It’s been a while since the Holy Father dropped his hand grenade, the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. As readers will know, this document overturns the key provisions of a motu proprio issued in 2007 by Pope Benedict, Summorum Pontificum, which gave great latitude to individual priests who wished to offer Mass in what Benedict called the Extraordinary Form (also known as the Old Rite or the Latin Mass). Francis has reinstated serious restrictions on such celebrations, giving local bishops the power to stop the Latin Mass from being said in their dioceses.
Reaction has been mixed, at least in the English-speaking and European parts of the church where disagreement over the Latin Mass tends to be most pointed. The English Latin Mass Society was strongly critical, warning the new restrictions were “entirely unworkable” and that the document as a whole risked driving faithful Catholics into the arms of the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X.
Catholic friends, even among those who are not particularly attached to the traditional liturgy, have expressed reservations. It was extremely disrespectful to Benedict XVI to cancel Summorum Pontificum just 14 years after its release, and somewhat premature to judge that its implementation had failed.
The new motu proprio has its defenders. At the WherePeterIs website, a journalist praised the pope for his “frankness” in laying out the rationale for the new restrictions. The argument goes that while Benedict’s 2007 liberalisation of the Latin Mass was well-intentioned, greater tolerance for traditionalist practices in the Church has led to more division. Francis’s defenders believe it is time to encourage people to unify around one single Roman rite, in the vernacular. This leans on a global survey of bishops, many of whom apparently find traditionalists under their jurisdiction to be fomenters of discord. (It is worth noting large numbers of bishops either did not respond to the survey or reported no serious problems related to adherents to the old rite. )
It is true that Francis is fond of the pungent metaphor and the arresting challenge. However, it is easy to point at other people’s wrongdoing. This is Jesus’s point in the parable of the mote and the beam. There is nothing commendable in the Holy Father’s willingness to pick out the faults of his critics and opponents in the Church. What is admirable is when someone can turn their criticism inwards, to be honest about their own sins.
How refreshing it would have been if Francis had shown regret or repentance, or even just some candour, over his own role in some of the controversies that have roiled the Church in the last eight years. I am generally supportive of the Holy Father, and I am not by any stretch of the imagination an ardent traditionalist – I have attended the Old Rite maybe six or seven times in 15 years as a Catholic – but he has undoubtedly made mistakes during his pontificate, which have contributed to the tensions which he blames on Summorum Pontificum. Loyalty to the pope, and obedience to him in those matters where he is entitled to it, does not preclude criticism.
There is a broader issue with Traditionis Custodes, which is it feels like displacement activity for a hierarchy with no real idea of how to reverse the decline of Catholicism in the West. Empty seminaries, bad preaching, inadequate catechesis and secularised schools, the shrinking of consecrated religious life, slapdash liturgy: these are huge and urgent difficulties. The preference among a minority for the Extraordinary Form seems very small beer in comparison.
It seems unlikely that our internal debates about the Latin Mass are having any real effect on our outreach to the world. Is there, really, a large number of people turning away from the Church because they find the Latin Mass Society too intransigent? It seems unlikely – and in any case it is hardly unusual for converts to report that one of the things that drew them into Catholicism was the beauty of liturgy, so a reduction in opportunities for people to hear the ancient liturgy also has potential costs in terms of evangelisation.
If leaders want to take some sting out of arguments over how Mass ought to be celebrated, then perhaps the place to start is not with the traditionalists, but at the other end of the problem, with the significant number of parishes where Masses are not being celebrated with due reverence and care, where preaching – generally of a high standard in traditionalist circles – is extremely hit and miss, where instruction in the faith is poor to non-existent.
Unless very lucky in his parish, a Catholic who depends on homilies to understand church teaching – and I’ve no doubt a fair number do – would have no idea about great swathes of what we believe and why. Perhaps this explains why the president of the United States, the most powerful Catholic politician, can commit himself to deeply immoral policies that directly contradict Church teaching, and still expect to present himself for Communion.
I might be wrong; perhaps Traditionis Custodes will be good for the Church. It is more likely my reservations are correct, and that the ongoing crisis of the Church in its historic heartlands will continue to be neglected in Rome.
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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