Francis & the Liturgy: the Elephant in the Room

YOU DO NOT NEED me to tell you that this year has seen a storm of controversy about the liturgy. Not a naturally-occuring storm, but one manufactured almost ex nihilo. This points to an agenda being served. But it is not the agenda—real or merely apparent, right or wrong—that is the topic here. Rather it is the elephant in the room that commentators seem to be edging around. Perhaps they are distracted by the purely liturgical questions. Perhaps they wish to avoid going where angels fear to tread.

The first black clouds on the liturgical horizons appeared on 12 March this year with the posting on the sacristy door of St Peter’s Basilica an unsigned declaration under the letterhead of the Vatican Secretariat of State. This extraordinary notice, inter alia, banned “private” Masses at side altars of St Peter’s and consigned the celebration of the Extraordinary Form to the Clementine Chapel. There was so much about this Lutheresque posting on the door that was baffling, to put it politely: since when is posting notices on doors the proper way to promulgate decisions; by whose authority was the declaration made; what on earth did it have to do with the Secretariat of State; from what process or problem did this decree emerge? In fact, the document itself and its promulgation were so ridiculous that I felt sure it was fake. I still do not know who issued it, but it was certainly enacted and obeyed.

The storm that some had begun to sniff in the air broke on 16 July last with the promulgation in a formal way of Francis’ motu proprio, Traditionis custodes (TC). As we all know well enough, this severely restricted the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass under the appearances of returning competency for regulating its celebration to the bishops. It was a sloppy document, deficient in both liturgical and canonical terms,but nevertheless came with the papal signature. It is now law.

Then came the revelation on 5 November of a letter dated 4 August from Archbishop Arthur Roche, newly-installed as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, in reply to a letter from Cardinal Nichols seeking detailed advice on problematic issues and questions about the implementation of a document, issues and questions arising directly from the canonical mess of TC. The Prefect’s letter referred to the so-called Agatha Christie indult of 1971 which allowed some small concessions for those in England and Wales seeking to celebrate using the liturgy in force immediately prior to the new Mass of 1970. Gobsmackingly, the Prefect declared that there was no copy of this indult in the congregational archives.

Both Roche’s letter and TC are intended to shore up the new Mass, for which is identified as the liturgy of Vatican II. This identification itself is highly problematic, as the liturgy bears only a passing resemblance to the liturgical decree of the Council. It seems to be a blind application of post hoc ergo propter hoc, a principle that is inherently dangerous.

The storm is yet to abate. Much ink, real and digital, is being expended in defending the more ancient liturgy, and the emotion provoked by this manufactured storm shows little sign of waning, and is pushing some to make thinly-veiled de facto rejections of papal, and potentially conciliar, authority—precisely the authority this storm was seemingly manufactured to bolster.

The point of this little paper is to highlight two bold declarations, one in TC and the other in the Prefect’s letter to Cardinal Nichols. Remember, a curial prefect is appointed to exercise papal authority in his particular jurisdiction; in Roche’s case, it is the liturgy.

In TC Pope Francis decreed that,

The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.

Traditionis custodes, §1

There is no Latin version against which to measure the translation—itself extraordinary—but we can assume with confidence it was composed in Italian. The word unique translates the Italian unica, which means only or sole. In German the word is einzige, again with the sense of only. In other words, Pope Francis has overturned predecessor’s teaching that the lex orandi of the Roman Rite was expressed in two forms: the Ordinary, being the liturgy since 1970, and the Extraordinary, being the liturgy that preceded it. This was a logical teaching that accepted the organic development of liturgy over time.

TC has severed this organic liturgical thread and, in effect through without saying so explicitly, declared the liturgy prior to the conciliar reform (the Extraordinary Form) to be abrogated, a legal term meaning abolished. Thus Francis implicitly contradicts Benedict XVI.

In this light should the second bold declaration be read. Archbishop Roche laments the use of the old liturgy over and against the “Conciliar” liturgy, slipping in a parenthetical declaration:

[the promotion of the old liturgical texts] has been used to encourage a liturgy at variance with Conciliar reform (and which, in fact, was abrogated by Pope Saint Paul VI)…

see below

Roche is making explicit what was implicit in TC. The two must be seen together.

So there is potentially even bigger, and more disturbing, issue beneath the surface matter of the liturgy; the elephant in the room we hesitate to acknowledge:

What are the proper limits of papal authority?

When one pope flatly contradicts the teaching of his immediate predecessor, the faithful are left with a big problem. While neither Francis’ nor Benedict’s teachings were vested with the marks of infallibility—both used the device of the motu proprio, a legal not a doctrinal instrument—the faithful are left with no less of a problem in being compelled to decide for themselves which pope was “right.”

If a papal act is not infallible, then it must be fallible. This is not to deny its legal authority. But it cannot of itself be said to express divine truth inevitably and incontrovertibly. It expresses, certainly, papal authority, which is exercised of course under the power of the keys as a successor of Peter. But it is not so certain that such acts express fully divine revelation.

This is why popes take great care to establish their acts and teachings in the context of previous papal and conciliar teaching, to demonstrate clearly the consistency of what they teach or decree with all that has gone before; in other words, to reveal the organic thread of tradition linking their acts with those of all the centuries prior. This shows that papal authority is invested more in the papal office rather than the papal person. Pope Francis is notoriously sparing in his references to tradition further back than the last 60 years. Indeed, in his encyclicals Francis very often quotes himself as an authority or precedent.

It strikes me that the scope of papal authority is the ground on which debate will have to be pursued. Whilever a pope’s authority and its exercise can be set apart and distinct from liturgy as a traditional authority in its own right, the Church will remain in crisis. Lex orandi is only half the issue; It is just as much about lex credendi.

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  1. On reading Quo Primo, however, it is very apparent that that declaration was made by Papal authority. It was made in the context of the Council of Trent – a Council called to decide upon the questions raised by Protestantism – therefore the declaration is directly on point – in legal terms a ratio decidendi. Pope Pius V expressly declared that his finding was binding “in perpetuity” and that no person could be compelled to celebrate the Mass in any other form. Most importantly, he made this declaration expressly by virtue of his Apostolic authority. Now I am no liturgical expert, but one thing I do know from Catechism 101 is that the Magesterium is binding and that the Apostolic authority is binding. It seems that there are too many traditional people who are buying into the rationalisations that Pope Francis used to justify the unjustifiable. He has acted outside his power (in Law – ultra vires). The Mass derives from the Apostles according to Pope Pius V and Quo Primum sought to be the custodian of the venerable tradition of the Mass (as opposed to the custodian as meaning “gaoler”). Pope Francis has no authority to suppress the Latin Mass and neither did Pope Paul VI. Quo Primum is binding, not because of what was said by Pope Pius V but because, as he pointed out, the Mass is derived from Apostolic times and is binding on the Church as her liturgy throughout her history.

    1. Sorry Kate, Quo primum is not perpetually binding. If so, Pius V excommunicated himself when modifying the calendar a few years later. Later popes who modified the Mass up to Pius X are also excommunicated. This is patently absurd, of course. You are right, however, to note that it is the the nature of what is in a papal bull that is of importance. Far more powerful is the argument that the liturgy itself is not subject to radical change but only minor revision and augmentation. The real argument, therefore, is on the status and authority of the liturgy vis à vis papal and conciliar authority. A fundamentalist approach to Quo primum is untenable; Pius V’s bull is a red herring in light of the real argument.

      This sums it up far better than I could:

  2. Pope’s who have been of ill repute.
    Pope’s who have been ill.
    Pope’s who have supported evil.
    Pope’s who have sold their souls to the devil.
    Could it be that we’ve a pope who is possessed?

      1. I don’t know about selling souls to the devil, but there have definitely been Popes with bad reputations (the tenth century is referred to as the rule-by-prostitutes for a reason), health problems (in living memory, John Paul I died thirty-three days after being elected, John Paul II was pretty sick for the last few years of his pontificate, and Benedict XVI resigned due to health problems), or who have supported evil (Clement IX supported a Protestant coup in England as part of his anti-French policy, among many other examples).

  3. ‘As a protestant, I am amused that conservative (“latin mass”) catholics are extravagent in their obedience to the pope when he supports their position (Benedict), but make very protestant-sounding noises when the pope opposes their position (Francis). Remember the old sauce for the goose/sauce for the gander adage?

    1. There is a big difference between making protests (traditional Catholics) and severing oneself from the Church (Protestants). Pope Francis himself has encouraged parrhesia (free speech) in the Church, so one could argue traditional Catholics are obeying Pope Francis on a more fundamental level. Given TC is such a shoddy document from canonical and liturgical perspectives, to keep silence in the face of the inadequacies would be to collude in them.

    2. Conservative Catholics aren’t the same as Traditionalist Catholics, and very few Traditionalists have been “extravagant in their obedience to the pope when he supports their position”, not least because no Pope since Vatican 2 has actually supported their position. (The closest, of course, would be Benedict, although even he would be better considered a Conservative with Traditionalist sympathies rather than an actual Traditionalist.)

  4. How can anyone, Pope or parent, deprive their children of fundamental nourishment. Pope Benedict XVI explicitly stated the that The Traditional Mass was never abrogated. Pope Francis is now saying that it is abrogated at the pleasure of our local Bishops. What do we say to a person who has a true devotion to the Traditional Mass. Not unlike Agatha Christie.

  5. Pope Francis has explained that TC was required because ‘Summorum Pontificum’ had ceased to be a pastoral provision for traditional Catholics and had become instead an ideology (interview reported in September 2021 by the Spanish journalist Carlos Herrera on the COPE Radio Network). But it is already clear that TC in turn has fueled a great deal of ideology against traditional Catholics, who are now regarded, at best, as poor deluded souls. It seems that Pope Francis has no problem with ideology per se, as long as it is one with which he agrees.

    1. Indeed, it seems that Rome has decided to fight ideology—real or imagined—with ideology. As I am more and more certain, the more fundamental issue is that of papal authority, its proper scope and exercise. It is ironic that the pope while eschewing the externals of a Vatican I papacy, is pursuing a maximalist interpretation of its essentials that make his predecessors look like consensus democrats!

  6. Let us consider the celebration of the Novus Ordo Liturgy. In an average parish the liturgy is slap dash and shoddy.

    For example didn’t the Vatican II documents promote the use of the first Eucharistic Prayer for Sundays and Feast days? Also, the use of organ accompaniment was to be retained and Catholics able to recite the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin. Ad Orientem was to be retained according to the rubics of the New Mass.

    I doubt there is a single parish in my home Diocese of Portsmouth where I could attend such a Liturgy- ad orientem with Byrd’s Mass for four voices and the first Eucharistic prayer in Latin. I’d probably have to travel to the Oratorians.

    Those who attend the Extraordinary Form at centres in good canonical standing (eg LMS groups or FSSP) are obviously not opposed to Vatican II. Often hosts from a Novus Ordo tabernacle are distributed and of course the priests of such groups celebrate the N.O. or agree albeit on paper to the Council reforms.

    Before TC was published there should have been a clampdown on N.O. liturgical abuse and a greater emphasis on beauty (music, rubrics, orientation etc).

    Most, if the EF is denied them, will now attend the SSPX at best, St Marcel Initiative aka the Resistance or, at worst, a Sedevacantist Chapel.

    1. Well, before the Council many a parochial Mass was also shoddy, often rushed and celebrated at a minimal rather than maximal level of celebration. The letters pages to the Catholic press in England in the 1930s alone are testimony to this, as well as much anecdotal evidence I have heard. A significant factor in this, apart from general clerical indifference to matters liturgical, was that the old Mass was a solemn liturgy (indeed pontifical) hacked down to Low Mass size to fit into parishes where overwhelmingly deacons and subdeacons were not to be found. This inflexibility of the rite was a weakness at the parochial level. Of course, the modern liturgy goes so far in the direction of inflexibility as largely to negate the virtue of a common ritual; I have called it the tyranny of options.
      You would agree I am sure that to judge a rite on the basis of its poor performance is not just, be it the old or the new. The new, celebrated properly and strictly by its rubrics, is a very noble liturgy. Sadly, as you suggest, such a celebration is not easy to find.
      Let’s be honest, though—before the Council you would have struggled to find a parish in any diocese that had Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, or any polyphony for that matter. These glories were to be found in cathedrals, and a selection of urban parishes or shrine churches. What people extol in the normal pre-conciliar parochial liturgy, judging by what one reads, was more its silence, not its song.

      1. Ironically, it seems that the promulgation of the Novus Ordo has indeed resulted in a liturgical renewal — but chiefly in celebrations of the Latin Mass.

  7. Yes I take your point. Though I wasn’t around in the pre Vat II days, I assume Mass was often rushed with hymns thrown in.

    However, the Missal and rubrics for the Old Mass were clear, did not have Eucharistic Prayer options or the ability for the celebrant to inject his personality into the Mass, except for the sermon perhaps.

    Of course we could try to reform the Vat II Liturgy but sadly that is now down to liturgical committees rather than the spiritual Father of the parish.

  8. At the Novus Ordo does the Canon of the Masshave to be audible? Certainly, if you were enjoying the Coronation Sanctus you’d want Father to get on with the Canon lol

    1. According to the rubrics, I think it does, although to be honest it’s not like people care about following the rubrics anyway.

  9. When one pope flatly contradicts the teaching of his immediate predecessor, the faithful are left with a big problem. While neither Francis’ nor Benedict’s teachings were vested with the marks of infallibility—both used the device of the motu proprio, a legal not a doctrinal instrument—the faithful are left with no less of a problem in being compelled to decide for themselves which pope was “right.”

    I think it’s even worse than that. It’s impossible to have a stable spiritual life without a stable prayer life, and impossible to have a stable prayer life if the Mass (“the source and summit of the Christian faith”) is subject to continuous change at the whims of the reigning Pontiff. Even if a Pope *doesn’t* actually change anything, the fact that he *could* have the Mass entirely rewritten inevitably lends it a provisional and uncertain character, and this inevitably seeps through into other aspects of the Catholic life, as well. It’s no coincidence that the attitude around and after the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae was that every Catholic teaching was now up for grabs.


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