Volume > Issue > Traditionis Custodes: Taking a Bulldozer to an Anthill

Traditionis Custodes: Taking a Bulldozer to an Anthill


By Pieter Vree | October 2021
Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR.

In January 1985 President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, signed the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits federally funded nongovernmental organizations from performing or promoting abortions in foreign countries. The next Democrat elected to the office, Bill Clinton, in his first presidential act in January 1993, revoked the Mexico City Policy. The next Republican president, George W. Bush, reinstated it in January 2001. And on it went, back and forth: Obama revoked it; Trump reinstated it; and, naturally, Biden revoked it.

There’s a dreary predictability to all this. Depending on whether a Democrat or a Republican holds the high office, you know whether the Mexico City Policy is in effect. It’s a policy subject to the political pendulum.

It is fair to wonder, with Pope Francis’s promulgation this July of Traditionis Custodes, his motu proprio restricting the celebration of the Traditional or Tridentine Latin Mass (TLM), whether we’ve reached a similar stage in ecclesial politics.

Back in July 2007, Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, promulgated Summorum Pontificum, his own motu proprio granting free access to the TLM to the “no small numbers of faithful” who favor the “extraordinary form” of the Roman rite. Summorum Pontificum empowered the laity and established official grievance procedures. Benedict decreed that in parishes “where there is a stable group of faithful who adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition,” pastors should “willingly accede to their requests” for the celebration of the TLM. If this group does not receive “satisfaction from the pastor,” they are to inform their diocesan bishop, who “is strongly requested” to satisfy them. If the bishop “cannot arrange for such a celebration,” they are to refer the matter to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei.

With Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis has undone all that. He has proscribed the power of the people and placed it in the palms of prelates. “It belongs to the diocesan bishop, as moderator, promoter, and guardian of the whole liturgical life of the particular Church entrusted to him, to regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese,” Francis writes. “Therefore, it is his exclusive competence to authorize the use of the [TLM] in his diocese, according to the guidelines of the Apostolic See.” It should be noted that the Pope pre-emptively cut off the faithful’s recourse to an office higher than that of their local ordinary: He suppressed the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei in 2019, merging it with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Benedict, early in his papacy, was often characterized as a dogmatic authoritarian. Yet, with Summorum Pontificum, he wrested control of the Mass from the bishops to allow the grassroots development of liturgical traditionalism. In so doing, Benedict proved himself to be less dictatorial, and more democratic, than his common caricature. Indications are that the numbers of those attending the TLM grew by modest amounts in many places where it was offered, though a significant groundswell of demand didn’t materialize.

With Traditionis Custodes, Francis, too, has shown his true colors. He isn’t the great liberalizer many hoped he would be. Rather, Francis is a big believer in authority — his own and that of his brother bishops. “I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present Motu proprio,” he writes in his letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes. Bishops, he says, are “to designate one or more locations where the faithful adherents of these [stable] groups may gather for the eucharistic celebration (not however in the parochial churches and without the erection of new personal parishes),” and they are “to take care not to authorize the establishment of new groups.”

Traditionalism may go this far, Francis is saying, but no further. And he has deputized bishops as traditionis custodes — “guardians of tradition” — guarding against the further growth of traditionalism.

Vatican watchers have speculated for years that something like this has been in the works, at least since 2016, three years into Francis’s papacy. Heck, the NOR published an article over three years ago by W. Patrick Cunningham on this very topic (“What If Pope Francis Were to Rescind Summorum Pontificum?” March 2018). It seems to have been one of Francis’s long-term goals.

Many, however, figured Francis would have the courtesy to wait until Benedict had died to undo one of the landmark acts of his predecessor’s papacy. But no. Benedict keeps hanging on. Perhaps Francis’s recent hospitalization — he was discharged ten days after having surgery for colon diverticulitis this July — instilled a sense of urgency in him. Francis is, after all, 84 years old. Benedict might outlive him!

Even Francis’s strongest supporters know the clock is ticking. “Age is catching up to Francis. Barring a miracle, he will only be expected to continue as pope for five or six years,” wrote Thomas Reese, S.J. (Religion News Service, July 13). “We may look back at his hospitalization as the moment that marked the beginning of the end of his papacy.” Perhaps the Pope’s thinking is: Why put off to an uncertain tomorrow what can be done today?

Fr. Reese, a Francis acolyte, makes the risible claims that the Pope “has encouraged dialogue and a more consultative style of governance…. Francis has rebranded the papacy for the 21st century with a pastoral, prophetic and inclusive voice.”

Dialogue? Inclusion? Only with certain types. Those outside his sheepfold — homosexuals, atheists, Protestants, Muslims, Chinese communists — the Holy Father handles with velvet gloves. Those under his care — traditionalists, in particular — he rules with an iron fist. Francis’s most famous quip, “If a person seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” doesn’t apply to them.

Francis has made big talk about pastors having “the smell of the sheep.” But he, as Universal Pastor, finds the odor of his traditionalist flock repugnant.

But, really, who can blame him? Especially given traditionalists’ proclivity to disrespect the postconciliar papacy and set themselves up as superior to average Catholics who are content to worship according to the “ordinary form” of the Mass in their local parishes. Disdain for everyday Catholicism is palpable in many traditionalist milieus. It is “plain in the words and attitudes of many” traditionalists, Francis observes. There is a “close connection,” he writes, “between the choice of celebrations according to the [TLM] and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church.’ One is dealing here with comportment that contradicts communion and nurtures the divisive tendency.”

Read any traditionalist publication or visit any traditionalist website and you’ll see this is true. Many actively seek to widen the wedge between their followers — whom they obsequiously flatter as the “true church” or “faithful remnant” — and the Church at large, including the present Magisterium and the past six pontiffs. The Remnant, for example, recently called Francis an “idolater” who “continually betrays the Body of Christ” (May 15).

For such as these, “tradition” and the TLM have themselves become objects of worship. They are, for some, symbols of defiance, badges of belonging to a select group that has exclusive access to the sole path to salvation.

These attitudes and tendencies contravene the spirit and letter of Summorum Pontificum, which Benedict XVI expected would “enable…all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew.” He even held out hope that “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite” — ordinary (Novus Ordo) and extraordinary (TLM) — would “be mutually enriching.”

Save for isolated exceptions, it wasn’t to be.

“Regrettably, the pastoral objective of my Predecessors,” Francis notes in his letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes, “has often been seriously disregarded. An opportunity…intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”

These attitudes and tendencies aren’t limited to the most vociferous of public radical-traditionalist mouthpieces. It can be found in various traditionalist communities as well (though, of course, not in all of them). Just ask Rachel Dobbs, a former traditionalist who spent decades in such communities before becoming disillusioned by the tired triumphalism of what she terms “quasi-schismatic groups.” She and her trad cohort saw themselves as “the true Catholics preserving tradition. I saw myself that way. I remembered how I looked down on all those ‘other’ Catholics,” she writes (WherePeterIs.com, Aug. 17). “I took part in many conversations that were nothing but complaints. There wasn’t a Sunday that went by that we didn’t discuss how awful the regular ‘Novus Ordo’ Mass was…. I believed that the Tridentine aesthetics were more Catholic and more authentic…. I was sure that the future of the Church laid in returning to the Tridentine Mass and tradition.”

Even after Summorum Pontificum, Dobbs writes, “The emphasis on the ‘superiority’ of the Tridentine Mass over the ‘Novus Ordo’ remained,” and traditionalist groups were still “isolated from much of parish life.” So much for mutual enrichment.

When Francis was elected, Dobbs recounts, “many traditionalists began expressing hostility toward the pope, in some cases considering him a heretic or worse. In fact many of these communities, far from sharing in and enriching parish life, devolved into toxic cultures of sexism, racism, homophobia, antisemitism, contempt for the Pope, and contempt for anyone who doesn’t think like them.” So much for attaining and retaining unity.

And so, Francis concludes, “In defense of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors. The distorted use that has been made of this faculty is contrary to the intentions that led to granting the freedom to celebrate the [Traditional Latin] Mass.”

There are no clear-cut protagonists in this latest episode in the drama over the Church’s liturgical rites, only antagonists. Nobody comes out clean — neither traditionalists, who are acting out the role of nose-thumbing rebellious children, nor Francis, who is acting as an intractable disciplinarian dad.

It goes without saying that the TLM is of immense value to the Church, even unto today. The problem, as Pope Francis and former traditionalists like Rachel Dobbs understand, is with the ecclesially (and often personally) damaging subset of manias that has infected the traditionalist movement: deification of the abstract concept of “tradition” and its attendant form of worship; an elitism inimical to the nature and history of the Catholic Church; rejection of liturgical and doctrinal development; contempt for every pope since Pius XII; moral rigorism; and a marked lack of Christian charity toward those with whom they disagree.

This excess baggage weighing down the traditionalist movement is one of the factors that has impeded the TLM from becoming a force multiplier in the life of the Church. But it is not sufficient reason to abandon the project of reviving and expanding the celebration of the TLM, which is one of the great treasures of Catholicism, as Pope Benedict well understood. “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” he wrote. “It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”

What Francis has done is akin to taking a bulldozer to an anthill, rather than calling the colony to conversion. (Ants, after all, have their place and purpose in the natural order.) As Gerhard Cardinal Müller has written, it is “simply unjust to abolish celebrations of the ‘old’ rite just because it attracts some problematic people: abusus non tollit usum [the misuse of something is no argument against its proper use]” (TheCatholicThing.org, July 19).

And Francis is delusional if he thinks what he has done is to “provide for the good of those who are rooted in the previous form of celebration and need to return in due time to the [ordinary form of the] Roman Rite.” We are now 50 years past the imposition of the Novus Ordo Mass. That there’s still a troublesome traditionalist movement that nobody knows how to handle should give pause to anyone — including the Pope — who entertains the fanciful notion that traditionalists en masse will return “in due time” to what they’ve obstinately rejected for five decades. Most would rather die on this particular anthill.

The Holy Father’s ham-handedness won’t change that. On the contrary, it will further harden the already hard-of-heart. As Cardinal Müller said, “Papal authority does not consist in superficially demanding from the faithful mere obedience, i.e., a formal submission of the will, but, much more essentially, in enabling the faithful also to be convinced with consent of the mind.” In matters liturgical, Francis has failed spectacularly to do this.

If, with a stroke of his pen, Francis can undo what Benedict has done, what’s to prevent Francis’s successor, if he’s got traditionalist sympathies, from undoing what Francis has done? And so forth and so on with successive pontiffs, until a new council is convened to settle the matter once and for all? At that point, the question will be whether the council is called Trent II or Vatican III.


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