Traditionis Custodes: a New World of Hurt

THIS MORNING, being distracted by other things, I was not paying attention to social media. When finally I checked my messages I realised I had been oblivious to an ecclesiastical tempest that had erupted late morning, UK time. The publication of the motu proprio Traditionis custodes (TC) over the signature of the Bishop of Rome surprised not the suspicious who had been reporting rumours of the suppression of the Extraordinary Form (EF) of the Roman Rite Mass over the last few months of, and left those of us who could not see the cause for alarm from the evidence adduced, with the rug swiftly and completely pulled from under our feet.

Before I begin some attempt at an initial analysis, let me state at the outset that I have never celebrated the EF, and have only seldom assisted at it as either a sacred minister or member of the congregation. So, on one level, I have no dog wholly my own in this fight. I am not fully a Traditionalist, in this particular sense. How I am a traditionalist, as rational Catholics must be if their faith is to have any objective reality to it.

In short, I cannot see how any argument can be raised to prohibit to any degree the form of Mass which, with only minor changes, had been the source and summit of the Church’s life and existence from the days of Gregory the Great (†604), and in substantially the same form for many years earlier.

If the Mass of Paul VI (or Ordinary Form—OF) is to have any practical validity (quite apart from sacramental validity) this can only be insofar as it can be shown to be an organic development of the liturgy that preceded it. This organic thread is not wholly accepted (and herein lies one of the moot points surrounding today’s document) but it is officially asserted. TC itself asserts this in Article 1, though it asserts it in a wholly exclusive way, granting the OF the honour of being “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” By using “unique” the document signals what is to come. It is synonymous here with “only.”

This is an extraordinary development, if you will pardon the pun. Implicitly the claim is being made that the goodness of something is dependent on its context. In this case, the old Mass was good in the “old days” (all 1400+ years of them) but is not good for today, and so cannot be countenanced in the modern Church. It is the liturgical expression of situational ethics, and the relativisation of absolute truth. Thus you get the neat little trick by which the Bidens and Pelosis of the world can claim to be Catholic while denying Catholic truth. Truth must be adaptable to individuals’ particular situations. It is a short step to the nonsense that we each have our own truth. Logically the conclusion is inevitable: Christ is not the Truth, but a truth, a way not the Way. Whatever it is, this is not Christianity in any authentic sense.

Some will read the above and pronounce me absurd. But actions and the principles that inform them have logical consequences. Change a premise, and the conclusion will change. The Christian faith is the logical, coherent and systematic presentation of revealed Truth. If it is not, then we are still in our sins, as St Paul would out it.

In painting the EF as having been good once but bad now—divisive, for example—we arrive at a relativism which has serious logical implications for the entirety of the Faith. If something can be good one day, and to be forbidden the next, then it cannot have been true. It had been sanctified and authenticated by centuries of use, by papal approbation, and by the devotion of millions of Catholics over many centuries. If it is no longer “true,” then what is? On whose authority do we accept something as true? My own authority, and it for “my” own truth? Is Christ only as we feel he should be, rather than as He revealed himself?

This is what makes the use of “lex orandi” in Article 1 so disturbing. Lex orandi, lex credendi (et lex vivendi) can be translated roughly as ”the law of what is prayed [ie liturgically] is the law of what is believed (and the law of what is lived).” In other words, there is a symbiotic relationship and correspondence between our common worship and our common faith. It can be hard to distinguish the chicken from the egg in all this. For example, the ancient introduction of the Kyrie in the Mass, which is addressed not to the Trinity but to Christ, both reflects and affirms the divinity of Christ: the Kyrios—the Lord—is God, and only God can forgive sins. To address Christ as Lord in the Mass, and seek mercy for ours sins from him, is to affirm that he is God. If he is God, then he must be obeyed in his commandments; we must live by them.

So to claim now that the OF, the new Mass, is the “unique expression of the lex orandi” is actually a very big deal. The corollary implied is that if the new Mass is the only expression of the Church faith expressed in worship, then the old Mass is not. Presumably the authors of Traditionis custodes would allow that in former days the EF was, but that those days have gone, and that the Church now holds a new truth.

It is so breathtakingly self-defeating. If truth is to be relativised in such a way, with papal mandate, then papal mandate loses any absolute authority. “That may be your truth, Holy Father, but my truth is otherwise. And who are you to deny my truth? Or to quote, you, who are you to judge?”

The irony is that this is an example of papal absolutism. It is couched in terms of allowing local bishops to govern the liturgy in their dioceses as is their right in modern legislation (and in ancient, mind you). In fact, one could reasonably argue that this is a bitter fruit not of Vatican II, but Vatican I. Some, such as Dr Geoffrey Hull, would go further back and see it also as a bitter fruit of Trent. Oh, the irony. If episcopal collegiality can only be attained by absolute papal authority, then the whole doctrine of collegiality has serious problems. They are, in fact, then little more than papal vicars rather than successors of the apostles. Their authority and its exercise then, logically, derive from the pope. Collegiality has disappeared as a meaningful doctrine.

The word pastoral is used only three times in this document, and then entirely in Article 3 §4. This is marked contrast to other papal decrees of recent years, which extend mercy and indulgence to those who fall foul of Christian teaching say on marriage, the sanctity of life or sexual morality. Unlike them, those who adhere to the old form of the Mass are not to be “accompanied,” but marginalised.

This is not a pastoral document; it is a political one. Its illiberality means that the factional nicknames of liberal or progressive can no longer used in any way other than ironically. The document is neither liberal nor progressive. If anything, it is Jacobin.

The apparent victory for the Jacobins is pyrrhic. The new Mass, it is implied, can only be shored up by an exercise of absolute papal authority, presumably because most faithful seem to accord it little authority of its own. Those who adopted the EF as their mode of Catholic worship constitute the youngest and most vigorously apostolic section of the Church today, yet how can they but infer from Traditionis custodes that they are not welcome as they are? “Come as you are” might be the barely liturgical ditty sung to sinners of almost all stripes, but certainly not to Traditionalists. It is hard to recall an exercise of authority as self-defeating as TC.

Though in his name, TC was not written by Francis. By whom then? A pope can only be as good as his closest advisors; so who advised him to do this?

Yet a word of cautionary balance. Many Traditionalists have, at least in part, set themselves up for this reaction from Rome. Public expression of derision (as opposed to respectful dissent) by some of them towards bishops and the pope do their cause no good at all. Sometimes, among some of them, there can be an almost Jansenist spirit of their being the true Church, as they look in scorn on those who worship in the “ordinary” way. To them is directed Article 3 §1. A lesson to us all. Thankfully, by no means are all Traditionalists like this; perhaps they could make themselves heard a little more, and moderate their confederates more vigorously. A shrill Traditionalist is little better than a shrill Jacobin.

So, the EF is not abolished, though Summorum Pontificum is. Papal authority now invests local bishops with the delegated (pace collegiality) authority to regulate the EF in their dioceses. Yet even then, the bishops are not given a free hand; the papal reins are still being pulled fairly tight: they cannot designate parish churches nor erect new personal parishes for the celebration of the EF (Art 3 §2);they cannot allow the establishment of new groups for the EF (Art 3 §6); various communities erected for the EF are now firmly under the authority of the curia, not the local bishop (Art 6); and the relevant curial dicasteries hold the final say in the implementation of TC, not the local bishop (Art 7).

TC is not progress, but aggressive defensiveness. Given the ecclesiastical statistics and demographics of the last 50 years, being defensive is wholly understandable, if not quite acceptable. TC makes only cursory reference to Vatican II. And indeed, TC is not a document that seeks to enable conciliar reform. It seeks only to impose uniformity under the cloak of unity—and here we have one whopping irony: how much more Tridentine could one get? And what a monumental snub to Benedict XVI.

There is a sad side effect for me. It makes the more urgent my study of of the Ordo Missae of 1965, which is both a fruit of the Council and a clear organic development of the pre-conciliar Mass, today’s yesterday’s EF. Archbishop Lefebvre used it for many years after 1970. It has the potential to offer a way out of a mess that became even more tangled today. But that is for another time.

All that I can offer Traditionalists is a challenge: to discern the reason for which the Lord is allowing today’s decree to happen. Too often, on both sides of the liturgical divide, there is more of an exercise in self-will than service of the Truth. What I want seems often to trump what the Church wants. We might clothe our opinions and preferences with the aura of authority, or authenticity, or objectivity, but for many of us our liturgical advocacy can sometimes be little more than self-service. If there is a fundamental problem afflicting the Church today, it is a surfeit of me and my truth. Sometimes my truth and the Truth coincide, but our self-centric motivations become the Achilles’ heel of our advocacy.

So, if we want the old Mass to be liberated once again, then the spirit of liturgical perfectionism must give ground to the spirit of Christian witness and charity that seeks holiness above all else. All good reform in the Church must begin with the self, otherwise we become not an instrument of sound reform but an obstacle to it.

*Read this quickly; I strongly suspect I will be asked to take this down. It will please no one, really.*

Join the Conversation

  1. Thank you Father, for a kind analysis of a document which is certainly political rather than pastoral as you say. Breaking hearts should not be the action of a loving father and the fact of openly reversing the work of his predecessor while be is still alive is breathtaking. It will have far- reaching consequences. Some of us were around in the 70s too and remember those bleak days we hoped we should never see again.

    1. I was so lucky that my Jesuit school, in the late 70s and early 80s, was not liturgically ‘woke’!

  2. We used to attend the EF mass, but it became clear many there were anti VaticanII, anti Pope Francis, anti the “new mass.”
    It was presumed anyone who attended was sympathetic to those views.
    It is sad the Mass became a cause of such division.
    I did see a priest comment on how the Pope has been very firm here, but not so with the German Bishops. He asks who is a greater risk to the Church….those who prefer the EF, or those who publicly reject the Rules and Teachings of the Church.

    1. See how they have turned the issue around on its head. The Mass that unified the Roman Church for 1500+ years is now made out to be a source of division. Those who forbade it made it so, not those who adhered to it. The old Mass is, you see, part of the teaching of the Church. Those who de facto deny this are the ones fomenting division. But I accept your concerns about those whose views went beyond tradition and because polemical. As I said they are my concerns too. Pax.

      1. I agree with you, Hugh and, quite frankly, I am also sick of people levelling criticism against traditionalists. So what if some criticise Vatican II? We have all experienced the “fruits” of Vatican II, which says it all really. I agree that traditionalists, to be tactical, should couch their language diplomatically, but the allegations don’t seem to go the other way. That is, I do not ever hear traditionalists saying nasty things about people who attend Novus Ordo (although they may comment on the tracksuits and music). The fact is, the Mass has been denied by a Pope of the Catholic Church to Catholics. That is the reality. Accusations such as “divisive” and accusing traditionalists of not being nice people are mere rationalisations for a – forget Jacobin – try totalitarian, act by the modernists.

  3. Yet a word of cautionary balance. Many Traditionalists have, at least in part, set themselves up for this reaction from Rome. Public expression of derision (as opposed to respectful dissent) by some of them towards bishops and the pope do their cause no good at all. Sometimes, among some of them, their can be an almost Jansenist spirit of their being the true Church, as they look in scorn on those who worship in the “ordinary” way. To them is directed Article 3 §1. A lesson to us all. Thankfully, by no means are all Traditionalists like this; perhaps they could make themselves heard a little more, and moderate their confederates more vigorously. A shrill Traditionalist is little better than a shrill Jacobin.

    I know this is received wisdom in many circles, but I just don’t think it’s true. Sure you can find unpleasant and disrespectful trads, but you can find unpleasant and disrespectful Catholics of any stripe. The German bishops, for example, have shown far more open defiance towards the Pope and the rest of the Church than pretty much any traditionalist group, but nobody’s suggested using this as a pretext to squash liberals or restrict celebration of the Novus Ordo. The fact that this only happens in the case of traditionalists suggests that trad defiance is just a pretext, and if it weren’t available, the powers that be would just find some other pretext instead.

    1. Now, I do not claim this unhelpful attitude is all on one side. It is precisely the shrillness of the Jacobins that alone ensures I do not give them any attention. Why would this not work both ways—the shrillness of the some Trads causing moderates to tune out? Restricting the new use of the Novus Ordo is impossible as the legislation stands, as it is the normative—ordinary, as it were—liturgy of the Church. The analogy does not work. I do agree that many a Jacobin receives an indulgence entirely unmerited, aind indeed often unjust.

      1. In general, I’m sure it happens. In the specific case of “this reaction from Rome”, though, I don’t think it’s a cause: firstly, because (as I said in my previous comment) Rome has ignored far worse behaviour from other parts of the Church; secondly, because the liberals and modernists have wanted Summorum Pontificum abrogated ever since it was first promulgated, and wanted the Tridentine Mass suppressed ever since Vatican 2, so it’s not like they were initially fine with people going to the Traditional Mass until bad trads ruined it for everyone; and thirdly, because shrill traditionalism is mostly an online phenomenon, and I don’t think the Holy Father spends his time reading the comments sections of Remnant or Rorate Caeli articles.

        1. If you think this is the work the Holy Father alone, you would be almost certainly mistaken. He signed it, others prepared it. And others will have been drip-feeding him news from within a very narrow range. So the pope may not read social media, but the curia does, as does the parallel curia of James Martin, Antonio Spodaro et al. There is a new regime at the congregation for worship; and out of nowhere this has suddenly emerged. 🤔

          1. But it is the Holy Father who has put in place the new regime at the Congregation for Worship. Of course, we understand that he is not alone in his views, and that he has appointed like-minded people to the Congregation, so they share some of the responsibility. And if as reported the first draft was much stronger, then we should not forget the nameless persons who have got it toned down.

          2. If Viganó is correct, it may have been toned down but it was not tidied up! I agree that the direction is very much Francis, but this level of detail is not.

  4. New theology , new ecclesiology, new liturgy = new church.

    Many features of the NO, now standard , are ratifications of liturgical disobedience in the years of and following V2 ( the missile destroying the Church). Is there something to be learned from that?!

    1. Yes, ecclesiology is at the root of this crisis. Not least, the exercise of authority within the Church, its limits and those who properly exercise it in particular contexts. The Tridentine reform was the first real and effective exercise of authority over the liturgy by the central authority of Rome and the papacy. Some would argue that this has been a cancer quietly eating away at the Church’s liturgy from beneath its skin.

      So perhaps today is the inevitable outcome of Trent!

  5. What I find most sad about this is that it was not done at the end of a process of reflective reform. The opportunity was not taken to ask why so many have sought refuge in the TLM (other than a token nod to liturgical abuse, about which presumably nothing will continue to be done), why traditionalist orders and parishes are the fastest growing areas of the Church, and whether the Mass of Paul VI actually resembled anything which the Council Fathers intended it to be. The opportunity was not taken, having observed this rupture in the Church, to ask followers of both liturgical forms for a little give and take, and abrogate Summorum Pontificum *after* reforming the Roman Rite in a manner actually befitting of the Council and the tradition of the Church. There is no reason why this is not achievable. It has been done recently for the Anglican Ordinariates in “Divine Worship” — essentially the TLM in English, modified to conform to Sacrosanctum Conclilium (including the new lectionary and making optional the parts of the Mass removed in 1965 Missal), and including optional extracts from the Book of Common Prayer. It is a beautiful Mass. It is unfortunate that, in the minds of many traditionalists and modernists alike, the Mass of Paul VI and Vatican II are indistinguishable, as though the former was not merely a fallible implementation of the infallible latter. To brutally oppress the “problem” while not even attempting to address its causes is nothing short of pastoral negligence.

    1. Salve Paul. Your questions and regrets are shared completely by me. However, I am still unsure (as noted in my follow up post) as to whether Divine Worship is safe from the executioner’s axe. I like to think it is, DW being a post-conciliar reform. Mind you, so was Summorum Pontificum, and it is now abrogated, so mere post-conciliar status, in temporal terms at least, send to offer no particular protection or privileged… Apart from the Novus Ordo of course, which is now explicitly to be held as the normative form of the Roman Rite.

      This leads me to consider that another form, based on the temporally and ‘spiritually’ post-conciliar Ordo Missae 1965, which nevertheless is obviously in organic relationship with the pre-conciliar liturgy, might offer another sanctuary for those who finds the NO, as too often celebrated, to be un-nourishing for them. Whereas DW had a decidedly Anglican ambiance, OM65 is obviously Roman.

      Regarding the failure, in their haste, of the curia to address the questions surrounding the conformity of the NO with the decree of Vatican II, there can be no surprise really: the question does not exist in their minds. For them, it is self-evidently so. There are none so blind as those who will not to see.


      1. Thank you for your considered reply, Father, it’s nice to know one shared sentiments with others! I know there has been a degree of sustained interest in the 1965 Missal among some traditionalists, but can it be licitly celebrated? On a related point, I am currently in the process of digitising that other transitional liturgical anomaly — the 1967 Graduale Simplex.

      2. Apart from the Novus Ordo of course, which is now explicitly to be held as the normative form of the Roman Rite.

        Not just normative, but *unique* — a provision which, if taken at all literally, would rule out celebration of Divine Worship just as much as the TLM.

        I don’t expect Divine Worship to be restricted in the short term, because it’s not really on the progressives’ radar, but I wouldn’t rule out the same logic used to denigrate celebrations of the TLM (namely, that it’s divisive, that the Church can’t have more than one form of worship, etc.) being applied to DW sooner or later, particularly if Catholics who are fed up with NO but can’t get to the TLM anymore start attending Ordinariate services in any great numbers.

  6. The use of terms such as “divisive” and “schismatic” are mere rationalisations. The fact is that the Mass was banned at a time when it became apparent that it was attracting large numbers of people who, in other circumstances, did not attend Mass. It was also attracting the young. This shows the lie about the constant calls for the “new evangelisation”. The fruits of Vatican II were tens of thousands leaving Holy Orders and millions leaving the Church. Attendance at Mass plummeted. Then when numbers are showing vocations in the traditional Mass and young attending it, with growth that shows up the Novus Ordo, the Mass is suppressed and those Catholics who simply desire to attend Mass are denied it by the Pope and the Church hierarchy. That is what has happened here and attributing good will to these people is naive.

  7. The Novus Ordo is the “ObamaCare” of liturgy. If it’s so wonderful, why isn’t it immediately discerned as such? Why must it be enforced aggressively and bolstered by specious arguments? Why is it necessary to punish those who don’t prefer it?
    If it’s so tremendous, why isn’t it obvious to everyone? I was ordained in the NO, and the vast majority of my ministry since 1978 has been in and through it. I’ve only been doing both for the past ten years. There is no conflict between them unless you manufacture one.

  8. Thank you Dom Hugh for your insightful posts. From the tone of this motu proprio it would seem, in the mind of the pope, that the biggest problem in the Church today is not that the large majority of young Catholics are not going to Mass at all, but that the ones who are coming are going to the wrong Mass, and, on top of that, they are the wrong sort of Catholics, whom we don’t like and don’t want. I’m a priest and have never offered the Latin Mass, but I have met many Catholics (mostly young) who ordinarily attend the Latin Mass but have attended Mass in my parish when travelling, and have done so serenely and joyfully, ever so grateful to have been at Mass in a remote area of Australia. It’s perhaps disrespectful of me to suggest that the pope doesn’t like those who attend the Latin Mass, but that’s how it comes across in the document – my apologies to Pope Francis if I’m wrong, and I hope I am.

    1. Salve! I don’t think it could be called disrespectful merely to name the impression one gets from a document that, presumably, was written with some care and attention. (If it was not, then we have a new, and very alarming, problem.)

      Even before Francis there was a strong vein of rhetoric and attitude among clergy and episcopacy to discount those who actually came to Mass, especially those who wanted Mass to be something that matched their experience and common sense, and those who no longer darkened the door is a church. For some reason, the matter were the ones to be accommodated, or at least used as justification for all sorts of innovation and upset in the Church. But of course, the rarely came, and those that did stayed not very long. The ones who did come and stay were, ironically, more aligned with the former group! And still the Church in much of its hierarchy does not get it. Pax.


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