The "Papal Coronation Oath"

And More on Alternate Venues for Attending Mass

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ROME, FEB. 28, 2012 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have a brother who is a Franciscan sedevacantist priest. Among other objections he has to the post-Vatican II era is that the rite of coronation of a pope has been replaced with the rite of inauguration or installation of the bishop of Rome. More importantly, they place great importance upon the fact that the coronation oath that was pronounced by every pope from the sixth to the 20th century was also abolished. Do you have any information on this? In particular, do you know if it has been replaced by any sort of profession of faith or oath of fidelity like the one required of future priests and bishops? At first sight, it does seem appropriate that, upon undertaking such an office, the elect make some sort of public commitment to his charge. — P.N., Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, France

A: This alleged Papal Coronation oath has been used by several such groups as “proof” that the Church has abandoned the true faith.

The text of this supposed oath, usually given in English with very imprecise references as to the original source, is the following:

“I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein; To the contrary: with glowing affection as her truly faithful student and successor, to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort; To cleanse all that is in contradiction to the canonical order that may surface; To guard the Holy Canons and Decrees of our Popes as if they were the Divine ordinances of Heaven, because I am conscious of Thee, Whose place I take through the grace of God, Whose Vicarship I possess with Thy support, being subject to the severest accounting before Thy Divine Tribunal over all that I shall confess; I swear to God Almighty and the Savior Jesus Christ that I will keep whatever has been revealed through Christ and His Successors and whatever the first councils and my predecessors have defined and declared. I will keep without sacrifice to itself the discipline and the rite of the Church. I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I. If I should undertake to act in anything of contrary sense, or should permit that it will be executed, Thou willst not be merciful to me on the dreadful Day of Divine Justice. Accordingly, without exclusion, We subject to severest excommunication anyone — be it ourselves or be it another — who would dare to undertake anything new in contradiction to this constituted evangelic Tradition and the purity of the Orthodox Faith and the Christian Religion, or would seek to change anything by his opposing efforts, or would agree with those who undertake such a blasphemous venture.”

A Wikipedia article on this topic points out, “The only historical source claimed for this ‘Papal Oath’ is Migne’s Patrologia Latina, referring, it can be supposed, to volume 105, columns 40-44. Patrologia Latina, 105, columns 9-188 reproduces, with notes and commentary, the full text of Garnier’s 1680 edition of the Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum. The article in The Catholic Encyclopedia on this book states that Garnier’s edition ‘is very inaccurate, and contains arbitrary alterations of the text’; it describes as the first good edition the one published by Eugène de Rozière in 1869. Later editions have been able to take into account not only the oldest surviving manuscript, which is preserved in the Vatican but also two other manuscripts of slightly later date, which were rediscovered, one in 1889, the other in 1937. The Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum is in fact a ‘miscellaneous collection of ecclesiastical formularies used in the papal chancery until the 11th century.’ It then fell into disuse and was soon forgotten and lost, until a manuscript containing it was discovered in the 17th century. Its rediscovery in the 17th century caused surprise precisely because the text declared acceptance of the condemnations of the Sixth General Council, which were directed also against Pope Honorius I. In the opinion of one writer, the oath had the effect of confirming that an ecumenical council could condemn a Pope for open heresy and that Honorius was justly condemned.”

This same article also points out that the English version is very different from the original, adding the most crucial concepts including the paragraphs: “I swear … defined and declared” and “Accordingly, without exclusion … blasphemous venture” and the phrase “I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I.”

However, this discussion regarding the text of the oath is somewhat moot because it is highly unlikely that this oath was ever used at all in papal coronations and certainly not from the sixth to the 20th centuries given that the earliest recorded papal coronation ceremony is that of Pope Celestine II in 1143.

The use of some form of papal crown is slightly earlier. Originally the miter and tiara were the same vesture, also called a “camelaucum” or “phrygium.” A small circle of gold was added in the ninth century with the rise of the pope’s temporal power. The triple tiara probably originated in the early 14th century and was first recorded in an inventory of papal goods in 1316.

Nor is there much evidence that the oath existed in recent times. A detailed description of the coronation of Pope Leo XIII in 1878, plus freely available video footage of the coronations of Pius XII and John XXIII, all show the total absence of any coronation oath. In all cases a cardinal recites a brief formula before crowning the new pope. Immediately after the coronation the pope imparts the blessing urbi et orbi, adopting the formula still in use today.

From a different perspective we could also point out that it was always understood that while the coronation was a splendid ceremony, it did not affect the pope’s spiritual authority. The pope has full authority from the moment he accepts election as bishop of Rome.

In a way, we could also say that it would be incorrect for a pope to pronounce such an oath as it would cast doubt on the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Unlike earthly kings and other authorities who must promise to uphold some authority higher and greater than themselves — such as the constitution or the laws and customs of the realm — the pope’s fidelity regarding the essentials of faith and morals is guaranteed by the highest authority itself. In other words, a pope cannot make an oath of fidelity to God when it is God himself who has assured the Church that the “gates of hell” will not prevail against the one chosen as Christ’s vicar on earth.

* * *

Follow-up: The Old Catholic and Polish National Churches

In line with our Feb. 14 column on the Old Catholic and Polish National Churches, a reader from France had previously written: “A friend of mine belongs to the Latin rite, but lives in a town where Catholics are a majority, but Latins are a tiny minority. A Latin-rite priest comes regularly to celebrate to this Latin community, but once every trimester or so, he is not able to come. My friend’s question is whether he is obliged to go to the Catholic Byzantine Mass to fulfill the Sunday obligation.” In other words: Is someone always obliged to fulfill the Sunday obligation in a rite different from his own when the latter is not available?

This theme is dealt with in canons 1247-1248 of the Code of Canon Law:

“1247. On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.

“Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of
mind and body.

“1248 §1. A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.

“§2. If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.”

The canons do not deal specifically with our problem, but I believe that indirectly the question is broached.

In the first place, the obligation is to attend Mass. The canons make no distinctions regarding rites. Second, it is specifically stated that this obligation may be fulfilled at any Catholic rite.

Therefore, I would say that if a Latin Catholic is only able to fulfill his obligation by attending a Catholic Byzantine Divine Liturgy, then he is obliged to do so.

There may be some rare cases in which due to “another grave cause” there might be practical difficulties for Latin Catholics to be able to attend an otherwise available Eastern Catholic rite. In such cases the bishop can make special provision for the faithful in these circumstances.

The situation is different if the only Mass available is a non-Catholic Eastern celebration. In this case the Catholic has no obligation to attend.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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