A plea to the Pope: please, Holy Father, overrule the Curia’s probably illegal instruction to the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate not to use the 1962 Missal

Pope Francis leaving the Basilica of St John Lateran earlier this week (CNS)

I write what follows with extreme reluctance, intensely aware that in doing so I will be giving help and encouragement to those who believe what I fervently do NOT believe: that Pope Francis is a “liberal Pope” who is unworthy of the respect and obedience that all Catholics owe their supreme pontiff. Some of the same malcontents think, too, that both Benedict XVI and John Paul II were also “liberal popes”. I think that they are pretty close to being unhinged; they are certainly not in my opinion loyal Catholics. I am not saying that popes don’t sometimes make mistakes, or that we are not entitled to point them out. A pontificate is judged (the extreme rarity of some actual and conscious heresy apart) by its general direction, its clear underlying intention, not by whether or not there are misjudgments. These can always be corrected, when their effects are not what is intended, or prove inimical to the Church’s interests.

Pope Francis has now, in my opinion, committed or allowed — intentionally or unintentionally is not clear — a big mistake, which could have serious consequences for the Church. Possibly because what has happened has simply been slipped through without his being adequately informed or advised, he has allowed a decree to be issued by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life forbidding the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate — an entirely admirable body — to celebrate the Extraordinary Rite and ordering them to use instead the Novus Ordo: which in fact they were already doing, though not exclusively. Both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary usage were seen by them as being, as Pope Benedict himself had explained, different expressions of the same liturgy, and they used both. (Incidentally, I understand that the suggestion that an internal attempt was made to make the Extraordinary Rite compulsory throughout the order is simply untrue: See Father Z here)

Now, however, the choice which everyone without exception in the rest of the Church has been given by Benedict XVI has been taken away from the Friars: they must now use the Novus Ordo and nothing else, ever. This has prompted four senior Italian scholars — Roberto de Mattei (whose admirable biography of Pope Pius IX I reviewed in The Spectator), Mario Palmaro, a philosopher of law, Andrea Sandri, an expert in constitutional law, and Giovanni Turco, a philosopher (the first two teach at the European University of Rome, the third at the Catholic University of Milan, the fourth at the University of Udine) — to send to the congregation a long and damning critique of the decree, arguing that the congregation does not have the authority to overrule the the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum” of Benedict XVI, which specifically authorises the use of the Extraordinary Rite by those parishes or communities which wish to use it.

Whether or not this is the case, it goes clearly against Pope Benedict’s intention: as Sandro Magister put it in a headline at the end of July when all this was first announced, “For the First Time, Francis contradicts Benedict”. Is this true? This is what the four scholars have to say (their academic style in translation comes over as rather stilted); their full text is given by Sandro Magister.

As for the prohibition of the celebration of the Mass in the ancient Roman rite (also called the “extraordinary form”), many grave problems are posed by the decree…

First of all, with regard to this prohibition imposed on the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate… one cannot help but point out that this is clearly in contrast with what is established for the universal Church as much by the bull “Quo Primum” of St. Pius V (1570) as by the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum” of Benedict XVI (2007)… the motu proprio of Benedict XVI establishes that “it is… permitted to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal, which was promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated.” And it specifies that “for such a celebration with either Missal, the priest needs no permission from the Apostolic See (my emphasis) or from his own Ordinary.”

The motu proprio furthermore affirms that “if communities of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, whether of pontifical or diocesan right, wish to celebrate the conventual or community Mass in their own oratories according to the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal, they are permitted to do so…”

The same motu proprio establishes unequivocally that “we order that all that we have decreed in this Apostolic Letter given Motu Proprio take effect and be observed from the fourteenth day of September, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, in the present year [2007], all things to the contrary notwithstanding.”

As is clear from the two aforementioned texts and from their essential connotations, the freedom to celebrate the Tridentine Mass belongs to the universal legislation of the Church and establishes a right for every priest.

Is it now Pope Francis’s intention to overturn, not only Pope Benedict’s cherished wish and intention as expressed in “Summorum Pontificum” but at the same time “the universal legislation of the Church”? He can, of course, himself change that legislation: but he must, if this is what he wishes to do, clearly and unequivocally say that that is what he is doing. Will he really withdraw the motu proprio? I do not believe for one second that he would wish to do that, even if there were no risk (there is in fact an absolute certainty) that by doing so he would alienate many faithful Catholics, and open up wounds and divisions which Benedict XVI had so gently and effectively healed. Pope Francis has not, in fact himself made any public declaration prohibiting the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate from celebrating in the Extraordinary form: so it may be asked if the obedience of the Friars to the Congregation is not a misplaced obedience, an obedience not to the Pope, but to a decree the Congregation had no right to issue, since it is in contravention of the motu proprio, and therefore of “the universal legislation of the Church”? Should not the friars, therefore, respectfully inform the congregation that they intend to revert to the use of the 1962 Missal where and when it seems appropriate to them to do so?

I really hope that that is what they decide to do. For the fact is that this decree does not simply concern the Friars. If they give in, we could be next: I for one fear that I could lose the right, which I increasingly greatly cherish, of being able on Sunday mornings to hear the Mass celebrated according to the Usus Antiquior. As the four scholars point out, “…the decree bears an objective relevance for all those who – for the most diverse reasons – treasure and love the Latin-Gregorian Mass. These faithful currently constitute a conspicuous part, and certainly not a negligible one, of Catholics, scattered all over the world. Potentially they could coincide even with the totality of the members of the Church. The decree objectively impacts them as well.”

So I hope the Pope will now act. Not to support the congregation (which will probably be his inclination) but to instruct it quietly to withdraw this unjust and irregular prohibition. Please, Holy Father, do it: this is a decision which could affect your whole pontificate, the continuity of which with that of your beloved predecessor we all need you to cherish and preserve.