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Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis's recent motu proprio, is not principally about the right to offer the Holy Mass in the older form of the Roman Rite. It’s not really about rites at all. It’s about Catholic life in the age of the Internet. The Mass is the message. 

Vatican II and the subsequent reforms of the Roman Rite are about the same age as Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage “the medium is the message.” The theorist of mass media was a Catholic convert, and not at all a lukewarm one. He went to daily Mass. In part, his conclusions about the effects of mass media arose from his study of the transmission of Scripture and the nature of worship. McLuhan thought that the printing press was as much a factor in the Reformation as theology and politics, and that the invention of the microphone was key in the shift from Latin to the vernacular languages in the celebration of Holy Mass.

McLuhan is useful for thinking about the “firm decision” of Pope Francis in Traditionis Custodes to immediately revoke all the provisions made by St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI for the celebration of what the latter called the “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite” (EF), also known as the Tridentine Mass or the Traditional Latin Mass. 

Pope Francis's decision to drop this heavy ecclesiastical hammer (not customarily his preferred pastoral approach), follows from his judgment that those Catholics frequenting the EF foster 1) division in the Church and 2) reject the teaching of Vatican II. About the first, he is right. About the second, it rather depends upon where the soundings are taken.

Catholics attending the EF can be divisive. But so are many others. I went to a Catholic elementary school in which there were a good number of Ukrainian Catholics. They went to the local Ukrainian Greco-Catholic parish with its Byzantine liturgy. We never saw them at our parish church across the street for Mass. So we were divided. Not hostile, but divided. 

Division happens in parishes all the time; those who prefer the music-free early Sunday Mass never meet those who come on Sunday evening for the praise-and-worship choir. And that’s not new; in the old pre-conciliar days, parishioners chose between low Mass and high Mass.

So Pope Francis could not be upset that rites—or even styles—divide. That’s normal Catholic life. As a Jesuit he would have experienced vast differences in liturgical celebration in his own community. He likely had his confreres in mind when he lamented that the “Ordinary Form” is too often celebrated with “eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses.” Liberal practices can certainly be divisive, which is why some Catholics would never go to a Jesuit parish, while President Joe Biden does. 

Yet the Holy Father is not concerned with precision about rites at all. He decrees that “the liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.”

That is not true, given that the EF continues to be valid and permitted. It would be odd in the extreme to claim that the EF is not an expression of the Roman Rite. There are other rites within the Latin Church, such as those belonging to various religious orders, that are forms of the Roman Rite. In 2015, Pope Francis himself approved Divine Worship: The Missal, which is used by parishes of former Anglicans who are now Catholic. It’s not a distinct “rite” but a different “form” of the Roman Rite, not unlike the EF and OF. 

So if Traditionis Custodes is not about rites and their liturgical, theological, and ecclesiological character, what is it about? In an accompanying letter, sent to the bishops of the world, Pope Francis focuses on what those who attend the EF think about Vatican II. The Holy Father judges that they are “often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’” But the EF itself, which was celebrated daily at Vatican II, cannot per se be a rejection of Vatican II. So where might the Holy Father have gotten such an idea? 

It may have come from the survey of the world’s bishops on the EF, though the results of that survey are secret. It may have come from those around the pope, like his biographer Austen Ivereigh, who was mightily annoyed at the “imposition” of the EF at his (former) local parish. But the more likely source is the many anti-Vatican II arguments, even invective, on those parts of the Catholic Internet that promote the EF. Ivereigh himself pointed in that direction, when he tweeted about “incessant anti-papal, anti-Vatican II rhetoric pouring from their blogs and websites.”

There is rather a lot of material, some of it unsavory, on the Internet. That survey of bishops on the EF was underway last year just as Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò launched his full-scale attack on Vatican II. Viganò found an echo in the traditional liturgy corner of the Internet, and their embrace of him no doubt contributed to the measures taken by Pope Francis. Viganò has been a thorn in the side of the Holy Father, but he is in self-imposed hiding. His supporters, many of whom frequent the EF, are not—and can be penalized.

Viganò and his Internet promoters are voluble and, to a certain extent, influential. Yet there are vast numbers who attend the EF quite independent of the arguments he makes. They were going to the EF long before he made them. Many likely pay no attention to Internet chatter, just as your typical parishioner in the OF is blissfully unaware of many apparent roiling Church controversies. 

Nevertheless, Pope Francis seems to hold that going to the EF is not only about going to Mass, but about expressing a judgment regarding Vatican II. The medium of the Mass is the message. And Pope Francis does not like what he has heard.

The importance Traditionis Custodes gives to the Internet world makes it a novelty; it is the first papal liturgical intervention drafted in response to an online  phenomenon. It won’t be the last, as the Internet has reshaped how we communicate and how we think. It has now shaped papal governance of the liturgy, and consequently the Church’s worship.

The old Mass has been done down by new technology. McLuhan would not have been surprised.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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Photo by John Briody via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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