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A Traditionalist Ordinariate? Reply to Fr de Blignières

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Above: an Ordinariate Mass in Philadelphia. Photo by Allison Girone.

In the new edition of the traditionalist journal Sedes Sapientiae readers will find an article by Fr Louis-Marie de Blignières FSVF on the idea of a traditionalist ‘circumscription’, a term covering Personal Ordinariates and Prelatures, and a response to this article by me. Fr de Blignières, for those who don’t know, is the founder and superior of the Fraternity of St Vincent Ferrer, which uses the traditional Dominican Rite. His article promotes the idea of a “circumscription” for Traditionalists: a non-geographical diocese headed by an Ordinary appointed by Rome. I am a bit more sceptical.

Since then an interview with Fr de Blignières has been published on Rorate Caeli on this subject, and I have been encouraged to put my thoughts about it into the public domain as well, to further stimulate what is a very necessary debate. What follows is complementary to my Sedes Sapientiae article.

The History of the Idea

Pope John-Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei in 1988 established a legal framework for religious communities and priestly institutes attached to the Traditional Mass: the Fraternity of St Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, the traditionalist Benedictines of Le Barroux, and so on (the ‘Ecclesia Dei groups’). This framework changed again with Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum in 2007, and again with Pope Francis’ Traditionis custodes in 2021.

During the Ecclesia Dei era, Una Voce International (the FIUV), Dom Gerard Calvet of Le Barroux, and others, promoted the idea of a Traditionalist Ordinariate, because of the difficulty priests had in getting permission from bishops to celebrated the TLM, as well as the need of the Ecclesia Dei groups to get bishops for ordinations, confirmations, etc.

Shortly before Summorum Pontificum Bishop Fellay, then Superior of the SSPX, explained that he had asked Pope Benedict for, among other things, “a Church structure for the family of Tradition,” referring to this idea.

After 2007, this perceived need was vastly lessened. Even if practice didn’t match theory, traditionalists were in a much stronger position than before. On the other hand, an Ordinariate remained a major plank in the practical arrangements being considered for the reconciliation of the SSPX. It was not clarified whether such an Ordinariate would include all the Ecclesia Dei groups, and diocesan clergy who celebrate the TLM (the “family of Tradition”), or would be a structure just for the SSPX (and perhaps the religious communities currently dependent on them).

It would be natural for the SSPX to seek to recreate, on solid canonical foundations, the convenience they currently enjoy de facto of having tame bishops willing to give them the sacraments, and to avoid formal oversight by unsympathetic diocesan bishops. Furthermore, it would be a matter of little importance to them if the “Ecclesia Dei groups” remained outside this, and if diocesan clergy retained the right to be bi-ritual between the TLM and the Novus Ordo.

The Question today

What concerns me, and others in the Una Voce movement whom I have been consulting, is that if this canonical structure might present those hostile to the TLM with an opportunity to limit, rather than foster, the growth and development of the “family of Tradition”.

When the Ordinariate idea was being promoted in the 1990s, it was widely felt in the Traditional movement that local bishops were a limiting factor, and our opportunities lay in getting concessions from the Holy See, where at least the Holy Father seemed more favourable to us. This was not wrong, but things have changed. We now have a situation in which a frankly hostile papal policy is in conflict with a much more open-minded attitude among many, if by no means all, bishops.

If bishops had been genuinely given the choice of whether to allow the TLM, as the opening Article of Traditionis custodes misleadingly suggests they have been, then not only would there be many more celebrations, but Catholics attached to it who found themselves in a hostile diocese would often have been able to access it by crossing a diocesan boundary.

As things have turned out, bishops’ options have been drastically limited, but despite this many of them have found ways of protecting Traditional Mass congregations, sometimes publicly, sometimes “under the radar”: something that Catholics attached to the TLM will not forget.

It is not difficult to imagine what would have happened under Traditionis custodes if all Traditional Masses had been under the authority of a single bishop, or perhaps one per country, appointed by the Pope. Even if such a bishop were inclined to be friendly, he would be under the close scrutiny of the Holy See, and much easier to put under pressure than scores of diocesan bishops in different parts of the world.

It is impossible to know what the policy of future popes may be, but we can hardly ignore the possibility that not all of them will be friendly to the TLM.

In my article for Sedes Sapientiae, I highlight a second problem. This is that many diocesan priests, and priests in mainstream religious orders, have over the years started celebrating the Traditional Mass privately, on their days off, or for some special occasion. Having tried it out, they see its value for their own spiritual lives, as well as its pastoral potential, and perhaps celebrate it once a week on a weekday, or a Saturday, until they gradually come to use it more and more. Now, priests celebrating both the old and the new Mass may or may not be the ideal—I leave that question open—but, as I say in the Sedes Sapientiae article:

We should not see it solely as a state of affairs: it is also a pipeline, one that a great many people have passed through on the way to a deeper and richer engagement with their Catholic heritage and spirituality.

To have two options in the Church, the mainstream where only the Novus Ordo is celebrated, and a Traditionalist enclave where only the TLM is celebrated, making all these intermediate steps impossible, would block this pipeline.

Traditionalists sympathetic to the idea of an ordinariate probably don’t envisage the TLM being prohibited outside it. The danger is that an Ordinariate structure could be used to justify such a prohibition. To put it another way, if Catholics attached to the TLM come to support the idea of an Ordinariate, understanding it in a non-exclusive way, it could come to be supported, and implemented, by people in positions of authority who have a more negative conception of it. Our opponents would have a range of options about how to impose their vision. They could make exclusivity the price to be paid for the benefits of an Ordinariate; they could bury the negative implications in some small print; and they could impose them only after the Ordinariate is established.

To counter this, while being open-minded about how the SSPX could one day be reconciled, I would suggest that Traditional Catholics adopt the following as a non-negotiable principle in the development of the legal status of the Traditional Mass:

The Traditional Latin Mass is the patrimony of every priest and lay person of the Latin Rite, and as such it must not be limited, in law or in practice, to members of a traditionalist Ordinariate.

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