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Reflections from France on the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes of Pope Francis

It is impossible to understand either the justification or the necessity of the text, especially because the pope has legislated on the basis of an incomplete argument and false information.

The Notre Dame Basilica is pictured at sunset in Nice, France, Oct. 29, 2020. (CNS photo/Norbert Scanella, Panoramic via Reuters)

Incomprehension is the dominant feeling upon reading the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes and the accompanying letters to bishops. It is impossible to understand either the justification or the necessity of the text, especially because the pope has legislated on the basis of an incomplete argument and false information.

(1) Incomplete argument. It is not correct that John Paul II’s motu proprio Ecclesia Dei was only motivated by “the ecclesial intention of restoring the unity of the Church.” Of course, that was a major reason, but there was another Francis left out: “However, it is necessary that all the Pastors and the other faithful have a new awareness, not only of the lawfulness but also of the richness for the Church of a diversity of charisms, traditions of spirituality and apostolate, which also constitutes the beauty of unity in variety: of that blended ‘harmony’ which the earthly Church raises up to Heaven under the impulse of the Holy Spirit” (Ecclesia Dei n. 5a).

(2) False information. Pope Francis claims that John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s generosity was used by trads as a means of opposing the Mass of Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council, thereby imperiling the unity of the Church. He writes: “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 [….] But I am nonetheless saddened that the instrumental use of Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church’ [….] 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.’”

The vocabulary Francis uses here is taken straight from the Society of St. Pius X’s playbook: the “true Church” indeed! No trad faithful to Rome uses that expression! His observation is true enough if limited to the Society of St. Pius X. But applied to the vast majority of the Ecclesia Dei movement, it is false. True, there are cases that correspond to the pope’s accusations, but they are a minority: why deal out a collective punishment for the faults of a few? Wouldn’t it have been enough to crack down on these few? Clearly, we are not looking at the same traditional world as the pope and his advisers, because their picture has no correspondence to reality. They paint it as a homogenous world when the attitude they describe is actually only found within the Society of St. Pius X! Who is advising and informing the pope on these subjects?

If we base our view on real-world information, we suspect that the pope is responding to the demand of a tiny minority in the Church who have always been fiercely hostile to the extraordinary form.

(3) The pope’s objective…and the dramatic consequences we can expect. “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.” In the interest of unity, this motu proprio will bring incomprehension, disarray, and conflict, and in the end will widen divisions instead of reducing them: the opposite of its stated objective! With the stroke of a pen, he overturns 35 years of efforts by John Paul II and Benedict XVI to calm the situation and establish a certain level of imperfect but genuine peace. Even the statement of the French Bishops’ Conference, which is hardly well disposed to the trad world, recognizes that Summorum Pontificum has led globally to a “peaceful situation,” which our investigation has largely confirmed (cf. the article on “traddies” in La Nef n°338, July-August 2021).

It will reignite the liturgy wars, exacerbate traditionalist resistance, and especially lead many to leave for the Society of St. Pius X (which will rejoice to see this motu proprio swell their ranks, confirming what they have warned about ever since 1988, namely that Rome cannot be trusted, a conviction that underlies their refusal of any reconciliation). This is precisely what John Paul II and Benedict XVI were able to avoid with their attentiveness to the trad world. Francis’ new decision risks creating a huge mess.

An important historical and psychological remark: Paul VI was ready to make concessions over the Mass if Mgr Lefebvre had not rejected Vatican II (his famous November 21, 1974, declaration against the “modernist Rome” of the council is what got him into trouble). But John Paul II and Benedict XVI understood that liturgical appeasement was a necessary condition for getting those trads who were most reserved about Vatican II to open up to the council and assimilate. By tightening the vice around the Mass, Francis will end up with a result opposite of the one that has been legitimately sought so far.

4. A double-standard? The tone of the motu proprio and letter is so harsh and severe toward trads that one resist the suspicion that there is a double standard at work: while Francis insists so often on mercy, humility, forgiveness, and is so patient with the German Church which is on the verge of schism, he, our common Father, shows not a trace of love or understanding for those who are only a tiny fraction of his flock! In these texts, trads comes across as a threat, barely tolerated on their “Indian reservation” until they can get back in line. The explicit goal is to make them disappear, without even stopping to wonder if they might have something to offer the Church, in terms of youth, dynamism, vocations, etc. Are there so many convicted, practicing Catholics in the West that it has to be a priority to drastically limit one group of them?

Recent experience has shown that to despise and persecute trads in this way does not help them evolve; on the contrary, it fuels the resistance of hard-liners, they become more rigid: which goes against the sought-for goal of favoring unity.

The French Bishops’ Conference deserves credit for their communiqué of July 17th, which conveys their respect for “trads”: “The bishops wish to express to the faithful who regularly celebrate according to the Missal of John XXIII and to their pastors, their attentiveness and the respect they have for the spiritual zeal of these faithful and their determination to continue the mission together in the communion of the Church and according to the norms in force.”

(5) Disrespect for the great work of Benedict XVI. These two texts return without nuance to John Paul II’s and especially Benedict XVI’s efforts at reconciliation in an erroneous analysis of the facts. And they go so far as to annul the essential contribution of the Pope Emeritus when he distinguished two forms, ordinary and extraordinary, of the same Roman Rite. In so doing, the pope suppresses the juridical existence of the ancient extraordinary form in one fell swoop, treating it as if it does not exist. This plunges the Church back into the endless liturgy wars over the juridical status of the Mass of St. Pius V. We are going back to the regime of toleration on terms even more severe than those of 1988, a sort of “merciful parenthesis”, but there is nothing merciful about it! A single decree sets us back more than thirty years.

(6) What can we deduce about Rome’s strategy, reading between the lines? Francis’s two texts show clearly that the pope wants to eradicate the trad world from the Church and to ensure that the Mass of St. Pius V disappears. It prevents the movement from taking shape, forbidding any new groups and setting up obstacles for any diocesan priest who wants to celebrate the old ordo missae. The motu proprio envisions those devoted to the extraordinary form one day using the new missal. The stage is set for a future in which the traditional mass will only be celebrated by the Society of Pius X and its satellites. The pope’s strategy seems to be to push the resistance toward the Society of St. Pius X so that the whole traditional world concentrates there, where they will be isolated and controlled on their little reservation, cut off from Rome and the dioceses, maintaining just enough connection to avoid formal schism. This explains why the pope is not seeking full reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, but has shown great generosity toward them by recognizing the full validity of their marriages and confessions, encouraging people to welcome them into the churches during pilgrimages, etc. It all makes sense, and flies in the face of John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s efforts toward Church unity.

(7) Liturgical exclusivity? This motu proprio is a chance for the institutes who refuse to celebrate the ordinary form—and let’s be clear, they are a minority in the Ecclesia Dei world—to seriously examine the liturgical, theological, and ecclesial basis for this refusal. Since 1988, the popes have invited them not to refuse the celebration of the new Mass in principle. (Although the position of the Ecclesia Dei Commission has fluctuated on this point, resulting in a certain lack of clarity.) This does not detract in any way from the special charism of these institutes to say the old Mass. Benedict XVI was very explicit in his letter to the bishops in 2007. Admittedly, the battle-lines haven’t budged since. If they obey the pope on this sensitive point, won’t these institutes demonstrate by their example that Francis’s analysis is flawed?

(8) Conclusion. All this is sad, because it’s unjust. It is therefore legitimate to complain, to argue, and to relentlessly demand a reform of this motu proprio or for the most flexible possible application, while respecting the pope’s role and authority. The bishops will have a pivotal role to play. Everything will depend on how they choose to apply this motu proprio. Early reactions have been encouraging: a big thank you to bishops who care for their whole flock. It’s their responsibility to make sure that Rome is more justly apprised of reality on the ground in the traditional world. Recently they have proved unwilling to just roll over: let us hope that most do not fall back into a “resistance” that verges on revolt and open disobedience. Mgr Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X are not the examples to follow. We know where that leads. Suffering for the Church is never easy, but it is always fruitful.

(Editor’s note: This essay, translated into English by Zachary Thomas, originally appeared in the French Catholic journal La Nef and appears here with kind permission of the author.)


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About Christophe Geffroy 1 Article
Christophe Geffroy is the founder of La nef, an independent French monthly that aims to deliver serious intellectual commentary from a Catholic perspective, in total fidelity to the teaching of the Church and in service to the New Evangelization. He is the author of books on liberalism, Islam, and Benedict XVI.

13 Comments

  1. That all the Bishops of the world be as generous as the French Bishops. We need our Bishops to defend us, Traditionalists. I’m not allowed to say what I really think as it would make Traditionalists look bad and Bergoglio seem good. But I assure you that my opinions are right and true.

  2. I think it is a very useful and insightful article. It seems that the Pope is, as many thought, a figurehead for a biased clique behind him who have their own, unpublished agenda. It shows that his idea of Traditional Latin Mass goers are too rigid and unbending, while exhibiting the very rigid, unbending side of his own character.

    • There may be such a clique, but the pope is no figurehead. He wanted this from Day One of his pontificate. The pattern of vitriol and insults directed at orthodox Catholics is irrefutable, and that all comes directly from his own mouth: scripted, prepared and spontaneous. If there is such a clique of biased lapdogs, they share his contempt and are there to cheer him own, provide fodder, and make sure he stays determined.

  3. Francis is the Joe Biden of the Catholic Church. He undoes the positive steps made by his predecessors. He pretends to be full of caring and compassion for people, while punishing the most loyal members of his flock. He sets people against each other while claiming to want unity. Devout and patriotic American Catholics are suffering doubly because of these two men.

  4. Alas,

    It would appear this writer is one of those Catholics who delight in designating those other Catholics who prefer to assist, when possible, at Masses of St Pius V (vide Quo Primum) as “Trads”. Such arbitrary nomenclature is unwanted, unworthy and unwelcome to many “renamed”, thinking worshippers, in my view. It’s like a cheap “label”, it lacks dignity. I doubt the Priestly Society of St Pius X feels “honoured” when they hear or see it.
    Let us remember, had Mgr Lefebvre (with the SSPX) not taken firm and urgent measures to retain and protect this ancient Holy, Roman Catholic rite for all time, a dearth of these Masses would be the regularity nowadays.
    Une analyse brève de “La Nef” suggère également que la même situation se trouve aussi en France, par exemple, un des écrivains utilise aussi “Tradis”, principalement en minuscules (La Nef n°338).
    And, honestly, the notion of the FSSPX using a “playbook” is hilarious – it places the article in the correct category.

    • I thought that the article made many good points, and to that end I am grateful to the author. However, I was disheartened at his obvious denigration of the SSPX. I am by no means an SSPX shill (I have only attended some of their chapels very occasionally), but I don’t see how someone can see the things this author rightly sees without realizing that the SSPX has been correct on just about everything after all. One doesn’t need to necessarily agree with or praise the consecrations of Lefebvre to see that they have been resisting the same errors since 1970 that many people have only been able to wake up and see under Francis’ pontificate.

      Also, I would note that I think it is more common than the author realizes that people in TLM communities – and I mean broadly speaking, including FSSP, Institute, diocesan parishes, etc. – in fact DO often hold negative views of Pope Francis, Vatican II, and the Novus Ordo. This is not exclusive to the SSPX. And unless the author is someone who thinks that disagreement with a pope, the Novus Ordo, etc. are *in themselves* sins or something, then he should be obliged to agree with Pope Francis’s assessment of TLM communities. The the underlying issues are not liturgical reform or Pope Francis, per se; the more basic issues are papal authority and its limits, whether or not the Novus Ordo really conforms to what the council fathers wanted, and whether in general Vatican II fully in line with the previous 1960 years of Church teaching.

  5. This pope may well be presiding over a schism. But it will come from the UBER liberal German Bishops and not from those who wish to worship with the Latin Mass. It speaks (negative) volumes that Francis is worried about traditionalists and has said next to nothing negative about those granting blessings to gay couples.He had to dig long and hard to find this particular “problem”. Ditto, he may refuse to see the reality that clergy and nuns left by the tens of thousands following Vatican II. How could that have been a good thing? Did they all “misunderstand” what Vatican II was trying to do??? If this is what he wants to protect I would suggest his priorities are misplaced. Results speak for themselves. This action is myopic, at least.

    • A tree is known by its fruit. The fruit of Vatican II is rotten and putrid with a few weak and sickly exceptions. The tree needs to be dug up and burned on the trash heap of history. It was an unmitigated disaster for the Church. Rotten, putrid, decaying fruit.

  6. A really superb essay with formidable insights, with only one sour note:

    “This motu proprio is a chance for the institutes who refuse to celebrate the ordinary form—and let’s be clear, they are a minority in the Ecclesia Dei world—to seriously examine the liturgical, theological, and ecclesial basis for this refusal.”

    The FSSP was nearly broken apart in 1999 over this issue, as Mr. Geffoy should know (since the trouble started in France). But the real problem is, such a move would not save them from the destruction being plotted for them in Rome now, if Francis lives long enough, and Braz de Aviz is determined enough.

  7. If this author thinks appeasement is going to work, he is seriously mistaken. “It’s their responsibility to make sure that Rome is more justly apprised of reality on the ground in the traditional world.” That might work if our adversaries were just misinformed. They are not: they have a true animus delendi. The motu proprio is full of lies, and Papa Bergoglio had to hide behind a survey whose results he will never publish. Let’s not be dupes please: this act is one of extreme MALICE, and traditional Catholics (and their allies) need to be ready to fight. Canonists, theologians and bishops need to challenge juridical validity of this document. It speaks of “revoking the faculty” given ‘Summorum pontificum’ but the whole point is that SP did NOT “give a faculty”; it states you don’t need one.

  8. The Ecclesia Dei institutes need to be strong. This is maybe a golden opportunity for them to explain to the world the principles for the “liturgical, theological, and ecclesial basis for this refusal” (not that they do see or should see their mission or charism primarily as a refusal). No more pretending it’s just a question of taste or spirituality. A service of truth to the Catholic world at large; maybe this is an opportunity being given by Providence. The spiteful, malevolent liberals (who clearly see that their project is threatened) have implicitly set up a false dichotomy, where they imply that the only logical possibilities are: A. You hail Vatican II as a New Pentecost, truly different from and superior to every preceding Council, 100% effective in is plan to renew the Church, OR B. You hold that Vatican II is illegitimate, that it teaches heresy and must be condemned en bloc; A. You hold that the “Roman Rite” is a purely juridical reality and that a pope has the power to change history and you hail the Rite of Paul VI as the Best Thing Ever, OR B. You hold that the New Mass is invalid, expresses explicit heresy and that it is a sin to attend or celebrate it. NO! We refuse these alternatives. The fact that you don’t hold A. doesn’t mean you hold B. This is an opportunity for the “approved” trads to witness to the truth, firmly and charitably.

    Something like: We affirm that the Rite of Paul VI is an innovation and that the idea of composing a new rite is a shocking departure from the virtue of pietas. Nonetheless, we acknowledge that Paul VI was the pope and that he legitimately implemented this new rite and that therefore it is not a sin to use it. We do not blame the many pious people who find sustenance there, and we express our esteem to the excellent priests who celebrate this rite, by navigating through the rubrics and options as best they can in order to celebrate this Mass reverently. As faithful Catholics who believe in the indefectibility of the Church, we acknowledge without hesitation that, in the officially approved liturgical book at least, the New Mass does not contain heresy and that it is a valid Mass — it confects the sacrament. At the same time, we note that the influence of Protestants and modernists in the drafting of the New Rite was such that many Catholic doctrines were played down or no longer clearly expressed — compare, for example, the offertory prayers in the two rites.

    The concepts of the VALIDITY of a sacrament and the FRUITFULNESS of a liturgical rite and not the same, and so all the while affirming the validity of the Mass celebrated in the Rite of Paul VI, we hold that the inherited Roman Rite is more fruitful objectively, in that it more clearly expresses the Catholic faith and better disposes the participants to reverence. There is also a difference between the New Mass on paper (protected absolutely by indefectibility) and the New Mass as often celebrated in the concrete, which is often — more often than not — riddled with abuses and even sacrileges. Good priests celebrate the New Mass in a reverent way free from abuses, but (1) even the “good” Novus Ordo is “good” to the extent that the ‘ars celebrandi’ is informed by the traditional praxis and even the “good” Novus Ordo when we consider the texts and not merely the aesthetic form which a good celebrant can impose, is still INFERIOR to the old rite as an expression of the faith; (2) the abuses which so often exist concretely in the New Mass are not unrelated to the New Mass as such, since the lack of rubrical safeguards and the abundance of options (even in the choice of a Eucharistic prayer!) leads in practice to a manner of celebrating in which abuses are likely. Our decision to celebrate exclusively in the traditional rite IN NO WAY calls into question the indefectibility of the Church, or the validity or juridical legitimacy of the New Rite, but we are very much within our rights as Catholics to assert the superiority of the traditional form AS A RITE. Willing to celebrate in both forms is by no means the test for one’s “communion”. One’s communion is manifested in the naming of the pope and local bishop in the Canon of the Mass, and concretely by participating in the work of the local diocese — attending the deanery meetings, hearing confessions at confirmation retreats, doing chancery work, being part of the call list at local hospitals; and traditional priests do all these things. In the days before Vatican II, communities like the Dominicans and Carmelites of the Ancient Observance had their own distinctive liturgical uses, whose exclusive use was a part of their identity. Even in the 20th century, the general chapters of these religious orders FORBADE theirs priests from using the Roman/Tridentine rites, even when staffing a diocesan parish. This does not mean they “rejected” the Roman rite or were somehow not in communion. Although traditional priests themselves choose personally not to celebrate in the new books, they do de facto accept their legitimacy and therefore they do not “exclude in principle” the use of those books. These priests are ordained by bishops who had themselves been ordained in the new rite; these priests confer sacraments using holy oils which had been blessed in the new rite by the local bishop; these priests go to confession to diocesan confreres, who were ordained in the new rite and who absolve in the new rite; etc., etc.

    The Ecclesia Dei communities can start saying the quiet parts out loud now and tell the Church at large that “accepting” the validity and legitimacy of the new rites does NOT mean that they are obliged to use them, and that they may have well-founded reasons for not wishing to do so. Saying all this explicitly and charitably may make some “allies” among the bishops start to consider questions they had never before entertained.

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