In a stunning exercise of papal authority, Pope Francis has virtually banned the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass in ordinary parish churches throughout the world.
In a motu proprio released on July 16, entitled Traditionis Custodes, the Pontiff reverses the course set by Pope Benedict XVI just fourteen years ago, ruling that priests may celebrate the traditional Mass only under special circumstances, and with explicit permission from the bishops of their dioceses.
The Pope explains his remarkable ruling by saying that the growth of devotion to the traditional Mass has caused divisions within the Church. "In defense of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors," he wrote in a letter to the world's bishops that accompanied the motu proprio.
"I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present motu proprio," the Pontiff says in his letter to the bishops. Discarding Pope Benedict's insistence that the older liturgy should be recognized as the "extraordinary form" of the Roman liturgy, Pope Francis says that the liturgical texts of the Novus Ordo "constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite."
The new liturgical regulations set forth in the motu proprio take effect immediately.
Strict new constraints
With Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis rules that the traditional liturgy can only be celebrated with the explicit permission of the diocesan bishop. He writes that "it is up to the bishop, as moderator, promoter, and guardian of the liturgical life of the Church of which he is the principle of unity, to regulate the liturgical celebrations."
However, the Pope also notes that any bishop's authorization of the old rite must be made "according to the guidelines of the Apostolic See." And his motu proprio establishes severe restrictions on the old liturgy.
The traditional Latin Mass (TLM) not allowed in ordinary parish churches, and while it may be used in "personal parishes" administered by traditionalist groups, no new personal parishes can be established for the TLM.
The celebration of the TLM must incorporate Scripture readings in the vernacular, using translations approved by the bishops' conferences.
The bishop may delegate a priest to serve existing groups devoted to the TLM, but no new groups can be formed. And the existing groups will now be served by priests appointed by the bishop, not necessarily priests who are themselves devoted to the TLM.
The bishop must certify that any personal parishes using traditionalist communities are "effective for their spiritual growth." Thus any bishop hostile to the TLM will have an opportunity to suppress existing communities and personal parishes.
Priests who do not now celebrate the TLM must receive explicit permission from their bishop before doing so. Priests who already celebrate the TLM must receive explicit permission to continue.
Religious communities that have been established to promote the traditional liturgy, such as the Fraternity of St. Peter and the Institute of Christ the King, will now be entirely at the mercy of diocesan bishops. And their continued success is further jeopardized by another clause in the motu proprio. The pontifical commission Ecclesia Dei was established specifically to serve traditionalist communities. But now the responsibility for these religious communities has been shifted to the Congregation for Religious, which has shown no special affinity for traditionalism.
Reversing Pope Benedict's course
Traditionis Custodes — the Latin title of the motu proprio means, ironically, "Guardians of Tradition" — will inevitably provoke bitter dismay among traditionalist Catholics, who form one of the fastest-growing groups within the Church. And despite the Pope's claim to be motivated by a desire to promote unity, the new policy will certainly aggravate existing tensions.
In Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict taught that the traditional liturgy had not been abrogated by the decrees of Vatican II, and in fact could not be suppressed. "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." But Pope Francis has all but forbidden the traditional Mass, and clearly suggested that the ancient liturgical form is now harmful. If a Pope can so directly contradict his predecessor, any exercise of the papal teaching authority could be subject to question: Will it last, or will some future Pontiff repudiate it?
Traditionis Custodes could also have a strongly negative effect on ecumenical relations with the Orthodox world. The Orthodox are not only leery of papal authority, but proud of their own ancient liturgical traditions. Their interest in union with Rome will not be bolstered now, as they see the ancient rite of the Roman Church swept away by papal fiat.
But Traditionis will no doubt bring a new burst of growth to the traditionalist Catholic communities that have already shown their willingness to resist Vatican authority — most notably the Society of St. Pius X.
The 'liturgy wars' renewed
Pope Francis writes that the motu proprio was prompted by a survey of the world's bishops, in which they were asked to report on the use of the traditional liturgy. "The responses reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene," the Pope says. He argues that the permission to use the TLM "was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division."
The Pope observed, in his letter to the bishops, that some Catholics associated with traditionalist communities deny the validity of the Novus Ordo and/or the teachings of Vatican II. While there are undeniably some traditionalists who take that extreme approach, the Pope perceives it as a characteristic of the entire traditionalist movement, and laments "the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the 'true Church.'"
If a Pope can so directly contradict his predecessor, any exercise of the papal teaching authority could be subject to question: Will it last, or will some future Pontiff repudiate it?
A more nuanced understanding of the traditionalist movement — and a reason for its enormous growth in recent years — would recognize the reality that many Catholics have grown weary of the novelties, abuses, and even sacrileges that have become increasingly common in the use of the Novus Ordo. The ancient liturgy, with its carefully prescribed texts and rubrics, shields the faithful from such offenses.
In a perceptive analysis for the Catholic Herald, Peter Wolfgang explained that Summorum Pontificum was an effort by Pope Benedict to promote reverence in the liturgy, by making Catholics acquainted with the old rite, which should have been recognized as the basis for any organic liturgical reform.
By liberating the TLM, Benedict reoriented the renewal of the Church in the post-conciliar era. It was the biggest blow in favor of Vatican II's intended "Ressourcement" that has yet been struck. The future of authentic reform in the Church runs through that one act. Which is why the proponents of false reform hate it so much.
With Traditionis Custodes, the door that was opened by Summorum Pontificum is slammed shut. Traditionalists are now obliged to prove that they accept the constant teachings of the Church and the liturgical directives of Vatican II. Liberal clerics, who constantly tinker with both moral doctrine and liturgical discipline, are not.
Pope Francis comments briefly on this problem in letter to the bishops, saying that he is "saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides." He quotes Pope Benedict, who noted that "in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions." He returns to the topic at the end of his letter, telling the bishops:
I ask you to be vigilant in ensuring that every liturgy be celebrated with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books promulgated after Vatican Council II, without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses.
However, the clear and overriding message of Traditionis Custodes is not that bishops should curb the widespread abuses of the Novus Ordo, but that they should presume a harmful influence in the TLM, and seek to uproot it.
"Pope Francis restricts celebration of traditional Latin Mass." Catholic Culture (July 16, 2021).
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