But if we, or an angel from Heaven, were to preach a Gospel different from the one which we preached to you, let him be anathema. —Galatians 1:8
Fifty-three years ago, in 1969, a terrible act of vandalism was committed against the Catholic Church, an assault, not only on the Catholic faithful but on the very heart of the Church, the Eucharist, hence an attack on Christ himself. That crime consisted in the scrapping, on orders from the pope, of the Traditional Latin Mass, not only getting rid of the Latin language but butchering many of the texts of the liturgy, carving it up into a liturgy different in kind from the traditional one. That crime was the Novus Ordo, and it was perpetrated by a sadly misguided Pope Paul VI and cruelly forced down the throats of all of us who make up the Catholic faithful.
Then, in July 2021, Pope Francis issued his infamous document on the liturgy, titled Traditionis Custodes (“Guardians of Tradition”), which was, in fact, a wholesale attack on tradition. This papal edict abruptly abrogated Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum, which freed Catholics to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass without needing anyone’s permission. That document had given us hope that it might eventually be possible to correct Pope Paul’s disastrous mistake. But alas, the new document takes away that hope, seeking to suppress the old Mass by regulating it to death, contradicting Summorum Pontificum, which stated that no one in the Church has the authority to do such a thing.
And authority is really what much of the controversy is about. Does anyone have the authority to do what Pope Francis has tried to do in Traditionis Custodes? Or is it an unlawful act, null and void, hence lacking any claim on our obedience? To answer this, I will begin with some points about the nature of papal authority.
First of all, the pope’s authority regarding Catholic tradition, including the liturgical tradition, is a conserving and protecting authority, not an innovative one. A pope can make minor changes, akin to a gardener doing things like pruning, fertilizing, and weeding. He cannot suddenly decide to turn the garden into a parking lot or a beach. He may modify things that are accidental (should there be a need to do so), but is not allowed to mess with the substance.
Secondly, the tradition is something that grows organically through time—that is, through a process in which developments emerge out of the shared experience of Christians who worship together and pray together over centuries and millennia, a process guided by the Holy Spirit. It is not something arbitrarily constructed by an architect or an engineer (or a liturgist, God help us!), then torn down a few years later, when fashions have changed and are replaced by something completely new (because, of course, change is good, and we need to embrace change). In both the natural and supernatural orders, tradition grows like a tree; it is not artificially constructed, like a building.
And the Holy Spirit guides the development of the liturgical tradition, just as he guides the development of doctrine. On one level, the liturgical tradition emerges from the interaction, the living and worshipping together, of Christians in time. However, the Holy Spirit certainly guides this process in the direction He wishes, just as He does when it comes to the development of doctrine.
Thus, I find it hard to imagine that the Holy Spirit guided the development and continuation of the Latin Mass for so many centuries, then suddenly decided to make a U-turn, guiding the Church to adopt a wholly different and incompatible liturgy. Clearly, the Novus Ordo is not the work of the Holy Spirit, and that leaves only one other possibility—that it is the work of Satan. The Traditional Latin Mass has the authority of the Holy Spirit behind it. The Novus Ordo does not. Just as clearly, neither the Novus Ordo itself nor Traditionis Custodes has legitimate authority behind it, and we are not obliged in conscience to obey either. They are null and void.
It is also vital for the health of the Church, as, indeed, for that of any human community, that it have continuity in time. On the natural level, in a normal human society (i.e., not the one we now live in!) it is vital for an old person to be able to look back on his life and see himself as living in the same world he grew up in, with some accidental changes, but not such as to make it unrecognizable. He should not have to remember the world he was born into as “gone with the wind.”
Today, it seems to me, as an octogenarian who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, as if the world of that time was conquered by a foreign power (maybe even by aliens from outer space? Or Hell?) and turned into a world unrecognizable by those who lived earlier—a world, for instance, where people have a right to murder babies, where men can marry men and women can marry women, where men can become women and vice versa. A man my age feels a sense of unreality when he contemplates this scenario.
All the more, Catholics my age need the restoration of the Latin Mass, with which we grew up and which embodied the Church’s continuous mode of worship for a millennium and a half, not the Novus Ordo. And besides that, the whole Church needs that restoration if She is ever to thrive again. The Novus Ordo has been with us only half a century. During that time, it has left faithful Catholics with a sense of unreality, a sense more of the absence of God than of his presence. This is the case even where the Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated reverently—as it is, for example, by the monks who celebrate it on the Catholic cable channel EWTN. Despite this earnest reverence, it is still deeply unsatisfying.
It has been said that if something essential it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change it. That is a good rule of thumb for judging the need for proposed changes. It was not necessary, in the 1960s, to institute a drastic change in Catholic liturgy, a change in kind, not an accidental change but a substantial or radical change. Had it been, back in the ’60s, as necessary as some people seemed to think, then that would have been demonstrated by the results—an extraordinary flourishing of Catholic life, a reaching out to “modern man” which led to many non-believers coming to the faith, great gains in the Church’s ability to attract young people, and so on.
Instead, in the past 50 years, what we have seen is people leaving the Church in droves, young people drifting away once they are old enough to decide for themselves whether to go to church or not, and, among those who remain, many who are Catholic in name only (like our president, Joe Biden). And the unbelievers, unlike Thomas the Apostle, persist in their unbelief. We have reached the point now where the Church is moribund, and it is hard to imagine how we can go on much longer. Something has to give.
And this is a case where it is necessary to change. Yet the modernists in control of the Church see no need to restore the old Mass, and Pope Francis is working very hard to prevent any such thing from happening. So what we have is a situation where great harm has been done to the Church as a result of a colossal lapse in judgment by Pope Paul VI—a good man who was fixated on the mistaken belief that some kind of meeting of the minds was possible between the Church and modernity (I suspect he was deceived by Satan as well as by manipulative advisers). And now the error has to be reversed—a huge change, to be sure, but clearly necessary if we care at all about the future of our Church.
This last point is crucial. Many orthodox Catholics see the Traditional Latin Mass as something whose return would be ideal but which we cannot realistically hope for. After all, Pope Francis has managed to stack the College of Cardinals with progressive prelates, leaving little chance of anyone who is not a progressive being elected in the next conclave (though there is nothing to stop us from praying for a miracle). The likelihood of a new pope arriving on the scene and decreeing the restoration of the old Mass is approximately zero. So, we are tempted to conclude that we are stuck with the Novus Ordo and just have to live with it.
But there is an alternative. The strategy of the Catholic faithful should be to forget about Vatican politics and to work at the local level (the diocese and the parish) to establish as many Latin Mass communities as possible. Ideally, these should exist under the authority of the local bishop, where that is possible. Where it is not, we will have to go underground, operating in secrecy, perhaps celebrating the Mass in one another’s homes, using canceled priests (that is, those unjustly canceled for the crime of being Catholic—child molesters and such need not apply!).
The strategy of the Catholic faithful should be to forget about Vatican politics and to work at the local level (the diocese and the parish) to establish as many Latin Mass communities as possible.
I realize that this would mean disobedience to the bishop. Now, the obligation to obey legitimate authority (civil or ecclesiastical) is not absolute because the duty to obey God always takes precedence. As Saint Peter said in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God, rather than men.” So if a bishop, or even the pope, told me to murder someone, I would have not only the right but the obligation to disobey. When the pope or a bishop tells us we must comply with Traditionis Custodes, which is an attack on Christ and on His Church, we can and must disobey. I like to think of this as ecclesial disobedience, comparable to civil disobedience.
I can see two advantages to this course of action:
First, as the number of Latin Mass communities grows throughout the world, the number of Latin Mass Catholics in the world will increase.
Second, the number of Novus Ordo Catholics will continue to decline, as it has for the last 50 years. Novus Ordo Catholics have, throughout those years, had a
problem reproducing themselves because they typically have small families, while traditional Catholics, who still adhere to the prohibition against birth control affirmed in Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, have bigger families. This is also because the children of Novus Ordo Catholics tend to abandon the faith. I am constantly meeting young people who tell me they were brought up Novus Ordo Catholic, but “don’t go anymore.” They say the 1960s liturgy “was boring,” and they “didn’t get anything out of it,” etc. The young Hollywood actor and recent Catholic convert Shia LeBeouf told Bishop Robert Barron in 2022 that he preferred the Traditional Latin Mass to the Novus Ordo because “it feels like they’re not selling me a car.”
I hope that in the end, traditional Catholics will be the majority, and the Latin Mass will again be the norm, even as the “progressives” who now dominate the Church flee to one or another of the liberal Protestant denominations, where they belong.
A while back, Pope Francis, in a press conference held somewhere from a plane traveling through Earth’s upper atmosphere, disparaged “many who call themselves traditional.”
“No, no, they are not traditional, they are people looking to the past, going backward, without roots,” Francis said.
What nonsense, and how fitting it should be uttered so far from down-to-earth reality! Catholic tradition, of which the Traditional Latin Mass is a vital part, is precisely where the roots of Catholicism are, not the Novus Ordo. Nothing other than weeds has ever been able to grow in the Novus Ordo because it does not have the soil of tradition in which faith can take root.
Many are tempted to downplay the need to return to the traditional Mass by pointing out that the new Mass is sacramentally valid—i.e., the bread and wine truly become the body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is true enough, but while the central reality of the eucharistic miracle remains untouched, the liturgical setting provided for it by the Novus Ordo fails miserably to do justice to it and impairs our ability to benefit spiritually, making it easy to dismiss the whole thing as “just a symbol.” As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “If it’s only a symbol, then I say the hell with it.”
There is a kind of perverse transubstantiation involved wherein the substance of the Mass, which is Christ himself, is indeed present, but the accidents are those of a liberal Protestant service. In that atmosphere, the Church does not thrive but just continues its steady decay. We have, to be sure, the assurance that the Church will last to the end of time, but that is no guarantee that she will have more than two or three members, because as Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
That is not what Christ wants for his Church. His wish for her is that she “increase and multiply and fill the earth.” This has also been phrased as “Go and make disciples of all nations.” That is what any Christian worthy of the name wants. Yet our hierarchy was foolish enough, all those years ago, to twist a great parable, selling the pearl of great price in order to buy a truckload of trash chosen by committee.
Going back to the analogy between a tradition and a tree: if you have, for example, a big old oak tree in your yard, and someone comes along with an axe (probably in the night, while you are asleep) and chops a big chunk out of the trunk, how will you deal with this? Conceivably, if you could find the missing chunk of wood, you might put it back and graft it back into place. But certainly, if you waited 50 years, that would never work. Or, you could try to graft in a new chunk of wood from a very different kind of tree. Or, you could tell yourself that it is a natural part of an oak tree’s life cycle to have a chunk taken out of its trunk, unlikely though it is that any botanist would agree.
There is one more possibility: allow and encourage new growth from the wound site, new growth which will, over time, replace the lost tissue, and will have the same DNA and be the same kind of living tissue.
Now the Catholic tradition, which I have been comparing to a tree, is, like the tree, a product of slow growth, and it is only natural that its wounds should be healed by the same process—not by a new pope decreeing its prompt return, but by organic growth leading to the proliferation of Latin Mass communities. There is no doubt in my mind that the fear of such an eventuality is what prompted Pope Francis to issue Traditionis Custodes and launch his unholy war on the old Mass.
With that in mind, let us make it our serious business to make his worst fears come true.