘substantially unharmed’. It is a sort of absurd reductionism which assumes that all sorts of sinful practices (such as consecrating under only one species, not consuming the consecrated elements, baptising a healthy child against its parents wishes, suppressing the sign of the cross) which the pope certainly has no power to authorize, because they would not compromise the validity of the the sacrament, do not pertain its ‘substance’.

In this context, Joseph Ratzinger, made some uncharacteristically severe remarks in 2004 on this very point which are very well worth reading.

“It seems to me most important that the Catechism, in mentioning the limitation of the powers of the supreme authority in the Church with regard to reform, recalls to mind what is the essence of the primacy as outlined by the First and Second Vatican Councils: The pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law, but is the guardian of the authentic Tradition, and thereby the premier guarantor of obedience. He cannot do as he likes, and is thereby able to oppose those people who for their part want to do what has come into their head. His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why, with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile. The ‘rite’, that form of celebration and prayer which has ripened in the faith and the life of the Church, is a condensed form of living tradition in which the sphere which uses that rite expresses the whole of its faith and its prayer, and thus at the same time the fellowship of generations one with another becomes something we can experience, fellowship with the people who pray before us and after us. Thus the rite is something of benefit which is given to the Church, a living form of paradosis — the handing-on of tradition.

It is important, in this connection, to interpret the ‘substantial continuity’ correctly. The author expressly warns us against the wrong path up which we might be led by a neo-scholastic sacramental theology which is disconnected from the living form of the Liturgy. On that basis, people might reduce the ‘substance’ to the material and form of the sacrament, and say: Bread and wine are the material of the sacrament, the words of institution are its form. Only these two things are really necessary, everything else is changeable.

At this point Modernists and Traditionalists are in agreement: As long as the material gifts are there, and the words of institution are spoken, then everything else is freely disposable. Many priests today, unfortunately, act in accordance with this motto; and the theories of many liturgists are unfortunately moving in the same direction. They want to overcome the limits of the rite, as being something fixed and immovable, and construct the products of their fantasy, which are supposedly ‘pastoral’, around this remnant, this core which has been spared, and which is thus either relegated to the realm of magic, or loses any meaning whatever. The Liturgical Movement had in fact been attempting to overcome this reductionism, the product of an abstract sacramental theology, and to teach us to understand the Liturgy as a living network of tradition which had taken concrete form, which cannot be torn apart into little pieces, but has to be seen and experienced as a living whole. Anyone like myself, who was moved by this perception in the time of the Liturgical Movement on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things they were concerned for.”

In Chapter 43 of the Holy Rule St Benedict famously admonishes his monks “nothing is to be preferred to the Opus Dei” meaning thereby the Sacred Liturgy and the Divine Office. And yet, in Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to St John Our Lord himself tells us “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom He hath sent.” There is no contradiction here, the liturgy is the deposit of faith, the celebration of the liturgy is the tradition. “As we said before, so now I say again: If any one preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema.”