A mother’s love does not always say yes, but a mother’s love is always healing, is always strengthening. May the Church love her children in the very same way. Not always saying yes to everything that we ask, but always making us feel important and noble and listened to.” Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, preached these words at Mass on May 14, concluding his archdiocese’s phase of participation in the upcoming international Synod of Bishops on synodality.
Two months later, mother has said no.
On July 22, the cardinal issued his long-anticipated decree on the implementation of Pope Francis’s 2021 motu proprio Traditionis Custodes in the Archdiocese of Washington. Traditionis Custodes, as is well known, called for the restriction and de facto suppression of the 1962 Roman Missal for the sake of fostering greater ecclesial unity and fidelity to the Second Vatican Council.
Issued after months of uncertainty and rumors, the cardinal’s decisions were unsurprising but still shocking: The 1962 Missal may be used only on Sundays at three, non-parochial locations; the celebration of Mass according to the 1962 Missal is completely prohibited at Christmas, the Triduum, Easter, and Pentecost; the other sacraments (for example, baptism and matrimony) may not be celebrated in their pre-1970 forms; priests and other ministers need written approval to celebrate the older Mass; and, celebration of Mass according to the 1970 Missal requires special permission from the archbishop if the ad orientem posture is desired.
In an explanatory letter to his priests, the cardinal said that he was simply following his predecessors’ example of obedience to papal legislation regarding the older liturgy. He noted, too, his desire “to ensure that those who celebrate the Mass according to the 1962 Missal continue to be provided for in our archdiocese, a plea that was expressed in our Synod listening sessions.”
The archdiocese’s “Diocesan Synthesis Report” outlined the synodal process that began in October, 2021, and concluded this past May. It highlighted, among other things, a widespread desire among synodal participants to encourage greater participation and leadership in the Church from youth and young adults, as well as to promote what it called
pastoral activities that work towards forgiveness and restoring trust for those who have felt marginalized by the past actions of Church leaders. Outreach to marginalized communities would include: Black Catholic parishes whose founding was rooted in slavery or segregation; recent immigrants, especially Hispanic, African and Asian Pacific Islander communities who have not felt welcomed in parishes; survivors of clergy sexual abuse; divorced and remarried Catholics; the Traditional Latin Mass [TLM] community; and persons who identify themselves as LGBTQ+ Catholics and their families.
The TLM community, though, is the only “marginalized community” to be banned from the archdiocese’s parishes. It is a curious, Orwellian kind of outreach and maternal accompaniment.
In doing so, the cardinal has attached himself to the error at the heart of Traditionis Custodes: that the post-conciliar liturgical reforms integrally and faithfully embody Vatican II’s teaching, and that those devoted to the older liturgy are ipso facto opposed to the Council. Pope Francis recently put it this way: “I do not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the Council—though it amazes me that a Catholic might presume not to do so—and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document that expresses the reality of the Liturgy intimately joined to the vision of Church so admirably described in Lumen Gentium.”
Such claims rest on the mistaken assertion or assumption that “Concilium” (Second Vatican Council) and “Consilium” (the Vatican body that directed the immediate post-conciliar liturgical changes) are the same. Even the most ardent proponents of the post-conciliar reform acknowledge that its changes often went well beyond or even contradicted Sacrosanctum Concilium.
A further sign of the theological arbitrariness and pastoral insensitivity of the archdiocese’s implementation is its effective prohibition of ad orientem worship in the celebration of Mass according to the 1970 Missal, unless a priest receives permission from the archbishop. This restriction goes beyond even Traditionis Custodes and has no foundation in “the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and its liturgical books,” contrary to the cardinal’s claim. It effectively stigmatizes over 1900 years of Christian liturgical tradition. One wonders if Eastern Catholics who celebrate the Divine Liturgy facing east are now to be regarded as anti-conciliar and divisive.
Left unaddressed in such recent liturgical legislation are Joseph Ratzinger’s repeated warnings across the decades. In 1996, he said: “A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent. Can it be trusted any more about anything else? Won’t it proscribe again tomorrow what it prescribes today?”
And in 2000, he said: “Anyone who nowadays advocates the continuing existence of this [older] liturgy or takes part in it is treated like a leper; all tolerance ends here. There has never been anything like this in history; in doing this we are despising and proscribing the Church’s whole past. How can one trust her present if things are that way?”
Legislative acts such as Traditionis Custodes and its implementation in Washington, D.C., verge on the suicidal, so to speak. A Church that lives from tradition cannot reject its past without mortally wounding itself.
Why, then, such draconian restrictions, especially when Mass attendance and sacramental participation (and financial donations) are declining markedly? Why clamp down on something that attracts young, faithful, energetic Catholics and their growing families? There is—particularly among some older church leaders, scholars, and liturgists—a deep animus toward the “pre-conciliar” era. It evokes sin, guilt, judgment, clericalism, patriarchy, dogmatism, claustrophobic ghettos, and fortresses. Nothing is more evocative of that world than its Mass.
Faced with such oppressiveness, a “hermeneutic of rupture” (even if claiming a recovery of tradition) can seem liberating. The enduring presence of the “pre-conciliar” becomes an intolerable reminder of the past—and the attraction of the young to it, a personal and systemic affront. In this context, any thought that post-conciliar reform efforts may have been mistaken or even merely flawed can be unbearable, a negative judgment on one’s life, work, and ministry. I know, for instance, of religious communities that would rather die out than welcome new members of different perspectives and experiences. Need it be said that such inhospitality can further aggravate ideological and generational differences?
Both Traditionis Custodes and its implementation in the Archdiocese of Washington are acts of desperation. They can’t abide that seminarians and younger clergy are often desirous of learning more about the fullness of the Church’s liturgical traditions and practices; that youth and young adults, even if not personally drawn to the traditional liturgy, respect it or are untroubled by its existence. Even the archdiocesan synodal listening sessions don’t seem to have registered any reservations among clergy or laity about the TLM or its adherents. The demographic future is not friendly to those who wish to eradicate the traditional liturgy, which may partly explain the radicality and the urgency of such papal and episcopal legislation.
As an archdiocesan parishioner, I am heartbroken by the new situation. Friends and neighbors of mine will have their parish communities effectively strangled and likely shuttered—even though there were ready, obvious alternatives. Pastors who have suffered under scandalous leadership in recent decades will find their years of patient, thankless, even courageous labor undone in the space of two months. Students of mine will lose the very “small faith groups” that the “Diocesan Synthesis Report” says are so essential for fostering lay participation and leadership in the Church. The profound crisis of trust that afflicts our Church will only be deepened. And needlessly so.
Still, the motto of the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino comes to mind: Succisa virescit (“Pruned, it grows again”). The abbey has been physically destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the centuries, most recently after Allied bombing during World War II. But the motto’s broader spiritual import is evident. The living branch of traditional Roman liturgy is now being severely pruned. The intent is to kill it, but the effect in due season will be its abundant growth.
Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of historical and systematic theology at The Catholic University of America.
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