Undercutting Vatican II to defend Vatican II?

Archbishop Roche’s instructions, issued with Pope Francis’s approval, seem to strip local bishops of considerable authority over diocesan liturgical life, to the point of descending into minutiae.

Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Archbishop Arthur Roche, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, recently sent the world’s bishops instructions regulating local usage of the Traditional Latin Mass. Those instructions were intended to implement Pope Francis’s 2021 motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition), which strictly limited the celebration of Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal.  Traditionis Custodes presented itself as a defense of the authority and integrity of the Second Vatican Council — which, it was claimed, was under assault from liturgical traditionalists. In several interviews, Archbishop Roche has emphasized that defending the Council was the rationale for both Traditionis Custodes and his congregation’s detailed regulations.

It is worth asking, however, whether Archbishop Roche’s instructions drastically undercut one of Vatican II’s principal achievements, which was to emphasize and revitalize the authority of the local bishop.

In addition to defining the pope’s infallibility when he teaches on faith and morals under carefully defined circumstances, the First Vatican Council taught that the Roman Pontiff has a “primacy of jurisdiction” that extends to the discipline and governance of the Church throughout the world. This “primacy of jurisdiction” is often understood as the high-water mark of “ultramontanism,” the heightened emphasis on supreme papal authority that led enthusiasts like mid-19th century English Catholic publicist W.G. Ward to say that he would “like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast.”

As Russell Hittinger has persuasively argued, however, Vatican I’s teaching on the universal jurisdiction of the pope was primarily a response to the modern state’s attempt to subordinate the Church by controlling the bishops. No, said Vatican I: the bishops belong to the Church, not the state, and the universal jurisdiction of the pope is a guarantor of that truth.

Thanks to the Franco-Prussian War, Vatican I ended prematurely, without complementing its teaching on papal authority with a parallel teaching on the authority of bishops. And so, over the next nine decades, an assumed ultramontanism shaped the Catholic imagination: a pyramidal notion of the Church in which the pope, the apex of the pyramid, was considered the Chief Executive Officer of a gigantic global corporation, the bishops being the local office managers. In that image of the Church, all initiative flowed from the top down, and initiatives from the lower levels of the pyramid were discouraged.

Something was wrong here and it had to be fixed. The Second Vatican Council did so.

As no less an authority than Joseph Ratzinger wrote, a decade and a half after the Council, Vatican II “reinserted into the Church as a whole a doctrine of [papal] primacy that was dangerously isolated,” thereby correcting the imbalance in Catholic self-understanding caused in part by Vatican I’s suspension in 1870. Vatican II did this in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church by teaching that the local bishop is a true vicar of Christ with authority to teach, sanctify and govern in his local Church.

Thus, according to the definitive teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the local bishop is no branch manager of Catholicism, Inc., merely executing instructions from Roman headquarters. He has far more authority, and bears far more responsibility, than that.

Yet even when ultramontanism dominated the pre-conciliar Catholic imagination, no one imagined the pope exercising his “universal jurisdiction” by determining the times of Sunday Mass in the parishes of Diocese X, or by moving Pastor A to Parish D in Diocese Y. Papal “universal jurisdiction” was understood to be an extraordinary power, to be exercised locally only when no other remedies were available. Vatican II, for its part, positioned papal primacy inside a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of authority within the Church, thus refuting the charge — typically heard from anti-Catholic quarters — that Catholics consider the pope both an autocrat who can do whatever he pleases and an oracle whose every utterance bears the teaching authority of the Office of Peter.

Archbishop Roche’s instructions, issued with Pope Francis’s approval, seem to strip local bishops of considerable authority over diocesan liturgical life, to the point of descending into minutiae by defining which Mass schedules may be printed in parish bulletins. The irony is that such overbearing micro-management comes perilously close to undercutting the teaching on episcopal authority laid down by the very council Traditionis Custodes and Archbishop Roche claim to defend.

Beyond the ironies in this particular fire, though, one must hope that such goings-on do not tarnish one of Vatican II’s great accomplishments, in aid of a new progressive Catholic ultramontanism that, having failed to persuade, now opts to exercise the clenched fist.

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About George Weigel 429 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. I thought that ol’ Arthur’s last name was pronounced as Roche. Although I must admit Mr. Weigel’s spelling of his surname is far more appropriate.

  2. It seems Vatican II can be used to justify just about anything anyone wants to justify. It’s like silly puddy that can be shaped into whatever form you want it to take. Look at the bishops in Ontario Canada who just used Vatican II to give them cover for going along with the government and restricting Mass attendance to only those who are fully vaccinated! Talk about a bunch of cowards. They went to great lengths to justify their lack of defense against government tyranny into Catholic practice and worship.

    • “It seems Vatican II can be used to justify just about anything anyone wants to justify.” Indeed! A few decades ago, Dr Alan Schreck wrote a book examining each of the documents of Vatican II. He explained that he wrote the book because people who use the phrase “in the spirit of Vatican II” (for example, to justify why they celebrate the Mass a certain way) have no idea what the “spirit of Vatican II” actually is — because they have never read any of the documents that came from it.

  3. I can’t really disagree with the historical thrust of this article, but I have to say that my confidence in the local bishop as “true vicar of Christ with authority to teach, sanctify, and govern in his local church” is no stronger than my confidence in the current pope to do the same. And that confidence is very low.

  4. I got the impression from some early reporting on Pope Francis’ new restrictions on Latin Masses in parishes that he acted in part after many bishops themselves asked for them, at least the majority of the bishops who may have been consulted expressed their opinion. If accurate, this suggests that bishops themselves asked the pope to give them the papal cover to do what they were afraid to do themselves.

    • I can understand why you got that impression. Unfortunately the Holy Father decided not to release the results of the survey that supposedly called for all this – something that has often been done in the past. The Vatican simply stated that the results were so alarming that he felt he had to take draconian actions. In point of fact there has been wide reporting that the majority of bishops responded that Summorum was going along quite nicely in their dioceses. Pope Francis could tamp down the criticism were he to simply be transparent – that is if the survey results actually support the actions

      Regardless, what he has done is unjust. And therefore it is wrong.

    • Not quite. My steel-trap (!) memory is that there was no such request, but instead a survey.

      And, that only 30 percent of those “surveyed” actually responded. And, that of the 30 percent, fully half were not averse, or even spoke well of the Latin Mass. So, some 15 percent of the total bishops ended up driving this awkward thing. Four points:

      FIRST, my guess is that the survey was posted on the websites of the national bishops’ conferences, a site probably not regularly or thoroughly visited by bishops busy enough with their own internal affairs. Some later reported that they had never even seen the survey.

      SECOND, another related issue: Roche’s undercutting of Vatican II and of the bishops is also at odds with even Traditionis Custodes (TD), itself! TC maintains that each individual bishop has “exclusive” authority within his diocese (an insert required by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was consulted before the survey was released?).

      THIRD, a Question: What, in fact, is a national bishops’ conference? Answer: not much more than an administrative convenience to each and all bishops: Apostolos Suos (On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences, 1998):https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/motu_proprio/documents/hf_jp-ii_motu-proprio_22071998_apostolos-suos.html

      FOURTH, did the (subordinate) conferences, then, simply fail to directly contact their bishop “members”? Perhaps both the Latin Mass followers and the Church as a whole (!) have been victimized by a problem which is not ecclesial at all?

      The novelist Honore de Balzac diagnosed this novel situation quite well: “A bureaucracy is a giant machine handled by pygmies.”

      CONCLUSION: in Cardinal Roche and the conferences, is the global clericalism thing now acted out in full daylight?

      If some of the blindsided Latin Mass following—like the rest of us—would simply benefit from a re-presentation of the real Vatican II of the Documents (not the presumptive and virtual Vatican II of Hans Kung’s press coverage in 1965), better late than never!

      Maybe even with the Holy Spirit working also through the successors of the apostles (!) at their respective synods? “Listening,” yes, but why not in both directions?

      • Re bureaucracy. Karl Marx himself understood them. Does the Vatican have wisdom enough to attend to truth whatever its source? Is the Vatican able to “listen”?

        “The bureaucracy….is a hierarchy of knowledge. The top entrusts the understanding of detail to the lower levels, whilst the lower levels credit the top with understanding of the general, and so all are mutually deceived.”

        This too: “Bureaucracies, I’ve suggested, are not themselves forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing stupidity….”
        ― David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

      • Peter, the liberals ditched Vatican II pretty quickly. In the 1980s it was taught that V2 was superceded by post-conciliar documents in seminary. The liberals were literally re-hashing what “the spirit of Vatican 2” said as they were demantling the sanctuaries and just about everything else. The Church was sent into a Marxist auto-destruct mode. There was no programme for reconstructing… As always, Freemasonry’s end is the death of Catholicism. Period.

  5. Descending into minutiae is similar to Pope Francis’ unhappy habit of commenting on all sorts of issues. After a while, like the story of the boy who constantly cried “Wolf,” fewer people will be paying attention.

  6. A comprehensive well defined presentation of apostolic authority explicit in the repudiation of ultramontanism. Although, since Vat II the issue has digressed, apart from resolving ultramontanism both in apostolic practice and as a malformed belief among the faithful to a deficiency in coherence of the unique papal magisterium and that of the bishop.
    That seemed evident during the pontificate of Paul VI, less so though still apparent during the successive pontificates. From this writer’s perspective we have a reemergence of ultramontanism, perhaps not oddly when among both progressives and traditionalists. Comments make that clear when apparent conservatives will support anything, that is, other than formal pronouncement issuing from the pontiff whether orthodox or perceivably heterodox. Likewise progressives will seize on presumed support of their liberal views [virtually only when presumed in support otherwise they express disappointment] from papal utterances during flight interviews or during a Santa Marta sermon.
    Is this a perpetrated ultramontanism Francis style? If we take notice, orthodox [and of course progressive] acceptance of Francis’ utterances are never impugned by His Holiness, rather only when those traditionalists, orthodox persons complain.

    • Yes, many of us are very guilty, and yes, many of us learn well at the knee of teachers in whom we’ve perhaps mis/placed trust.

      There does arrive a point where some master’s lessons are so well learned, the pupil regards further teaching as of little value, squeezing it only like lemons for lemonade. Or as the prisoner learns from his guard in order to escape and free himself.

    • Indeed he did. As did I and many others. The Lord is always at work. He utilizes the good and the evil to bring about his will. Of course I’m no authority, but I think the Lord is using Francis as a means to show us how wrong ultramontanism is. The problem isn’t so much the law (although that’s an aspect), it’s the understanding in the hearts of average Catholics that needs conversion. It’s very painful – but then again that’s often the case with spiritual pruning and growth.

      • Yes! “…the Lord is using Francis as a means to show us how wrong” we can be when we indiscriminately trust men more than God.

        BTW, does your character incline more to Dmitri, Ivan, or Alexai, or Fyodor?

  7. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Unfortunately there too many bishops who confuse nationalism as part of Church doctrine by adding politics to the pulpit.

    • Actually, nationalism, as legitimate patriotism, properly understood, and as one of the permutations of subsidiarity, is Catholic doctrine, whereas, globalism, encouraged by today’s pontificate, is diametrically opposed.

  8. “Archbishop Roche’s instructions, issued with Pope Francis’s approval, seem to strip local bishops of considerable authority over diocesan liturgical life …”

    I’ve read TC and the CDWDS letter. Mr Weigel is peddling fake news. SP stripped authority from bishops to moderate the liturgy of their dioceses and put it squarely in the hands of priests who were, from 2007 onward, free to do as they pleased.

    The CDWDS letter answers questions. The only consultative point in TC is that a bishop must apply to Rome for permission for clergy to use the old Missal. Perhaps it is yet to be seen that bishops will get a negative response from Rome, so Mr Weigel’s premise here is yet to be determined.

    In the old days, you had to go to Rome to receive absolution for an abortion, to have a priest laicized, the so-called Petrine privilege, and many other things which may have been better resolved by a bishop. The complaint strikes me as convenient for people attached to the TLM, and rather a cafeteria approach to the role of the Vatican in moderating Church life and law.

    • I would suggest you need to read closer. TC and the CDW guidance has a number of areas that directly tie the hands of a bishop – unless he wants to get creative
      – No advertisement of TLM in the bulletin
      – TLM is not allowed in a parochial church
      – Severe limitations on celebrations of other sacraments in the traditional forms
      – no bination with the priest celebrating both forms
      – permission required for new priests to say the TLM

      Those are just the things off the top of my head. Every single one of them is a severe restriction upon the bishop of regulating the celebration of the sacraments in his diocese.

      • It has reverted to 1970: the old form of the Mass is being phased out. People who have been celebrating it need to be aware the curtain is falling. How that endgame plays out is in the hands of the local bishop. Keep in mind that SP was promulgated against the advice of many bishops–the reality is that individual priests were elevated to be personal liturgists. Traditionally, the local bishop is the chief liturgist of a diocese. TC was the result of a 14-year experiment which saw little to no healing of divisions, no enrichment of the TLM by the principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium, and a degree of congregationalism.

        Bishops had no input on the TLM from 2007 onward. They were bypassed.

        As for some monsignor in the Vatican, I suppose it’s important to recognize Arthur Roche is an archbishop. It seems curious that many Catholics like Rome when Rome agrees with them, but it is tyranny when they disagree.

        I’m not sad to see this development. Vatican II bishops authorized a significant change in the liturgy. Now we all have to go with it, but with an impressively wide array of styles: Latin, chant, and vestments to the vernacular, other musical genres, and an emphasis on participation. It should be enough.

    • The logical solution then would be to allow the local Bishop to decide , the man who should be aware of the scene on the ground and not some monsignor in the Vatican?

    • Your analysis is fundamentally flawed. I have spoken to many young priests and seminarians who either favor or are sympathetic to the traditional Latin Mass (by they way, they are representative of a decisive majority of their respective cohorts). Almost every one is receptive to the idea of the organic development of the TLM and that the best elements of the OF can be incorporated into the EF over time without harming the integrity of the Mass of the Ages. The premature approval of the Novus Ordo as the OF has frozen that natural development. Pope Benedict XVI opened the door for a gradual harmonization, but the resistance of Old Guard Revolutionaries who have never acted in good faith stymied “the experiment”. Thus, your conclusions about the results of said experiment are invalid. Young priests and seminarians see through the hypocrisy of a pope who preaches dialog but is incapable of it, consulting only with the haters, not those of among the faithful who will be most affected by his liturgical diktats. Lack of transparency, lies, and rigidity on the part of its proponents will doom the reception of Traditiones custodes. Irresponsible priests and prelates who defend TC unconditionally but place obstacles in the way of more reverent expressions of the Novus Ordo are seen as the problem, not the TLM. This is why even conservatives who are otherwise fine with the OF are rising up against Pope Francis. Unwise and impatient are the most charitable assessments possible for the bad fruit of his ideological leadership.

  9. This article brings up a point that I had been thinking about. That is how many disputes have arisen over the implementation of Vatican II. Vatican II closed in 1965, but a new catechism wasn’t released until 1992. The dispute between the hermenutic of rupture and the hermenutic of continuity is a breakdown into factionalism. Post Vatican II there was rebellion taking place in the religious orders. You had the issuance of the 1967 Land ‘O Lakes statement, which was Catholic education’s Henry VIII moment. Then there were the responses to Humanae Vitae and clerical abuse. Things like this can cause the perception of a power vacuum where everything is up for grabs.
    The legacy of Vatican II has been under questionable stewardship. To me the “spirit of Vatican II” looks like DIY Catholicism. The “spirit of Vatican II” advocates have done their part to sow division in the Church. With friends like these who needs enemies?

    • The proper juxtaposition is not between rupture and continuity, implying wrongly that the old mass is of continuity and the new mass is of rupture. BXVI clarified this out in his December 2012 address to the Curia, that the correct juxtaposition is between rupture and reform. The new mass is one of reform which contains elements of both continuity and innovation.

      • I go by what I read in Catholic media. There have been so many slipshod claims made in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II” that it makes the Church look like a bad cross between a high pressure boiler-room telemarking operation and the worst excesses of Wall Street scams. The “spirit of Vatican II” looks to be that of Enron, WorldCom, and Bernie Madoff. To me the Church is in dire need of a spiritual audit. How can there be honest evangelism under such circumstances?

        • Archange, you’re correct. A lot of misinterpretation regarding the new mass is being deceptively promoted by lovers of the old mass. This is about their trumpeted view that the new mass is one of rupture when in fact it is one of reform. The bishops at Vatican II and all the popes during and after it are holding that this reformed mass is not of discontinuity as it incorporates both continuity and innovation. The adherents of the old mass are made to wrongly think that the new mass is of discontinuity. It’s time this is corrected.

      • By all means, if you wish the church to keep losing members into the tens of millions, then believe nothing was wrong with the council. Keep pushing the idea that a pastoral thing was good for the church. Fact is the council wasn’t necessary then and most certainly not good at all in today’s world.

  10. Why didn’t the Pope include in the synodal process the Summorum Pontificum questionnaire (or at least some of its nine related questions which certainly could have been answered by the laity) about the Latin Mass and its benefits or injuries ? Why did he not allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us about the Latin Mass liturgical life and expression so as to include its voices in the process of “journeying-together”? It as if the the new synodal Church said – “now that we have blocked off this renewed path, let us set out together on a renewed path”, at a time when it claims to have needed a synod to determine what a new synodal Church will even look like.

    • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: “Cat: Where are you going? Alice: Which way should I go? Cat: That depends on where you are going. Alice: I don’t know. Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

      Is the agenda to replace the living Church as we have known it for two millennia, with the an invertebrate and vagabond “endless journey”? It’s one thing go initiate a synod, quite another to keep rhapsodizing that block-party synods are the very structure of the apostolic Church.

      • “Is the agenda to replace the living Church as we have known it for two millennia, with the an invertebrate and vagabond ‘endless journey’?”

        That’s not a bad thing. One of the lines in the Salve Regina that strikes me is the appeal to Mary that “after this our exile …” A pilgrimage is a good remedy for staying in one place for too long.

        • A Catholic, minimally catechized, should know who causes the Church to “live.” Hint: It is not the pope.

          Any inference, then, that “That’s not a bad thing.” [to replace the living Church] univocally implies the death of God.

          Got an Edit Button? Want one?

  11. Cardinal Burke brings much needed clarity.

    From my part I can just add that we need to be wary of a jumping to papal infallibility and preeminence all the time and in everything -and, worse, in a way that shuts down what is good. And perhaps we can take a bit of counsel from Proverbs, on the counsel of many, Prov. 20:28, Prov. 15:22.


  12. The “intentional apostasy” is the observation of Fr. Robert Imbelli, in his essay “No Decapitated Body,” in the journal Nova et Vetera, readily available on line.

  13. And so…. Pope Francis continues to work the primary mission of his papacy: helping papolators recover authentically Catholic sensibilities. Better late than never, Mr. Weigel.

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