Defenders of Pope Francis’s decision to abrogate his predecessor’s liberalization of the Traditional Latin Mass have been long on the sad necessity of the move, but vanishingly few of them have touted its prudence.
Moderates in the Church find the pope’s claims of necessity unconvincing, while they doubt the prudence of the measures almost to a man.
Traditionalists and other Catholics devoted to the older form of worship are mostly shocked, though they are also hurt and insulted.
Whatever else Pope Francis’s decision has done, it has done two things:
- It has vindicated the Society of Saint Pius X – the SSPX – the chief Traditionalist outlier in the Church, whose leaders for years warned that Rome could not be trusted;
- It has punished the Catholics who were loyal sons and daughters of the Church through long decades of needless suffering.
Benedict’s liberal reform achieved significant détente, which allowed Francis to advance even greater rapprochement between Rome and Écône, where Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre founded the Society of St. Pius X and eventually “performed a schismatic act” when he consecrated four bishops without Rome’s permission, to carry on his work.
By the middle of the last decade, the movement toward canonically regular expression of substantial unity between the Vatican and the SSPX – which appeared geologically slow at times, even well into the 21st century – had made such progress that Francis first temporarily and then indefinitely granted SSPX clerics faculties to hear confessions, and also granted conditional faculties to them to witness marriages.
Basically, Pope Francis used gradual, piecemeal legislation to make SSPX structures at least minimally functional as communities.
Things were going so well that, by 2017, he had decided to fold the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which dealt with the SSPX and other groups and persons and congregations devoted to the older liturgical forms, into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Traditionalists howled at that, while cooler heads – including this wizened Vatican Watcher – saw little to justify the alarm.
“[P]rogress has been made in communion,” wrote Nicola Gori for L’Osservatore Romano at the time, “and therefore the current  motu proprio [by which Francis transferred Ecclesia Dei’s responsibilities to the CDF] offers an implicit recognition to the Pontifical Commission which has carried out its tasks with its efforts and activity.”
Speaking to the Catholic Herald on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject, one Vatican official summarized the matter this way: “The motu proprio explains the reasons for the suppression pretty well: the nature of the dialogue with the SSPX has changed; the kind of oversight and promotion needed for traditional communities is different, now that they are firmly established, in their own right, in the life of the Church.”
So much for that.
Pope Francis himself notes that his new law flies directly in the face of Benedict XVI’s older but still newish law. One of the most head-scratching things about Francis’s new new law, however, is that it flies directly in the face of Francis’s own old new laws.
It also strikes one not quite as a solution without a problem, but more like a drastic remedy for a relatively minor annoyance. It is more like amputating a finger to treat a hangnail than it is anything else.
Right now, there is no schismatic Traditionalist movement to speak of – none that really threatens the unity of the Church.
Sure, there are angry and maladjusted people with strange theological notions and dubious political ideas out there, but they’ve been around since dirt was the next big thing. These days, they like mostly to haunt internet commboxes on websites they themselves own and operate.
There’s not a “movement” yet, but Francis’s ham-fisted move on Friday made it a lot more likely that one will develop in short order. There is a real danger of one developing. Its leaders could very well be more powerful, funded, and organized than the bogeymen frequently touted as leaders of the opposition.
Cardinal Burke is – not a nobody, or an ex-nobody – but a marginal figure who was never a mover, shaker, or powerbroker in Rome. Bishop Athanasius Schneider is an auxiliary in Kazakhstan. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò is basically a disgruntled former employee who became a minor internet celebrity whistleblower and then never quite cottoned to the fact his fifteen minutes were up more than fifteen months ago.
Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider are also fiercely loyal to the pope, whose governance they criticize. They are the very paragon of the parrhesia for which the Holy Father has repeatedly called in speeches and consistently punished in action. Neither is a leader, let alone a rebel leader.
No, it won’t be any of them.
If a movement does take shape, it is more likely we’ll see a leader emerge from the SSPX, whose hardliners will be able – rightly, it happens, or at least plausibly – to say, “We told you so.” They will steamroll the moderates in their ranks. They will fire up the base. They will bring in money, hand over fist. Their ranks will swell with the disaffected.
It will make the late ‘80s and early ‘90s look like the ecclesiastical equivalent of Glasnost and Perestroika.
That, by the way, is not the worst case.
That is the middle case.
The worst-case scenario would see the fractured groups of radical Traditionalist incorruptibles join forces with the SSPX irreducibles and overtake the moderate traditional groups entirely, while bishops enthusiastically exercise their new inquisitorial powers to punish the incorrigible laity who cling to their old books and purge the seminaries of any man who gives the slightest fleeting glance at tradition, and Roman offices broadly interpret the new law to mean more than it says and also more than it doesn’t say.
In fact, the new motu proprio is silent on the status of other Rites like the Dominican, Benedictine, Carthusian, or the Gallican Rites – Braga, Mozarabic, Carthusian, even the Ambrosian – and all that stands in the way of a general destruction is the absence of an authoritative interpretation from the Council for Legislative Texts.
If Summorum Pontificum could fall, is Anglicanorum coetibus safe?
The point isn’t that the worst case – or even the middle case – is bound or even likely to obtain.
The point is: This is what people are afraid of – even those, who recognize the problems one frequently finds in Traditional communities – and with some good reason.
Pope Francis has shown himself capable of wielding the great power of his office, but little evident interest in wielding it safely or with care for who gets hurt. The doomsayers aren’t right, one hopes, but they’re not obviously wrong just for thinking what they think. Pope Francis, in other words, has made it reasonable to think the worst. He has made it plausible.
What is best?
The fact of the matter is that the law Pope Francis promulgated on Friday is cumbersome and unwieldy. It will require bishops to dedicate time and energy – sometimes enormous quantities of both – to a thankless project for which they didn’t really ask, and from which they cannot expect any measure of good will.
Most laity in most parishes don’t care either way, while the faithful who are devoted to the older forms of worship are highly motivated.
Now, they have their dander up.
The bishops of the world know it, and as they measure the potential gains against certain losses, may well decide that a new Inquisition to rid the Church of false conversos is not worth the effort.
If enough bishops decide this is a fight they do not want, traditional communities may survive – in some places, at least – with minimal disruption. The devotees of traditional forms of worship may even decide to toe whatever lines they must in order to escape the purge, and then the danger will pass before too many fall.
The best case scenario, in other words, is that the bishops ignore the pope.
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