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.*