In Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis has given a command. He does this at a time when papal authority is unraveling as never before. The Church has long since advanced to an ungovernable stage. But the pope battles on. He abandons his dearest principles—“listening,” “tenderness,” “mercy”—that refuse to judge or give orders. Pope Francis is roused by something that troubles him: the tradition of the Church.
The limited breathing room that the pope's predecessors granted to liturgical tradition is no longer occupied only by senile nostalgics. The Traditional Latin Mass also attracts young people, who have discovered and learned to love the “buried treasure in the field,” as Pope Benedict called the old liturgy. In Pope Francis’s eyes, this is so serious that it must be suppressed.
The vehemence of the motu proprio's language suggests that this directive has come too late. The circles that adhere to liturgical tradition have indeed drastically changed in the last decades. The Tridentine Mass is no longer attended only by those who miss the liturgy of their childhood, but also by people who have discovered the liturgy anew and are fascinated by it—including many converts, many who have long been estranged from the Church. The liturgy is their passion and they know its every detail. There are many priestly vocations among them. These young men do not only attend the seminaries maintained by the priestly fraternities of tradition. Many of them undergo the usual training for the priesthood, and are nevertheless convinced that their vocation is strengthened precisely by knowledge of the traditional rite. Curiosity about the suppressed Catholic tradition has grown, even though many had depicted this tradition as obsolete and unsound. Aldous Huxley illustrated this kind of amazement in Brave New World, in which a young man of the modern elite, without a sense of history, discovers the overflowing riches of premodern culture and is enchanted by them.
The pope's intervention may impede the growth of the liturgical recovery of tradition for a time. But he will be able to arrest it only for the remainder of his pontificate. For this traditional movement is not a superficial fashion. It demonstrated in the decades of its repression prior to Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum that there persists a serious and enthusiastic devotion to the complete fullness of Catholicism. Pope Francis's prohibition will arouse resistance in those who still have their lives before them and won't allow their futures to be darkened by obsolete ideologies. It was not good, but it was also not wise, to put papal authority to this test.
Pope Francis prohibits Masses in the old rite in parish churches; he requires priests to obtain permission to celebrate the old Mass; he even requires priests that have not yet celebrated in the old rite to obtain this permission not from their bishop, but from the Vatican; and he requires an examination of conscience of participants in the old Mass. But Benedict's motu proprio Summorum Pontificum reasons on a totally different level. Pope Benedict did not “allow” the “old Mass,” and he granted no privilege to celebrate it. In a word, he did not take a disciplinary measure that a successor can retract. What was new and surprising about Summorum Pontificum was that it declares that the celebration of the old Mass does not need any permission. It had never been forbidden because it never could be forbidden.
One could conclude that here we find a fixed, insuperable limit to the authority of a pope. Tradition stands above the pope. The old Mass, rooted deep in the first Christian millennium, is as a matter of principle beyond the pope’s authority to prohibit. Many provisions of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio can be set aside or modified, but this magisterial decision cannot be so easily done away with. Pope Francis does not attempt to do so—he ignores it. It still stands after July 16, 2021, recognizing the authority of tradition that every priest has the moral right to celebrate the never forbidden old rite.
Most of the world’s Catholics won’t take any interest at all in Traditionis Custodes. In view of the small number of traditionalist communities, most will hardly understand what is going on. Indeed, we have to ask ourselves whether the pope had no more urgent task—in the midst of the sex abuse crisis, the Church’s financial scandals, schismatic movements like the German synodal path, and the desperate situation of Chinese Catholics—than to suppress this small, devoted community.
But adherents to tradition must grant the pope this: He takes the traditional Mass, which dates back at least to the time of Gregory the Great, as seriously as they do. He, however, judges it to be dangerous. He writes that popes in the past again and again created new liturgies and abolished old ones. But the opposite is true. Rather, the Council of Trent prescribed the ancient missal of the Roman popes—which had arisen in Late Antiquity—for general use, because this was the only one that had not been spoiled by the Reformation.
Perhaps the Mass is not what most concerns the pope. Francis appears to sympathize with the “hermeneutic of rupture”—that theological school that asserts that with the Second Vatican Council the Church broke with her tradition. If that is true, then indeed every celebration of the traditional liturgy must be prevented. For as long as the old Latin Mass is celebrated in any garage, the memory of the previous two thousand years will not have been extinguished.
This memory, however, cannot be rooted out by the blunt exercise of papal legal positivism. It will return again and again, and will be the criterion by which the Church of the future will have to measure itself.
Martin Mosebach is the author of The 21.This essay was translated from the German by Stuart Chessman.
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