“It seems as though we aren’t even part of the same religion.”

Sometimes saying a thing enough times does make it true, and in his public response to Traditionis Custodes in a New York Times op-ed, Michael Brendan Dougherty makes a strong case that the “Traditional Latin Mass” movement may indeed be a different religion. The religion he describes bears little resemblance to the Catholic Church in communion with the pope. Dougherty’s piece is rife with contentious rhetoric lifted from the most radical of traditionalist arguments of past decades and regurgitated anti-Vatican II arguments. What stood out most, however, was his assertion that he finds the so-called “new Mass” not just distasteful, but representative of the worship of another religion.

Dougherty asserted in a follow-up tweet, “we can proceed honestly from here.” Yes, a bit of honesty is good: it’s hard to deny that the existence of parallel liturgical forms of the Roman Rite has not helped foster unity in the Church, but rather has widened divisions and increased disunity. Unity in diversity is certainly possible, but such unity is not evident here. In fact, this was the driving motive of Traditionis Custodes and was Francis’s rationale in his accompanying letter for restricting the celebration of the Tridentine rite:

Because ‘liturgical celebrations are not private actions, but celebrations of the Church, which is the sacrament of unity,’ they must be carried out in communion with the Church. Vatican Council II, while it reaffirmed the external bonds of incorporation in the Church—the profession of faith, the sacraments, of communion—affirmed with St. Augustine that to remain in the Church not only ‘with the body’ but also ‘with the heart’ is a condition for salvation.… This unity I intend to re-establish throughout the Church of the Roman Rite.

Dougherty’s juxtaposition of the “traditional Mass” with the “new Mass” is intended to illustrate a hermeneutic of rupture allowing him to claim that the Vatican II liturgy is really the worship of a different religion. He asserts, “I believe the practice of the new Mass forms people to a new faith: To become truly Christian, one must cease to be Christian at all.”

Dougherty’s essay is the latest and most prominent piece of evidence justifying the necessity of Traditionis Custodes. As Pope Francis explains in his accompanying letter: “ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church.’”

How on earth did we get here?

What recent debates have finally brought out into the open are serious disagreements in the Church that aren’t simply about the liturgy or individual attachments. It is now clear that fundamental differences about Church teaching and authority animate these disputes. The central question is now clearer than ever: was the Second Vatican Council in continuity with Catholic Tradition, or was it a rupture that contradicts the faith? This debate about belief has played out on the terrain of liturgy because liturgy and belief are intimately related in Catholic life.

Non-traditionalist Catholics who attempt to defend the traditionalist movement frequently give different answers to the central question than those given by traditionalists themselves. For example, on the July 22nd episode of EWTN’s The World Over, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller said, “the hermeneutic of continuity is the basic principle of the Catholic faith,” while disagreeing with Francis’s promulgation of Traditionis Custodes. This is in line with what Benedict XVI said in his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum: “There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.”

But this is not the way many traditionalists see it. By contrast, Dougherty’s article says of the liturgical reforms of the Council, “A freshman religious studies major would know that revising all the vocal and physical aspects of a ceremony and changing the rationale for it constitutes a true change of religion” (emphasis added). He’s describing a hermeneutic of rupture.

The thesis of Dougherty’s essay is that the changes made by the liturgical reformers of Vatican II were made with the deliberate intention to give rise to “radical new theologies around the Mass,” and that for him and his children, the “new Mass is not their religion.” In his eyes, Pope Francis’s desire for the Latin Church to eventually return to a single form of the Roman Rite is an exercise of papal power likely “motivated by paranoia of disloyalty and heresy.” Dougherty also speculates of Francis that “perhaps it’s to protect his deepest beliefs.” We can only imagine what Dougherty thinks those might be.

Dougherty claims that Benedict XVI’s 2007 liberalization of the Tridentine rite “temporarily allowed us to begin repairing the damage” caused by the Vatican II liturgy. He suggests that the changes to the liturgy were designed intentionally to weaken Catholics’ faith in the real presence in the Eucharist. He claims that belief in the real presence was “downplayed or replaced” in the three new Eucharistic prayers of the Vatican II liturgy. Benedict, of course, asserted in Sacramentum Caritatis that all of our Eucharistic prayers were “handed down to us by the Church’s living Tradition and are noteworthy for their inexhaustible theological and spiritual richness” (46). If Vatican II was a rupture, then Benedict—who promoted and even added to these prayers—was not “repairing the damage” to the liturgy of Vatican II, as Dougherty seems to think. Benedict, the man who popularized the phrase “hermeneutic of reform in continuity,” wanted Catholics to see the continuity of the Council (and its liturgy) with Tradition.

The theological truism “lex orandi, lex credendi” applies here—or, as Dougherty puts it, “For Catholics, how we pray shapes what we believe.”

The idea that the law of prayer establishes the law of belief is not unique to traditionalism. It’s found in the Catechism and in any good liturgical theology course. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us of “the intrinsic relationship between eucharistic faith and eucharistic celebration…the connection between the lex orandi and the lex credendi” (34). How has this relationship played out in the years since the council, especially where the Tridentine rite has coexisted in parallel with the Vatican II liturgy? Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that many Catholics who choose to worship as though the Council never happened also form the impression—or delusion—that perhaps the Council could someday be reversed, and even to believe that the Church would be better off if it was.

In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict comments on “liturgical celebrations in small groups.” He’s speaking about Masses and other liturgical practices for only a particular segment of the parish. His warnings about how these celebrations might become ill-advised are worth recalling:

These celebrations would actually lose their catechetical value if they were felt to be in competition with, or parallel to, the life of the particular Church. In this regard, the Synod set forth some necessary criteria: small groups must serve to unify the community, not to fragment it; the beneficial results ought to be clearly evident; these groups should encourage the fruitful participation of the entire assembly, and preserve as much as possible the unity of the liturgical life of individual families. (63)

Dougherty goes on to list the erroneous beliefs he thinks were caused by the Council’s defective new liturgy. He is not alone. Many other prominent Catholics have made similar claims. Take, for example, Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, a US-born recently-retired papal delegate to countries including Ukraine and Switzerland, who wrote in an August 2019 blog post that “the Novus Ordo appears at odds with what Eucharist is supposed to be. It cannot be the vehicle for Church renewal, because it is at odds with what we should be about as Catholics.”

The dissonance between the older form and the new is not only a difference in the way the Mass is celebrated. The two forms have different liturgical calendars—with different feast days and seasons. The Tridentine rite is frozen in its 1962 state. The Vatican II liturgy has an expanded liturgical calendar, allowing for the celebration of optional memorials of many more saints. The Vatican II liturgy also has an expanded lectionary—readings were added and much more scripture was incorporated into the Mass through multi-year cycles. The Tridentine rite, by contrast, has fewer scripture readings during Mass and only a one-year lectionary cycle.

Another example of the dissonance between Catholics who worship according to different forms is the recent response among traditionalists to Pope Francis’s other motu propria this year, regarding the expansion of the lay ministries of lector, acolyte, and catechist, opening installation to any of the baptized—including women. Females are not permitted to serve in the sanctuary in the Tridentine Mass, however, under any circumstances. This seems to have shaped not only the attitudes of many individual traditionalists about these ministries, as some even question the authority of the pope to make these changes. How does one make sense of “lay ministries” when the ministries they encounter in worship are designated only for those in major or minor orders? Indeed, the Kazakhstani auxiliary bishop Athanasius Schneider, who has been an outspoken critic of the Vatican II Liturgy, argued that the introduction of these ministries is a “Protestantizing danger” to the Church. Practically speaking, it doesn’t seem possible for Tridentine rite communities to implement such developments, because these changes are rooted in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In the last several years, some traditionalist groups, including the Fraternal Society of Saint Peter (FSSP), sought to go back even further than the 1962 Missal, by requesting and being granted permission from the now-suppressed Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei to use the liturgies of Holy Week and the Easter Vigil from before Pius XII’s reforms in the 1950s—a move that even goes beyond the Society of St. Pius X, which remains firmly committed to using the 1962 Missal. Peter Kwasniewski is an advocate of the pre-1950s Holy Week, claiming that the liturgical reforms of Pius XII were “a dramatic deformation of some of the most ancient and poignant rites of the Church.”

But the differences go far beyond theological questions about the lex orandi. Our understanding of the faith is formed by the liturgy in concrete ways. When someone is attached to the Tridentine rite—especially if they consciously chose it and it’s their personal preference—it is only natural that they are shaped by that liturgy. And the results are widely evident today, creating what Pope Francis describes in his letter accompanying his motu proprio as “a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene.”

On a practical and personal note, we cannot count how many times we have heard, both in person and online, the suggestion to a struggling Catholic to “try the TLM,” because the liturgy, community, or culture around it provides something that an “average parish” does not. Kids bored at Mass? Unhappy with your priest’s homilies? Don’t like that mask requirement? “Try the TLM” is prescribed as the cure to all liturgical ills. A veritable cottage industry of “liturgical living” aids, homeschooling curricula, and traditionalist paraphernalia retailers (veils, rosaries, statuary, and the like) has arisen to cater to a particular lifestyle and aesthetic attempting to recover lost practice and devotion.

On that July 22 episode of The World Over, the commentators downplayed the problems posed by such differences or promoted them as a healthy form of diversity. Fr. Gerald Murray suggested that liturgically, “unity is based on doctrine, belief, faith, it’s not shared on everybody sharing the same ritual. It can be a variety of rituals.” Mueller, for his part, asks that “we come back to a sound theology” of the lex orandi, suggesting that “it is not referring to the external rites but is referring to the substance of the faith expressed in the sacramental form, in the canon of the Holy Mass and in the sacramental formula.” These clerics and others have tried to make the case that diverse forms of the lex orandi can coexist with a single lex credendi.

But Dougherty, himself attached to the Tridentine rite for twenty years, clearly doesn’t agree with them. He clearly believes the two forms are not different expressions of the same faith:

The old ritual physically aims us toward an altar and tabernacle. In that way it points us to the cross and to heaven as the ultimate horizon of man’s existence. By doing so, it shows that God graciously loves us and redeems us despite our sins…The new ritual points us toward a bare table, and it consistently posits the unity of humankind as the ultimate horizon of our existence. In the new Mass, God owes man salvation, because of the innate dignity of humanity.

This attitude is reflected by other traditionalists, including Italian Professor Massimo Viglione, who wrote in a lengthy diatribe against Traditiones Custodes, “the Lex Orandi of the nineteen centuries prior to Vatican II and the Montinian liturgical reform have produced one type of faith, and the fifty years following it have produced another type of faith – and another type of Catholic.” Peter Kwasniewski has frequently downplayed even the Catholicity of the Vatican II liturgy, such as when in an article for One Peter Five he and Michael Foley asked, “Why should we deprive ourselves of the light and peace and joy of what is more beautiful, more transcendent, more sacred, more sanctifying, and more obviously Catholic?”

Dougherty claims in his op-ed that Francis’s motu proprio will “push” young traditionalists and their families and communities “toward the belief that the new Mass represents a new religion, one dedicated to the unity of man on earth rather than the love of Christ.” But he then goes on to assert that he already believes just that. How can Francis push anyone to believe something they already believe? Understandably, traditionalist Catholics like Dougherty have trouble accepting Francis’s judgment. After all, their worship is centered around their experiences of the Tridentine rite. For such Catholics, to hear that from now on the Vatican II Mass is the unique expression of the Roman Rite must certainly be jarring. And it must also be shocking to hear from the pope that many of the assumptions and beliefs that are taken for granted by most traditionalists are not in line with the Magisterium of the Universal Church.

The liturgy does indeed shape belief. This principle moves in all directions. When liturgy is not celebrated properly or reverently, it can lead to a loss of belief. But liturgy can also lead people to alien or rigid forms of belief, and even to the notion that they have no common bonds with fellow believers. What beliefs have flourished among Catholics worshiping according to the old lex orandi? If the views of Michael Brendan Dougherty, Peter Kwasniewski, Massimo Viglione, Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and their ideological allies are representative of this movement, then it is clear that there are serious problems in the communities that celebrate the older form of the Mass. Francis’s decision to return to one “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite” is to rectify this fundamental dissonance that has led to disunity. It is a painful reckoning, but one that is necessary if we are to recover a single lex credendi.

Image: Adobe Stock


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Rachel Amiri is a contributor and past Production Editor for Where Peter Is. She has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.

Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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