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Traditionis Custodes: an Act of War Against Faithful Catholics

For those who love the traditional Latin Mass, it’s been a rough few days.

Pope Francis unleashed a new motu proprio last Friday — “Traditionis Custodes” — that overturned Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum and returned the TLM’s legal status to the days of the indult offered by Pope John Paul II.

Except I think it’s fair to say that the situation is actually worse even than the indult was.

My first three years as a TLM-attendee were under the indult, and there’s no question that those who preferred the Church’s ancient liturgy were treated like red-headed stepchildren at best. Because permission from the local ordinary to offer the TLM was required, the most a tradition-loving Catholic could hope for was an indifferent bishop who would allow them their little curiosity. Many bishops illegally forbade the use of the liturgy that nourished and sustained the Church for countless generations and was, as Pope Benedict later informed us, never legally abrogated — thus making its celebration the right of every Roman Catholic priest.

What Benedict did was remove the imposed, illegal, and unjust need for permission to worship as our ancestors did. That’s what Summorum Pontificum was: the rectification of a legal error, and the remediation of an unjust act of oppression. Benedict’s logic can, I think it’s fair to say, be boiled down to just one sentence in his explanatory letter:

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. 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.

But Francis doesn’t believe such things. Instead, he believes he is a law unto himself, not constrained by tradition, immemorial custom, or the thought of his predecessors. And he seems very much to think that what earlier generations held as sacred is harmful and can be treated with contempt and forbidden.

In fact, he thinks so little of the Church’s ancient Roman liturgy that he has excluded it as an authentic expression of the Church’s “law of prayer” in his motu proprio:

The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.

He repeats the same point in his explanatory letter:

Responding to your requests, I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present Motu proprio, and declare that the liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite. I take comfort in this decision from the fact that, after the Council of Trent, St. Pius V also abrogated all the rites that could not claim a proven antiquity, establishing for the whole Latin Church a single Missale Romanum.

There’s an important point in the preceding paragraph that Francis oddly both includes and ignores; namely, that Pius V “abrogated all the rites that could not claim a proven antiquity.” This is correct, for as Quo Primum, the papal bull of that sainted pope, published in 1570, states:

This new rite alone is to be used unless approval of the practice of saying Mass differently was given at the very time of the institution and confirmation of the church by Apostolic See at least 200 years ago, or unless there has prevailed a custom of a similar kind which has been continuously followed for a period of not less than 200 years, in which most cases We in no wise rescind their above-mentioned prerogative or custom. However, if this Missal, which we have seen fit to publish, be more agreeable to these latter, We grant them permission to celebrate Mass according to its rite, provided they have the consent of their bishop or prelate or of their whole Chapter, everything else to the contrary notwithstanding.

This principle is known as “immemorial custom,” and it is arguably a concept that places such ancient and established liturgies outside the authority of a pope to eliminate. In so doing, he would be eliminating tradition itself. In any case, it absolutely applies to what some still call the “Tridentine Rite,” which is in fact much older than even Quo Primum or Trent, the council that led to the liturgy’s reform and promulgation. As Fr. Adrian Fortescue wrote in his 1912 work, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy: 

There are many days still on which we say the Mass that has been said for centuries, back to the days of the Gelasian and Leonine books. And when they do come, the new Masses only affect the Proper. Our Canon is untouched, and all the scheme of the Mass. Our Missal is still that of Pius V. We may be very thankful that his Commission was so scrupulous to keep or restore the old Roman tradition. Essentially the Missal of Pius V. is the Gregorian Sacramentary; that again is formed from the Gelasian book, which depends on the Leonine collection. We find the prayers of our Canon in the treatise de Sacramentis and allusions to it in the IVth century. So our Mass goes back, without essential change, to the age when it first developed out of the oldest liturgy of all. It is still redolent of that liturgy, of the days when Caesar ruled the world and thought he could stamp out the faith of Christ, when our fathers met together before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a God. The final result of our enquiry is that, in spite of unsolved problems, in spite of later changes, there is not in Christendom another rite so venerable as ours.

The Church’s millennia-old lex orandi has been treated as disposable and promptly memory holed. Even Summorum Pontificum allowed months of consideration before going into effect, but Traditionis Custodes was effective the minute the ink was dry. It was not a campaign against the old Mass, but a tactical nuclear strike.

And where does it leave us? Well, the TLM has not been completely abolished – yet. That would be a bridge too far, too soon. Instead, it’s been brutally encumbered, like Harrison Bergeron, to handicap its many advantages over the ersatz liturgy Rome favors. A line from the letter by Francis makes clear that the continued allowance is essentially a concession to weakness, and that the ultimate goal is the abolishment of the old rite and “unity” in the new:

Indications about how to proceed in your dioceses are chiefly dictated by two principles: on the one hand, to provide for the good of those who are rooted in the previous form of celebration and need to return in due time to the Roman Rite promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II, and, on the other hand, to discontinue the erection of new personal parishes tied more to the desire and wishes of individual priests than to the real need of the “holy People of God.”

For now, even priests who were already offering the old Mass under the directions from the previous pontificate must seek permission to offer it going forward. New priests ordained after last week need permission from Rome. Setting aside just for one moment the audacity of this, it should concern every Catholic that the papacy is being used like a political office, with each elected occupant reversing the decisions and even the reasoning of his predecessors. (This happened before in the Church’s history, and it was an ugly thing indeed. Read up on the Cadaver Synod if you would like to see where such things lead.)

Worse yet, TC envisions a Church where the traditional Mass is no longer allowed to be offered in parishes. Some bishops, feeling at long last re-empowered to stamp out those pesky rosary-clingers in their dioceses — the same folks most likely to be opposed to their progressive ideas and programs, coincidentally enough — have begun cancelling Masses immediately, or threatening to move and consolidate them — some under the guise of “reflecting on the motu proprio.” One might as well reflect on the business end of a gun, for all the subtlety this entails. Although some bishops have chosen to retain the status quo concerning the Mass, over the weekend, Crisis editor Eric Sammons confirmed at least 8  US locations that have already lost their TLMs.  Just like that. No doubt many more will follow.

Certain elements within the Church are already gloating over traditionalists “getting what they deserve” or blaming them for why this happened. I’ve given voice to my concerns over what I see as some very difficult problems that plague the traditionalist movement — problems big enough that I have distanced myself from the label, even while agreeing with them on important issues like the liturgy — but I do not for a moment think that the average traditionalist has anything to do with this. It’s certainly possible that this is move is, in part, an act of retribution against prominent figures like Archbishop Viganò, who has been such a thorn in the pope’s side. I wouldn’t even be surprised to hear that media personalities like Taylor Marshall, who amassed a large audience in a short time and who has fomented a great deal of papal opposition, could be among the targets.

But I think this was a power play from the inside.

In my seven years of covering this pontificate, I’ve noticed that Francis has little to no interest in the liturgy. He is a pure ideologue, concerned with power and influence and an agenda of “reform” that changes the way the Church operates and the messages it sends to the world. He has always left the liturgy relatively untouched, and he doesn’t speak about it often, or with any great enthusiasm.

But the bishops who felt aggrieved that Pope Benedict took away their complete, totalitarian autonomy over the liturgies in their dioceses? They think it’s a big deal. And over the years, we’ve seen stories bubble up about them pushing Francis to do something about it, likely reminding him that those who love the TLM are often the staunchest opponents of his agenda. Recall that in 2017, sources in the Vatican alleged 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.

And further:

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.

In 2018, we saw another sign of what was coming when the Italian traditionalist blog Messa in Latino reported that

Archbishop Redaelli, Bishop of Gorizia (whom we know received a degree in Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University) has asserted that the [1962] Missal of John XXIII was abrogated by Paul VI (contrary to what Benedict XVI said in the motu proprio), and thus, because the juridical premises on which Summorum Pontificum is based are in error, is without efficacy in the part in which it affirms the continuing validity of the [1962] Missal and its unchanged vigor today. For this reason, the motu proprio is a “nonsense” law and the “Tridentine” liturgy was not legitimately re-established by the motu proprio and it cannot presently be considered to be universally permitted.

The consequence, hoped for by the most hostile bishops, is a total cancellation (without appeal) of all of the centers where the TLM is offered and flourishing since September 14, 2007.

Clearly, this has been in the works for some time.

It’s important to note that the alleged plan not to reverse Summorum while “Benedict XVI is alive” has changed. So too the scrapping of the plan to wait until after the creation a personal prelature for the SSPX. Could Francis’s recent surgery have something to do with it? Is his health in greater decline than we know? Recall what his close friend and ghostwriter, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, said about Francis in 2015:

The pope goes slow because he wants to be sure that the changes have a deep impact. The slow pace is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the changes. He knows there are those hoping that the next pope will turn everything back around. If you go slowly it’s more difficult to turn things back.” The interviewer then proceeded to ask him whether it does not help his adversaries when they know that Pope Francis says that his papacy might be short. Fernández answered: “The pope must have his reasons, because he knows very well what he’s doing. He must have an objective that we don’t understand yet. You have to realize that he is aiming at reform that is irreversibleIf one day he should sense that he’s running out of time and doesn’t have enough time to do what the Spirit is asking him, you can be sure he will speed up.

We may never know the reasons why this came now. But make no mistake: is an act of naked aggression against faithful Catholics who love what is truly Sacred. It is a simon-pure power play, an act of mean-spirited oppression designed to demoralize and crush the will of those most vocally opposed to the Church’s hard progressive drift.

It was, in short, an act of war. And the battles in this war are only just beginning.

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