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In mid-July, Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes, a motu proprio concerning what’s popularly known as the Latin Mass. A motu proprio functions in papal administration much as do executive orders in our government. The aim of this papal directive is to curtail the number of congregations that celebrate the Mass according to the old rite, with the goal of making universal what’s known as the Novus Ordo, the new order of the Mass in the ­vernacular, which was established after the Second Vatican ­Council.

Traditionis Custodes triggered outcries among tradition-­minded Catholics. Some commented that the ­motu proprio marks an exercise of naked power, which is richly ironic, they noted, given that this pontificate makes so much of dialogue and inclusion. We published on an insightful piece by Fr. Raymond de Souza, who observes that Traditionis Custodes seems to have been formulated in response to social media stridency rather than on-the-ground realities. Fr. de Souza notes that this is a new and not altogether happy turn in papal governance. In another intervention, also published on our website, Martin Mosebach remarks that Pope Francis does not have the authority to suppress the Latin Mass. There was an outpouring of commentary on other sites as well. The New York Times, the parish paper of our nation’s liberal sectarians, ran a column on the topic by Michael Brendan Dougherty.

Non-Catholics are no doubt puzzled by the uproar. In truth, many Catholics under seventy have little exposure to the Latin Mass, and they are perhaps baffled as well. Why the furor? What is at stake?

The most fundamental issue concerns the unity of the Church, which Pope Francis mentioned as one of the reasons his strictures were necessary. In the years prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholic worship in most circumstances was homogeneous. In the ­Latin Mass, the Church spoke in one voice. Achieving a nearly universal liturgy had been one of the goals of Catholic reformers during the time of the Council of Trent, which was convened in the late 1500s in order to respond to the challenges of Protestantism. In concert with the dogmatic clarifications issued by the Council, the Vatican during those years worked to standardize the Mass. The Roman liturgy promulgated by Pius V in 1570 became known as the Tridentine Mass (the Mass of the Trent-reformed Church), and it superseded many local variants.

The drive toward standardization in the Church accelerated in the modern era. Power was consolidated in Rome. The First Vatican Council underlined this consolidation by defining the doctrine of papal ­infallibility. In 1917, the Vatican issued a new and universal code of canon law to replace the hodgepodge of Church law that had accumulated over the centuries and that often varied according to local traditions and customs.

The Second Vatican Council undertook reforms that were meant to make the Church a more effective voice of the gospel in the twentieth century. But this “updating” presumed that new content would be slotted into the ongoing life of the Church. Because of the powerful and centuries-long trend toward standardization and centralization, after Vatican II, bishops and cardinals took for granted that the Novus Ordo would simply replace the old rite. Worship would be reformed, as Vatican II stipulated. And like the Tridentine Mass it replaced, the new Mass would be obligatory, not optional. As was the case with the old rite, the universal acceptance of the new rite would serve as a visible sign of the Church’s unity in Christ.

But events proved otherwise. The Second Vatican Council ended in 1965. The decade that followed was fraught, not just in secular society, but in the Church as well. From the moment Paul VI authorized it in 1970, the Novus Ordo was implicated in conflicts over the meaning of Vatican II. Progressives seized upon the more demotic and community-oriented aspects of the new Mass. Vestments were discarded and church interiors were stripped of their decorations. All manner of experimentation was introduced into Sunday worship.

The dramatic changes undergone by the liturgy in the 1970s became associated with radical theologies in the minds of many (and not just traditionalists). In France, a Catholic splinter group led by Archbishop Marcel ­Lefebvre rejected the teachings of Vatican II concerning religious freedom. This group rallied around the Tridentine Mass, refusing to adopt the new rite. Over time, this refusal became a powerful symbol of resistance to the putative liberalism of Vatican II, so much so that in the 1980s the Vatican felt compelled to make juridical accommodations for the ongoing celebration of the Latin Mass.

This is not the place to tell the history of post-­conciliar Catholicism. But I can generalize. Using terminology coined by Pope Benedict XVI, progressives with their radical theologies—so often linked to “folk Masses”—adopted a “hermeneutic of rupture.” ­Benedict observed that the same “hermeneutic of ­rupture” characterizes the followers of ­Archbishop ­Lefebvre. By the reckoning of progressives and ­Lefebvrites alike, the Second Vatican Council had cast off what came before and inaugurated a fundamentally new conception of the Catholic faith. Progressives cheered the break, while those who considered themselves defenders of the old faith bemoaned the ­r­­upture.

Benedict insisted that both sides were united in a false interpretation of Vatican II. Against the “­hermeneutic of rupture,” he juxtaposed a “hermeneutic of reform in continuity.” As John Paul II’s right-hand man for more than two decades, and then as pope, ­Benedict read the Second Vatican Council as a signal moment of reform that deepened and renewed rather than altered or ­rejected what came before. It is therefore the task of faithful Catholics to discern and buttress the ­continuities, not to presume (or foment) rupture.

But a great deal of what Catholics have experienced in recent decades suggests rupture, which is why underlining and emphasizing the continuities was the most important aspect of the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For example, the ­­pre–­Vatican II Church is often remembered as enforcing clear and ­unbending rules, especially strict moral teachings. After the Council, it seemed that those rules and teachings had become optional, all the more so after prominent priests and theologians publicly ­dissented from the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which renewed the Church’s prohibition of the use of artificial means of contraception.

In 1993, John Paul II issued Veritatis Splendor. It ran against the assumption, promoted by some prominent moral theologians, that Vatican II had broken with the past and ushered in a “new morality” that was plastic, mobile, and more open to “modern insights.” Against subtle moral theories formulated to circumvent old ­restrictions, the encyclical teaches that there are intrinsically evil acts, which the moral law always prohibits. At the time Veritatis Splendor was issued, I was teaching at a Jesuit university. I remember the discontent among some of my liberal colleagues. They were not wrong in their reading of the encyclical. As patrons of rupture, they were rankled by the clear teaching of ­Veritatis ­Splendor. They thought it betrayed the promise of ­Vatican II.

Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio concerning the Latin Mass, Summorum Pontificum, emphasized continuity in the domain of worship. Benedict established a broad right for priests to celebrate the old rite. There were church-political reasons for the motu proprio. Benedict hoped that, if the Latin Mass were to be juridically “upgraded,” those hostile to Vatican II would be reconciled to the Church’s mainstream. But he had deeper theological reasons as well. Summorum Pontificum signaled that the Novus Ordo is entirely consistent with the spirit and substance of what came before. ­Benedict insisted: “There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.”

Shaun Blanchard wrote a considered reflection on the new motu proprio and Pope ­Francis’s effort to suppress the Latin Mass (Church Life ­Journal, “Traditionis Custodes Was Never Merely About the ­Liturgy”). He argues that Pope Francis is primarily concerned to assert his authority over the post–Vatican II “narrative.” This is a convincing observation. As Blanchard notes, controlling the “narrative” was a concern of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well. The insistence on“reform in continuity” played this role. In this regard, Francis continues in their footsteps. ­Francis, like John Paul and Benedict, wishes to emphasize continuity, not rupture, as his comments about schismatic devotees of the Latin Mass indicate.

But there are important differences. Amoris ­Laetitia was issued by Francis in 2016. It does not overturn ­Veritatis Splendor, but its subtle (and not altogether cogent) rationale for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion blurs the clarity of that encyclical’s teaching. Francis thus suggests that the permissive agenda of revisionist moral theologians after Vatican II was not altogether wrong.

Traditionis Custodes takes a more direct approach to gaining control of the “narrative.” A motu proprio is a juridical act, not a magisterial one, as encyclicals have become in modern Catholicism. This difference allows Francis to reverse Benedict’s approach without impugning the continuing authority of papal teaching. Francis thus renews and reasserts the post–Vatican II presumption (based on pre–Vatican II experience) that the Novus Ordo will simply replace the Tridentine Mass, serving as the singular, universal, and compulsory mode of worship for Latin Christians in the West who are in communion with the bishop of Rome.

Terms like “conservative” and “progressive” are often bandied about in church discussions. They can be salient. Amoris is straightforwardly “progressive.” It emphasized permission, not prohibition, and it has been warmly received by moral theologians who press for a more flexible approach to sexual morality. But these terms can also confuse more than they clarify. Using them to characterize the substance of Summorum Pontificum and Traditionis Custodes results in a prime example of the latter.

When Benedict established a plenary right for priests to celebrate the old rite, it might have seemed a “­conservative” move, because it removed restrictions on the Latin Mass. But this is a superficial assessment. In his motu proprio, Benedict accepted and to a certain ­degree encouraged liturgical diversity in the post–­Vatican II Church. This embrace of pluralism in the Church marks an important “updating,” for it runs against the standardizing and centralizing imperatives that characterized the Church before Vatican II. Put simply, the spirit of Summorum Pontificum was permissive. The motu proprio relaxed Vatican control over worship. In the face of diversity on the ground, it allowed bishops and priests to use their best judgment about how to meet the needs of the faithful and promote the renewal of worship.

In this regard, Benedict was “progressive,” if by that word we mean someone who wishes to remedy the administrative rigidity of centralized power and relax Rome’s control of matters that properly belong in the hands of local bishops—two goals of Vatican II. As Benedict and others have noted, Latin Mass adherence began as a fringe movement closely tied to resistance to Vatican II. But in recent years it has become a more complex phenomenon, one that draws upon the Vatican II spirit of ressourcement rather than rejecting the Council. With his motu proprio, Benedict directs Roman authorities to defer to the sensus fidelium as it has evolved (and continues to evolve) in the direction of so-called traditionalism.

By contrast, Traditionis Custodes reveals in a particularly clear way the strongly “conservative” streak in the Francis pontificate, if by that word we indicate a person who wants to go back to the command-and-­control methods that were used by church officials in the first half of the twentieth century. The strong language of censure indicates that Francis is reviving the pre–­Vatican II tradition of sharp denunciation of dissent. The juridical strictures mark a return to the use of ecclesiastical power to crush the recalcitrant and reestablish the full measure of Vatican control over worship.

What Happens Next

Traditionis Custodes is ill advised. One smells failure in the document’s strictures. Bishops are “to take care not to authorize the establishment of new groups.” Is it so dangerously subversive to worship in accord with the old rite, which is sanctified by centuries of use? Seminarians and future priests are required to appeal to Rome for permission to celebrate the old rite. Centralized review of individual applications by priests from all over the world? This micromanagement of priestly formation makes sense only if one is terrified by the prospect that the Latin Mass might continue to grow in popularity. Is a mandatory Oath Against Traditionalism coming next?

Worship in the vernacular is here to stay. I see no danger of the Latin Mass taking over. But Francis and his circle of advisers are not wrong to be afraid. In the American context, the promise of permission in Amoris and the panicked prohibitions in Traditionis are for the most part not wanted. And what is not wanted gains little traction.

Few cite Veritatis Splendor. Nevertheless, its spirit of doctrinal and moral firmness has leavened church life, and a significant degree of doctrinal and moral “­strictness” has returned. Priests are less susceptible to goofy and heterodox theologies of the sort that proliferated in the 1970s. The inflow of therapeutic language seems to have crested and is now receding. In 2012, I attended a Sunday service at the Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska, where I heard a fine sermon expounding and defending Humanae Vitae. It was greeted by spontaneous applause. Two years ago, a priest friend was asked to serve for a few weeks at another parish. He preached on the duty of Catholics to oppose abortion and the culture of death. Congregants thanked him after Mass.

We are not bracing ourselves for a second coming of the Spanish Inquisition, but American Catholicism is stiffening its spine. Of course, priests are not eager to impose discipline at the altar rail. But very few Catholics who attend Mass regularly are seeking yet another hall pass. They are not looking to the Church for permission to attend the festivities of the sexual revolution. They’re looking for support as they try to resist.

There’s a similar trend toward greater rigor in worship. Banal folk music is less common. Pope Benedict urged the restoration of Latin elements into the Mass, and many parishes now chant the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Altar rails are returning. A small but growing number of priests have returned to the old practice of celebrating the Mass ad orientem rather than versus populum. These welcome trends are not limited to conservative enclaves. There is a progressive church near my brother’s home in Evanston, Illinois. I’ve been there many times over the years. During a recent visit in 2019, I noticed fewer willful innovations. The recitation of the Creed had been restored. The worship style is still “open.” But the parish is re-anchoring itself in the tradition.

The theological and liturgical renewal of the Church in the United States will continue—continuity in reform. Paradoxically, an increasingly inhospitable culture accelerates this renewal. Parents must make Herculean efforts to raise their children as faithful Catholics. At this late date, the Church’s post–Vatican II ambivalences and half-measures cannot help but frustrate them. A consensus is growing. We need leaders who are not afraid to suffer the opprobrium of being labeled “reactionary” by liberal elites.

I attended the Latin Mass for a year or so before the pandemic shut down New York’s churches. I’d be the first to admit that some proponents of “traditionalism” may have defects, including the angry spirit of division that Francis rightly censures. But the strength of those who want the Church to stand more firmly in her best traditions and against the permissive spirit of the age is gathering. They have time on their side. And as the Holy Father likes to say, “time is greater than space.” So mark me down as an opponent of Traditionis Custodes. It’s a vindictive document animated by fear rather than confidence. Fortunately, it will be largely ignored.

Thomas Levergood, R.I.P.

In early August, Thomas Levergood passed away at the much-too-young age of fifty-eight. He was a long-time denizen of the University of Chicago, where he received his undergraduate degree in the early 1980s, and to which he returned in 1991 to embark on doctoral studies under the auspices of the Committee on Social Thought.It was during his years of ­graduate study that Thomas was received into the Catholic Church and entertained the possibility of committing himself to a religious vocation.

But God had other plans. At the beginning of the 1990s, John Paul II had promulgated Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The apostolic constitution issued specific directives for Catholic higher education. But it also outlined an exciting vision of the role of faith in the renewal of university life. Like many intellectuals, Thomas entertained the big “why” questions—and unlike most, he also asked “why not?” I did not know Thomas in those years, but I can easily picture him importuning, badgering, and ­berating all he met, asking, “Why not a Catholic-led renewal of intellectual life at the University of Chicago?”

As it happened, in 1997, God in his providence (­using as an instrument John Paul II’s Vatican) translated ­Francis George from his role as archbishop of Portland, Oregon, to his native Chicago, where he was installed as that city’s eighth archbishop and was soon elevated to the College of Cardinals. A former philosophy professor, George made one of his first stops at the University of Chicago. He met Thomas and threw his weight behind the idea of a new institute devoted to nurturing Catholic thought. Thus was born Lumen Christi.

Thomas pioneered a new pattern for Catholic engagement with university life. In prior decades, concerned to ensure an ongoing voice for the Church’s wisdom in university life, well-to-do Catholics had endowed university chairs in Catholic thought. But this measure misjudged the undertow of academic culture. By the 1990s, it was obvious that initiatives and programs inside secular universities were Catholic in name only. It was Thomas’s genius to conceive of an independent program for the university but not in it, one committed to the university’s best traditions of intellectual rigor but free from the secular bias and ideological tests that have only grown more restrictive since the Lumen Christi Institute was founded.

Thomas was a bear of a man. His bushy beard and ample girth were matched by a big personality and brash manner. Thomas was never shy about telling me what to think, often at length. But he combined aggressive insistence with great warmth and laughter—and grunts that would regularly erupt from deep inside him. My daughter attended Loyola University in Chicago in the late 2000s. We had a number of dinners with ­Thomas. He pressed her on matters of faith, marriage, and politics. (On the latter topic, he was often keen to highlight what he regarded as the regrettable excesses of my conservative views.) She found him irresistibly loveable.

For more than twenty years, undergraduates, grad students, faculty, and fellow travelers found refreshment in the programs sponsored by Lumen Christi. Thomas befriended great numbers of them. His consigliere, Fr. Paul Mankowski, was as laconic as Thomas was voluble. A font of ideas, initiatives, exhortations, and impassioned judgments, Thomas gathered active minds around him like moths to a flame. Those who orbited him at Lumen Christi were at once exasperated and charmed by his inimitable personality.

Thomas was a good friend. In my first years as editor of First Things, he instructed me in the art of fundraising and introduced me to his circle of academic superstars, which included Rémi Brague and Jean-Luc Marion, who were as devoted to him as he was to them. Over the years, his phone calls were rarely brief. Talk flowed from him, at once easy and urgent. I always looked forward to our Hyde Park rendezvous. To see him, his face lit with a broad smile, was to be buoyed up. He could carry you away with his enthusiasms, which were ever-flowing, even in his dark moods. He was a complicated man, and yet simple. “Pray more,” he urged on more than one occasion.

Good advice. Please join me in praying for the repose of the soul of Thomas Levergood: faithful friend, institutional impresario, and loyal son of the Church. May he join his friend and co-conspirator on behalf of the Kingdom, Cardinal George, and all the company of heaven, doing what he longed for in this life: praising God without ceasing.


♦ Readers will have noticed changes. Under the guidance of magazine designer James Reyman, we have spent the last few months discussing (sometimes debating) how to improve our presentation. The new cover is bolder. New artwork brings color and personality to our pages. The new font comes from the same family as our old one, both derived from the classic Garamond typeface, which dates back to the Renaissance. You may say that “No changes!” should serve as the rule in our revolutionary times. We agree, but not always. First Things is not a nostalgic magazine. Our mission is to speak clearly and forcefully at the very center of the public square. Truth is timeless and without change. And it is always relevant, pressing upon us with great immediacy. It is my hope that the updated design conveys our ambition to speak truths that are the same yesterday, today, and forever—and to do so with the confidence of men and women who are contending for the future of the West.

♦ Not a few commentators have tut-tutted about low vaccination rates in fly-over states. This fits with their presumptions about “low-information” Americans who won’t comply with the policies devised by the Best and the Brightest. Yet a scholarly study of factors contributing to vaccine hesitancy suggests a rather different storyline. The study correlates vaccination rates with education levels. Those with bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees are the most likely to be vaccinated. Those with high school diplomas and those with PhDs are the least likely, with the latter cohort outstripping the less educated in vaccine hesitancy.

♦ When David P. Goldman is in the mood to write grimly realistic assessments of our present difficulties, he adopts “Spengler” as his pen name, a hat tip to the German author of the early-twentieth-century apocalyptic best-seller The Decline of the West. And when ­Goldman feels the situation especially dire, Spengler consults the ghost of Cardinal Richelieu, one of history’s most thorough­going realists. Here is what the shrewd cardinal had to say about the Taliban’s triumph in Afghanistan:

America set out to create a modern democracy out of a tribal society, an enterprise as likely to succeed as the attempt to breed a griffin by mating a lion with an eagle. It poured US$2 trillion into Afghanistan, or one hundred times the country’s gross domestic product. It paid Afghani politicians, generals and warlords to play-act at democracy in a revolting, silly masquerade.
Whatever was not corrupt before America came in became corrupt in the maelstrom of American money. Meanwhile, American soldiers and bureaucrats made fortunes as consultants, contractors, sutlers and armorers to the dream palace of Afghan democracy.
Because the entire project was a monstrous hoax to begin with, everyone associated with the project lied—lied about the state of Afghan government forces, lied about the disposition of the Taliban, lied about the robustness of supplies to Afghan troops, lied about their dependence on airpower.
Afghan officials lied to their American ­paymasters, American commanders on the ground lied to their ­superiors and American generals lied to the politicians. The key to promotion, and to wealth, lay in perpetuating the ridiculous fiction that motivated the occupation of the country in the first place.
Where did $2 trillion go? The Taliban offensive began in April after the Americans announced their intent to depart. No one fought for Afghanistan because there was no Afghanistan to fight for. Within weeks the Afghan army had no ammunition, no food and no air support. Whoever could steal from the Americans did so. The Afghanistan government collapsed in a matter of days because it was never there to begin with.

The ghost of Richelieu gets it pretty much right.

♦ One of the principles of just war analysis concerns the probability of success. It is unjust to prosecute a war if there is no reasonable prospect of bringing the conflict to a peaceful conclusion. Over time, it became clear that we could not quench the fires of insurgency in Afghanistan. Early in his first term, President Obama ran up the troop deployment in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000 soldiers. But the military gains were not long lasting. By 2017, 40 percent of the country was under Taliban control. Just war analysis is not the be-all and end-all of moral considerations when it comes to complex military and diplomatic situations of the sort that obtained for twenty years in Afghanistan. But it is not a sign of moral purity to pursue endless conflicts, even if one’s causes are just.

♦ Earlier this year, Twitter expelled then-President Donald Trump from its platform, citing the danger that he would incite violence. As Kabul fell in mid-August, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted updates on the progress of his comrades. His account has been active without interruption since 2017.

♦ Matthew Lee Anderson at Baylor University came up with a plan to mark the 700th anniversary of ­Dante’s death: a web-based reading group to work through the entire Divine Comedy in one hundred days. Each day during this read-through of one of the ­masterpieces of Western literature, a video will present an expert reader who will lead auditors through three cantos. 100 days of Dante launches on September 8 with the first three ­cantos of the Inferno and ends on Easter 2022 with the final cantos of the Paradiso. You can join at 1­

♦ First Things is also launching a reading group, although one less ambitious than 100 Days of Dante. During the last two academic years, we have sponsored an in-office group led by David Gallagher. In 2019–20, we discussed readings on the theme of church and state. Over the last academic year, we worked through some of the writings of Josef Pieper. The pandemic forced us into Zoom sessions, which worked nicely. That experience has led us to establish two tracks for 2021–22: an in-person group that meets one morning each month in New York, and a Zoom group that meets virtually in the evening. Our sessions will run from September 16 through May 19, 2022. Our theme: Love and Its Varieties. Tuition is $500. Go to in order to join.

♦ This summer, Jacquelyn Lee and Veronica Clarke completed their tours of duty as junior fellows at First Things. Jacquelyn departs for the Abbey of ­Regina ­Laudis, a contemplative Benedictine house in ­Bethlehem, Connecticut. Veronica remains, now serving as a permanent member of our editorial staff. I’d like to thank both for their service as junior fellows.

♦ With departures come arrivals. August marked the first month of service by our incoming junior fellows, Elizabeth Bachmann and Hunter McClure. They play key roles in the day-to-day operation of our website and in the proofreading and fact-checking of our print edition. In a word: indispensable. Elizabeth Bachmann comes to us from Hillsdale College. Hunter recently graduated from the University of Alabama in ­Huntsville. We’re grateful to have them on staff.

♦ Correction. Last month I claimed to have at­tended St. Patrick Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A resident got in touch to let me know that there is no church by that name in Lancaster. I consulted my notes. The correct name is St. Joseph Church.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things