There is an error in my recent Letter #23, on January 18, five days ago, entitled “No secrets” (link), regarding a possible draft of a Vatican document on the old Mass.

    I gave the wrong title for a document, and that error has led some to question the validity and integrity of the entire report.

    So this email is an apology, and an attempt to set the record straight.


    Letter #23 (link)

    Letter #23 followed days of rumors in Rome that Pope Francis might be preparing to further restrict the old liturgy. (See on this Letter #20, on January 17, link.)

    Then a Catholic priest contacted me to say that the “rumor,” in fact, contains a truth: that there actually is a draft Vatican document which would further restrict the celebration of the old Mass. The priest confided in me that “an archbishop in the States has seen this document.”

    The archbishop, he continues, “confirmed to a priest friend of mine (who is a person of true integrity and would not casually spread rumor), that it does indeed contain what some have guessed at — a further suppression of the TLM [Traditional Latin Mass]…”

    I replied to the letter-writer, confirmed his identity, and concluded that the letter was not a hoax or prank, but a serious communication.

    The error is this: in my correspondent’s letter, he wrote that an archbishop had seen the draft of an “Apostolic Exhortation.”

    I was puzzled by this, but, I sent the letter on without correcting it.

    The correction would have been to refer to the new document — if it is ever published — as an “Apostolic Constitution.”

    This is the error: the document (if published) would be an “Apostolic Constitution,” not an “Apostolic Exhortation.”

    And many people noted this, and wondered if this mistake meant the entire letter from the priest was unreliable.

    So I apologize for the error, and for undermining the credibility of the priest and his information.


    Different types of papal communications

    An “Apostolic Exhortation” is a type of communication from the Pope written to encourage people (urging them, “exhorting” them) to undertake the implementation of a particular set of recommendations.

    An “Apostolic Constitution” is more important and solemn, and deals with legal matters, with Church structures and procedures — including liturgical practices. (When Pope Paul VI published his promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass on April 3, 1969, the document was an “Apostolic Constitution“; so a new document today regulating the liturgy would normally also be an “Apostolic Constitution.”)

    An “Encyclical Letter” is also more important than an “Apostolic Exhortation” and deals, usually, with a specific area of doctrine, clarifying the doctrine or explaining it in greater detail.

    The differences between these types of texts are well known to followers of Vatican affairs, yet I printed the email I received without correcting this mistake.

    My apologies to all.     


    The major types of documents

    Here is a useful list of the major types of papal documents (link):

    Papal Bull

    A bull is a formal papal document authenticated with a bulla or seal. Originally, metal was used for the seal, but today metal is used only for the most solemn bulls. Bulls typically begin with the issuing pope’s name and the phrase, “episcopus servus servorum Dei,” and conclude with the date. The content may cover any topic. Many important papal documents are issued as bulls. Bulls are generally cited using the first words of their text.

    Apostolic Constitution

    Apostolic constitutions are the most solemn form of legal document issued by the pope in his own name. Frequently issued as bulls, they deal primarily with serious doctrinal matters. Since 1911 they have also been used for the erection of dioceses and provinces. Many important documents have been promulgated as constitutions, including The Code of Canon Law.

    Motu Proprio

    Motu proprios are legislative, apostolic letters written and signed by the pope on his own initiative. Originally used to settle the affairs of the Curia and administer the Papal States, they now handle legislative matters which are significant but do not merit a constitution. Motu proprios are generally brief, and handle specific issues relevant to the Church in a specific time in history. In recent years they have been one of the principal sources of new laws outside of the Code.

    Encyclical Letter

    Encyclicals are papal letters of a pastoral nature, used in their current form since 1740. These letters offer counsel and shed light on existing doctrine as part of the Holy Father’s ordinary teaching authority. They do not belong formally to the deposit of revelation, and their teachings are not definitive unless specifically stated as such. Therefore, certain points of their teachings can often be changed.

    Apostolic Epistle

    When an encyclical is written in response to a particular need, or when it is addressed to a specific group of persons, it is called an apostolic epistle. These epistles, pastoral in nature and primarily discussing social concerns, are not considered legislative documents.

    Apostolic Exhortation

    Apostolic exhortations are papal reflections on a particular topic which are addressed to all of the clergy and faithful. The form was first used by Pope Pius XII in 1939. Exhortations generally encourage a particular virtue or mission, and are given on specific occasions. They do not contain dogmatic definitions or policies, and they are not considered legislative documents.

    Decretal Letter

    Decretals, first used in the 2nd century, originally contained papal decisions related to questions of discipline and administration. During the Middle Ages they were often issued in the form of bulls. In modern times, they are reserved for solemn matters such as dogmatic definitions and canonizations. It is generally accepted that decretals belong to the extraordinary magisterium of the Holy Father; however, they are not considered legislative documents.

    Allocutiones / Addresses

    Prior to the 19th century, the term “allocutiones” was generally reserved for solemn addresses given by the Holy Father to his cardinals. Today, however, a variety of less-formal papal allocutions and addresses are published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis and other sources. Their content is not necessarily tied to the Church or liturgy, but attempts to address specific issues or circumstances and is aimed at particular groups of people.

    Papal Rescript

    A papal rescript generally answers a petition placed before one of the Roman Curiae or the Holy Father himself. It is signed by the cardinal prefect and the secretary of the relevant congregation, and also bears that congregation’s seal.

    Apostolic Brief

    Apostolic briefs, also called brevia, are a simple form of document dealing with matters of relatively-minor importance. This form emerged during the reign of Pope Martin V (1417-31) as a replacement for the ancient form of litterae.

    So what happened?

    First, I sent out my Letter #23.

    Then I received this letter from a reader:

    You may want to ask the priest who emailed you if he meant to say “Apostolic Constitution” (instead of “Apostolic Exhortation”), since Paul VI’s Missale Romanum (April 3, 1969) was an Apostolic Constitution.

     Confidentially, I’ve been in touch with a very reliable source who says he’s heard there is indeed a document coming and that it will be issued sometime in April (he thinks probably before Easter, which means before April 9). I’d be willing to bet that the document will drop on April 3 (anniversary of Paul VI’s Missale Romanum).

    Then, I received this letter:

    Dr. Moynihan,

    Just a note:  Pope Paul VI promulgated the new missal by an Apostolic Constitution titled Missale Romanum, not by an Apostolic Exhortation.  An Apostolic Constitution is a legislative document, which might also include doctrine, an Apostolic Exhortation a teaching document.


    Robert G.

    Then I received this letter:

    As you reported at Inside the Vatican, you have received a letter from a priest who knows a priest to whom an unnamed bishop has told something about a draft of an allegedly upcoming new document concerning the TM [Traditional Mass].

    To avoid any misunderstanding: An approach of Bergoglio according to the style mentioned in the letter seems somehow possible to me. On the other hand, if he now should act thus ruthlessly, he would also prove once more that the reason given by Traditionis custodes for its dispositions — an alleged “call for help from the bishops that the Pope should regulate the matter in another way” etc. — is purely and simply a lie. Certainly, such a brutal self-unmasking would facilitate the theological and canonical evaluation of Bergoglio’s attack on the immemorial Latin Rite. However, it remains to be seen if Bergoglio, who speaks uninterruptedly about “synodality” etc., will go thus far.

    Be this at it may, I doubt that the letter presented to you offers reliable information, or any authentic information at all.

    The writer of the letter betrays in several places a lack of familiarity with the subject and inconsistencies which in my view may not easily be attributed to a member of a “traditional order”. Such are:

    —Equating an Apostolic Exhortation with an Apostolic Constitution

    —Equating private celebration with celebration outside parish churches

    —Mentioning of purported ordes whose members “only privately celebrate” according to the old Missal — such orders don’t exist. (Of course there are orders in which individual members celebrate according to the old Missal privately, but there is, at least to my knowledge, not a single order that provides something like this in its constitutions.)

    —Exclusive mentioning of the FSSP (So the other communities would allegedly be passed over in silence in a new document aiming at further repression of the TLM? This does not seem to be very probable.)

    Sincerely in Jesus and Mary,

    Fr. Paolo

    And I also received other, similar letters.

    So I wrote to the priest who had written to me, as follows (including some of the letters from readers that I have just published above):

    When I read what you wrote, I thought: “He must mean Apostolic Constitution, not Apostolic Exhortation, but then I thought, “Well, that is what he wrote, so I should not change it…”(!)

    So now I am thinking: I did not serve you well, or myself, or the cause of truth, because I should have contacted you and checked, and I think you would have said, “You know, you are right, it is ‘Constitution.’” 

    Did you, and your source, mean “Constitution” rather than “Exhortation”?

    Then the priest wrote back to me:    

    Hi Robert,

    Yes, you are correct—I did mean Apostolic Constitution—writing late at night, I had a “Biden moment” 😊 — so it would be good to clarify that with your readers — that it is to match the same rank as the document of St Paul VI — and as one of your other respondents shared — may be released on the anniversary date (which makes a lot of sense “symbolically”). Thanks for following up on this. Pace e Bene.


    I apologize for this error, especially because a number of people picked up the story and trusted that I had given the correct type of document, and these people repeated what I had written, propagating my lack of oversight. So I apologize to everyone, but especially to those people who cited my letter, trusting my mistaken categorization of the document.

    Sorry about that…


     A profoundly serious spiritual matter

    I have been writing on this matter — which to some may seem relatively unimportant amid so much that is going on today — because it seems to me that Catholics who love the old Mass have a right to be aware of and informed about what the leaders of the Church are planning with regard to the old Mass.

    For many thousands, this is not a “game of rites” played by hierarchs, but a profoundly serious spiritual matter that affects their souls and the souls of many, including their children, intimately.

    Benedict XVI made strong arguments in favor of his 2007 decision to permit and, in a sense, to embrace the old Mass as a legitimate, honored part of our tradition    

    His arguments remain powerful and persuasive, 15 years later… in spite of his departure from this world on December 31.

    And this is what others have written to me, saying this same thing to me:

    At some point, you need to seek info — somehow — on how many people are headed East, to Eastern Rite or to canonical Orthodoxy. I say that based on my experience at my own Orthodox parish here in East Tennessee.


    And this:

    I will also just add that I see a deep and extremely personal relationship that my children have developed with Jesus in the Eucharist through the Latin Mass. Even while they were quite young, maybe 8 and under, they expressed preferring the Latin Mass better than the Novus Ordo in the vernacular because “Mom, it’s beautiful.” While I myself was reticent to attend the Latin Mass, I felt like I could not hinder their relationship with Our Lord that they themselves developed in the Old Rite. And for what? 

    A mother    

    [End, letter of correction, apology and explanation]

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