Consider two groups of Catholics: First, divorced Catholics who disobey the Church’s teaching by forming a “new union” in which they are sexually active, thereby committing adultery. And second, traditionalist Catholics attached to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (i.e. the “Latin Mass”), some of whom (but by no means all) hold erroneous theological opinions about the Second Vatican Council and related matters. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis radically altered the Church’s liturgical practice in order to accommodate the former group. And in Traditionis Custodes, he has now radically altered the Church’s liturgical practice in order to punish the latter group.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter famously portrays an unmerciful society in which adulterers are forced to mark themselves off from others by wearing a scarlet A on their clothing. Pope Francis clearly would disapprove of such cruelty, and rightly so. Yet the cruel treatment of the community of those attached to the old form of the Mass – the innocent majority of them no less than the minority with problematic theological opinions – amounts to something analogous to the affixing on them of a scarlet letter: the letter T for “traditionalist,” the one group to which the pope’s oft-repeated calls for mercy and accompaniment appear not to apply.
Let us consider just how radical each of these papal moves is. The Church has consistently taught that a valid sacramental marriage does not end until the death of one of the spouses, and has condemned as gravely sinful any sexual relationship with anyone except one’s spouse. Hence those in such a marriage who divorce a spouse and then form a sexual relationship with someone else are guilty of grave sin, and cannot be absolved in confession without a firm resolution not to continue the sexual relationship. This is grounded in Christ’s teaching on marriage and divorce in passages like Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12.
The gravity of this teaching cannot possibly be overstated. Christ acknowledges that “Moses allowed” for divorce. But then he declares: “And I say to you” that divorce is forbidden. Now, the law of Moses was given to Moses by God himself. So who has the authority to override it? Who would have the audacity to declare: “Moses allowed” such-and-such but “I say” differently? Only God himself. Christ’s teaching against divorce is therefore nothing less than a mark of his very divinity. To put ourselves in opposition to that teaching would thus implicitly be either to deny Christ’s divinity or, blasphemously, to put our authority above even his. It would be to declare: “Christ said such-and-such, but I say differently.” Absolutely no one other than God himself, not even a pope (whose mandate is precisely only ever to safeguard Christ’s teaching), has the right to do that.
If the teaching in question sounds “rigid,” blame Christ. His own disciples thought it so, going so far as to opine that if that is how things are, it would be better not to marry (Matthew 19:10).
Now, no Catholic in a state of mortal sin is permitted to receive Holy Communion until he is validly absolved in confession. And no Catholic can be validly absolved who is aware of the Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce, violates that teaching by having a sexual relationship with someone other than his spouse, and refuses to end this sexual relationship. Hence no Catholic who refuses to end such a relationship is permitted to receive Holy Communion.
This teaching too is extremely grave, grounded as it also is in scripture, specifically in the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11: 27-29. According to St. Paul’s teaching, to take Holy Communion while refusing to end such a sexual relationship is nothing less than to profane Christ’s very body and blood and therefore to bring judgment upon oneself.
These doctrines are as clear, consistent, and authoritative as any Catholic teaching is or could possibly be. They are as ancient as the Church herself, are presented by her as infallible and absolutely binding, and have been unambiguously reiterated again and again and again. This is, of course, why Amoris Laetitia was so controversial. For it seems to allow that, in at least some circumstances, those who refuse to stop engaging in adulterous sexual activity can nevertheless take Holy Communion. To be sure, Pope Francis has not explicitly rejected any of the teachings summarized above. But he has also notoriously refused requests from several of his own cardinals (in the famous “dubia”) explicitly to reaffirm that traditional teaching, and thereby decisively put to rest any worries about the consistency of Amoris with that teaching.
That the Holy Father himself is aware of how grave the issue is, and has even had his conscience troubled by it, is evident from a conversation recounted by one of his defenders, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. Crux magazine (not exactly a traditionalist outlet) reported:
Schönborn revealed that when he met the Pope shortly after the presentation of Amoris, Francis thanked him, and asked him if the document was orthodox.
“I said, ‘Holy Father, it is fully orthodox’,” Schönborn told us he told the pope, adding that a few days later he received from Francis a little note that said: “Thank you for that word. That gave me comfort.”
End quote. Note that the pope himself had at least some doubt about the document’s orthodoxy – enough that he took “comfort” in being reassured about it – even after it had already been finalized and published!
My point here is not to rehearse all the details of the controversy over Amoris. The point is simply to note the extreme lengths to which the pope was willing to go to try to accommodate the weaknesses even of those who obstinately refuse to obey the teaching of Christ and St. Paul. Even if you think Amoris itself does not cross the line of heterodoxy with regard to that teaching, it cannot be denied that the document is extremely gentle with and accommodating to those who do cross it.
The contrast with the treatment of traditionalist Catholics in Traditionis Custodes could not be more stark. Note first that, in the accompanying letter explaining his decision, Pope Francis claims that attachment to the old form of the Mass “is often characterized by a rejection… of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’”
The first thing to say about this is that, even if it is true that some people attached to the old form have this attitude, it is by no means true that all of them do. On the contrary, as Pope Francis himself notes in the same document, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI affirmed that many who are attached to the old form “clearly accepted the binding character of Vatican Council II and were faithful to the Pope and to the Bishops.” All the same, Pope Francis’s severe restriction of the old form of the Mass punishes these innocent Catholics along with the guilty.
Secondly, we need to consider the precise nature of the purported heterodoxy and/or schismatic tendencies of which some of these traditionalists are accused. There are, of course, some extreme traditionalists who deny that we have had a valid pope for decades (namely the sedevacantists), and others who are in some less radical way in imperfect communion with the pope (such as the SSPX). But precisely because they are not in regular communion, the errors of these groups are irrelevant to the intended audience of Traditionis Custodes – namely, traditionalist Catholics who are in regular communion with the pope (such as the FSSP, and attendees at Extraordinary Form Masses offered at ordinary diocesan parishes).
By definition, the latter groups are not in schism. And though there are no doubt some among this small group within the Church who might nevertheless be said in some sense to have a “schismatic mentality,” the same is true of the untold millions of liberal Catholics who casually dismiss the pope’s authority to tell them what to believe or how to act – including the adulterous Catholics the pope accommodated in Amoris. Clearly, the pope feels no urgency about dealing with the schismatic mentality among countless liberals. So, why the urgency in dealing with the schismatic mentality of a small number of traditionalists?
Then there is the question of what it means exactly to “reject” Vatican II. Typically, with those traditionalists who are in full communion with the pope, what this means is that they reject some particular teaching of the Council, such as its teaching about religious liberty. Now, I disagree with those who reject that teaching. My view is that Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty can and should be reconciled with the teaching of the pre-Vatican II popes on the subject. (My favored way of doing so is the one developed by Thomas Pink.) But for one thing, the teaching of Vatican II on this subject is not one that has been proposed infallibly (even if, of course, that does not entail that we do not owe it assent); and for another, how exactly to interpret it in light of traditional teaching has been a matter of controversy among theologians faithful to the Magisterium. So, if the pope is going to be gentle and accommodating with those who obstinately defy the ancient and infallible teaching of Christ and St. Paul on marriage and Holy Communion, then how can he reasonably be less gentle and accommodating with those who have problems with a non-infallible teaching that is only a little over fifty years old?
So, the offense of which the traditionalists to whom Traditionis Custodes is addressed are accused is (a) not one of which all of them are guilty, and (b) manifestly less grave than that of Catholics who reject the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and Holy Communion. Yet those who reject that teaching are shown mercy, whereas traditionalists, the innocent as well as the guilty, are shown harshness.
And the punishment is very harsh. The pope aims to banish the Extraordinary Form of the Mass from ordinary parish communities, to restrict future ordinations of priests interested in celebrating it, and effectively to quarantine from the rest of the Church those communities which are still permitted to use the old form of the Mass until such time as they are prepared to adopt the new form. As Cardinal Gerhard Müller observes, “the clear intent is to condemn the Extraordinary Form to extinction in the long run.” The pope is essentially telling traditionalist Catholics attached to the old form of the Mass that as individuals they are suspect, and as a group they are slated eventually to disappear. As Cardinal Müller writes:
Without the slightest empathy, one ignores the religious feelings of the (often young) participants in the Masses according to the [old] Missal… Instead of appreciating the smell of the sheep, the shepherd here hits them hard with his crook. It also seems simply unjust to abolish celebrations of the “old” rite just because it attracts some problematic people: abusus non tollit usum.
This is bad enough when the harm done to traditionalists alone is considered. But it is the whole Church that suffers from this decision, not just traditionalists. For one thing, Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that the preservation of the Extraordinary Form was by no means a matter merely of catering to the needs of a certain group within the Church. Rather, it had to do with reestablishing the connection of the Church as a whole with her own past in the liturgical context. That is why, though Benedict too hoped that there would in the future be only a single form of the Mass, he wanted the old form to exert an influence on the new no less than the new would exert influence on modifying the old. This was part of Benedict’s general insistence on a “hermeneutic of continuity.” Traditionis Custodes shows no sensitivity whatsoever to this dimension of the issue.
For another thing, while the pope says that he took this decision in order to foster greater unity in the Church, it is manifestly likely to foster instead only greater disunity. That is inevitable in any family when a father shows a double standard toward his children. Indeed, it is precisely this double standard, and not the old form of the Mass, that has generated the disunity of recent years. What has done more to lead some traditionalists to question Pope Francis’s orthodoxy? The fact that they hear the Latin Mass every week? Or Amoris Laetitia and the pope’s refusal to answer the dubia? To ask the question is to answer it. Traditionis Custodes will not put out the fire Amoris started. If anything, it will pour gasoline on it.
He is still the Holy Father
Some will say that the pope is merely acting like the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The resentful older son in the parable, on this interpretation, represents traditionalists, whereas the prodigal son represents Catholics who do not obey the Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce.
But the analogy is ridiculous. For one thing, the prodigal son in the parable repents and explicitly declines special accommodation. He does not say “I intend to keep living an immoral life, but I demand some of that fattened calf anyway.” For another, the father does not treat the older son at all harshly, but rather gently reassures him that he loves him no less than he loves the prodigal son.
All the same, the pope is, when all is said and done, a father – indeed, he is still the Holy Father of all Catholics, traditionalists included. And while the Church permits criticism of popes under certain circumstances, this cannot properly be done except with humility, respect, and restraint. The pope is not some politician or corporate executive whom we might see fit to mock or to fire or vote out of office. He is the vicar of Christ, and he has no superior on earth. We may respectfully urge him to reconsider some course of action, but if he refuses, then we have to leave it to Christ to resolve the problem in the manner and at the time he chooses.
Moreover, because he is the pope, we must in this case even more than in any other follow Christ’s command to turn the other cheek and pray for those who harm us. We must be willing to embrace the suffering this entails and to offer it up for others – including for Pope Francis himself.
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the author’s blog and is reposted here with his kind permission.)
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