Recently, someone pointed out to me that the rubrics for the 1962 missal allow the epistle at a sung mass to simply be read by the celebrant (see Ritus Servandus VI, 8 and Rubricas Generales 514). I had been under the impression that only the low mass allowed for non-chanted readings, but given this new caveat, the question was raised whether the epistle could be read in English during such a sung mass rather than in Latin, as the rubrics presume.
The question stems from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which in Article 6, specifically, allowed the readings to be read in the vernacular, rather than in Latin, during masses with a congregation using the 1962 missal.
The question is fairly easy to answer, I believe, in light of the 2011 instruction by the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” (PCED) entitled Universae Ecclesiae. Paragraph no. 26 of the instruction reads (this is a fairly literal translation of the Latin text):
Regarding that which is established in article 6 of the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, it must be said that the readings for Holy Mass, which are contained in the Missal of 1962, may be pronounced either in Latin alone, Latin with a vernacular version following, or in read [low] masses even in the vernacular alone.
The nature of an instruction is to clarify the law and direct how it is to be observed (can. 34, §1). The provision of an instruction must be in accord with the law, and if an instruction cannot be reconciled with the law, it loses all force (can. 34, §2). In this instance, there is no conflict between the law (Summorum Pontificum, art. 6) and the instruction (Universae Ecclesiae, no. 26). Since Summorum Pontificum is an exception to the law (the liturgical law of the 1962 Roman Missal — the rubrics) and Universae Ecclesiae narrows down the exception, art. 6 and no. 26 must be read narrowly (can. 18). Therefore, since no. 26 only allows vernacular readings at low masses, the exception to the rubrics allowing for vernacular-only readings cannot be extended to sung masses or solemn masses.
While the above settles the canonical question, I was curious why Universae Ecclesiae only allowed for vernacular-only readings at low masses. After some reflection and looking around various liturgical blogs, the most likely explanation, I believe, is the non-existence of any Gospel or epistle chant tones suitable for proclamations of scripture texts in English. All the chants of the 1962 Roman Missal were designed to fit the syllabic structure of Latin, so they do not work well in English. Because much of the beauty of solemn masses and sung masses stems from its rich musical patrimony, it makes sense that the non-existence of chant tones for English scripture readings prohibits English-only readings at these masses. To jettison the chanted Latin readings in favour of recited English ones would do damage to the liturgical action. If this is indeed the rationale, it seems like an exception could be carved out for any sung mass in which the celebrant takes advantage of the above-mentioned rubric allowing for the epistle to be recited in Latin.
While researching this question, I realized a clear change in the praxis of PCED regarding vernacular readings in the 1962 mass in last three years. Since the practice of the Roman Curia is canonically relevant when trying to resolve lacunae (can. 19) or doubts (can. 17), I will cover this in a subsequent post.