Pope Francis new motu proprio on the traditional liturgy of the Roman Rite is, as so many commentators have already observed, a shockingly draconian exercise of papal authority, one that strikes at the heart of the spiritual life for millions of Catholics. In effect, the pope is seeking to exclude from parish churches – and ultimately to eliminate – a liturgical usage that has defined the religious culture of Catholics for centuries, a tradition stretching back in an organic continuum to the earliest days of the Church. If Pope Benedict’s own motu proprio Summorum pontificum is to be taken seriously, the legal validity of such a move would seem to be inadmissible, and many bishops appear to be dumbfounded by its implications.
But this strange document, so filled with contradictions and unanswered questions, is no less shocking for its self-defeating nature. It appears to be designed to achieve precisely the opposite of its stated goals, principally the defense of the Second Vatican Council. It seems that after so many years of suspicion regarding Pope Francis’ ultimate agenda, he has finally shown his hand, and his hand is nothing less than a souped-up version of the “hermeneutic of rupture” that unleashed chaos in the Church during the 1960s and 70s, and has continued to undermine the credibility of Vatican II since the council’s completion in 1965.
In 1988, the then-cardinal Josef Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, lamented this interpretation of Vatican II and identified it as the source of the conflict that had led to the scandalous ordination of bishops by Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre that same year. In a speech to the bishops of Chile, Ratzinger claimed that cause of the break was found in a false understanding of the council that treated it like a revolutionary rejection of the historic faith, rather than an application of perennial teaching in the context of contemporary society.
“Certainly there is a mentality of narrow views that isolate Vatican II and which has provoked this opposition [of Archbishop Lefevbre],” Ratzinger told the bishops of Chile. “There are many accounts of it which give the impression that, from Vatican II onward, everything has been changed, and that what preceded it has no value or, at best, has value only in the light of Vatican II.”
“The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero,” said Ratzinger. “The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.”
Ratzinger told the bishops that the free-for-all innovations in the Latin rite, together with the prohibition of traditional liturgical forms, had given force to criticisms of Vatican II, adding, “That which previously was considered most holy — the form in which the liturgy was handed down — suddenly appears as the most forbidden of all things, the one thing that can safely be prohibited.”
Cardinal Ratzinger understood quite well that people were taking refuge in the 1962 missal because they saw it as a bulwark against the ambiguities and liturgical chaos that were unleashed during the liturgical reform of the late 1960s, a reform that is increasingly seen today as inconsistent with the intentions of Vatican II itself.
“While there are many motives that might have led a great number of people to seek a refuge in the traditional liturgy, the chief one is that they find the dignity of the sacred preserved there,” Ratzinger told the Chilean bishops, adding that the liturgical reform had been used as a vehicle for a program of what he called “desacralization,” the elimination of the sense of the sacred from the sacramental life of the Church.
Pope Benedict’s decision to do away with earlier restrictions on the traditional mass was made in part to help reverse this desacralizing tendency in the liturgy, but also to counteract the false narrative that the Church intended to repudiate its own history with Vatican II. The council did not intend to bring a new, distinct church into being, as the “hermeneutic of rupture” assumed, and therefore its ancient liturgical traditions could be preserved without any violence being done to the council’s true agenda.
There was no conflict between the old and the new, according to Ratzinger, and later Pope Bendict XVI. The heremenutic of rupture was a false one, and the true interpretive lens was a “hermeneutic of continuity” with the past. Proving this by eliminating most restrictions on the missal of 1962 and acknowledging its legitimacy was a major element in his effort to place Vatican II within the continuum of Catholic tradition. Pope Benedict expressed his hope that the old and new usages would gradually enrich each other, to the benefit of the whole Church.
Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis custodes and its accompanying explanatory letter appears to be seeking to restore the very same state of affairs that Cardinal Ratzinger was addressing in 1988. Until that year, Catholics who wished to participate in the more ancient usage or “usus antiquior” of the Roman rite were excluded from the parish churches, and could only celebrate at irregular times with the permission of their bishop. The papal indult that outlined this system was first issued by Pope Paul VI in 1974 for the United Kingdom only, and then was expanded ten years later by Pope John Paul II to apply to all Latin rite dioceses worldwide.
This restricted permission to use the traditional liturgy provided useful evidence that the usus antiquior of the Roman rite had never been eliminated from the Church, but also indicated to traditionalists that the ancient usage was seen as dangerous for the post-Vatican II regime, so much so that it had to be contained and isolated from the rest of the Church. Traditionalists and their liturgy were in effect placed in a quarantine, as if they were somehow ill and dangerously contagious, or perhaps a second class of ecclesiastical citizen in a system of liturgical segregation.
Pope John Paul II wisely brought this system to an end in 1988, by urging diocesan bishops to accommodate lay groups that preferred the ancient usage and by lifting the prohibition of the liturgy in parish churches. A Vatican dicastery was created, the Pontifical Ecclesia Dei Commission, to provide for the needs of liturgical traditionalists and to provide mediation with the Holy See and the bishops. Eventually, in an attempt to integrate traditionalists further into the life of the institutional Church and even to promote the use of the ancient liturgical forms, Pope Benedict famously eliminated the need to obtain permission to celebrate according to the usus antiquior and mandated the Tridentine form of the rite be “duly honoured for its venerable and ancient usages.” The traditional liturgy was now on firmer canonical and theological ground.
The massive, global response to Summorum pontificum is well-documented, and its effects are clear to any careful observer. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and other orders in the Church stepped forward to prove that the traditional liturgy could exist and even thrive within the post-Vatican II Church, always in cooperation and with the permission of the diocesan bishop. Millions of Catholics became aware of the riches of the traditions of the Latin rite, and the perceived need for separatist solutions, such as those offered by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, was significantly reduced. The scandal of liturgical abuses, which had led so many away from the Church in preceding decades, was reduced by the counterexample provided by the traditional liturgical forms.
I can say from my own experience that Pope Benedict’s motu proprio, Summorum pontificum, had a tremendous effect in this regard in Mexico, where a large number of independent chapels, mostly led by sedevacantist clergy, had been offering some version of the ancient usage for decades. Now the traditional liturgy is offered at parish churches to Mexicans who identify with the liturgy of their ancestors, particularly the Cristeros, who gave their lives in defense of the Catholic faith in the 1920s and 30s. These traditional mass apostolates have flourished and have functioned in harmony with the institutional Church, and with its approval. They have not been sources of division, but profound sources of unity with the visible, institutional Church, a testimony to the continuity of the faith.
Pope Francis’ new motu proprio and accompanying letter place this whole policy in reverse, and seem to ignore the painful experience of the Church in the decades prior to 1988. In essence, the pope is claiming that the usus antiquior is so dangerous to the purposes of Vatican II that it must be placed back into its previous quarantine and ultimately eliminated entirely, in contradiction to Pope Benedict’s admonition in Summorum pontificum that “what earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” It is as if Francis has decided that Vatican II really does require the elimination of the Church’s traditional liturgical practices, as critics of the council have so long claimed.
Although Pope Francis decries deviations from the approved texts of the Novus Ordo Missae of Paul VI, he offers no recognition of the grave losses to the liturgical tradition of the Church that occurred following the council, even the loss of elements that Vatican II explicitly ordered to be conserved and promoted. He notably ignores the loss of liturgical Latin, Gregorian Chant, the silent canon, the ad orientem posture of the priest, and other generic elements that characterize the most profound elements of the Latin rite, and even mutatis mutandis, the Eastern rites. Although these elements can be used in the Novus Ordo, in practice they are almost never found there, and Catholics can encounter them almost exclusively in the pre-1969 liturgical books.
Now they are being told that this shelter from the liturgical storm is to be eliminated, in order to protect the reputation of Vatican II. How can this have any positive effect for the reputation of the council?
Pope Francis claims, without offering any specific proofs, 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.’” This begs the question: how can the usus antiquior be instrumentalized in this way if there is no conflict between Vatican II and the Church’s liturgical traditions? Shouldn’t it be a simple matter to prove that Vatican II never mandated the elimination of the traditional elements of the Roman rite? Indeed, it is, but by remaining silent about this, Pope Francis allows the opposite conclusion to stand, and only promotes the perception of a conflict between Vatican II and liturgical tradition.
The inevitable effect, insofar as this motu proprio is truly implemented, will be to drive liturgical traditionalists into the arms of groups, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, which expressly reject the authority of Vatican II and blame it for the liturgical revolution – status quo ante, if you will excuse the Latin. It will thus achieve the opposite of its stated purpose, and strangely almost seems designed to do so.
In his enthusiasm to eliminate the usus antiquior, the pope even seeks to downplay the fact that the Roman rite was never the only rite permitted in the Latin Church, and seems to treat liturgical diversity itself as a threat to the integral unity of the Church. In reality, both the Latin Rite and Eastern Rite churches have enjoyed a rich variety of liturgical practices from time immemorial. The pope’s ahistorical reasoning might have sinister overtones for Catholics who are integrated into the dozens of other rites that exist in the Eastern churches: if a single rite is necessary for unity in the Latin Church, why would this not be true of the Church as a whole?
Pope Benedict told us in 2007 that “there is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.” The best way to ensure this outcome, and to ensure true unity in the Church, is to protect the fullness of the historical Roman rite, and to show respect for what Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict called the “legitimate aspirations” of those who are attached to its traditions. Pope Francis’ new motu proprio will only undermine that intention.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!