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Not Authorized: The Untold Story of the Death of the Old Mass

Introduction: A Time of Confusion

Although it is now frequently claimed that the traditional Latin Mass (TLM) was never abrogated (totally abolished) following the Second Vatican Council, this position is squarely at odds not only with the lived experience of several generations of Catholics, but with the rapid and near total disappearance of the TLM within a brief period of time.

For many years after 1970, there was considerable confusion about the legal and sacramental status of the TLM following the publication of the new Missale Romanum of 1970. Throughout that time period, Pope Paul VI granted multiple permissions to specific people (like St. Josemaría Escrivá), dioceses, and even nations (the U.K.) to continue to use the TLM despite the universal transition to the new missal.

In 1984, Pope John Paul II further granted permissions to all bishops of the world via the letter Quattuor abhinc annos to permit the celebration of the TLM for any group of Catholics who requested it. However, confusion about the status of the TLM persisted. To help clarify once and for all, in 1986, John Paul II convened a commission of nine cardinals (Ratzinger, Mayer, Oddi, Stickler, Casaroli, Gantin, Innocenti, Palazzini, and Tomko) to investigate if either Paul VI or the Second Vatican Council had ever abrogated the TLM.

The commission determined that (1) the TLM had never been juridically suppressed or abrogated and (2) that bishops cannot forbid or restrict a priest concerning the celebration of the traditional rite of Mass, whether in public or in private.

In 1988, John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei and urged “bishops to make broad and generous use of this faculty [i.e., celebration of the TLM] on behalf of all the faithful who sought it.”

In all of this, we seem to have a consistent message from the official organs of the Church. John Paul II and the commission came to the same, unequivocal answer: neither Paul VI nor the Council had abrogated the TLM. Indeed, the historical record shows that in the late ’60s, Paul VI and even Father Annibale Bugnini went on record to say that the TLM was to be kept and encouraged. (See the article from January 6, 1966.) Additionally, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated that the TLM was never forbidden by the Council.

So, what happened to the TLM, if, de jure, the TLM was to be not only allowed, but encouraged? The answer typically given is thus:

The Council ushered in a new era of reform, along with a new form of the Mass. While there were some malcontents, the new Mass was welcomed with rejoicing. The priest facing the people, the vernacular, the hymns — all of these were desirable and popular changes. The TLM had served its purpose but was not suited to the modern Church, and thus faded away naturally.

This is a fiction. At best, it is a remarkably incomplete picture.

The new Mass (and the new breviary, and new calendar, and new sacramental rites, and new feasts, etc. — over 25 significant changes all told) was neatly articulated in newspaper articles, defended vigorously in Q&A columns, and lavishly praised in letters to the editor. All of that is true. There was a decided welcoming of the new Mass. However, history could not entirely ignore the widespread opposition (or, at minimum, grave concern of many) about these seismic changes to the bedrock of Catholic sacraments and worship.

Upon examination of the written record left from the turbulent conciliar and postconciliar period, it is notable that with astonishing and unprecedented speed, the entire daily structure, the entire fabric of what was known as “Catholic life” vanished. Historical documents left in newspapers show not just saddened and confused laypeople, but priests in rebellion and scholars horrified by the sweeping cultural loss. Those concerned about or opposed to the new Mass had no recourse, and — critically — were told that the old Mass was not allowed.

The resultant picture is a Catholic Church in America that, from roughly the 1960s-’80s (if not later) was in an all-out civil war. The postconciliar iconoclasm has been well documented [1], and the fruits of the past 50 years of reforms have been seen as well.

This article, instead, highlights how the old Mass died and the new Mass survived by looking at American newspapers, a primary point of recourse for the average American Catholic. More specifically, this series examines what information was presented to the average Catholic as truthful, in keeping with the Council, and faithful to Rome. Its sole source is the Catholic News Archive, a full-text database of Catholic newspapers.

This article will explore the experience of the lay faithful from this period. Does it match the official pronouncements of the postconciliar popes that the TLM was never abolished? How did the transition to the new Mass occur, and what did that mean for the TLM as it had been known?

The Editorial Record: An Examination of Evidence

December 15, 1960

Catholic Transcript

A salient but overlooked point is that the reforms of 1960 were about not the new Mass, but the TLM in the vernacular. The new Mass, the Novus Ordo, did not appear until 1969–70. Allowing the Mass in the vernacular had been under discussion for some years at this point, and there appeared to be a great deal of popular support for it. In 1960, Pope John XXIII promulgated a revised missal, breviary, and calendar.

Even in the article above, the only reference to the vernacular is to the recitation of the litany. The tone is reassuring, perhaps in response to the chaos in the Church in the advent of the Council.

It is worth noting that even the 1960 liturgical reforms were not the first in recent memory. The Holy Week liturgies were revised dramatically multiple times after 1950.

October 29, 1961

Catholic Transcript

In 1961, one of the most prominent cardinals in the world sounded a note of caution about use of the vernacular. He encouraged not a change of language, but increased instruction and catechesis for the laity.

“They never suggested the Mass in the vernacular,” he said. “And if they did, in what vernacular?” There are thousands of Catholics in New England who speak French, Italian, Polish or Lithuanian, he said. “It is my opinion,” he said, “that the Mass wilt be known and loved when we give more instruction pertaining to it — no matter what language is used.”

In 1961, John XXIII also still insisted that Latin has a sovereign place in the liturgy, although this would be ignored and reversed by the 1964 reforms, which both notably altered the Mass and permitted it mostly to be said in the vernacular.

October 18, 1963

Catholic Standard and Times

Jumping to 1963, this article was penned shortly after the Council had officially started. Worth noting is not merely the announcement that the Council Fathers have overwhelmingly voted to approve the vernacular in the Mass, but that the experiences of “our Protestant neighbors who have long carried on their worship in the local language … could be of immense help.”

The preference for Latin is reduced to a desire for comfort, for familiarity. There is a clear implication that, a mere two years after the supreme pontiff insisted that Latin be sovereign, Latin will soon be replaced. Four years after this article, the pontifical academies in Rome would stop teaching in Latin[Editor’s note: The linked Reuters article says the pontifical academies stopped teaching Latin — a subtle error we should have corrected in the original edition of this article.]

(By this point, debates about liturgy were raging in editorials and letters to the editor. For the moment, let us consider only articles and statements from those with some authority within the Church.)

January 6, 1966

Catholic News Service

In 1966, Catholics were told that Father Bugnini himself said the Latin Mass was in keeping with the Council — although the word permitting is telling.

As we will see in a few articles, that phrase, the “Latin” Mass is ambiguous and could mean “Mass in Latin” or “the traditional Mass.”

Recall that the new Missal (for the Novus Ordo, the new Mass) was not promulgated until 1969–70. In 1964, and again in 1967, Catholics thought they already had the “new Mass of the Council” — an edited version of the TLM in the vernacular. The arrival of a completely new Mass would be a great shock to many.

February 24, 1967

Catholic Transcript

By 1967, Bishop Walter Curlin was confident enough to speak out of both sides of his mouth, simultaneously saying he had “no feelings either way” but was “not in favor of returning the Latin Mass” and “will submit any request … to the diocesan priests’ senate for study and recommendation.” Curiously, and in opposition to centuries of Catholic belief, he further says the vernacular is “the language that we pray best.” Use of the vernacular had graduated from chiefly encouraging lay participation to now superior to Latin, still the official language of the Church, in prayer.

When this article was written, it was still two years before the Novus Ordo was published and when Catholics were still using a modified but recognizable version of the TLM, merely in the vernacular. However, even at that moment in time, this American bishop required permission from both himself and the diocesan priests’ senate for a Latin Mass to even be considered. Furthermore, it is unclear even whether the bishop is considering the TLM (1962 missal) or simply the 1967 missal in Latin.

A 1967 article (written by no less a luminary than Erik von Kuehnelt Leddihn) notes that Latin is “still popular” — the “still” suggesting defiance, that something was not going according to someone’s plan.

April 27, 1968

Catholic News Service

In 1968, Paul VI also reaffirms the “privileged place in liturgical ceremonies” that Latin must have. Exactly what this privileged place is is never made clear, as Latin was continually being excised from not just the liturgy, but also music and prayers.

There is a papal warning against preferring Latin “for its own sake,” for “exaggerated” veneration of what is old — an increasingly common charge in episcopal statements. The opposition to the TLM in English was perhaps intensified by the seemingly minor changes of 1960 that had now been in effect for several years and borne fruit.

October 24, 1975

Catholic Transcript

In 1969, Paul VI released the new missal, which contained the text of the new Mass. A revised first edition was published and put into effect in 1970, and a second edition in 1975. By 1975, the language has notably shifted from “Latin Mass” to “Tridentine Mass” (functionally synonymous), and there is apparently no question of Catholics attending the Tridentine Mass.

Archbishop John Whealon says (emphasis added): “Accordingly, Catholics of the Archdiocese of Hanford are informed that this Tridentine Mass is not authorized and that they do not fulfill their privileged obligation of participating in Sunday Mass at any Tridentine Mass. Catholics wishing a Latin Mass are encouraged to discuss this with their own pastors.”

September 3, 1976

Catholic Transcript

While the vitriol started far earlier, this excerpt — from a regular column by Archbishop John F. Whealon — showcases the increasing acceptability of mockery toward traditionalists and imperiously hinted at charges of schism and heresy. Within roughly ten years, the tone has gone from an insistence that the two Masses can coexist and be treasured simultaneously to transparent attempts to eradicate the TLM.

The authorship of this telling column offers a secondary point of interest: Whealon, like many of his fellow bishops in the 1970s, treated traditionalists harshly and brooked no “dissent” from those who wished to celebrate the TLM, while he simultaneously protected sexually abusive priests in his own diocese with full knowledge and in an active fashion.

August 9, 1977

Catholic News Service

By 1977, the situation has clearly deteriorated rapidly. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s controversy is well underway, and Bishop Thomas Welsh in Arlington bemoans the presence of a Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) priest in his diocese (who, it seems, is not even aware of the bishop’s name). From this point on, the confusion about the old Mass exponentially increases as some bishops cast doubt on the validity of any Latin Mass, SSPX or not.

“‘Attendance at a Tridentine Mass does not fulfill the Sunday obligation of Catholics,’ the bishop continued.”

The wording is also increasingly confusing. In the excerpt above, the archbishop says the Tridentine Mass does not fulfill the Sunday obligation. This could mean either a) a Mass said by an SSPX priest or b) or any TLM. In either case, he was flatly incorrect. In the early 1990s, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei ruled that a Mass celebrated by a priest of the SSPX fulfills one’s Sunday obligation. If Bishop Welsh meant any TLM, he was even more in error. Either way, he did not clarify and was not corrected.

Around the same time, in Kentucky, Bishop Richard Ackerman was even more direct: “‘It is the Tridentine form of the Mass which is forbidden, not the use of the Latin language,’ the bishop said.”

Recall that eleven years earlier, both Paul VI and Fr. Bugnini (1966 article) in addition to multiple U.S. bishops (cited throughout this article) had explicitly stated that the TLM would be permitted and encouraged to remain and coexist in almost every parish. Now, in 1977, the Mass that existed just eight years prior is labeled as an aberration and disorder that deserves total condemnation.

May 15, 1979

Catholic News Service

And here, at last, is one answer to the original question: why did the TLM in America disappear?

Evidence strongly suggests that it is because at least some bishops wanted it gone and took steps to achieve this goal.

Somehow, the idea arose that bishops could determine if the Latin Mass were allowed. Suddenly, the default shifted from “encouraged publicly and privately” to “never, unless the bishop permits.”

In 1980, the bishop of Cleveland used almost the exact same language as Bishop Ackerman above: “He made clear that, while Latin Masses according to the new Order of the Mass published by Pope Paul VI In 1969 could occasionally be celebrated, ‘the old “Latin Mass,” sometimes called the Tridentine Mass of Pius V, may not be celebrated in our parishes.’”


The resurgence of TLMs since Summorum Pontificum highlights more severely the exact degree of what was lost after the Council. Multiple popes have confirmed that the TLM was never abrogated, but that runs counter to the direct words and actions of at least several American bishops in the 1960s and ’70s.

This selection of newspaper clippings is by no means comprehensive, but it is illustrative of the confusion among Catholics regarding the “old Mass,” and the increasingly strident anti-TLM positions of some American bishops, uncorrected by Rome.

In his memoirs, Bugnini openly admits that he requested that the TLM be officially and explicitly abrogated in word and deed — a request that was denied by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1974 for being “an odious act in the face of liturgical tradition” [2].

However, despite the fact that the TLM was not officially abrogated, the historical record shows us that this is a functionally irrelevant claim. Years before the Novus Ordo was published, some American bishops already condemned and abolished the ability to have the Mass celebrated in Latin and labeled those who wished to do so as dissenters and possible schismatics.

Editor’s note: As some commentators have pointed out, Padre Pio died before an indult for him would have been necessary. We’ve corrected the relevant passage above.

[1] See Martin Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness; James Hitchcock’s Catholicism and Modernity.

[2] Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948–1975 (1990), p. 298.

3 thoughts on “Not Authorized: The Untold Story of the Death of the Old Mass”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this vital and concise history. This is a fantastic article that needs to be shared. May God allow full restoration of the Mass to it’s proper place in The Church.


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