Today the Holy Father, Pope Francis, stunned the Catholic media sphere by abrogating Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial 2007 Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (SP). Francis wrote in his own Moto proprio Traditionis Custodes:

I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present Motu proprio, and declare that the liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi [law of prayer] of the Roman Rite.

Previously, SP had permitted all priests to celebrate the Holy Mass using the Tridentine (pre-1970) rubrics and books. Rumors and leaks about this reversal had been circulating for a while, but very few expected Pope Francis to go this far. It should be noted, however, that it did not ban the old Mass. Be on the lookout for false claims that it has been.

What struck me more than the specific rules he laid down was the frankness and force with which the pope explained his decision in an accompanying letter to bishops. He begins by saying he will speak with the full parrhesia (παρρησία, frankness) he often encourages his fellow bishops to use when discussing important matters. Often Catholic bishops have preferred to keep up a nice façade and avoid publicly discussing problems and controversies in the Church. This is supposedly for the benefit of the “simple” faithful, who might be scandalized to see bishops arguing or to hear that the Church isn’t perfect. In reality, laypeople have always known the Church isn’t perfect and that bishops are human beings. With social media, this – frankly – phoniness has long outlived whatever usefulness it once had. Avoiding lofty expressions and pious circumlocutions, Pope Francis bluntly lays out his negative assessment of the results of SP: in short, it was a nice gesture, but it failed.

Yet he does not criticize Pope Benedict; on the contrary, he praises both him and his predecessor for their outreach to traditional Catholics! But the goal, he says, in allowing the older form of Mass was always to heal the Lefebvrist division that began in 1975, not to exacerbate it. Indeed, SP instructs priests using the older form to “avoid discord and favor the unity of the whole Church” (5 §1). Benedict XVI’s accompanying letter to the bishops stated that this permission was being given, not for Lefebvrists, but for the “many people who clearly accept the binding character of the Second Vatican Council.” He admitted that many bishops told him they were afraid it would lead to “divisions within parish communities,” but maintained his hope that this fear would prove “unfounded,” and that instead “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching.”

Today, fourteen years later, that hope has withered away. Regrettably, as Pope Francis says, the opposite has happened. The fears of many bishops did turn out to be well-founded, and we are now seeing divisions within the Church even worse than in 1975 or 1988 (when Archbishop Lefebvre was first suspended and then excommunicated). Back then, as Benedict also acknowledged, the Tridentine Missal was being abused as “an external mark of identity.” It’s worse now. In the last two years or so, numerous conservative Catholic figures (such as Abby Johnson and Bishop Joseph Strickland) – having never previously expressed opinions on liturgy – suddenly began saying they had discovered the Tridentine rite. The traditional Mass has become the undisputed center of gravity for the anti-Francis camp.

In Francis’s words, SP “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.” The use of the Tridentine Missal “is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming […] that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’” Benedict did not intend his liberalization to be used by Lefebvrists, but that’s what happened. The expanded use of the older rite has become nearly coterminous with radical traditionalism (even if some devotees don’t share the group’s ideology). They are not just some Catholics attached to a different liturgical tradition, like the various Eastern Catholics, as part of the beautiful symphony of the Church’s catholic worship (they use this rhetoric to win sympathy). On the contrary, the “Latin Mass” movement vigorously criticizes the reformed Missal as well as various teachings of Vatican II and the post-conciliar popes. The Tridentine Mass is regarded as the superior form—sometimes even the only valid form. The reformed rite is disparaged as “heretical,” ugly, and harmful to holiness. In short, the bishops who were afraid this might happen were proved right. To be blunt, SP was a failure.

Benedict said that should “serious difficulties” arise, solutions could be found. Seeing this was the case, Francis sent a questionnaire to all bishops asking their opinion. As a result, to heal the serious divisions within the Church, Pope Francis is taking this weaponized liturgy out of the hands of those who divide her. Nevertheless, acknowledging (like his predecessors) the desires of those faithful who are attached to it, he will still allow individual bishops to permit Tridentine Masses within their dioceses, so long as they are not offered in parishes. However, priests ordained after yesterday will not be allowed to do so unless they first receive, through their bishop, explicit authorization from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. These rules are reminiscent of Pope John Paul II’s indult from 1988 that first allowed limited use of the Tridentine rite. This is a “sunsetting” of the older form.

That’s what has happened in a nutshell, but what interests me more is the theology Francis gives to justify all this. Without equivocation, he states that the reformed Missal, promulgated by Paul VI in 1970, is the “unique expression” of the Roman rite. Benedict introduced novel terminology: an “ordinary form” (the new) and an “extraordinary form” (the old) of one rite. This innovation has now been dropped in favor of a more traditional perspective: the Roman rite, just as it was reformed at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, was reformed again at the Second Vatican Council in the 20th. There is only one Roman rite, which has been “adapted many times over the course of the centuries according to the needs of the day, not only [to] be preserved but renewed ‘in faithful observance of the Tradition.’” The changes made to the rituals, texts, and rubrics after the Council were not an aberration, nor did they amount to the construction of a “new Mass” that suddenly replaced and dethroned the old one. Rather, in revising the books – as ordered to do by the Church’s supreme authority – the Vatican drew upon liturgical resources, prayers, and texts from the Church’s entire documented history of liturgy, such as the eighth-century Gelasian Sacramentary. The result was the elegant, dignified, and beautiful Missal that we have now, currently in its third typical edition (not to mention the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Lectionary, Breviary, and many other liturgical books). This reformed version is the one Roman rite:

Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements.

If you like the Latin Mass, you can keep the Latin Mass, because the Missal of Paul VI is the Latin Mass.

It’s hard to reconcile the permanent use of the unreformed rites with Benedict’s requirement that all Catholics accept the teachings of the most recent Ecumenical Council as binding. As Francis explains, the Council decreed certain reforms be made, particularly so that “the faithful would not assist as strangers and silent spectators in the mystery of faith, but, with a full understanding of the rites and prayers, would participate in the sacred action consciously, piously, and actively” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 21, quoted by Francis). This is why the Council also said – one of its greatest reforms – that much of the Mass should be said in the people’s own language, as determined by the Holy See and bishops (ibid. 36). This is one of several conciliar reforms that are set aside when the old rite is used. Interestingly, the new Moto proprio actually requires that, when the Tridentine Mass is still used, the Scripture readings must be “proclaimed in the vernacular language” (CT 3 § 3).

Concerning groups who have been using the older form, the goal now, according to Francis, is “to return to a unitary form of celebration.” Ideally, every Catholic would use the new rites. In practical reality, however, bishops are given discretion (“it is up to you”) in how they will eventually accomplish this. We likely won’t see any overnight bans, which would contradict the spirit of Pope Francis’s ministry. Although traditionalists are already complaining that this is authoritarian and contrary to his style of “pastoral accompaniment” and compassion, they are mistaken. Accompaniment is not a pathway for rejecting the Church’s authority or disregarding its unity. The Church’s goal and faith cannot be substituted for others, no matter how badly some Catholics may want to. Where accompaniment and tolerance come in is in allowing much room and time for working toward the ideal in reality. Furthermore, where church government is concerned, synodality and episcopal collegiality are crucial for Francis. This is why he first consulted with the bishops and even now is leaving it up to each one to decide for himself how he wants to bring back into the mainstream the traditional Catholics. The time limit is quite generous: there are plenty of young priests who (with their bishop’s permission) can keep offering the Tridentine Mass for the next half-century!

First impressions in the American conservative Catholic media sphere are very negative, as anyone could have guessed, but this is a long game. Yes, there will be lots of complaining now, and people saying they will just join the Society of St. Pius X. Such heat is the unfortunate cost of strongly re-committing the Church to following the path laid out by the Second Vatican Council. Long-term, I hope more traditional Catholics will return to their parishes and the reformed liturgies and not leave. Francis, echoing Benedict, laments the liturgical abuses that have been rampant since the Council, whereby some priests feel they can say whatever they want in place of the written texts. Like many Catholics, this has often vexed me personally, as there is comfort and real value in the rituals, which are jarringly undermined by random (and often confusing or bizarre) ad-libbing. If the Tridentine adherents return to the reformed rite as Pope Francis wants, maybe they can help us all to avoid such silliness and celebrate the reformed Mass in the vernacular in a profound and beautiful way. We Roman Catholics, with God’s help, have to try to put aside our differences and worship at the same altar, using the same unique rite.

Image source: Historical photo of Paul VI celebrating his first Mass in the vernacular

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Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

Traditionis Custodes: The Council and the Roman Rite
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