The Vatican’s puzzling recipe for paralyzing gridlock

There is something quintessentially Roman and imperial about the way Pope Francis goes about governance.

Pope Francis speaks during his weekly general audience on Ash Wednesday Feb. 22, 2023. (Image: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Two wonky stories out of the Vatican in the space of a week may give casual observers more than ample occasion for head scratching. They may also give more than a passing impression that Pope Francis and his chief lieutenants in the Roman curia don’t really have a plan and are mostly reacting to developments.

One was a strange Motu proprio – that’s Latin for “on his own initiative” and is used to express the legal fiction that the pope is doing something without prompting – that declared all assets owned by curial departments or entities they control to be the property of the Holy See. That law didn’t really change anything or say anything that wasn’t – on paper, at least – already true.

The thing is, there are dozens of outfits – from big local Roman operations such as the papal basilicas to charitable arms, cultural associations, and other similar operations – that nominally belong to the Holy See and are therefore subject to papal control, but mostly operate without any real oversight.

The question is: Why would Pope Francis feel the need just now to remind everyone who’s boss?

One wonders whether there hasn’t been some squirrelly behavior in some department or other, some pushback against Vatican attempts to exercise control after many years of “salutary neglect” that gave people the impression they actually owned the stuff they had to hand.

Earlier this month, Francis made his special commissioner for St. Mary Major, one of the papal basilicas, appointed in the wake of persistent rumor regarding shady financial management (among other things) into a permanent position, even though he left in place the fellow nominally in charge of the basilica.

There is something quintessentially Roman and imperial about the way Francis goes about such things. Octavian Caesar, better known as Caesar Augustus, famously left the trappings of Rome’s old constitutional republican government in place, while slowly but surely accruing all real power to himself and effecting a careful balance of institutional, personal, strategic, and psychological pressures and interests to assure that real power would stay with the person of the emperor.

(Augustus was moderate, temperate, and mostly reasonable in his management of affairs and in his exercise of both power and authority. His immediate successor, Tiberius, was less so. Tiberius’s successor was a fellow called Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known to history by his childhood nickname, Caligula.)

The other curious act of governance was a rescript Francis granted to his liturgy czar, Cardinal Arthur Roche, who has been having some trouble corralling bishops apparently reluctant or even unwilling to implement Francis’s 2021 restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass.

Now, if you didn’t know the Traditional Latin Mass was still a going concern, you’re not alone. The number of Catholics devoted to the older forms of worship is miniscule. The number of Catholics more than vaguely aware that the Latin Mass is still – or once again – a thing in the life of the Church is vanishingly small.

That’s only one of the reasons many Vatican watchers were surprised when Francis, in July of 2021, basically uprooted and threw out his predecessor, Benedict XVI’s signature 2007 liturgical reform, which gave broad permission for priests to celebrate sacraments and other rites according to the liturgical books promulgated in 1962 by Pope John XXIII.

Folks devoted to the older rites have not had an easy time of it since Pope Paul VI replaced the old books wholesale in 1969. Pope Benedict’s decision in 2007 to extend broad permission to priests who were willing to celebrate the sacraments according to the older disposition went a long way toward bringing “traditionalists” back into the life of the Church.

There have been a few trouble spots, where die-hard traditionalists have tried to do things their way, torpedoes be damned. And there are pockets of zealous devotees who don’t care much for the Second Vatican Council or the liturgical reform that followed it. Some of them make lots of mostly unpleasant noise on the internet.

For the most part, however, Catholics who prefer the older forms have gone about their lives quietly. Since 2007, when Pope Benedict gave broad permission for the celebration of Mass and other rites in the older ways, traditional Catholics have slowly integrated into the life of normal Catholic parishes, or set up permanent digs in specially designated churches.

When Francis walked back Benedict’s liberalizing reform, he cited “defense of the unity of the Body of Christ,” as his motive, and said he was “constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors.”

He also said, “[I]t is up to the Bishop,” to regulate the liturgy and apply the new rules according to their best lights. “It is up to you,” Francis told the bishops, “to authorize in your Churches, as local Ordinaries, the use of the Missale Romanum of 1962, applying the norms of the present Motu proprio.”

Several bishops—especially, though not exclusively, in the United States—looked around their jurisdictions and saw relative peace. So, they granted permission for things to continue pretty much as they had been going. It seems Roche didn’t much like that, so he issued a series of clarifications around Christmas of 2021, ostensibly in response to queries he’d received from prelates regarding how they should behave.

Some bishops took Roche’s clarifications to heart. Others figured they were well within bounds in granting dispensations of their own accord—there was nothing in the pope’s 2021 law that said bishops had to ask permission and the pope had told the bishops it was up to them—and, in any case, the bishops had good reason to think they had Church law on their side.

In fact, more than a few legal eagles wondered whether Roche hadn’t overstepped his bounds when he told bishops to ask his office for permission before granting the kind of broad dispensations that left things largely as they had been. Roche really didn’t like that. It appears he liked people talking about it even less.

Roche took the extraordinary step of responding to some canonical speculation in that regard, telling the Where Peter Is blog, which had reached out to him for comment on a Feb. 10 analysis piece in The Pillar, “It is an absurdity to think that the prefect of a dicastery would do anything other than exercise the wishes of the Holy Father.”

“The article in The Pillar,” Roche said, “is not really an attack on me but on the pope’s authority.” He called the wonky analysis piece “an astonishing act full of hubris.”

A few days later, Roche was in to see the pope. A day after that, the Vatican press office released a new law, in the form of a papal rescript—a sort of ad hoc clarification quickly given—that confirmed Roche’s understanding of his powers and told the world’s bishops that they would have to come asking before granting broad permissions to traditional groups or the priests who care for them.

To be perfectly frank, this whole contretemps probably won’t make much difference on the ground. In nuts-and-bolts practical terms, it will take time for bishops to take stock of things and to draft the letters—if any write them at all—and more time for Roche’s small outfit to receive and consider them.

Then, there will be back-and-forth over plans to implement whatever orders come down from Roche’s office. It’s a safe bet that bishops who dispensed with alacrity will find it necessary to seek written permission from Rome for each minor detail and every miniscule adjustment of whatever plans eventually emerge.

Temporizing is another ancient Roman art, one that is mother’s milk to bishops everywhere.

“Reform on the go.” That is how veteran Vatican watcher Andrea Gagliarducci dubbed Pope Francis’s approach to reshaping the Vatican and the Church. That description is of a piece with what close papal advisor Antonio Spadaro SJ has called the pope’s “open and incomplete” leadership style, by which he means to say that Francis prefers to “start processes” rather than “occupy spaces” in his approach to things.

“If one has the answers to all the questions,” Pope Francis told Spadaro in a 2013 interview published in the Jesuit-run La Civiltà Cattolica, “that is the proof that God is not with him.”

Such an approach necessarily leads to processes of trial and error, which will sometimes seem, from the outside in, like taking two steps forward and three steps back. Willingness to walk that way may engender serious pastoral dynamism. When it comes to governance, on the other hand, it is frequently a recipe for paralyzing gridlock.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 239 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

32 Comments

  1. I have this to say about Francis’ suppression of the Mass prayed in Latin:

    When I have traveled to Germany and attended Mass, I could not understand one word of the Mass since I don’t speak German. I attended anyway.

    When I have traveled to France and attended Mass, I could not understand one word of the Mass since I don’t speak French. I attended anyway.

    When I have traveled to Poland and attended Mass, I could not understand one word of the Mass since I don’t speak Polish. I attended anyway.

    When I have traveled to the Czech Republic and attended Mass, I could not understand one word of the Mass since I don’t speak Czech. I attended anyway.

    When I have traveled to Spain and Portugal and attended Mass, I could not understand one word of the Mass since I don’t speak either Spanish or Portuguese. I attended anyway.

    So, tell me Vicar of Christ, what’s the problem with Catholics attending Mass when it’s prayed in Latin?

    • Not only that, but I live in an area where there are Byzantine parishes, of two different “brands” in fact (Ukrainian and Ruthenian), Maronite parishes, and even Melkites. All of these exist and, barring further developments, will continue to exist without harming the “unity” of the one true church. (Or might Francis have a yet unspoken problem with them???) This whole vendetta does not fully make sense even if unity is the true goal.

    • If it were prayed in Latin everywhere, folks would pick it up–and if they did not, then really it is there own issue (at least if one is an English speaker.) There are numerous resources out there, very user friendly, to learn ecclesial Latin, and they are not badly priced even when new (I personally think the best ones are at http://www.memoriapress_com).

      If funds are short, ask your local homeschooler (Catholic or Protestant) if there is a homeschool book sale coming up–they usually are in the Spring/Summer months. There are frequently books available.

      • Oh, my point being that then it would not matter what country one was in, everyone could understand–maybe not the homily or readings–but everything else.
        .
        (The readings one could follow along with the preferred Bible Ap. If a priest/parish secretary had time, they could type up a list of “bullet points” to the homily and offer that as a handout on the way in. This is not unusual in Protestant church. A person could put that through Google translate. Just a thought.)
        .

    • When circumstances force my travel to a Catholic parish which celebrates the Mass according to the Novus Ordo rite, I take my 1962 Latin Missal and immerse myself in that rite so as not to take offense at the travesties of innovation, irreverence and transmogrification of the Mass being said in modern vernacular. One could also add ear buds and tune in to a Latin Mass channel. Ah, the wonder and beauty of new technology mingled with the sacred ‘dead’ language in an old, printed book. 

  2. We read: “Then, there will be back-and-forth over plans to implement whatever orders come down from Roche’s office. It’s a safe bet that bishops who dispensed with alacrity will find it necessary to seek written permission from Rome for each minor detail and every miniscule adjustment of whatever plans eventually emerge.”

    Yours truly seems to remember that the disastrous Iran Hostage Crisis resulted from President Carter trying to manage every detail in the field from the central White House. That went well…the Archclericalist Roche ought to get out of the office more.

  3. I look around the world and say, “Boy, the world needs the Church here, and here, and here, etc.” Yet, we get synods about this and that, contretemps about things that aren’t even on most Catholics’ radar, clergy and laity resisting ugly regimes who get no apparent support from the Vatican, confusing or obtuse communications from many Church leaders. How does all this advance evangelization in a world that desperately needs it?

  4. Folks devoted to the older rites have not had an easy time of it since Pope Paul VI replaced the old books wholesale in 1969.

    By “Folks devoted” I assume you mean the roughly two-thirds of the faithful who stopped assisting at Mass once Paul’s contrived missal was imposed on them. (I realize Mass attendance figures started to dip in the late fifties; they plunged with the introduction of the new liturgy.)

  5. It should be apparent by now that the aim is to eliminate the TLM by attrition. Their reason is likely related to advancing a new, radical ecclesiology divested of tradition. As quoted, Card Roche says he’s simply carrying out orders. So, if there were to be a Nuremberg like counter reform council in which the anti tradition perpetrators are interrogated Card Roche would say he was only following orders. Card Farrell questioned on McCarrick would probably repeat, ‘I know nothing’. Cardinals Cupich, McElroy, Tobin will perhaps escape to Argentina. The TLM will be restored and there’ll be a lengthy period of peace.

  6. Thank you very much, dear Christopher.

    I now understand discombobulating issues that had been a confusing irritation to me.

    Like Deacon Edward, attending Holy Mass in a foreign country has never been a problem for me. Our beautiful Lord always ministers deeply, whatever the language.

    How weird: that Rome is conducting what sounds like a vindictive campaign, closing the doors against a small number of fanatically faithful Catholics. Worse: doing that whilst simultaneously moving to fling open the doors to catholics who despise both God’s commands and 2,000 years of sound Catholic Christian moral instruction.

    Saint Peter Damian and all you holy saints of Christ, please pray for us.

    Always under the reign of King Jesus Christ; love & blessings from marty

  7. Now we can guess where the Peter’ Pence is going. The three “cube” temples in Abu Dhabi are completely finished. The unity of the “three world religions” as the unity of the Abrahamic religions, a brotherhood of humanity, was celebrated last week; the temple of Islam and the Jewish temple were dedicated while Cardinal Michael L. Fitzgerald held a word and prayer hour in the “His holiness Francis church”. Consecration to follow but there is no tabernacle, no cross or picture of the patron Saint Francis. The media is silent about it except Josef Seifert in Austria who called it the “heresy of heresies”. Yes, a gridlock! A gridlock of faith and the truth of Christ that should be proclaimed and witnessed by the Vicar of Christ. God have MERCY!

    • It doesn’t hurt to talk. If we get to know those who are different than we are, perhaps, just perhaps we can learn to love them where they are.

      • Many thanks, dear Edith. That IS shocking news. (I’m getting quite an education!)

        Dear James – you seem to have the right intent set in the wrong location!

        Since when have we had to be syncretistic so as to get to know & love others?

        In a long life, a Catholic gets to know & pray caringly for souls who are on the wrong track – some very immoral, some outright evil, many in false religions, and vast numbers who couldn’t care less about the one King & Savior: Jesus Christ.

        Catholics don’t share churches because that would blasphemously proclaim: “There’s no difference!”

        Of course, if you are a freemason, that deception is your chosen way of life.

        Always in the saving love of King Jesus Christ; blessings from marty

  8. This is the second time I’ve read about the blog, Where Peter Is. I checked it out. The National Catholic Reporter on steroids. Then it was mentioned in Katherine Bennett’s podcast, Choose Agape, in her interview with Dr. Edward Feser. Seems an odd source for Cdl. Roche’s “insights”.

  9. “Reform on the go.”

    The spirit of Vatican II generation spent decades accumulating power in order to effect change, and now they have it.

    And they are using all that power to try to stop change, to make things like they were “way back when in the good old days.”

    • Latin is indeed the official language of the Holy See. French is the official language of the diplomacy of the Holy See (Secretary of State). Italian is the common working language in the Vatican State and in Rome, as well as in Italy. English is probably the official language of the Vatican Astronomical institute (The Specola Vaticana) but also in meetings (between bishops, cardinals…)

  10. As a convert from Anglicanism some 35 years ago,I eventually came to feel comfortable with the NO; but fully understand those who like the traditional mass. I believe the Trads will be alright if they stay quiet(like the Eastern Rightest brethren) and below the radar. This Pope is nearing the end of his pontificate and will be replaced with a new pope with his own ways. If the very vocal, caustic Trads would shut their mouths and do more praying everyone would be better off. Just my opinion.

    • thank you for your honest reply. The TLM trads were taught there is only the NO-crowd, the VatII-lovers, the boomers and the supreme liberals. In truth the one holy Catholic Church is the CHURCH, the Body of Christ, whether there are problems, heresies or a pope that does not act like a vicar of Christ but doing his own reform will. The trads need to come to grips that the NO-Church around the globe is the true Church of 1.3 billion souls and Christ being celebrated, adored, loved, and His blessed Sacraments received in even many different holy rites. The TLM lovers, God bless them, many would want a Latin mass on feast day maybe, but they condemn the Holy Church that is Christ Himself and they are lacking in charity. But where there is no love all is naught!

      • Thanks, dear James & dear Edith, for your sensible, logical, & Godly advice to the TLM faction. I also pray that they will be allowed to continue to worship King Jesus Christ in ways that they find most helpful, without being heavied by our current crop of hierarchs. Ever in the love of The Lamb; blessings from marty

      • Can you please elaborate on what is meant by the sentence, “The TLM trads were taught there is only….”

        What parameters define a “TLM trad”?

        I would categorize some of my friends as ‘TLM lovers’ but I would not characterize any of them as those who ‘condemn the Holy Church that is Christ Himself.’ How do they condemn the Holy Church? And how is that known? Evidentiary proof, IOW, is wanted.

        These same TLM lovers are accused as ‘lacking in charity.’ With what measure has charity been measured? And what generally or specifically is it about TLM lovers that leads one to equate their love for the TLM with condemnation of Holy Mother Church? These are hard charges for which an explanation is wanting.

        Finally, who specifically has taught that “The TLM trads… there is ‘only the NO-crowd, the VatII lovers, the boomers and the supreme liberals’? The meaning of that sentence is totally unclear to me.

        • Dear Meiron, I always appreciate all your comments, you sound sincere. You “immerse yourself into the 1962 missal in order not to take offense” at your brothers at the new mass because they have to be 2nd class (?), they have to be irreverent, superficial and not as holy and sincere as the Trads. Do you not see how judgmental and uncharitable most of the Trads have become towards their brothers. How do you know that the NO lovers are not pious, reverent, good, holy, and loving the Lord Jesus Christ with all their heart and some of them are saints also. I love the NO as enactment of the last supper, I enjoy our hymns of praise and all the tremendously good works my parish people are doing day in and out. The meaning of my last sentence is that you stereotype the outside like a pharisee but the Lord Jesus Christ looks at the heart. God bless

          • Let’s get logical, edith. You judge me as uncharitable because I read a different book in a different language at Mass? Would you judge the person using a cell phone to follow the Mass? Would you judge the person who uses no book?

            You accuse me of stereotype. I do not consider offense against God as a stereotype.

            What words of mine leads to the conclusion that ‘brothers’ are second class? Taking offense at ‘brothers’ is not in my comment, so how is the inference drawn?

            The little straw men throughout your comment would benefit from a dose of charity, but I don’t consider little straw men able to understand virtue.

  11. The article quotes the pope as saying:

    “If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him.”

    Funny, but that seems like the perfect description of Bergoglio.

    • The essential implication to such a frivolous strawman characterization phrase like “all the answers” is that there is no such thing as immutable truth, which is at the core of his belief system, and he is too stubbornly narcissistic to even understand that the implication of a denial of immutable truth is atheism.

  12. Does this fellow realize how inanely absurd his comment is? Did his henchmen follow Hitler’s commands? Is the will of God perfectly known and followed? When did man perfectly follow man? And why should this be so?

    “It is an absurdity to think that the prefect of a dicastery would do anything other than exercise the wishes of the Holy Father.”

  13. It’s really not that hard to figure out where this is coming from and where it’s heading. I think the FBI memo corroborates that this whole crusade against the 1962 missal is political, not spiritual. Francis aims to rid the church of all political conservatives so that it can be fully converted into an army of woke social justice warriors. While not all conservatives are found at the 1962 masses, nonetheless the TLM’s primary appeal is to persons of a conservative mindset in general, which makes it a prime target for elimination. The aim is to make TLM fans want to desert for the SSPX or SSPV in order to prune the Roman Church of all non-leftist elements. It couldn’t be simpler.

  14. The Maronite liturgy of the Mass is blessed with reverent and penitent prayerfulness. So is the 1963 Roman rite missal. Then one attends a MO Mass and it all seems quite Disney-esque in a vapid sort of way. A straight translation into the vernacular of the ‘old’ Mass would have been intelligent but Bugnini had a Masonic agenda to strip the Mass of its Catholicism. If one weak and blubbering pope (PVI) could succumb to a ruination of the Mass then why in hell did JPIi and BXVI not restore it? We can easily have a restored ‘old’ Mass in the vernacular and include precious Latin prayers to echo down the ages in communion with the saints:Confiteor, Sanctus, Pater Noster, Agnus Dei.
    Little plastic trots in every pew could give a line by line translation. There really is no problem except for those determined to extinguish the reverence and historicity of the Latin rite Mass. I yearn to hear the dramatic words “Ecce Homo” myself. I can see Pontius Pilate and the savagely beaten Christ our King.

  15. Didn’t the pope just remind bishops and the like who owns the roofs over their heads? They’ll do exactly what he tells them to *or else*.

    Regarding Roche’s “considering” applications submitted by bishops to allow Catholics to receive from the Catholic Church the actual Mass — seriously, don’t you think the rubber stamps were ordered late last year?

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