Is The Vatican Looking to Ghettoize the Latin Mass?

Though the rumors have been stirring for a while now, John-Henry Westen of LifeSiteNews reports today that sources in Rome are talking about a possible plan to ghettoize the Traditional Latin Mass:

Sources inside the Vatican suggest that Pope Francis aims to end Pope Benedict XVI’s universal permission for priests to say the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), also known as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. While the course of action would be in tune with Pope Francis’ repeatedly expressed disdain for the TLM especially among young people, there has been no open discussion of it to date.

Sources in Rome told LifeSite last week that liberal prelates inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith were overheard discussing a plan ascribed to the Pope to do away with Pope Benedict’s famous document that gave priests freedom to offer the ancient rite of the Mass.

There’s no question that the TLM is a source of contention for many of the revolutionaries in the Church. After all, the majority of the resistance to their program of “reform” comes from traditionalist quarters. But while some ecclesiastical progressives recognize that with the TLM comes opposition through the commitment of those attached to it to doctrinal orthodoxy, Pope Francis seems annoyed at worst and indifferent at best on the question of traditional liturgy — or liturgy in general. Yes, he’s talked about attachment to the TLM as a “fashion” that he seems to think will pass, like all phases. But for the most part, his efforts have been focused almost everywhere but the liturgy. Westen continues:

The overheard plans are nearly identical to comments from an important Italian liturgist in an interview published by France’s La Croix earlier this month. Andrea Grillo a lay professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St Anselmo in Rome, billed by La Croix as “close to the Pope,” is intimately familiar Summorum Pontificum. Grillo in fact published a book against Summorum Pontificum before the papal document was even released.

Grillo told La Croix that Francis is considering abolishing Summorum Pontificum. According to Grillo, once the Vatican erects the Society of Saint Pius X as a Personal Prelature, the Roman Rite will be preserved only within this structure. “But [Francis] will not do this as long as Benedict XVI is alive.”

The plan, as related to LifeSite, involved making an agreement with the Society of St. Pius X and, with that agreement in place, sequestering those Catholics wanting the TLM to the SSPX. For most, that would strip them of access to the TLM since there would not be nearly enough SSPX priests to service Catholics wanting the TLM worldwide.

There are a couple of things to unpack here.

First, I just don’t think think Francis cares enough, for the reasons I stated above, to bother with Summorum Pontificum. There’s no indication that he sees any threat in Latin Mass communities. They are a mild nuisance at best, and one he thinks — if he truly believes the resurgence in TLM attendance to be a fad — will take care of itself.

There are also the stories about how he got along well with the SSPX during his tenure in Argentina. The stories, as I’ve heard them, is that the Society there did the kind of work amongst the poor and marginalized (a natural result of their adherence to authentic social teaching) that then-Cardinal Bergoglio approved of. So while he found them a bit liturgically and doctrinally eccentric, from his perspective they checked the right boxes, as it were, and he had no problem letting them continue their own affairs without interference.

It is for this reason, one theory goes, that he has seen no impediment to their reconciliation. (And of course, if he shows mercy to them, how can he be blamed by traditionalists if he shows it to others who are…shall we say, less orthodox?)

But this brings us back to the question of the proposed solution: a personal prelature for the SSPX under which all access to the Traditional Latin Mass would be ghettoized.

I find this far-fetched for several reasons. First, because the personal prelature seems like anything but a sure bet, with the 11th hour re-introduction of conditions that have long been considered non negotiable to the Society — conditions which the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (which works under the CDF) indicated as recently as last summer were within the parameters of negotiation.

Second, because I would be deeply surprised to see Pope Francis hesitate to do something simply because the Pope Emeritus is still alive. It certainly hasn’t slowed down any other portion of his program, and the Pope Emeritus has seen fit not to object to anything thus accomplished.

Third, and most importantly, because I don’t think the Society itself would go for it. There is nothing about the SSPX that indicates its leadership is seeking to have total control over tradition, in the liturgy or otherwise. Archbishop Lefebvre himself wanted Rome to leave the liberty to say the old Mass available to the entire Church. And while Lefebvre was not happy with the conditions placed on it, in a talk given in 1984, he said, “It would be difficult to say that it [the indult] is not a good thing, since many people have asked Rome for this liberty, that those who say the Old Mass not be persecuted.”

Further, according to the late John Vennari of Catholic Family News, “In January 2001, the SSPX established two primary conditions for negotiations from the Vatican as a gesture of good will,” the first of which was that “the Vatican make it known that every priest in the world may celebrate the Tridentine Mass without any restriction.”

Bishop Fellay, under whose leadership that condition was issued, also lauded Summorum Pontificum when it was released in 2007. He did not seem aggrieved that the TLM was not made only the purview only of the Society.

There is thus no reason to believe he would want it to be so in 2017. In fact, his words ten years ago indicate that he clearly saw the Church’s ancient liturgy as a universal and unalienable right:

The motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum of July 7, 2007 re-establishes the Tridentine Mass in its legal right. In the text it is clearly acknowledged that it was never abrogated. And so fidelity to this Mass—for the sake of which so many priests and lay people have been persecuted, or even severely punished, for almost 40 years this fidelity was never disobedience.

There is simply no evidence that the Society would, for any reason, go along with a plan to further restrict what they believe should be universally available.

Westen’s source also offers the hint of a possible plot from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in undermining a deal between Rome and the Society:

LifeSite’s source suggested that the plan may explain a May 20, 2017 letter by the recently ousted Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller. Even though Cardinal Müller wanted the SSPX fully reconciled to help fight modernists in the Church, the May 20 letter seemed to scuttle an agreement between Pope Francis and the SSPX which would see them get a personal prelature. The letter includes provisions long known to be completely unacceptable to the SSPX, thus nullifying an understanding SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay believed was imminent.

If there’s one thing that’s become abundantly clear over the past year, it’s that Cardinal Müller hedges his bets and steps deftly away from danger. I cannot imagine him going out on a limb to stop this deal to protect a Mass I’ve seen no indication he has an attachment to. It is my understanding that other prelates had to coax him into recognizing how important it would be to bring the SSPX in at this time. He was the one taking hardline stances about their positions until very recently. In December 2013, he said:

The canonical excommunication of the bishops for their illegal ordinations was revoked, but a de facto sacramental excommunication remains for their schism; they put themselves out of communion with the Church. After that we are not closing the door and never will, but we are inviting them to be reconciled. But they too must change their attitude, accept the conditions of the Catholic Church, and the Supreme Pontiff as the definitive criterion for membership. [emphasis added]

Even if Müller’s intent was sabotage, his removal from the CDF could easily pave the way for a new, more conciliatory approach from the Vatican toward the Society that drops the conditions put forward in his May 20 letter. So far, we haven’t seen any indication of this.

So while I have no doubt that Westen has credible sources in Rome who have heard such talk, the entire idea strikes me as one of those plausible-sounding but probably false narratives. Whether this is intentional on the part of those who might have an interest in sowing disinformation or merely the result of wishful thinking, I’d be surprised to see anything further come of this.

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