Universal indult is a term that was used primarily by traditionalist Catholics in a very specific sense. Since an indult signifies a favour granted to an individual or limited group,[1] a similar measure applied to every member of a particular class of persons would in reality be a change of the law, not an indult. However, in spite of its self-contradictory character, traditionalist Catholics used the term "universal indult" to refer to a general permission that they hoped the Pope would grant to all Catholic priests who celebrate Mass in the Roman Rite to do so in its Tridentine Mass form even publicly without first obtaining a specific indult or permission.[2] Groups such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter have standing specific indults to say the Tridentine Mass.

The motu proprio that came

On 7 July 2007 Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum‎, declaring that, while the "Roman Missal promulgated by Paul VI is the ordinary expression of the Lex orandi of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite", the "Roman Missal promulgated by St. Pius V and reissued by Bl. John XXIII is to be considered as an extraordinary expression of that same Lex orandi"; for celebrations without the people ("sine populo"), all priests of the Latin Rite may freely use the Missal promulgated by Pope John XXIII in 1962 instead of the more recent editions (article 2), and that the priest in charge of a church may grant permission for parish celebrations with the 1962 Missal by priests who are "idoneous and not juridically impeded" (article 5).[3]

This motu proprio is not an indult: it does not grant permission, but instead lays down regulations governing the use in practice of the 1962 Missal, a use recognized as already legitimate in principle. While the form given to the Roman Rite by Pope Paul VI is now its ordinary form, the Tridentine form as last revised by Pope John XXIII may be used as an extraordinary form, as, for instance, the Sarum Rite has occasionally been used in modern times by Catholic Bishops. It also allows what some traditionalists would call novelties, such as proclaiming the Scripture readings in the vernacular language in Masses celebrated in the presence of the people (article 6).

Claim that an indult was not needed

Before this motu proprio was issued, traditionalist Catholic groups, the largest of which is the Society of St. Pius X, which, even if not in formal schism, is in a situation of separation from the Church headed by the Holy See,[4] claimed that no special authorization was required to celebrate the Tridentine Mass even publicly. They interpreted Pope Pius V's 1570 bull Quo Primum as saying that the Tridentine Mass may be said in perpetuity.[5]

Bishop Fellay, the SSPX superior general, said, "So long as the Tridentine Mass is considered a particular concession, we remain marginalized, in a precarious and suspect position. It is in this perspective that we claim a right that has never been lost: that of the Mass for everyone. To reduce this right to an indult (which certain Roman voices hold to be provisory) is already to diminish it."[6]

These groups wanted more than a universal indult, they wanted universal acceptance of the Tridentine Mass. Bishop Richard Williamson has said: "The downside [of accepting a universal indult] is, of course, that a number of lines will be blurred which are presently clear, separating true Tradition from any kind of compromise. Also, the very idea of the intrinsically legitimate Tridentine Mass needing an 'indult' is false. But I think, over all, much more good than harm would come from the True Mass being 'liberated'."

The following arguments are used against the view that the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Pius V in 1570 was to be considered valid for all times and could not be altered even by later Popes:

  • The 1568 bull Quod a nobis by which Pope Pius V promulgated his revised edition of the Roman Breviary used many expressions similar to those in Quo primum regarding, for instance, the perpetual force of its provisions, the obligation to use the promulgated text in all places, and the total prohibition of adding or omitting anything. Yet Pope Pius X abolished the Psalter established by Pope Pius V and forbade its use,[7] declaring that those who were obliged to recite the Divine Office every day failed to fulfil this grave duty unless they used the new arrangement. See Reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope Pius X.
  • Canon law states that "In celebrating the sacraments the liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in them on one's own authority."[8] While this excludes the alteration of words and rites by individuals, abuses repeatedly condemned by the Holy See in documents such as the Instruction Redemptionis sacramentum and deplored by Pope Benedict XVI in the letter with which he accompanied Summorum Pontificum,[9] it does not mean that the liturgical books cannot be altered by legitimate authority, as indeed, even before the revision by Pope Paul VI, the Roman Missal of Pope Pius V was in fact repeatedly modified by pontifical authority, with each new revision superseding the previous edition.
  • Under Pope Pius IV, the Council of Trent declared in 1562: "If anyone says that the ceremonies, vestments, and outward signs which the Catholic Church uses in the celebration of masses, are incentives to impiety rather than stimulants to piety, let him be anathema."[10] This applies to the Mass as revised by Pope Paul VI now used by the Catholic Church.


  1. The canons of the Code of Canon Law that speak of indults concern only indults of secularization (684), exclaustration (686) or leaving an institute (688, 691, 692, 693, 727, 728, 745) granted to an individual religious, and of apostolic indults for erecting an association of the faithful (320) and in connection with allowing exceptions to laws about ordination (1015, 1019, 1021)
  2. The universal-indult watch, Catholic World News, Phil Lawler, 11 April 2006
  3. Summorum Pontificum, in Latin and English
  4. "Unfortunately Monsignor Lefebvre went ahead with the consecration and hence the situation of separation came about, even if it was not a formal schism" (30 Giorni 09/2005).
  5. The Legitimacy of Quo Primum - from Society of St. Pius X, USA.
  6. Superior General on Indults. The word "provisory" in this text is presumably a mistranslation of French "provisoire", which means "provisional, temporary".
  7. "Therefore, by the authority of these letters, we first of all abolish the order of the psaltery as it is at present in the Roman breviary, and we absolutely forbid the use of it after the 1st day of January of the year 1913."
  8. Code of Canon Law, canon 846 §1
  9. "In many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear."
  10. Session XXII, canon 7
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