Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Cardinal Roche on the Vatican II Rupture

Above: Bishop Athanasius Schneider offers the Holy Mass at St. Peter’s church in Steubenville, Ohio, United States. Photo by Allison Girone.

As I recently wrote on Catholic Answers, the confusion surrounding the meaning of Traditionis custodes, and its flotilla of supplementary documents, is beginning to resemble that around Amoris Laetitia. I was talking specifically about the purpose of the document: what vision of the ecclesial landscape inspires it. Here I want to focus on the equally opaque reasoning behind it.

Last Sunday BBC Radio 4 aired a short report on the Traditional Mass. They talked to the Catholic blogger Maria Jones (do have a look at her channel ‘One of Nine’), a priest who says the TLM, and some Traditional Mass goers they found by chance outside a church. We also heard clips from Austen Ivereigh, papal biographer, and Cardinal Arthur Roche. (Listen here, 5min to 12min.)

On the subject of why TC had been issued, Ivereigh tells us that people who attend the Traditional Mass constitute a sinister ‘movement’ opposed to Vatican II. This claim is presumably inspired by Pope Francis’ 2021 Letter to Bishops. The difficulty with it is that even the most emotional and unsophisticated supporters of the Traditional Mass that the BBC journalists could find lend absolutely no support to this idea. If the ‘movement’ Ivereigh speaks of is only found in some obscure corner of the internet, then it is hard to know why Pope Francis has caused such heartache by restricting the Traditional Mass all over the world.

Cardinal Roche, on the other hand, spoke as follows:

You know the theology of the Church has changed. Whereas before the priest represented, at a distance, all the people. They were channelled, as it were, through this person who alone was celebrating the Mass. It is not only the priest who celebrates the liturgy, but also those who are baptised with him. And that is an enormous statement to make.

This is completely unrelated to the claims made in the Letter to Bishops, and it is hard to think of such a claim being made by a Curial Cardinal before. We have often been told that the idea that ‘the theology of the Church has changed’ is the preserve of extreme progressives and extreme Lefebvrists, and that what the Council actually did was what Pope John XXIII asked it to do (Gaudent Mater Ecclesia):

What … is necessary today is that the whole of Christian doctrine, with no part of it lost, be received in our times by all with a new fervor, in serenity and peace, in that traditional and precise conceptuality and expression which is especially displayed in the acts of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I. … For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the fashion in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgement, is another thing.

Is there any basis on the Conciliar texts which supports Cardinal Roche’s ‘new theology’? Well, the Council’s Decree on the Liturgy, Sacrosantum Concilium, tells us (n. 48):

The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God’s word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.

This is indeed the teaching of the Church. But is it new? As has been documented, the document’s footnotes were drastically thinned out at a late stage in its preparation, and this obscures the reality that this paragraph is based on two modern pre-Conciliar magisterial texts.

The first, which coined the unfortunate phrase ‘dumb spectators’ (‘muti spectatores’),  is Pope Pius XI’s Apostolic Constitution Divini cultus sanctitatem (1928) n. 9. He was talking about Catholics who weren’t singing the chants in accordance with Pope Pius X’s recommendations in Tra la sollicitudini a quarter of a century earlier.

The other source is Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei:

By the waters of baptism, as by common right, Christians are made members of the Mystical Body of Christ the Priest, and by the “character” which is imprinted on their souls, they are appointed to give worship to God. Thus they participate, according to their condition, in the priesthood of Christ (88).


In this most important subject it is necessary, in order to avoid giving rise to a dangerous error, that we define the exact meaning of the word “offer.” The unbloody immolation at the words of consecration, when Christ is made present upon the altar in the state of a victim, is performed by the priest and by him alone, as the representative of Christ and not as the representative of the faithful. But it is because the priest places the divine victim upon the altar that he offers it to God the Father as an oblation for the glory of the Blessed Trinity and for the good of the whole Church. Now the faithful participate in the oblation, understood in this limited sense, after their own fashion and in a twofold manner, namely, because they not only offer the sacrifice by the hands of the priest, but also, to a certain extent, in union with him. It is by reason of this participation that the offering made by the people is also included in liturgical worship (92).

The idea that the people partake, in an important sense, of the offering of the Mass, without confusing the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of all believers, is found throughout the tradition, and is embedded in the texts of the Mass itself. Those who attend the Traditional Mass will be familiar with the word “Oremus”, “Let us pray”—an oft-repeated invitation to join in spirit with the prayer of the priest—and the words of the priest, “Orate fratres ut meum ac vestrum sacrificium acceptabile fiat apud Deum Patrem”: “Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours be acceptable to God the Father.” The theology of the Traditional Mass, and those who have expounded it over the centuries, is incompatible with the view that the people are passive observers, having no part in the mystery.

The BBC editors linked Cardinal Roche’s comments with the traditional practice of “the priest with his back to the people for most of the Mass.” It is impossible to know if His Eminence made this link himself. But that issue was, notoriously, not debated at the Second Vatican Council. Permission for celebration “facing the people” was slipped out in an Instruction in 1964 (Inter Oecumenini), which in fact only spoke of the construction of new altars. If this heralded a fundamental change—or an ‘enormous statement,’ in Cardinal Roche’s words—that suggests that the soon-to-be abolished Congregation for Rites had more authority than is generally recognised.

I find myself, here, and not for the first time, defending the words of the Second Vatican Council against an interpretation which would impute to them theological novelties incompatible with the perennial teaching of the Church. It’s beyond the scope of this article to do the same thing for everything the Council said, but at least on this important issue, of the manner in which the faithful participate in the Mass, Austen Ivereigh should note that I am not the one criticising Vatican II. It is Cardinal Roche, by implication, who seems to be casting it as introducing an historical rupture into the teaching of the Church.

He can’t, really, have meant this, but I do wonder what he did mean. It is clear that he is casting about for a different kind of rationale for the planned suppression of the Traditional Mass from the one offered by Pope Francis in the Letter to Bishops: one not just based on the empirical claim that its supporters are bad people, which fares so badly when a journalist takes the trouble to ask some worshippers about it. He would like an argument based on the theology of the liturgy, something that would allow him to say that it is objectively bad to allow any celebrations of the Traditional Mass to continue longer than absolutely necessary.

I’d love to hear more about this, because any such argument is going to have this difficulty: that if the Traditional Mass is bad, then the Church’s entire liturgy was bad for fifteen centuries, and most probably the Eastern Rites are bad even today. It would be intriguing indeed to discover that the Dicastery for Divine Worship is saying that celebration ad orientem is theologically problematic, while the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches is at the very same time trying to impose celebration ad orientem on the Syro-Malabars.

If that turns out to be true, we have reached a new phase in the confusion sadly associated with the current papacy.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...