Pope Francis addressed concerns about his controversial Traditionis custodes (Guardians of the Tradition)—an apostolic letter issued in July 2021 that placed severe new restrictions on the practice of the Latin Mass in the Roman Catholic Church—in a Responsa ad dubia dated Dec. 4. Both documents make it clear that the traditional Tridentine liturgy (Missale Romanum, 1962), which had enjoyed the blessings of the Vatican after Pope Benedict’s 2007 apostolic letter, Summorum Pontificum, is now under attack.
This attack is a matter of broad concern, not just for the many Catholic readers of this magazine but for conservatives everywhere. Despite the deviations of the present papacy, the Church remains a bulwark of moral and theological traditionalism, both in America—where there are now more than 70 million Catholics—and around the world. The Latin rite is the most profound expression of that tradition and should be allowed to flourish without impediment.
The justification for the new restrictions is that the practice of the ancient Mass is a source of divisiveness and disunity. But close attention to the documents themselves and to the broader context in which they have appeared, strongly suggests that the underlying motive is to reinforce the now-crumbling edifice of the Second Vatican Council and its vision of aggiornamento, the “updating” of the Church to make it more responsive to the conditions of the modern world.
The Latin Mass enjoyed a splendid revival after the promulgation of Pope Benedict’s Summorum. Already encouraged by his predecessor, John Paul II, Benedict’s apostolic letter gave complete freedom to all priests to celebrate the Tridentine liturgy without approval from their local bishops. In the United States alone, some 658 parishes now offer at least one Latin Mass, according to a July 2021 survey in Crisis Magazine. Attendance at the traditional Mass has increased by 34 percent in the last three years alone.
In contrast to the declining numbers experienced by most Catholic congregations, these traditionalist parishes are full of young, vibrant, married Catholics with children. Some of these parishioners are converts, but many have simply abandoned parishes where the Vatican II vernacular rite is practiced. Their constant refrain is that the Latin Mass offers a dignity and solemn elevation of language and ritual practice all too often absent in nontraditional parishes.
In contrast to the generous provisions of Benedict’s Summorum, Francis’ Traditionis now gives authority to local bishops, who are said to possess “exclusive competence,” to decide whether the Latin rite may be practiced. Bishops are furthermore given sole authority to stipulate where and when the rite shall be practiced. Moreover, the Tridentine rite must be restricted to “canonically erected” parishes. This means that it will be prohibited in local parishes where the vernacular rite—based on the 1970 Roman Missal, known as the Ordinary Form—is typically celebrated, which is almost everywhere, though it is true that certain exceptions may be made in cases where it proves impossible to establish a canonically erected parish.
Equally concerning is the provision that authorizes bishops to “verify that the parishes canonically erected for the benefit of these faithful are effective for their spiritual growth, and to determine whether or not to retain them”—clearly an invitation to bishops, for virtually any reason related to parishioners’ “spiritual growth,” to shut down Latin-rite parishes at will.
The Responsa doubles down on all of these diktats and adds to them. Among other clarifications, it states that although the Latin Mass is to be tolerated for the present under the abovementioned restrictions, administration of Holy Orders (ordinations), confirmations, baptisms, confessions, or anointings must all be performed following the Ordinary Form. In the Responsa, an explanatory note written by Archbishop Arthur Roche, prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship, places stress on
[R]e-establish[ing] in the whole Church of the Roman Rite a single and identical prayer expressing its unity, according to the liturgical books promulgated by the Popes Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of the Second Vatican Council and in line with the tradition of the Church [emphasis added].
Further, each diocesan bishop must strive to ensure that “his diocese returns to a unitary form of celebration.” In another note, dripping with condescension toward those who have attached themselves to the Tridentine rite, Roche writes, “There is no intention in these provisions to marginalise the faithful who are rooted in the previous form of celebration: they are only meant to remind them that this is a concession to provide for their good.”
One might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that nearly every word in both the Traditionis and the Responsa has the effect of marginalizing the Latin Mass faithful, whatever the intentions of the Holy Father might have been. Indeed, we may also agree with Luisella Scrosati at the Daily Compass that these two documents are merely the first steps toward eradicating the traditional Mass “a little at a time.”
For Catholics and others who view these developments with concern, several arguments against the new restrictions may be of some use.
First, although Francis and Archbishop Roche would have us believe that Latin-rite advocates are a source of divisiveness in the Church, disrupting its unity of tradition, the Catholics who are devoted to the old rite actually are among the most faithful in the Church and, indeed, among those most steeped in its traditions. Curiously, in stressing a perfectly “unitary” form of worship, these documents fail to note that such a standard forces all of the Eastern rite liturgies (which include the Byzantine rite, the Alexandrian rite, and several others) to conform to the Roman rite.
The real source of divisiveness in the Church today is the Holy See. “Francis’ letter to the bishops comes off as judgmental and mean-spirited, reeking with a hermeneutic of suspicion,” Peter M. J. Stravinskas wrote in The Catholic World Report in July 2021. “It is highly ironic that the Pope intent on extending ‘mercy’ to gay activists and adulterers (that is, the divorced and remarried) should not exhibit one ounce of pastoral solicitude for faithful Catholics.”
Second, the Traditionis and the Responsa are both predicated on the conviction that the 1970 Roman Missal is the form of the Mass endorsed by the Second Vatican Council. This is patently false. Nothing is said in the Vatican II documents about a preference for a vernacular Mass or even the drastically streamlined post-Council Mass known as the Novus Ordo (“New Order”).
The move to the vernacular Mass came several years after the close of the Council. No doubt those who foisted upon us the 1970 Roman Missal believed that in doing so they were somehow bringing to fruition the spirit of Vatican II, though in reality that development reflected the aims of the most progressive wing of the Church. The great majority of the Council Fathers hoped to preserve as much of the tradition as possible, as reflected in the speeches made in the Council chamber, the aula concilii. “The speeches in the aula (which evidently Roche has not read) show a majority of Fathers reacting against proposals for radical change and asking for continuity in such matters as Latin and sacred music,” author Peter Kwasniewski recently wrote in the Catholic webzine One Peter Five.
Third, Archbishop Roche, in his Preface to the Responsa, calls the decisions of the Second Vatican Council “irreversible,” but in fact nothing about the Vatican II Council is irreversible. Ecumenical councils come and go. Not every statement made in a council defines dogma infallibly, and their decisions are not on the level of ex cathedra statements having the imprimatur of papal infallibility. They can be examined criticially, altered, and sometimes reversed, just as the Vatican II fathers critiqued and altered many of the nondogmatic provisions of the Council of Trent (1545-1563).
Finally, it seems that the underlying reason for the present pope’s hostility to the Tridentine rite is simply that its growth and vitality expose the vapidity of much that marches under the banner of “the spirit of Vatican II.” Today, that banner is little more than the spent ideology of aging Vatican bureaucrats who would be only too happy, like the baby-killing King Herod, to throttle the resurgent Latin Mass in its cradle. The Responsa asks us to believe that the Pope’s chief concern is “ecclesial communion”; we are warned against violating that communion by engaging in “sterile polemics,” but it appears that the “ecclesial communion” we must accept looks a lot like sterile uniformity.
Pope Francis delivers his homily as he celebrates Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on Sunday, Jan. 23. (Andrew Medichini / Associated Press)
Leave a Reply