The FSSP and Pope Francis’ Roller-Coaster

The Wild Ride

It took some time for everyone to adjust to the violent overthrow of thirteen years’ pastoral arrangements, policies, and attitudes by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes (TC), not least because of the way it was promulgated, to come into immediate effect, on a Friday. The implications needed thinking through, canon law advice needed to be considered, the practical possibilities in implementation needed to be worked out. Just as things were settling down, another document came out: the Responsa ad dubia, which presented itself as an interpretation of TC, but in fact purported to add a whole lot of new obligations. The adjustment needed for this was also considerable, exacerbated by the fact that it was promulgated a fortnight before Christmas.

Bishops and papal apologists, in their different ways, have worked like Trojans to make sense of this and to put it into practice. I don’t envy either group. Just as the implications of the Responsa seemed to have been straightened out, at least to the satisfaction (if that is the right word) of various Bishops’ Conferences, official policy has been thrown once more into reverse gear. The latest decree, applicable to the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP), puts an entirely different spin on the whole issue of the Traditional Mass and its place in the life of the Church.

Traditionis Custodes told us that the celebration of the Traditional Mass put the unity of the Church at risk for a fundamental theological reason. Admittedly, the reason it gave is difficult to understand, to put it politely, but the idea that the Latin Rite has only one lex orandi, and that it is the 2008 Missale Romanum (until the next edition, presumably), is at rate not a matter of mere happenstance or policy: it is a matter of fundamentals. It contradicts the equally fundamental claim of Pope Benedict XVI that it was the suppression of the ancient Mass which put the unity of the Church at risk, again not as a matter of happenstance but because “what earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” The claim that what was good then is bad now, as Pope Benedict expressed it elsewhere, “calls her very being in question.”

On the basis of Pope Benedict’s premise it makes perfect sense that the ancient Mass be given a place of honour in the Church: “it behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.” On the basis of Pope Francis’ premise it makes sense that this Mass be treated more or less as a tolerated abuse, to be phased out. The provisions of Traditionis Custodes implement this, even if the details of what is allowed in the meantime are sometimes obscure.

The Responsa ad dubia was an attempt by the Congregation for Divine Worship to clarify and accelerate this process. Most importantly, it attempts to eliminate the use of the Roman Ritual and the Pontifical, the books used for all the Sacraments apart from Mass itself, with the concession that the Ritual can be used in Personal Parishes. This clearly goes beyond the authority of the Congregation as these books are not mentioned by TC, of which the Responsa is supposed to be an “interpretation.” Allowing the Rituale for Personal Parishes is a particularly stark example of going beyond TC: the Responsa claims that TC’s vague reference to the “older books” in the plural rules out the use of anything but the Missal, which is alone explicitly permitted, but there is no way a distinction between Personal Parishes and other locations can be squeezed out of that.

The Responsa, in truth, is not an “interpretation” of TC: it is, as Catholics on both sides of the debate recognized, another click on the ratchet to choke the life out of the ancient Mass. It remains important to point out its lack of legal force because there are a good many bishops, particularly in the English-speaking world, for whom such arguments have weight. Any bishop who is looking for a legal reason not to make difficulties for a young couple who want to get married with the traditional ceremonies, for example, should be given one. Other bishops, of course, need no encouragement to play havoc with the pastoral needs of their traditionally-inclined faithful: I have heard of bishops prohibiting First Communions at the Old Mass, or its celebration on the first Sunday of the month, although these absurdities are not proposed even in the Responsa.

Although one Roman document contradicting another is a sad sign of the state of things, I was not too worried by the theological rationale of Traditionis Custodes. What is lightly said, with so little theological explanation and entirely without roots in earlier documents, can be lightly unsaid. I assumed it would fall to a future Pope to unsay it, but I underestimated Pope Francis. For now he has blown a hole in his own position: or, rather, the position constructed (apparently) by Andrea Grillo which Pope Francis utilized momentarily. For what does Pope Francis care about such legalistic arguments? Something along those lines is expected in a document like TC, so he got someone to write it up, but he’s not committed to it. Now we are told that the problem with the Traditional Mass is not something about the Roman Rite having only one liturgical expression—as anyone with five minutes’ access to a theological library could see was nonsense—but because some priests were abusing it for “ideological” reasons: another claim found in TC.

That, at least, seems the only way to understand this decree. If the Holy See recognizes not one, but a whole slew of priestly Institutes and (let us not forget) a collection of religious communities, both of men and women, which have as their founding charism the “former liturgical tradition,” this rather implies that this tradition is not intrinsically problematic, and is not something which is being phased out. Pope Francis is affirming that recognition, and its logical implication. From this time forward, as from the founding of the FSSP in 1988, the priestly members of this Institute have

The faculty to celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass, and to carry out the sacraments and other sacred rites, as well as to fulfill the Divine Office, according to the typical editions of the liturgical books, namely the Missal, the Ritual, the Pontifical and the Roman Breviary, in force in the year 1962.

The implications are momentous. If the FSSP—and, by implication, the other Institutes and communities—has the right to “carry out the sacraments” using the Roman Ritual and the Pontifical, they will need the cooperation of bishops, who are by that very fact authorised to render this cooperation. This passage is about the Sacraments for the Faithful as well as for the use of the clergy members of the FSSP, so the use of the Pontifical includes the Rite of Confirmation contained in it. So, yes, bishops can Confirm in the older form: if the FSSP asks them. And yes, you can have marriages, baptisms and all rest, not only in any church regularly used by the Institutes, but anywhere else their priests go, with the bishop’s agreement. There was already a problem of enforceability with the prohibition of the old Rituale. Now trying to stop any priest using it is going to look very arbitrary.

The following passage of the Responsa which, of course, was only authorised “in general” and not “in specifics” by Pope Francis, now looks downright embarrassing:

It should be remembered that the formula for the Sacrament of Confirmation was changed for the entire Latin Church by Saint Paul VI with the Apostolic Constitution Divinæ consortium naturæ (15 August 1971).

This provision is intended to underline the need to clearly affirm the direction indicated by the Motu Proprio which sees in the liturgical books promulgated by the Saints Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite (cf. Traditionis custodes, n. 1).

Well, it turns out that Paul VI’s new formula is not the only one in use in the Latin Church, and that the “direction” desired by the Supreme Legislator, Pope Francis, includes the continued flourishing of the FSSP and the other Institutes and communities which use the older books, and their continued service to the Faithful.

But Why?

We may well ask: why is this happening? Why the sudden apparent change of direction? It is easier to ask these questions than to answer them.

Clearly Pope Francis is not the kind of person who is embarrassed about changing direction. TC itself was a change of direction. Less than a year before it came out he had given the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest the use of a lovely little basilica for the celebration of the ancient Mass, a short walk from the Vatican: SS Celsus and Januarius near the Ponte di Angeli. After it came out he made a series of comments and gestures which downplayed its gravity: the interview with a Spanish radio station, his comments to the French bishops, giving permission to the Summorum Pontificum Pilgrimage to use St Peter’s. The Responsa came like a hammer-blow from the other direction. And now we have this. I’d say that there is indeed a pattern here, but a “pattern” doesn’t mean uniformity.

It may be objected that there is still a consistent way of reading the situation. This is to ignore the bit about the “one expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite,” and look at TC instead as a response to specific problems, as revealed (allegedly) by the reports made to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by bishops around the world on the implementation of Summorum Pontificum. When I was in Rome last October, this was among the interpretations offered to me by various people: that it was diocesan priests, not the Institutes, which were the problem, because, in some parts of the world (read: the United States of America), they were “ideological” in their use of the old Mass. The cartoon version of this complaint I suppose would be that TC was needed to deal with gun-toting Trump supporters among secular clergy who celebrate the old Mass. It is impossible to say to what extent a serious version of this idea is circulating in Rome, but readers may remember a very strange 2017 article by Pope Francis’ confidante Fr Spadaro, condemning the “ecumenism of hate” forged between conservative Catholics and evangelicals in the USA, although this seemed to focus on laity rather than the clergy.

The problem with this interpretation is that, however exaggerated or nuanced the view may be, it is difficult to imagine anyone in Rome taking seriously the idea that (a) a tiny number of American TLM-celebrating priests who support extreme positions (whatever that means) represent a problem worthy of the attention of the Holy See, that (b) they will only be tamed by making it more difficult for them to celebrate the Old Mass, (c) their bishops must be helped in the task of taming them by new papal legislation, and (d) the vertigo-inducing ramifications of this legislation for the spiritual good of traditional Catholics all over the world and, for that matter, for liturgical theology, are a price worth paying for providing this help.

So I’m sorry, this may be the current cover-story, but as a real explanation of recent events, it will not do.

I believe, in fact, that we must stop trying to make sense of Pope Francis’ policy towards the Traditional Mass. That is to say, we should stop trying to force the logical implications of all the things he had said and done about it over the last two years into a simple theological position or a single approach to Church politics. To return to the question of pattern, the sense that is to be made of his words and actions is not in terms of the cumulative effect of a consistent theology or politics, but the cumulative effect of a series of apparent reversals of policy.

What is this effect? Well, look around you. The Church, or the corner of it most familiar to OnePeterFive readers, is in constant uproar. I have never seen so much internecine strife on social media among people apparently on the same side of the major debates. No-one knows what is going to happen next. Planning, coalition-building, working out a response to Pope Francis, doing work on the ground or intellectually to make the most of the opportunities and to guard against threats, are all well-nigh impossible.

Pope Francis has got his opponents exactly where he wants them: tied up in knots, not knowing which way to turn. Many of his supporters are in a similar position, but that is collateral damage.

In time we may discover why Pope Francis is doing what he is doing at this particular juncture. Is it because of other issues, such as the corruption cases wending their way through the Vatican courts? Is it because he feels his pontificate is drawing near to its conclusion?

For us on the ground, it doesn’t matter. I would like to appeal to readers to take home this message. The Franciscan roller-coaster won’t continue forever. While it continues we must all make the most of the situation we find ourselves in. It is not for me to condemn anyone for seeking the Sacraments in a form and an atmosphere conducive to their spiritual growth, wherever that may be found. What I will say, however, is that the world of the Old Rite under the bishops, for which the Una Voce movement and the Ecclesia Dei Institutes and communities have expended such effort over the decades, is not going away. So keep calm, pray for the Pope, and make a good Lent. The most valuable contribution we can make right now is a spiritual one, and our most powerful advocate is in heaven.


Photo: Vatican City – March 20, 2016. Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square during the celebration of Palm Sunday Mass on March 20, 2016. © L’Osservatore Romano.

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