We all woke up on Friday, July 16, to yet another example of Papa Bergoglio’s heavy-handedness with the promulgation of his latest motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, reversing the legislation of his predecessors, St. John Paul II (1984 and 1988) and Benedict XVI (2007), on the use of the Missal of Pope St. Pius V, dubbed the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite by Benedict.1
In the interests of full disclosure, let me state at the outset that I don’t really have a pony in this race. Although I celebrate the “extraordinary form” (EF) Mass when requested, my own personal preference is the “ordinary form” (OF) in Latin, facing East. That said, as regular readers of CWR will know from homilies published here, I frequently help out at Holy Innocents Parish in Midtown Manhattan and there offer Holy Mass in both forms. As a matter of fact, I have assisted at that parish for more than twenty-six years. Before the Tridentine or EF Mass was introduced there in 2008, I offered the OF in Latin.
In Francis’ “cover letter” to the worldwide episcopate, he says:
With the passage of thirteen years, I instructed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to circulate a questionnaire to the Bishops regarding the implementation of the Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.
The responses reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene.
Regrettably, the pastoral objective of my Predecessors, who had intended “to do everything possible to ensure that all those who truly possessed the desire for unity would find it possible to remain in this unity or to rediscover it anew”, has often been seriously disregarded.
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.
In other words, his principal motivation for restricting the “old” Mass is a concern that it has fostered disunity. Here is where I do have a “pony in the race.” In my liturgical preaching and teaching (through an extensive and regular ongoing theological education program) at Holy Innocents, I regularly cite the current Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents of Vatican II and, when appropriate, explain the differences between the OF and EF, as well as their respective calendars. I have never perceived even a hint of opposition. Furthermore, Holy Innocents offers five daily Masses during the work-week, with the evening Mass being celebrated in the EF. Once more, I must say that I have never encountered any divisiveness between regular participants in either form; yet again, it should be observed that not a few people who attend the Sunday celebrations in the EF and who do not work in the area of Holy Innocents attend daily Mass in the OF. We shall return to this assessment in due course.
Francis’ letter to the bishops comes off as judgmental and mean-spirited, reeking with a hermeneutic of suspicion. It is highly ironic that the Pope intent on extending “mercy” to gay activists and adulterers (that is, the divorced and remarried) should not exhibit one ounce of pastoral solicitude for faithful Catholics. If the dire situation of disunity he posits is in evidence somewhere, would it not be incumbent on the diocesan bishop to deal with it? Someone suffering from a hangnail doesn’t qualify for the amputation of his finger or hand. In reality, it is perversely amusing that the Pope engages in the very conduct some “Rad-Trads” do when they come upon a liturgical abuse in the “mainstream” Church and thus accuse the OF of the problem.
In defense of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors.
The distorted use that has been made of this faculty is contrary to the intentions that led to granting the freedom to celebrate the Mass with the Missale Romanum of 1962.
I must ask again, whence did the Pope get this information? He claims it comes from his polling of the body of bishops, but we are not privy to how many bishops responded to his inquiry nor what they said specifically. The Pope of parrhesia and transparency has never evinced those characteristics in his own behavior.
When Paul VI sought the opinion of the world’s bishops regarding the possibility of permitting Communion-in-the-hand, Memoriale Domini gave very precise data.2 Lacking that kind of transparency, we may be forced to conclude that Francis has gotten his information from his personal “magic circle” and from the gossip he seems to thrive on (and yet condemns in others). How often have we heard him say, “Someone told me. . .”?
He goes on:
Responding to your requests, I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present Motu proprio, and declare that the liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.
I take comfort in this decision 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.
We have a few problems to address here. First, who and how many bishops prevailed on him to “abrogate” the actions of his two immediate predecessors? Second, who has ever asserted that the current liturgical books “constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite”? That’s a rather bold claim, contradicted by numerous scholars, including Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict and Cardinal Robert Sarah, for starters, Third, the poor Pope or whoever fashioned the document needs a refresher course in history. While it is true that Trent abrogated Latin usages less than two hundred years old, it did not do so with the wave of a conciliar wand; it allowed for those usages to co-exist with the Tridentine reforms for fifty years (thus exercising pastoral charity).
Having caused the conflagration, he now shifts the burden of extinguishing the fire onto diocesan bishops:
It is up to you to authorize in your Churches, as local Ordinaries, the use of the Missale Romanum of 1962, applying the norms of the present Motu proprio.
It is up to you to proceed in such a way as to return to a unitary form of celebration, and to determine case by case the reality of the groups which celebrate with this Missale Romanum.
Indications about how to proceed in your dioceses are chiefly dictated by two principles: on the one hand, to provide for the good of those who are rooted in the previous form of celebration and need to return in due time to the Roman Rite promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II, and, on the other hand, to discontinue the erection of new personal parishes tied more to the desire and wishes of individual priests than to the real need of the “holy People of God.”
In a flight of supercilious arrogance, he declares that the ultimate goal of allowing the misguided devotees of the Tridentine Mass a space for now is to wean them off their addiction!
He offers this defense for his action:
A final reason for my decision is this: ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the “true Church.”
Here I have to say he has a point. It is not so much the average person in the pew who uses such language but more than a few blogsters do indeed speak in this fashion, which is most unfortunate as it does foster disunity. However, if Francis had accurate sources, he would know that.
Now, onto some of the particulars of the motu proprio.
Very strangely, we learn that the norms of this document are to go into effect immediately. This is unknown in canonical legislation, to the best of my knowledge, especially since implementation should require prior proper catechesis.
He indicates that where the Missal of 1962 is followed, such Masses cannot be held in parish churches! Where would he like them to occur? Should a space be rented in the local Marriott (as the Society of St. Pius X does when they lack a church)? Is he so misinformed that he thinks these congregations could fit into a convent chapel? Similarly, he forbids the establishment of any new personal parishes for this liturgical expression. Does he really want to drive laity attached to the EF into the waiting and welcoming arms of the SSPX? (He did once say that he might be the Pope to create a schism.)
Francis says that priests who have been celebrating the Tridentine rite “should” seek the permission of their bishops to continue. Does “should” mean “must”? Of course, if the document had been promulgated in Latin, we would not have to wonder about that.
Most amazing of all perhaps is the requirement that priests ordained after this document must petition their bishops for permission to celebrate in the EF and that bishops must “consult” the Holy See! Any Catholic can marry a total pagan with a mere dispensation from the local Ordinary, but this request has to go to Rome? How absurd. Beyond that, such a mentality may well lead seminarians and young priests to bypass diocesan priesthood in favor of joining either one of the “traditional” communities in union with Rome (like the Fraternity of St. Peter) or even of going over to the SSPX. Were that to happen, a diocesan bishop would lose a man who was comfortable in offering Holy Mass in both forms.
Unmentioned in either the letter or the motu proprio itself is the question of other sacraments. Summorum Pontificum explicitly allowed for the celebration of all the sacraments (except Holy Orders for a candidate not attached to a “traditional” community) in the older rites. Does the omission of this concern leave the door open? Or, are we to assume that Francis has “abrogated” every jot and tittle of Benedict’s document? As usual, Francis’ lack of precision, canonically and theologically, leads to more questions than answers.
Some concluding thoughts.
We know, from painful observation over the past eight years, that this Pope often and strongly punishes perceived opponents of his agenda. One thinks immediately of Cardinals Burke and Muller. It is clear to me that his “magic circle” has convinced him that opposition to his agenda arises from the “Trads.” However, that is a fundamental misreading of the current ecclesial situation. I do not consider myself a “Trad,” but I have consistently and vociferously opposed every problematic aspect of this pontificate – as have thousands upon thousands of clergy and laity. That groundswell of opposition is why nearly all of his documents have been DOA (dead on arrival). They are so “unreceived” that he has had to sponsor anniversaries of his own texts to remind people that they exist.3
One must ask why he felt compelled to “upset the apple cart.” We had relative peace in the two preceding pontificates, however, he seems congenitally incapable of appreciating peace. Can we forget his mandate to the youth in Rio de Janeiro: “Hagan lío!” (“Make a mess”)? He has surely followed his own advice. The unique charism of the Bishop of Rome is to foster unity; this Pope often foments strife and enforces norms whimsically, which creates disrespect for both the lawgiver and his laws.
What will happen here in the United States in response to this document? Looking into my ecclesiastical crystal ball, I predict it will go nowhere. Firstly, I am unaware of any place where the EF is being celebrated without the approval of the local Ordinary. There have been some instances when a priest has wanted to move in that direction but, getting episcopal push-back, he has backed off. Thus, we have witnessed a peaceful and calm living out of Summorum Pontificum. The average bishop is given to conflict-avoidance (which, admittedly, is often a vice more than a virtue). If that is so, he will maintain the status quo: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. More to the point, the vast majority of the American hierarchy is not “in sync” with the agenda of this pontificate; a staunch Francis advocate like Jesuit Father Thomas Reese bemoans this fact.4
If a priest or bishop is looking for an historical model to follow, I would highlight the response of the Jansenists and Modernists when confronted with papal condemnations. They expressed their appreciation for the fatherly care of the Pope, thanked God that the issues raised by the Pope did not exist in their communities, and went on their merry way. Since the Pope has hitched his caboose to the engine of Church unity as his overriding rationale for this move, any cleric can respond by thanking God that the disunity the Pope rightly deplores is not found among his people.
The bottom line in this whole mess is that this document was so unnecessary and is so divisive, and done in the name of unity.
1A legitimate question arises about the fate of the Dominican and Carmelite rites. Or even the Anglican usage. What about the venerable Ambrosian rite?
. . . since some few episcopal conferences and individual bishops had asked that the usage of placing the consecrated bread in the hand of the faithful be admitted in their territories, the Supreme Pontiff decreed that each bishop of the entire Latin Church should be asked his opinion concerning the appropriateness of introducing this rite. A change in a matter of such importance, which rests on a very ancient and venerable tradition, besides touching upon discipline can also include dangers. These may be feared from a new manner of administering Holy Communion: they are a lessening of reverence toward the noble Sacrament of the altar, its profanation, or the adulteration of correct doctrine
Three questions were therefore proposed to the bishops. Up to March 12 the following responses had been received:
1. Does it seem that the proposal should be accepted by which, besides the traditional mode, the rite of receiving Holy Communion in the hand would be permitted?
Yes, with reservations: 315
Invalid votes: 20
2. Should experiments with this new rite first take place in small communities, with the assent of the local Ordinary?
Invalid votes: 70
3. Do you think that the faithful, after a well planned catechetical preparation, would accept this new rite willingly?
Invalid votes: 128
From the responses received it is thus clear that by far the greater number of bishops feel that the present discipline should not be changed at all, indeed that if it were changed, this would be offensive to the sensibilities and spiritual appreciation of these bishops and of most of the faithful.
After he had considered the observations and the counsel of those whom “the Holy Spirit has placed as bishops to rule” (11) the Churches, in view of the seriousness of the matter and the importance of the arguments proposed, the Supreme Pontiff judged that the long received manner of ministering Holy Communion to the faithful should not be changed.
3I must also note that for the average informed Catholic, this Pope has made himself irrelevant; I do not say this with glee (it is sad). I make presentations in about twenty dioceses a year to priests, Religious, seminarians, Catholic school teachers; except for the Eucharistic Prayer, the name of Francis never surfaces!
4From Religion News Service (July 13, 2021), he sorrowfully declares:
. . . neither the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops nor the seminaries are bastions of Francis supporters. Bishops who embody Francis’ values make up only 20 to 40 of the 223 active U.S. bishops. And among the clergy, Francis receives his greatest support from older priests, who are dying off, rather than younger ones who are the future of the church.
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