Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis's motu proprio “on the use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the Reform of 1970,” appears at first glance to be business as usual in the prudential work of governing the Church. Having consulted his fellow bishops, the bishop of Rome has decided to reverse the provisions of his predecessor in Summorum Pontificum, in which Benedict encouraged use of the traditional Latin Mass by way of a general permission for priests to say it. 

This, writes Francis in his accompanying letter, may now be deemed a failed gesture toward greater ecclesial unity. In practice, it created enclaves of dissent from the reforms pursuant to Vatican II: “An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.” The decision must therefore be reversed and the opportunity withdrawn. 

On Friday it was withdrawn, but in a manner that is hardly business as usual. For whatever the truth of the charge he levels, Francis himself seems to have weaponized the Latin Mass in the very act of suppressing it. The obvious goal of the motu proprio is to dissolve certain communities devoted to it, communities that have been a thorn in his side for too long. In the waning days of his pontificate, the thorn is being plucked.

It is rumored that earlier drafts were less charitable than the final documents. Yet the measures are draconian and the tone, though dignified, remains severe. To make matters worse, Francis has assigned to diocesan bishops the difficult task of suppression while reserving to Rome the right to veto particular acts of clemency, including (at article 4) any permission granted new ordinands to say the Latin Mass. For this, few of his brethren will thank him. Some, who themselves love and respect the vetus ordo, will resist him.

Others are better equipped to discuss the problems this will pose on the ground, and to untangle any knots that appear in the light of canon law. For my part, I will venture only two further observations. 

First, Francis takes comfort “from the fact that, after the Council of Trent, St. Pius V also abrogated all the rites that could not claim a proven antiquity, establishing for the whole Latin Church a single Missale Romanum” which for four centuries was “the principal expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” He thinks he is doing something analogous. Francis does not explain, however, how the form promulgated by Pius—then regarded as the perfect embodiment of venerable tradition and now itself possessing a proven antiquity—can be suppressed without implying that it was fundamentally defective. Nor does he explain its relation to the modern rite. 

In Summorum, Benedict declared the Roman Missal promulgated by Paul VI to be the ordinary expression of the lex orandi and that promulgated by Pius V (as revised by John XXIII) to be an extraordinary expression, “duly honored for its venerable and ancient usage.” While his terminology is not unproblematic, the crucial point is that Benedict did not believe that these two expressions of the lex orandi could divide the Church's lex credendi. As “two usages of the one Roman rite,” they articulate a common faith. Hence there was no abrogation of the latter when the former came into existence. The law of prayer is indeed the law of faith, in other words, but both are at work in the Mass, not identical to it in some particular form. Let us not forget that the two forms of the Roman rite stand alongside a variety of Eastern rites, each embodying in its own way the faithful Church at prayer.  

Francis has thrown all this into question. According to his motu proprio, the form promulgated by Paul VI is not merely the ordinary or even the principal expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Church; it is the “unique” expression and will soon be the sole expression. This goes beyond prudence to principle. Are we to understand that the new sublates and eliminates the old? Or even to suspect that Rome finds a moment of truth in what certain Latin Mass proponents claim; namely, that the novus ordo is not really compatible with the vetus ordo, that one or the other must give way?  

This, of course, Francis denies. It is just the sort of thing he finds problematic about the communities he means to discipline and dissolve. But if actions speak louder than words and if realities, as he likes to say, are more important than ideas, his move to suppress the vetus ordo tends only to reinforce the repudiated claim. 

Second, Francis speaks of being “saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides.” Quoting Benedict, he deplores “the fact that ‘in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.'” Amen! Yet Francis deplores; he does not address. If his grief over sloppy or instrumentalized celebrations of the ordinary form is genuine, surely he ought to have attended first of all to that problem and only afterward to the other.

Here too he has reversed his predecessor's course, hastening in the opposite direction. The Synod of the Amazon leaps quickly to mind, and those Pachamama rituals in which he participated. Or the ongoing exercises on the Rhine, to which he appears rather cooler but has not put a stop. Is the “creativity” of the Amazonian or the German church somehow less a concern than the “rigidity” of scattered Latin Mass congregations? What exactly does he have in mind when he asks his brother bishops to beware “the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses”?

In sum: Traditionis Custodes, alas, confirms that the old Mass has indeed become a proxy in the fight over the legacy of Vatican II, as much on the one side as on the other. It also confirms that in Rome rigidity is the order of the day. But now some advice, directed to those tempted to find in this motu proprio a justification for schism, as some of their opponents doubtless hope they will. 

I preface the advice with a warning.  No one can legitimately erect a shadow Church. That is the Protestant error and a rejection (not a revision) of the Petrine office as such.  Those who wish to follow in the footsteps of the Old Catholic Church by some new claim to that title will fare no better, as the sorry history of the SSPX illustrates.

What then? Those whose bishops do not provide adequately for the Latin Mass, and who cannot find a place pro tempore where the ordinary form is celebrated with extraordinary respect and dignity, might consider a third option: learning to appreciate an Eastern rite celebration that is available to them. That could be liberating in more ways than one. 

Should they find themselves stymied, none of these options being open to them, they can take some comfort from the fact that the present trials and tribulations are just that—present trials and tribulations, which can be put to good use spiritually even if they cannot be enjoyed. Not for long will things remain in the Church as they are now. 

Douglas Farrow is professor of Theology and Ethics at McGill University in Montreal, and sometime holder of the Kennedy Smith chair in Catholic Studies.

Photo by Christophe117 via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles