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Defense of the Motu Proprio Collapsing in Contradictions

Pope Francis has offered two reasons for wishing to bring celebrations of the Traditional Mass to an end: attitudes of some of the faithful which have become associated with this form of the Mass, and the idea that the unity of the Church requires a unity of liturgical rite. Accordingly, some of his defenders have focused on one of these points, and some on the other. Both are having difficulty explaining and justifying Pope Francis’ action.

Targeting the Innocent to Punish the Guilty?

I recently fisked an article by Michael Sean Winters which laid the blame for Traditionis Custodes (TC) on the people who like the Latin Mass, singling out the journalist Michael Brendan Dougherty. There is much wrong with Winters’ argument, but suppose he was right about Dougherty being a dangerous schismatic, what would be the significance of this? To be crass about it, who cares what some journalist thinks? If he were the head of an organization, clerical or lay, with serious popular support, which was closely associated with the TLM, that might indicate a wider problem, but as it is, it proves nothing at all.

As if realizing that he needed to widen his evidence base, towards the end of his article Winters brings in Martin Mosebach, accusing him of rejecting Vatican II without being able to quote him doing so, and the views of George Weigel, apparently unaware that Weigel has a long and distinguished history of gratuitouslyinsulting Catholics attached to the Traditional Mass. As a representative of the movement, he doesn’t really fit the bill. Nevertheless, that’s the best Winters can come up with.

Another problem with this approach is identified by Terrence Sweeney on the Where Peter Is blog, and in fact is acknowledged even by Winters himself: in Sweeny’s words, “Even if many are acting schismatically, this does not justify a restriction that affects those who attend the Tridentine rite but remain faithful.”

It is not just that Pope Francis seems to be punishing the innocent along with the guilty. If deprivation of the Traditional Mass is indeed a punishment, it is not going to affect at all those ministered to by the SSPX, “independent” priests, and sedevacantists. I think I can say, without insulting anyone or risking contradiction, that if there are any people attending the TLM who say the Vatican II institutions are not (in the words of Pope Francis’) the “true Church,” you’re a lot more likely to find them in those congregations than in the ones meekly obeying their bishops. But the only way they are going to be affected by TC, is if they are crowded out of their own chapels by refugees from diocesan celebrations which have been closed down.

Defending Vatican II by Contradicting Vatican II

So Winters takes the view that the real problem lies not in the views of the traddies (despite what Pope Francis says) but in the mere fact of two Missals being celebrated side by side. Fr Anthony Ruff takes the same view, and it conforms with the ideas of Andrea Grillo, widely regarded as responsible for drafting TC. The three of them have all come up with variations on the idea that liturgical diversity puts the unity of the Church at risk.

This does indeed seem to be implied by TC, but it presents the difficulty that Vatican II was in favor of liturgical diversity, not against it. Allow me to be the thousandth person to quote Sacrosanctum Concilium (37): “even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity.” And again, Orientalium Ecclesiarum (2): “variety [sc. of Rites] within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it.” It is a puzzle that in order to manifest the truths of Vatican II, one must contradict Vatican II.

This awkward fact means that these authors have to come up with a reason why the diversity of the old and new forms of the Roman Rite is bad, while other kinds of diversity are acceptable, and even good. Accordingly, they claim that the reformed Mass is superior, a better and more complete expression of the theology of the Church as developed by Vatican II. This is a natural claim for them to make, but in itself it doesn’t really help. Suppose we say that one liturgical form or rite is superior to another, it surely doesn’t follow that the inferior one needs to be utterly obliterated. That has never been the Church’s principle of liturgical development. Indeed, given how views about what makes for a good liturgy vary, between people and over time, it has the potential to be a very destructive principle indeed.

Defending Ecumenism by Destroying Ecumenism

More problems arise when we look at the features of the liturgy which they think shows that it is superior to the Traditional Mass. It uses a vernacular language. It has a multi-year lectionary. It allows the people to hear the liturgy clearly, and make responses.

There are also more vague claims, such as that it includes the people, “activates” the laity, and militates against “clericalism” (though Sweeney has the grace to admit that the Novus Ordo has its own form of clericalism), but presumably these are consequences of the concrete features already mentioned.

The problem is that if they were trying to avoid the conclusion that the diversity represented by Eastern and Western Rites is okay, but not the diversity between the Old and New Missals of the West, they have come up with precisely the wrong features to pick out. If the TLM must be annihilated because it lacks these features, if liturgical diversity between a liturgical form which has these features and one which does not is intolerable because the latter is an implicit rejection of Vatican II, then it follows that the Church’s Eastern Rites will need to be wiped off the face of the earth as well. Indeed, even those with a limited knowledge of these rites will realise that some of these features are more strongly present in them than they are in the traditional Roman Rite. Use of a sacred language? Check. One year Lectionary? Check. Liturgical rites difficult to hear (or, indeed, see)? Check.

Indeed, what of the Iconostasis, which prevents the people from seeing what is going on in much of the Mass in the major Eastern Churches? If the Roman Rite of the Medieval period was bad, with the Rood Screen and silent Canon, this is presumably worse. And on this, admittedly ridiculous way of judging a liturgy, the Roman Rite as celebrated today is better than the Roman Rite as celebrated in the Middle Ages, because Rood Screens went out of fashion several centuries ago and very few churches still have them.

The richest aspect of the hole these writers have dug themselves into is the fact that one of the things those bad people attached to the Traditional Mass are supposed to be against is ecumenism (Fr Thomas Reese). What kind of ecumenism, we might ask, is based on the denigration of the ancient and beautiful liturgical traditions of our dialogue partners the Eastern churches, liturgies which date from long before the tragedy of 1054, and which are the glory of these Churches? Which made the ambassadors of Vladimir the Great of Russia return from Constantinople and report, with awe, that they knew not whether they had been in heaven or on earth? Which evangelized vast regions of Central and Eastern Europe and Asia, and which sustained the Faith of hundreds of millions of Christians, under centuries of Islamic rule, and the horrors of Communist persecution?

I would say, politely, that these writers have not thought this one through. The truth is that they are afflicted with an extraordinary parochialism, both of place and in time. The problem of the Eastern Rites has been pointed out to them, and they sometimes even acknowledge it, as with the amusing Footnote 2 of Sweeney article: “Nothing I am saying here is meant to indicate any disunity between the Rites nor is it meant to indicate any inferiority of the other Catholic Rites.” All the same, they can’t bring themselves to take it seriously. Oh that’s just some silly marginal phenomenon, they seem to say, don’t distract us from the main issue. But it’s not marginal at all, it is a crucial matter of principle with giddying implications for world-wide ecclesial politics.

They are even more immune to the point that the Western Church itself has several Rites, some reformed after the Council, and some still used as they were before it. Okay, so most Catholics don’t attend these, particularly if one’s experience is solely of the USA, but then they keep reminding us that tiny percentage of Catholics attend the Traditional Roman Rite: it is present in “less than of 4% of all Mass venues in the United States,” and 6.5% of Mass venues in the United Kingdom, according to the Pillar. In nearly all of these places it would be a matter of one Traditional Mass being celebrated on a Sunday or indeed on a weekday, alongside, say, eight Novus Ordo celebrations over the week. If we don’t need to worry about small-scale anomalies like the reformed Ambrosian Rite or the unreformed Dominican Rite, tell us again why Catholics attending the Traditional Roman Rite represents some cosmic contradiction of Vatican II which must be expurgated from the Church lest some terrible consequence arise.

It seems to me that the defenders of TC need to come up with some better arguments.

Photo credit: Jason Strull via

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