[Updated below]

We’re a little more than two weeks into 2022, and the battle for the soul of the US Church continues to escalate. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, whose anti-vaccine activism I have written about in the past for WPI, recently tweeted his support for a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who published a letter to an auxiliary bishop on his parish website expressing his displeasure at Cardinal Blase Cupich’s decision not to grant him permission to celebrate the Vatican II liturgy ad orientem, or “to the East,” with his back to the congregation during various parts of the Mass.

It seems a bit dramatic to suggest that a priest being instructed by his bishop to celebrate Mass facing the same way as almost every other priest in the Church is to “accommodate and compromise our faith in deference to the world.” We can overlook his use of the QAnon-charged term “storm” in the tweet as well. What is most disturbing about this tweet is the open hostility of one bishop attacking another bishop’s decision and supporting a priest who, based on what he wrote in his open letter, has clearly bought into the conspiracism and paranoia that has caused much damage to the Church in recent years. In his letter, Fr. Anthony Bus—the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka church in Chicago—embraces the spirit of divisiveness and dissent that threatens to cause a schism in the US Church.

I must admit, when I first read Cardinal Cupich’s instructions for the implementation of Traditionis Custodes, I thought some aspects were unnecessarily harsh, especially this requirement that the priest face the people during Mass without a dispensation from the archbishop. Since the promulgation of the pope’s motu proprio in July, I thought that a pastorally sensitive approach to helping traditionalists accept the reformed liturgy as the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite” would be to allow and encourage those accustomed to the older form of the liturgy to retain certain elements not commonly found in celebrations of the Vatican II liturgy. Cardinal Cupich himself seemed to indicate his support for this in his November article in PrayTell:

Accompaniment may also mean creatively including in the Mass reformed by the Council elements which people have found nourishing in celebrating the earlier form of the Mass, which has already been an option, e.g., reverent movement and gestures, use of Gregorian chant, Latin and incense, and extended periods of silence within the liturgy.

I did notice when reading this that he didn’t mention celebrating the new rite ad orientem. It seems, based on both his denial of permission to Fr. Bus and the instructions he released earlier this month, that this was not an oversight. The instruction says:

Mass is also ordinarily to be celebrated “versus populum,” unless permission is granted otherwise by the archbishop. Additionally, all celebrations of the church’s liturgies on Christmas, the Triduum, Easter Sunday, and Pentecost Sunday are to use exclusively the liturgical books promulgated by St. Pope Paul VI and St. Pope John Paul II, either in the vernacular or in Latin, and ordinarily “versus populum,” unless permission is granted otherwise by the archbishop. The intention of these requirements is to foster and make manifest the unity of this local church, as well as to provide all Catholics in the archdiocese an opportunity to offer a concrete manifestation of the acceptance of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and its liturgical books.

Clearly Cardinal Cupich is concerned about the weaponization of the ad orientem posture, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this specific guideline was written with Fr. Bus (and perhaps other similarly-inclined priests) in mind. St. Stanislaus Church (or St. Stan’s, as it is frequently called), only offers Mass in English, Spanish, and Polish. In other words, it does not serve a Tridentine Rite community. Back in 2017, Fr. Bus began celebrating Mass ad orientem during the season of Advent. After Christmas, he then wrote a letter to his parishioners announcing that the practice would continue going forward, saying, “That the priest and people together raise their eyes ad orientem inspires a shift in focus that reawakens the senses to the very essence of the Catholic liturgy and, therefore, a reawakening to the essence of our Christian identity.”

Worshipping ad orientem has been something of a rallying cry among promoters of the “reform of the reform” of the liturgy. Advocates frequently cite Pope Benedict’s book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, in which he expresses his preference for the practice.

Many supporters of ad orientem were overjoyed in July 2016 when the then-prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah, said in a speech at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London that “I believe that it is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction — eastwards or at least towards the apse.” He went on to say, “Your own pastoral judgement will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the first Sunday of Advent this year.” Just a few days later, however, Sarah was summoned to a meeting with Pope Francis. Shortly thereafter, Fr. Federico Lombardi, who was the official spokesman of the pope at the time, said “there are no new liturgical directives starting from next Advent, as someone has improperly deduced from some words of Cardinal Sarah, and it is better to avoid using the expression ‘the reform of the reform,’ referring to the liturgy, given that this has sometimes been the source of misunderstanding.”

Despite the papal rebuke, it was perhaps Cardinal Sarah’s suggestion that motivated Fr. Bus’s decision to implement the practice at St. Stan’s in Advent 2017. And it appears likely that he imposed this change at the parish without the counsel or permission of Cardinal Cupich.

Setting aside the question of whether Cardinal Cupich’s decision to deny permission for ad orientem worship at St. Stan’s was prudent, Fr. Bus did not help his cause with his open letter (which has since been removed from the parish website), but rather exposed him as one who apparently subscribes to the same reactionary, conspiratorial, anti-papal ideology that Pope Francis seeks to address with Traditionis Custodes.

Fr. Bus’s letter begins with a series of boilerplate pro-ad orientem talking points (“the Archbishop does not provide evidence that ‘Ad Orientem’ was abrogated at the Second Vatican Council”). He invokes Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah (“the depth and richness in the writings of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah became for me the key that unlocked the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice”). He then repeats the oft-repeated litany of offenses against traditionalists that Pope Francis is alleged to have committed, and decries what he calls the pope’s “constant chiding,” saying, “Many faithful Catholics are being cruelly demoralized – thrown into confusion, which is something the Pope admittedly takes joy in, and are purposefully being pushed to the fringe.”

In his final paragraph, he takes a conspiratorial and apocalyptic turn:

As Pope Benedict said, “The false deities will be unmasked through the suffering faith of simple believers.” Pope Francis said, he wants, not a new Church, but a different Church. The Church is Christ’s Church. One wonders what he means by this or why his mercy is shown to some while disdain is shown to others. I don’t mean to end on a sour note, but I can’t resist this. The Church is in need of renewal and reform in every generation as the Council states. Perhaps the “surprise of the Spirit” will undo the harm that’s been done and bring us back to our identity as members of the Mystical Body of Christ as opposed to mere Global Citizens where man/woman are the central protagonists to the unfolding of a New World Order. The governments and corporate elites of the world along with the Pope and some Prelates are quite open to accepting this frightening reality. Perhaps this will hasten the coming of the Lord. (emphasis added)

And there you have it.

Whatever one thinks of Traditionis Custodes, it is clear that Pope Francis’s motu proprio has been effective in bringing radical extremism, much of which has long been buried deep beneath the surface, out into the open. The failure of any notable “good traditionalists” (the ones who support the pope, embrace Vatican II, and aren’t conspiracy theorists; those who—we are repeatedly told—make up the vast majority of traditionalists) to come forward since the motu proprio was released, suggests that there may not be as many of them as we have been led to believe.

Certainly this problem, which Pope Francis calls “the isolated conscience” in Let Us Dream — a selfish and ideologized worldview that, according to Austen Ivereigh, leads to a descent “into arrogance and stupidity” — is not limited to those who attend the Tridentine Mass, as Fr. Bus demonstrates.

Which brings us back to Bishop Joseph Strickland. Strickland is the most unashamed high-ranking adherent to this ideology among diocesan bishops in the US. This, of course, is not the first time Strickland has openly voiced his objections to the actions of another US bishop toward one of his priests. He has repeatedly voiced his support for the bombastic (and now suspended) La Crosse priest, Fr. James Altman. He has also been vocal—not only about his anti-vaccine views, but in his open endorsement of political candidates and regular promotion of heterodox views that are contrary to the Magisterium. For this, he has been lionized by a segment of the Church, while other Catholics are left scratching their heads wondering what a bishop has to do before he is removed from office.

The proliferation of this brand of mindless, rigid, reactionary, do-it-yourself “conservative Catholicism” has increasingly challenged the faith of many Catholics who understand the Church to be grounded in reason, open to science, unafraid of encounter, and generous in mercy. Pope Francis’s willingness, therefore, to call out and confront extremism repeatedly has been an important consolation in the face of this growing plague.

Pope Francis’s message, like Cardinal Cupich’s guidelines, has begun to reveal the extent to which some corrupted and distorted the faith under the guise of “conservative” or “traditional” Catholicism. While painful, this exposure is a necessary first step to purification. So much selfishness, racism, anger, rigidity, ideological extremism, political sycophancy, delusion, spiritual and emotional abuse, arrogance, and self-absorption in the Church has been exposed in the last decade, especially in the last two years.

We’re approaching the point where addressing the crisis will be unavoidable. It’s impossible to say what happens then, but I think it’s safe to say the road will be bumpy.

[Update 11 p.m. EST]:

Fr. Bus has written a new letter to his congregation and posted it on his parish website. It was reported earlier that he was summoned to meet with Cardinal Cupich today, and this letter seems to reflect the outcome of that meeting. The text of the letter reads, sadly, as a “non-apology apology,” in which the writer apologizes for any offense caused by his words, but not for the words themselves

He begins, “I write with a deep-felt sorrow that my letter to Bishop Lombardo dated January 13, 2022 was interpreted by social media as though I was being unjustly critical of, disrespectful to, or lambasting the Holy Father, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago or Bishop Lombardo.” He goes on to say that he was told his letter “verges” on violations of Canons 1373 (publicly inciting animosities or hatred against the pope or a bishop) and 1369 (using social communication to utter blasphemy, gravely injure good morals, express insults, or excite hatred or contempt against the Church), each of which is subject to a “just penalty.”

Once again, he apologizes for how it may have been taken: “If my letter was interpreted by some as a violation of Canon 1373 or Canon 1369, I can assure all of you, this was not my intent. I wrote for love of the Church to whom I’ve given my life.” In other words, he apparently stands by what he wrote.

He then uses a rhetorical trick often employed by papal detractors like Cardinal Burke in expressing his regard for the offices held by the pope, Cardinal Cupich, and the auxiliary bishops, but without expressing any respect for the men themselves: “I have always acted for love of God and I have the deepest regard for the Papacy and the Prelates of the Church.”

The following paragraph includes more of the same word games, saying “I regret the letter was interpreted as a near violation of the Canons stated above.” He also says, “I wish to state clearly that I have always held in high regard the Documents of the Second Vatican Council and the ecclesial authority of the Church.” Note that in this sentence he avoids stating that he assents to all the teachings of the documents of the Council or that he has always tried to be obedient to the Council and to ecclesial authority.” And this of course is the problem that Traditionis Custodes (and, as a result, Cardinal Cupich) have been exposing.

This type of slippery language, no matter how flowery, isn’t fooling anyone. Just a few days ago, this priest accused the pope of collaborating with governments and corporate elites to bring about the New World Order and usher in the Apocalypse. Saying that he respects “the Papacy” is an empty gesture until he retracts that accusation.

Please pray for this priest, for Bishop Strickland, and for all Catholics who have fallen prey to this dangerous and schismatic ideology, that their eyes are open and that they return to the fold.


Image: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. Look to the Lord! Photo taken by a Dominican Sister from the Congregation of St Cecilia (Nashville TN) of Holy Mass on Sunday 7th August 2016, during a retreat preached at their Bethany Retreat House. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic. https://flic.kr/p/KNWSSV


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

Catholic extremism comes to the surface in Chicago
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