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“Unity Über Alles”: Bishop Burbidge in His Own Words

Above: the nave of St. Thomas More Cathedral, the apostolic chair of Arlington.

On July 29, 2022, Bishop Michael Burbidge, Bishop of Arlington, Virginia, promulgated a “Policy for Implementation of Traditionis Custodes in the Diocese of Arlington.” Effective September 8, 2022, the Tridentine Mass can no longer be offered in parish churches in Arlington. (There is a two-year exception for three parishes, which may be extended, if they are making satisfactory progress toward implementing the new Mass.) In five other locations in the diocese, the Tridentine Mass may be offered in locations other than the parish church. The nearest location to me will be the gymnasium of a Montessori school.

The diocesan newspaper, The Arlington Catholic Herald, covered the story. The newspaper reported that the bishop emphasized two objectives: first, “…the Diocese of Arlington will be obedient to the Holy Father’s directives, working toward unity in our use of liturgical rites.” Second, “… the diocesan instruction related to Traditionis Custodes would be sensitive to those who attend the Traditional Latin Mass.”

The bishop thus suggests that he has balanced obedience to Rome with the needs of those in his diocese who are attracted to the Traditional Latin Mass. His words, however, do not support such a suggestion.

The Latin Mass Was Always Going To Be Banned in Arlington

The bishop discussed his decision process during his weekly podcast, the Walk Humbly Podcast of Bishop Michael Burbidge,Episode 96, August 10, 2022. The Bishop reiterated his first objective: we will show fidelity and loyalty to the Holy Father and to his directives. That’s who we are as Catholics. That’s what I promised when I accepted to be a bishop. And so that was always the key. (Emphasis mine.)

My take: there was never any question that the implementation of Traditionis Custodes in the Diocese of Arlington would follow the instructions laid out in Traditionis Custodes and the Responsa ad Dubia. The Diocese of Arlington would fall into lockstep with the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. and the Archdiocese of Chicago. I must have been mistaken about the authority and discretion of the local Ordinary in his diocese that is conferred by Canon 87. Fidelity, loyalty and obedience to Rome: those are the duties of the local Ordinary. That, apparently, is “who we are as Catholics.”

Bishop Burbidge’s rationale is a classic case of hyperuberültramontism, in which the arbitrary will of the Roman Pontiff is identified with the will of the Holy Spirit, which is not only against Tradition expressed in Canon 87, but also against the new Catechism (CCC, 1125) not to mention Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium 27 which condemns the notion that bishops are “vicars of the Roman Pontiffs.”

In the Diocese of Arlington, twenty-one of the seventy parishes offer the Traditional Latin Mass. In my own parish, our parish priests offer a Traditional Latin Mass on Sundays, three regularly-scheduled Traditional Latin Masses on weekdays, and additional Traditional Latin Masses on holy days, as well as additional, unscheduled Traditional Latin Masses during the week. In recent years, I have attended in our church two solemn Pontifical Masses offered by Bishop Athanasius Schneider. At the same time, our priests offer a full slate of Novus Ordo Masses. There is not a whiff of division among parishioners who prefer one liturgical form to the other.

Prior to the promulgation of his implementation Policy, the pastors in the diocese met with the bishop to impress upon him the importance of the Traditional Latin Mass in the daily lives of their parishioners. Many of us wrote to the bishop to implore him to forbear from implementing Traditionis Custodes, just like Msgr. Pope implored to bishops last fall. Yet the input from some bishops around the world to Rome outweighed the specific input from the pastors and parishioners in Bishop Burbidge’s own diocese. There was no weighing of pastoral needs, no balancing of obedience with pastoral care. Nothing was more important than the absolute necessity for worldwide “unity” in the use of liturgical rites.

It seems Bishop Burbidge was just following orders. And His Excellency made it clear that he expects the same fidelity, loyalty and obedience from his priests: I have to say I’m so grateful to my priests, but that’s who they are too: they promised respect and obedience. How many times in history has this cover been invoked by those in authority when confronted with conflicting obligations? As Dietrich von Hildebrand noted when the pope and bishops first tried to suppress the Latin Mass under Paul VI, “the valuing of unity over truth plays a central role in the crisis of the Church.”[1] Indeed, it is truly “Unity Über Alles,” even truth itself.

The Price of Obedience

Unlike the bishop, those parish priests and pastors will have to look the parents in the eye when they can no longer bring their children to church for the Mass that they have chosen for them. Those priests will have to face the altar boys who have chosen to learn and serve the Latin Mass at a proper altar. One priest will have to explain to my widow why her husband’s wish to be buried from his church with a requiem Mass cannot be fulfilled.

Make no mistake. This is not the “new normal,” where we will continue to have the Tridentine Mass, but just somewhere other than the parish church. The bishop wants us to believe that he is “sensitive” to those who attend the Latin Mass:

But I think we arrived at a place where I was able to announce that on any given Sunday the Traditional Latin Mass will be offered in eight locations throughout this diocese… for those that are spiritually nourished by this celebration. I don’t believe there’s a hardship for anyone to get to one of those locations.

“Any given Sunday.” Except when that Sunday happens to be Easter Sunday. He forgot to mention that his policy forbids the celebration of the Latin Mass during Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum or even the publication of the times when the usus antiquior is offered. How is this “spiritual nourishment?” What is the message, Excellency? Are you saying that the Tridentine Mass is not liturgically fit for the holiest season of the year? Are you saying that the need for unity in the use of liturgical rites outweighs any spiritual benefit the faithful might receive from attending the Mass of the Ages on Easter Sunday?

The tolerance of the Tridentine Mass clearly is only temporary. Bishop Burbidge says, This is not easy for any bishop or any diocese. It’s change. It’s a transition. “A transition” to exactly what, Excellency? Transition is a process, not an ending point. The ending point is stated clearly in Traditionis Custodes: use of the liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II as the sole expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.

How is One Pope’s Motu Proprio
More Authoritative than Another’s?

The bishop assures us that we would understand his decision better if only we would read what the Vatican has decreed. He says, I would always suggest that people read the documents, read the Motu Proprio, read the Responsa. Having read those documents, are we supposed to conclude that the bishop had no other choice than to do what he has done? Did it not concern you, Excellency, that in Traditionis Custodes, one pope specifically abrogated a motu proprio that had been issued by his immediate predecessor who still survives? Did it not concern you, Excellency, that Pope Benedict XVI had said in his 2007 motu proprio that the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Saint John XXIII in 1962 had never been abrogated? Did it not concern you, Excellency, that Pope Benedict XVI also said that the coexistence of the two forms of the Latin rite would not be divisive? Did it not concern you, Excellency, that some future pope, of a different mind than Francis, might hold you accountable for your decision?

What changed from 2007 to 2021, other than the identity of the pope? When I read Summorum Pontificum and Traditionis Custodes, all I see is the scandal of one pope publicly contradicting his living predecessor on a matter so important as the very liturgy of the Catholic Church. Moreover, a higher principle is invoked by Benedict: Tradition, over and against the will of Paul VI and the will of Vatican II, because the former undergirds and is the foundation of the latter two.

While we are on the subject of relevant documents, I have also read Sacrosanctum Concilium, the claimed source for the liturgical “reforms” being implemented in Traditionis Custodes. This official document of the Second Vatican Council states that, “…the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (36). And, a fortiori, as a general principle, it states from the outset that

in faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way (4).

Notice that the Council itself must obey Tradition.

How did Traditionis Custodes flow from such imperative statements? Apparently we are to believe that the banishing of Latin Masses to off-parish locations is a permissible interpretation of the directive of the Council to preserve the Latin language and the ancient Roman, Latin rite. I think Cardinal Ratzinger, who was actually present at the Council, had a better and more faithful interpretation of the document and the will of the Council Fathers:

It is good to recall here what Cardinal Newman observed, that the Church, throughout her history, has never abolished nor forbidden orthodox liturgical forms, which would be quite alien to the Spirit of the Church.[2]

We Are Not Without Hope

When our shepherds fail us, the faithful are not without resources. On February 28, 2020, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, commenting on the state of the Church under Pope Francis, reminded us:

In the first place, there is the sensus fidelium, the supernatural sense of the faith (sensus fidei). It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, by which the members of the Church possess the true sense of the faith. This is a kind of spiritual and supernatural instinct that makes the faithful sentire cum Ecclesia (think with the mind of the Church) and discern what is in conformity with the Catholic and Apostolic faith handed on by all bishops and popes, through the Universal Ordinary Magisterium.

We know our faith. We know when things are not right. We are able to discern that which is in conformity with the Catholic and Apostolic faith and that which is not. We will live and worship with the mind of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, and not by some papal whim of the moment, until, as Fulton Sheen remarked, our bishops act like bishops.

Editor’s note: for a penetrating analysis of the dogma of the infallibility of the sensus fidelium (Lumen Gentium, 12) applied to the Catholic doctrine of conscience and the virtue of obedience, see the treatise True Obedience by our contributing editor, Peter A. Kwasniewski.


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[1] Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Charitable Anathema (Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books, 1993), 1.

[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “On the 10th Anniversary of Ecclesia Dei Adflicta,” (Rome: October 24, 1998).

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