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Rigeo, riges, rigere

Rigidity is characterized in part by reaction, rather than responsiveness, and Traditiones Custodes is certainly a reactive document, to the point of flailing.

Worshippers attend a traditional Tridentine Mass July 18, 2021, at St. Josaphat Church in the Queens borough of New York City. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

What is the greatest sin?

According to the present papacy, “rigidity” is one, if not the most serious sin of which one can be accused.

“Rigidity” – a closedness to change, a stubborn adherence to a certain set of ideas or practices, a fear of the other and ultimately, a rejection of God who says, “I make all things new.”

The trouble with the centering of this specific concept is that it doesn’t have any basis in Scripture or the greater tradition of Catholic thinking. It just doesn’t. An open heart – and absolutely open heart, trusting of God and willing to be led wherever he leads – yes.

But that’s not the same as “rigidity,” a term that is easily wielded for political purposes.

A heart hardened to God – as the Psalmists and the prophets decry – cannot be wielded in the same way as the accusation of “rigidity” in relation to visible structures.

If I want to encourage you to change, inviting you to examine your heart’s openness to God takes you to a quiet place of reflection. Accusing you of rigidity guilts you, and puts you in opposition to me, and to what I’m presenting as a good.

In short, there are times in which rigidity is a virtue – if the powers that be demand that I renounce the good – my family, my faith, God himself – it is good for me to be “rigid” and unyielding, isn’t it? If a person in authority wants me to lie for the sake of the institution, isn’t it a virtue for me to be “rigid” for the sake of the truth?

So, no, “rigidity” is not an authentically helpful framework for understanding human action, especially in the spiritual realm – but it certainly is useful rhetorically and politically.

But let’s accept “rigidity” as a framework for the moment, and let’s apply it to the present situation that, for a week now, has been interesting elements of the Catholic world. Not everyone, but enough.

Even observers unsympathetic to the Traditional Latin Mass might see, upon reading Traditiones Custodes a hint of “rigidity.”  Even more than a hint. That’s obvious. Rigidity, it seems to me, is characterized in part by reaction, rather than responsiveness, and this is certainly a reactive document, to the point of flailing.

But that’s easy to see. Let’s go deeper.

Let’s talk (again) about the last sixty years.

I’d like to suggest that what we have, in 2021, is a new situation that’s quite different from the situation in, say 1965, and what that calls for a less…rigid response. In other words, times have changed, and that’s always the first step to understanding how it might be time for our responses to change as well.

I am not sure how many realize how radical the changes to the Church were in those first fifteen years after the Council. For heaven’s sake, if you were born in 1970, that means you’re fifty years old, so probably not. For those formed and catechized in the JPII-B16-Francis era, it might be well to revisit certain facts:

In most American parishes, by, say, ten years after the end of the Council – ten years – the time span from the present day back to 2011 –  Catholic life in the United States had been:

  • Stripped of Latin.
  • Stripped of chant and most traditional hymns except for maybe Holy, Holy, Holy or Praise to the Lord. Three-chord guitar music had taken over.
  • The rosary and other traditional devotions were mostly gone, not encouraged, and not taught to children. “Crazies” was how I heard a priest refer to ladies who stubbornly came early to say the rosary before Mass.
  • Statues were dumped, wall paintings covered. Crucifixes replaced by empty crosses or those featuring the Risen Christ.
  • Tabernacles moved out of the main church to side chapels.
  • It was common for priests to ad lib Mass prayers, for secular readings to replace Scripture in Mass, for lay people to preach and it was pro forma for, in small groups, and sometimes larger ones, for everyone to be invited to gather in a circle around the altar during the Eucharistic prayer. In various places other habits developed: for the congregation to recite some or all of the Eucharistic prayer with the priest; for congregation members to spontaneously offer Prayers of the Faithful.
  • Liturgy Committees were a common feature of parish life, assigned with the task of thinking of things to “do” to make Mass more “meaningful.”
  • Eucharistic Adoration completely gone.
  • Spontaneous prayer or prayers composed by committee seen as more authentic than prayers that emerged from tradition.
  • Saints were mostly ignored except for Francis of Assisi.

I’m not presenting this as a list of Awful Things, although I have no doubt it will be taken that way. What I’m trying to do is paint a picture.

Before John Paul II became pope in 1978, this had evolved into mainstream parish life in the United States. There were exceptions and holdouts, and some places that went even further, but this was really the picture of typical – you might even say ideal –  Catholic life circa, say 1975.

The past was mostly gone, and it was understood as a good thing, and at the very least as expected – we are moving forward, we are progressing, we don’t need what went before, we have the Spirit in the present moment, guiding us.

Let me put it this way:

If you had told me, even in, say 1985, that Catholic youth activities would some day be centered on…Adoration…I, and almost everyone else around then, would have said nice plot for a fantasy novel. 

Oh, and what’s Adoration?

Much less having a traditional Latin Mass in any spot in a diocese except a funeral home chapel – since, you might recall, it was banned in 1970, which is where all of the tension really took root.

In the thick of it back in that era, this was your Catholic life.

Now it’s fifty years later.


And what’s happened?

There are innumerable angles from which to address this, but I’ll try to put some laser focus here.

What happened is that you now have a totally post-Vatican II generation of Catholics. I keep telling you – I’m sixty-one – and I didn’t go to the “old” Mass as a child. My first memories of Catholic life are of in a modernistic Catholic student center on a university campus (my father was a professor).

But not so with the younger crowd, who, in general, have been formed and catechized in a different framework.

  • They’ve been taught about saints, learned the rosary and their youth groups, even with all the Lifeteen and charismatic influence, probably incorporates far more traditional elements – devotion to saints, the rosary, Adoration  – than anyone in 1970 ever dreamed (in their nightmares) would return.
  • More of their parishes have returned to more traditional aesthetics.
  • Saints are all over the place again.
  • The daily prayer of the Church is presented as an ideal for all, not just the clergy
  • Latin and chant aren’t exploding into use, but here’s the point: it is not a big deal or unheard of for both of those to be a part of typical parish life.

Now here’s my point:

There’s going to come a moment in the life of a Catholic raised in a Church in which saints, devotions and even some traditional liturgical elements are no longer unfashionable or relics that this Catholic might just wander down a particular mental path:

I’m so devoted to St. Teresa of Avila. St. Therese! She’s so great. Dorothy Day! How did they worship God? What was their Mass like?

It’s amazing what a spiritual vibe comes from Latin and chant…where do they come from?

Amazing churches I’m seeing on my travels – why were they built this way? What’s all this about?

And just maybe, that mental path prompts them to ask the question….okay.  If all of this happened in the context of the Traditional Latin Mass….how can the TLM be that bad? What’s the problem?

This is not to dismiss the substantive issues and theological elements that shifted and changed – the real core of the disagreement is not, of course about “reverence” but about something deeper.

But – here I am, just sketching a landscape.

This isn’t 1970. The questions are a little different, and for sure the assumptions and experiences of people coming to more traditional modes of worship are different. In fact, what we’re seeing is an almost natural progression. And it’s not a crazy question, either, and it’s the question echoed in Benedict’s famous quote about sacredness.

The question – the natural question – that comes out of this hybrid experience of formation of the post-Vatican II generation is…If it was good enough for St. Teresa….how can it be wrong?

To answer that question might involve digging deep into hard questions. No  – it will  – and will involve a willingness to question narratives and be honest about history. It will for sure require more than “Shut up and stop it.”

In short, to actually deal with the issue of the Traditional Latin Mass in this present moment, when almost everything else from the past except that – can be plopped in the Catholic Shopping Cart – will require a stance that is willing to let go of tightly held beliefs and ideologies and that might well just have to be…a…little…less…


(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in slightly different form on the “Charlotte was Both” site and is reposted here with kind permission of the author.)

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About Amy Welborn 29 Articles
Amy Welborn is the author of over twenty books on Catholic spirituality and practice, and has written extensively on gender issues at her blog, Charlotte was Both.


  1. As for the recent past, and relics, and the possible future, this from a non-Catholic:

    “It is idle to talk about the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.”

    (Whitaker Chambers [author of “Witness,” Random House, 1952], in a letter to William Buckley, August 5, 1954, in “Cold Friday,” Random House, 1964).

    • Very cool. Thank you, Peter. Whitaker Chambers’ blistering review of Ayn Rand’s writing is worthy of enshrinement, and his life story intrigues too.

  2. Amy Welborn should also read the young Joseph Ratzinger’s Theological Highlights of Vatican II. In this small book – a compilation of pamphlets earlier widely distributed during the event of the council – the future Pope wholeheartedly welcomed the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, later best concretized in the Novus Ordo Mass, as he criticized and lamented that the Tridentine Mass was borne out of a reaction to the reformation attacks of Martin Luther which were inadequate and marked by rigidity. Lacking “historical perspective,” the Tridentine Mass was “a rigid, fixed, and firmly encrusted system,” that best reflected a “court etiquette for sacred matters.” The High Mass “became a kind of sacred opera,” during which the people in church would be busy with their own devotions, reciting the rosary. No wonder the wunderkind theologian and future Benedict XVI thought that none of the great saints of the counter-reformation – Ignatius, Teresa of Avila (one of the saints highlighted by Welborn in this article!), John of the Cross – drew their spirituality from the Tridentine liturgy.

    • Thank you Johnny Dela Cruz for this reference to The Theological Highlights of Vatican II. I have just ordered it online. Is Pope Francis then just correcting the mistake and unintended consequences of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum relaxing the restrictions placed on the Tridentine Mass imposed by St. Pope Paul VI as also maintained by St. Pope John Paul II. It now appears then that the shift of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s stance about the Tridentine Mass was a result of his turn into rigidity reflecting the rigidity of the Tridentine Mass he so described in his younger years.

      • “It now appears then that the shift of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s stance about the Tridentine Mass was a result of his turn into rigidity reflecting the rigidity of the Tridentine Mass he so described in his younger years.”

        Wrong. I recommend you read “Theological Highlights…” (which are not accurately described above) and then read Ratzinger’s “Spirit of the Liturgy”.

        This constant reference to “rigidity” is so shallow and ridiculous. Again, read some actual texts.

    • Have you been to the TLM or are all your comments from reading about it? Do you think Benedict XVI’s viewpoint on tradition has changed over time? I strongly suggest you research the origins of the Traditional Latin Mass … to say these saints did not worship at the Tridentine Liturgy is extremely misleading as they assuredly worshipped at the Latin Mass that was not yet Tridentine for Trent had not yet happened. The Latin Mass and Roman Canon go back to the Fathers. May Our Lady guide you and move you to embrace tradition!

  3. Excellent analysis and commentary. I am a retired priest and I must say one of the most disturbing items mentioned in your Post Vatican II memory list was “Liturgy Committee”. How many times in my first years as a priest was I bullied by some Religious or Layperson to say Mass their way as contrived by them and their Committee. In one parish, nearly every week there was something new and cool and relevant and ..well, the other young assistant and I finally (with our hearts in our throats) just proclaimed at a staff meeting one day that were not going to do any of that stuff anymore. That was that and the pastor carried on doing as he was told. Recovery was slow but I was eventually healed. I still break out in a cold sweat when I see or hear of clowns in any context. When I finally became a pastor there was no Liturgy Committee. – just the Mass by the book. Somehow we all did fine. I will not disclose how I celebrate the Mass these days as I wish to preserve the peace (so far) of my old age. God bless you and us, one and all.

    • The familiar adage on the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist, is that you can negotiate with a terrorist.

  4. This Pope’s obsession with rigidity is quite important. He’s a neo modernist which is characterized among other things by a spirit of constant change, progress and evolution. This is why he can’t stand rigidity as it’s effectively a heresy in his modernist Catholicism.

  5. The Pope should realize that with all the change and secularization in the world there is more unhappiness and angst then ever; society’s inability to deal with the pandemic ‘setback’ is pretty good evidence of that.

  6. Welborn’s ten bullet points were disgusting to read because they are so true. I recall in my then home parish, the pastor, who affected a kind of conservative demeanor, systematically destroyed reverence for the Blessed Sacrament over the course of a year, in a step by step process, too depressing to recount now.

  7. Ms. Welborn might also have included what happened in seminaries the 60s and 70s and how such progressive “formation”, in those days widely cheered as by the popular culture and not a few Catholics, blew up in the Church’s face in subsequent decades.

  8. There are none more rigid than modernist boomer Catholics. Unfortunately that includes Bergoglio and the majority of bishops, priests, and religious. Women of that age are by far the worst, in my experience (cue the outrage). But, the proof is there for those who have the eyes to see.

  9. I have vague memories of the Latin mass and was very small when the changes happened. What I DO recall vividly is that our church had a magnificent wall to wall mural over the altar of the Last Supper, done in traditional style with larger than life size figures.Just beautiful. In the “updating” of our church it was covered over with gold glitter wallpaper. How anyone imagined that this was supposed to inspire any personal spiritually remains to be seen. What was happening was secularization. That the priests and religious left in droves, as did the parishioners, speaks for itself. Then cue the massive sex abuse scandal, most of which happened in post vatican II times it would appear. Because of course, you are now held accountable to nobody regarding your actions. Not even to God, evidently. Sin is all but an unknown concept and even most priests do not preach it from the pulpit, maybe because they dont believe in it themselves. ( A survey from a few years ago showed that most priests go to confession “seldom to NEVER”!!) None of this helped the church in its mission in any way. Francis seems highly secular in his orientation, hence his constant critical view of US immigration policy regarding illegal immigrants. I respect his position as best I can , but he lost me when he allowed the Amazonian idol onto vatican grounds. That was wrong and offensive, flat out. The Pope that replaces Francis at some point will decide by his actions if the church will survive, or perish by continuing down this secular road.

  10. I and my family attended the Latin Mass for years in the early 90’s, and it was a very hate filled parish. They basically believed all other Catholics were in sin and on their merry way to hell because they did not attend the TLM and that the pope (Pope John Paul II) was Satan himself. I hated it but others in the family believed in it hook line and sinker.
    We found out eventually that the priest wasn’t even a priest, he had been laicized in California because of sexual perversion with children and was acting outside the the archdiocese.

    We went back to our regular parish and after the kids were grown I worked for a Latin Mass group (Fully approved FSSP) and funnily enough, I saw that same disdain for Novus ordo Catholics. The way they talk of N.O. Catholic’s is decidedly un-Catholic and hateful.
    And now watching EWNT become a Fox News mouthpiece, seriously make me question the reason that people really go to TLM. Do they really go for the beauty of the Mass or is it just the feeling of superiority?
    I see what the Pope is trying fix, and while I don’t know if he’s going about it the right way, I do believe he is our Pope, and as Pope he deserves respect. Bergoglio? That’s Pope Frances.

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