More than eight years into his papacy, after remaining mostly silent in public (and sometimes even cautiously optimistic) about the liberalization of the use of the 1962 Roman Missal by his predecessor, Pope Francis finally reversed Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Much speculation has been made about what spurred Francis to ask the world’s bishops for feedback on the implementation of Benedict’s policy, and to what extent that feedback prompted Francis to act. According to papal biographer and collaborator Austen Ivereigh, the catalyst may have come from within the US episcopate.
Writing on Twitter, Ivereigh mentioned he’d received a note from a US bishop, writing, “the survey that led to Traditionis Custodes was prompted by US bishops — including conservatives — during their ad limina visits, who asked Francis to act pro-Vatican II and Church unity.” He shared a screenshot from the unidentified bishop’s note, which said (very lightly proofread, the original screenshot is here):
Thanks for your public comments supporting Francis re: Traditionis Custodes. I was really glad to see it and its directions. Frankly, these folks, or more importantly, their real and social media leaders, have brought this on themselves.
Most centrist bishops here were okay with a live and let live approach but the vitriolic attacks on Francis caused growing concern. The last straw for many center-right bishops was the attack on Vatican II. That pushed a lot of guys over the edge. Francis got a polite and discrete earful during some of our Ad Limina visits. The consultation allowed guys to say what they thought. Francis responded.
You should see some of the frothing mouths and words in some of the TLM media here. Archbishop Di Noia of the CDF, no liberal to say the least, came out pulling no punches in excoriating them.
There are two important things that jump out at me. First, this bishop mentions “the last straw for many center-right bishops.” I have often been critical of the US bishops for resisting Pope Francis’s initiatives and pushing back against his vision. But our bishops, as resistant as they might be to Pope Francis’s reforms, came of age in the years following the Council. Most of them hold Sts. John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II in high esteem. Most of them are also strong supporters of Benedict XVI, and they see the abuse of Summorum Pontificum by radical traditionalists as a betrayal of the trust Benedict had that they would not become divisive and disruptive.
One need look no further than the attempts of Bishop David Malloy (who is hardly a liberal) in the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, to reign in the out-of-control traditionalist subculture among his priests. Or at the outcry over Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson banning the extraordinary form in 2014 at the now-defunct Fisher-More College, a place that was promoting fringe ideas that were even too extreme for Taylor Marshall. And lest we forget, there is an endless list of priests “persecuted” by their bishops like El Paso’s Fr. Michael Rodriguez, who was removed from public ministry for refusing to say Mass according to the 1970 Missal.
The second part of the note that stood out is that he mentions “their real and social media leaders.” I often hear from many proponents of the old rite that the reality on the ground is dramatically different than in social media. I hear from others, however, about how hostile attitudes towards the pope and the Council are pervasive. By all accounts, their heroes in the episcopacy are dissidents like Cardinal Burke and Bishops Athanasius Schneider and Joseph Strickland. The protests from figures like these ring hollow when they are themselves part of the problem, and when someone like Bishop Strickland shares an article on Twitter entitled “An Evil Edict from Pope Francis,” the reasons why Traditionis Custodes was necessary become more clear. I have looked for signs of hope among the leaders of this movement, and have found none who have publicly stood up, for example, to Cardinal Burke’s dissent from the Magisterium on many issues. These are real leaders in the traditionalist movement, extremist bishops with real influence, not bloggers or YouTubers.
Traditionalists have been demanding to see the responses to the questionnaire sent to the bishops by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Apparently they are skeptical that Francis was motivated by their responses, and believe this was his own initiative. They apparently think Pope Francis was being dishonest when he cited the bishops’ responses as primary motivation behind restricting the use of the older form of the Roman Rite in the letter that accompanied his new motu proprio:
The responses reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene. Regrettably, the pastoral objective of my Predecessors, who had intended “to do everything possible to ensure that all those who truly possessed the desire for unity would find it possible to remain in this unity or to rediscover it anew,” has often been seriously disregarded. An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, 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.
The nine questions on the survey were published by Crux’s Rome Bureau Chief, Ines San Martin, on July 20. In January, a summary of the responses of the French bishops to the questionnaire, giving a mixed, but mostly negative assessment of Summorum Pontificum was leaked.
In 2018 an Italian blog reported that Archbishop Carlo Redaelli of Gorizia had argued against the legitimacy of Summorum Pontificum during a meeting of the Italian bishops’ conference (translation here). Likewise, Archbishop Arthur Roche, the new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has long been a critic of Benedict’s decision. In 2020, he penned an essay entitled, “The Roman Missal of Saint Paul VI: A witness to unchanging faith and uninterrupted tradition,” which was described by the traditionalist website Una Voce Scotland as “a feeble attack on the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.”
The story of Traditionis Custodes will continue to develop. Surely, the opposition to this decision will get uglier and angrier before things get better. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, it’s clear its implementation still faces strong opposition from within the US Church. But if it is true that Pope Francis’s action was a response to the requests of even “center-right” US bishops, then perhaps the work of rebuilding unity in the Church has already begun.
Image: Pope Francis attends a meeting with U.S. bishops from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska during their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican Jan. 16, 2020. The bishops were making their “ad limina” visits to report on the status of their dioceses to the pope and Vatican officials. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)