Peter Kwasniewski

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Given its foundational falsehoods, does Traditionis Custodes lack juridical standing?

What is at stake is a theological claim about the objective status of the monuments of liturgical tradition—something that does not depend on a papal decision, unless papal authority is now deemed to extend to rewriting the past, something that theologians maintain not even the omnipotent God can do.
Tue Jul 20, 2021 - 6:00 am EST
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Cardinal Raymond Burke distributes Holy Communion at a traditional Latin Mass in Rome after a LifeSiteNews and Voice of the Family conference (October 2018). Voice of the Family / Flickr

July 20, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) – Article 1 of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes reads: “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.”

The pope here claims that the Novus Ordo is the only law of prayer for the Roman Rite. It is impossible to see how this is compatible with the history of the Church and with her reverence for the venerable rites of antiquity and the Middle Ages, epitomized in the Missale Romanum of 1570 and its subsequent integral editions. They, too, are the lex orandi and cannot be otherwise. Instead, the motu proprio fumblingly makes “lex orandi” do duty as a juridical, canonical term, able to be applied ad libitum, as if it were an extrinsic label. In reality, the lex orandi is the whole complex of historical prayer texts, ceremonies, and music that make up the Roman Rite.

The only way to sustain the fiction of Article 1 is to claim that there is so great a continuity between the old missal and the new missal that the new one is simply an updated version of the old one—that the Novus Ordo is substantially the same as the traditional Roman Rite that preceded it is. Francis’s letter to the bishops makes just this move:

It must therefore be considered that the Roman Rite, adapted several times over the centuries to the needs of the times, has not only been preserved but also renewed “in faithful obedience to Tradition.” Those who wish to celebrate with devotion according to the previous liturgical form will not find it difficult to find in the Roman Missal, reformed according to the mind of the Second Vatican Council, all the elements of the Roman Rite, especially the Roman Canon, which is one of its most characteristic features.

One can only stare in amazement at the flagrant falsehood of this pair of sentences.

As Michael Fiedrowicz (among many others) has unanswerably demonstrated in his recent book The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite, the Roman Rite has witnessed many changes over the centuries, but its development has been slow, steady, and continuous, a truly organic body of texts, ceremonies, and music. It was never “adapted” for a particular century by a super-committee treating all the material of the liturgy as raw matter at their disposal to be reorganized, rewritten, and innovated ad libitum, with a papal fiat for ensoulment. St. Pius V did not create a new set of liturgical books but codified as carefully as possible the historical practice of the Church of Rome, a lex orandi fully expressive of the Catholic Faith that was then under attack by the Protestants. He solemnly established this rite of Mass as a regula fidei by his Apostolic Bull Quo Primum of July 14, 1570. This Bull was republished in subsequent editions of the missal by his papal successors, as a sign of continuity in the lex orandi, precisely so that the lex credendi might be fully preserved and handed down.

In stark contrast, the liturgical books promulgated by Paul VI were fashioned out of bits and pieces of older Western books and non-Western sources, spliced in with new compositions, and unmoored from a linguistic, rubrical, and musical heritage that was shared, with local variations, by all Western Catholics prior to the Reformation. His missal was the first since 1570 not to be prefaced with Quo Primum, an eloquent absence that testifies to its discontinuity from the preceding tradition. Call it what you will, this interruption of transmission is what made possible in the first place the confusing situation to which Summorum Pontificum was directed as a pastoral response.

Therefore, when Francis asserts that “all the elements of the Roman Rite” will be found in the modern Roman Missal of Paul VI and John Paul II, he is asserting a falsehood, and we need to call him out on that as clearly and as boldly as possible. How vastly the two missals, traditional and modern, contrast and diverge has been the subject of voluminous scholarly studies. I have contributed to this body of work with several lectures that would make for useful reading as we endeavor to respond to the badly-argued and factually erroneous motu proprio:

Since the claim of substantive continuity and merely superficial revisions cannot be maintained against evidence to the contrary, Pope Benedict in a spirit one might call charitable pragmatism decided to let both of these “traditions”—the one that was centuries old and the one newly-crafted in the sixties—coexist in an unprecedented situation. He could not think of another way to break through the impasse Paul VI’s decision had created, and he wished to be as generous as possible to those who continued to adhere to the traditional liturgy, which could not be held against them as a moral fault or in any way opposed to the Faith without simultaneously calling into question the Church’s internal coherence. He himself had had many second thoughts about the liturgical reform and saw it as necessary to let the older form—really, a different rite, by all standards—continue in force.

In keeping with the judgment of a commission of cardinals appointed years before by Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI asserted that the Tridentine rite, which he dubbed “the Extraordinary Form,” was “never abrogated” (Summorum Pontificum, Article 1; cf. Con Grande Fiducia, “this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted”). The deeper reason why it was not abrogated, however, is not that Paul VI just forgot to do so, or flubbed the right steps. Rather: “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” (Con Grande Fiducia, emphasis added).

These are statements of ecclesiological fact: they tell us how things actually are. When he speaks thus, Pope Benedict is not addressing a matter of discipline but expressing truths about the nature of Catholic liturgy in history and its inherent authority as a monument of tradition.

So thoroughly does Francis evacuate Benedict’s motu proprio of its theological sense that it seems the new motu proprio “has legislated on the basis of an incomplete argument and false information,” as Christophe Geffroy observes. Francis’s contradiction of his predecessor on this point is obvious, for Traditionis Custodes’s fundamental message is: “What earlier generations held as sacred does not remain sacred and great for us too, and it can be all of a sudden entirely forbidden and considered harmful. It does not behoove all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, or to give them a place at all.”

What are we to make of this contradiction? One pope or the other is correct, and again, only one can be right, because these are universal truth claims, not prudential determinations. Let’s say it again: We are not dealing here with this or that liturgical preference, with giving or withdrawing particular permissions. What is at stake is a theological claim about the objective status of the monuments of liturgical tradition—something that does not depend on a papal decision, unless papal authority is now deemed to extend to rewriting the past, something that theologians maintain not even the omnipotent God can do.

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There are at least three falsehoods that play a pivotal role in Traditionis Custodes:

  1. As we have just discussed, the New Mass is not what he says it is. Valid, to be sure; but by no ingenuity of reasoning, by no metric whatsoever, can it be said to be just another “adaptation” of the same Missale Romanum.
  2. The motives of John Paul II and Benedict XVI are blatantly misrepresented in Francis’s pair of documents, and their theological premises are directly contradicted.
  3. The traditional world is not what he says it is—and the results of the touted survey have not been honestly submitted to the public. We know of bishops, especially from the United States, who submitted positive reports, something one would never be able to glean from the stern tone of the papal letter. An inside source who works at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith summed up for me the entirety of the survey: “cautiously positive.” That sounds nothing like the picture painted by Francis and by the notoriously hostile episcopal conferences of France and Italy. Who are we to trust? The McCarrick scandal was investigated only because of outside pressure; the examination went at a snail’s pace; and the final report was inadequate. The Vatican’s transparency or penchant for truth-telling does not inspire confidence. Yet bishops are asked to throw flourishing congregations of faithful Catholics under the bus because of supposedly negative survey results—on a “just trust us” basis?

Let me offer a comparison: imagine a civil authority ordered a beloved city zoo closed because of “frequent and saddening reports” of incidents of animals harming visitors, and because the only people who go to zoos hate animals anyway. But if such incidents were in fact not taking place with any regularity, and the latter claim was outright falsehood and calumny, in what sense would subordinates be obliged to close the zoo?

These fallacious claims are the columns upon which Francis’s disciplinary directives stand. But common sense and logic bid one to ask: Can a document based on falsehoods have juridical standing? How can it be taken seriously as a juridical instrument? An instrument is vitiated if it is promulgated on a false basis, resulting from the legislator’s lack of due knowledge and regnative prudence. In logical form: “Given X, one should do Y. But X is demonstrably false; therefore we refrain from doing Y.”

Another hallowed principle from canon law is relevant: a doubtful law does not bind. Many bishops have already indicated the need for careful study before implementing the motu proprio, despite the document going into effect immediately. As they deliberate on what to do, let them keep this in mind: as it stands, between errors, contradictions, and ambiguities, Traditionis Custodes is so full of doubtfulness that it is hard to see how one could responsibly act upon it. Given its systemic weaknesses, those who do act upon it risk committing sins of imprudence and injustice, sins against charity and ecclesial communion. We cannot fail to note with sorrow how consistently the new provisions fit into the whole pattern of Francis’s pontificate, with its fruits of ambiguity and anarchy.


  catholic, pope francis, summorum pontificum, traditional latin mass, traditionis custodes

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