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July 20, 2021 (Rorate Caeli) – The intent of Pope Francis’s motu proprio Traditionis custodes, of July 16, 2021, is to repress any expression of fidelity to the traditional liturgy, but the result will be to spark a war that will inevitably end with the triumph of the Tradition of the Church.

When, on April 3,1969, Paul VI promulgated the Novus Ordo Missae (NOM), his basic idea was that within a few years the traditional Mass would be only a memory. The encounter of the Church with the modern world, which Paul VI was aiming for in the name of an “integral humanism,” envisaged the disappearance of all the heirlooms of the “Constantinian” Church. And the ancient Roman Rite, which Saint Pius V had restored in 1570, after the Protestant liturgical devastation, seemed destined to disappear.

Never has a prediction shown itself more mistaken. Today the seminaries are devoid of vocations and the parishes are emptying, sometimes abandoned by priests who announce their marriage and return to civic life. On the contrary, the places where the traditional liturgy is celebrated and the faith and morals of all time are preached are crowded with the faithful and are incubators of vocations. The traditional Mass is celebrated regularly in 90 countries on all the continents, and the number of faithful who participate in it has been growing year by year, bolstering both the Fraternity of Saint Pius X and the Ecclesia Dei institutes set up after 1988. The coronavirus contributed to this growth after, following the imposition of communion in the hand, many faithful disgusted by the desecration left their parishes to go to receive the Holy Eucharist in places where it continues to be administered on the tongue.

This movement of souls was born as a reaction to that “absence of form” of the new liturgy of which Martin Mosebach wrote well in his essay Heresy of Formlessness. If progressive authors such as Andrea Riccardi, of the Community of Sant’Egidio, complain of the social disappearance of the Church (The Church is burning. Crisis and future of Christianity, Tempi nuovi, 2021), one of the causes is precisely the new liturgy’s inability to attract and failure to express the sense of the sacred and of transcendence. Only in the absolute divine transcendence is God’s extreme closeness to man expressed, Cardinal Ratzinger observed in the book that, before his election to the pontificate, he dedicated to the Introduction to the spirit of the liturgy (San Paolo, Milan 2001). The then Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, who had always placed the liturgy at the center of his interests, after becoming Pope Benedict XVI promulgated on July 7, 2007 the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum with which he restored the full right of citizenship to the ancient Roman Rite (unfortunately defined as the “extraordinary form”), which had never been legally abrogated but which de facto had been banned for forty years.  

Summorum Pontificum contributed to the proliferation of traditional Mass centers and the flowering of a rich set of high-level studies on the old and new liturgy. The movement for the rediscovery of the traditional liturgy by young people has been accompanied by such abundant literature that it is not possible to give an account of it here. Among the most recent works it should suffice to recall the writings of Abbé Claude Barthe, Histoire du missel tridentin et de ses origines (Via Romana 2016, It. tr. Solfanelli 2018) and La Messe de Vatican II. Dossier historique (Via Romana, 2018); by Michael Fiedrowicz, The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite (Angelico Press, 2020) and by Peter Kwasniewski, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages (Angelico 2017, It. tr. Faith and Culture, 2021). No studies of equal value have been produced in the progressive field.       

Faced with this movement of cultural and spiritual rebirth, Pope Francis reacted by instructing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to send the bishops a questionnaire on the application of Benedict XVI’s motu proprio. The survey was sociological, but the conclusions that Francis drew from it are ideological. There is no need for a survey to see how the churches attended by the faithful attached to the liturgical tradition are always full and the ordinary parishes are increasingly depopulated. But in the letter to the bishops accompanying the motu proprio of July 16, Pope Francis affirms: “The responses reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene. Regrettably, the pastoral objective of my Predecessors, who had intended ‘to do everything possible to ensure that all those who truly possessed the desire for unity would find it possible to remain in this unity or to rediscover it anew,’ has often been seriously disregarded.”

“I am saddened,” Francis adds, “that the instrumental use of the Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church’.”  Therefore “I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present Motu proprio.”

Pope Francis did not see fit to intervene in the face of the laceration of unity produced by the German bishops, who often fell into heresy in the name of Vatican Council II, but he seems convinced that the only threats to the unity of the Church come from those who have raised doubts over Vatican II, as doubts have been raised over Amoris Laetitia, without ever receiving an answer. Hence art. 1 of the motu proprio Traditionis custodes, according to which “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.”

On the level of law, the revocation of the individual priest’s free exercise of celebrating according to the liturgical books from before the reform of Paul VI is clearly an illegitimate act. In fact, Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum reiterated that the traditional rite has never been abrogated and that every priest has the full right to celebrate it anywhere in the world. Traditionis custodes interprets that right as a privilege, which, as such, is withdrawn by the Supreme Legislator. This modus procedendi, however, is completely arbitrary, because the lawfulness of the traditional Mass does not arise from a privilege, but from the recognition of a subjective right of the individual faithful, whether lay, clerical, or religious. In fact, Benedict XVI never “granted” anything, but only recognized the right to use the 1962 Missal, “never abrogated,” and to enjoy it spiritually.

The principle that Summorum Pontificum recognizes is the immutability of the bull Quo primum of St. Pius V of July 14, 1570. As noted by an eminent canonist, Abbé Raymond Dulac (Le droit de la Messe romaine, Courrier de Rome, 2018), Pius V himself did not introduce anything new, but restored an ancient liturgy, granting every priest the privilege of celebrating it in perpetuity. No pope has the right to abrogate or change a rite that dates back to the Apostolic Tradition and has been formed over the centuries, such as the so-called Mass of St. Pius V, as the great liturgist Msgr. Klaus Gamber confirms in the volume that, in the French edition, bears a preface by Cardinal Ratzinger (La Réforme liturgique en question, Editions Sainte-Madeleine, 1992).

In this sense, the motu proprio Traditionis custodes can be considered a more serious act than the exhortation Amoris laetitia. Not only does the motu proprio have canonical applications of which the post-synodal exhortation is devoid, but while Amoris laetitia seems to grant access to the Eucharist to those who have no right, Traditionis custodes deprives of the spiritual good of the perennial Mass those who have a right to this inalienable good, and need it in order to persevere in the faith.

Also evident is the ideological framework of considering a priori as sectarian the groups of faithful attached to the liturgical tradition of the Church. They are spoken of as if they were subversives who must be placed under observation without criteria of judgment (cf. nos. 1, 5, and 6), their right of association is limited and the bishop is barred from approving others, limiting the proper right of the ordinary (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 321, §2). Groups of the faithful, in fact, have so far arisen spontaneously and have become representatives of certain requests with the legitimate authorities, but they have never been “authorized.” Considering authorization as necessary for the birth of a group constitutes a serious vulnus to the freedom of association of the faithful that Vatican II itself advocated, just as for that matter there is a violation of the Council in the provision that turns bishops into mere executors of the papal will.

Traditionis custodes confirms Pope Francis’s process of the centralization of power, in contradiction with his constant references to “synodality” in the Church. By the book it is “exclusively” up to the bishop to regulate the Extraordinary Form in his diocese, but in fact the motu proprio (cf. art. 4) limits the bishop’s discretion and autonomy where it decrees that his authorization for the celebration of the Mass requested by a diocesan priest is not enough, but a placet from the Apostolic See must in any case be requested. This means that the bishop cannot grant that authorization (which is never defined as a faculty and therefore seems to be more than anything else a privilege) autonomously, but his decision must still be examined by the “superiors.” As Father Raymond de Souza observes, “more permissive regulations are forbidden; more restrictive ones are encouraged.”

The goal is clear: to eliminate over time the presence of the traditional rite in order to impose the Novus Ordo of Paul VI as the only rite of the Church. Reaching this goal requires a patient re-education of the unruly. Therefore, as the letter to the bishops states, “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 (the ancient Roman Rite – Ed.) and need to return in due time to the Roman Rite promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II (the new Roman Rite or Novus Ordo Missae – Ed.), 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’.”

Tim Stanley is not wrong when, in the Spectator of July 17, he defines this as a “merciless war against the Old Rite.” Benedict XVI, with Summorum Pontificum, publicly acknowledged the existence of an immutable lex orandi of the Church that no pope can ever abrogate. Francis, on the other hand, manifests his rejection of the traditional lex orandi and, implicitly, of the lex credendi that the ancient Rite expresses. The peace that Benedict XVI’s motu proprio had tried to ensure in the Church is ended, and Joseph Ratzinger, eight years after his resignation from the pontificate, is condemned to witness the war that his successor has unleashed, as in the epilogue of a Greek tragedy. 

The struggle is taking place on the brink of the abyss of schism. Pope Francis wants to hurl his critics down there, pushing them to establish, in fact if not in principle, a “true Church” opposed to him, but he himself risks sinking into the abyss if he insists on opposing the Church of the Council to that of Tradition. The motu proprio Traditionis custodes is a step in this direction. How is it possible not to notice the malice and hypocrisy of one who intends to destroy Tradition while calling himself “guardian of Tradition?” And how can one fail to observe that this is happening precisely at a time when heresies and errors of all kinds are devastating the Church?

If violence is the illegitimate use of force, Pope Francis’s motu proprio is an objectively violent act because it is overbearing and abusive. But it would be a mistake to respond to the illegitimacy of violence with illegitimate forms of dissent.

The only legitimate resistance is that of those who do not ignore canon law and firmly believe in the visibility of the Church; of those who do not give in to Protestantism and do not presume to become pope against the pope; of those who moderate their language and repress the disordered passions that can lead them to rash gestures; of those who do not slip into apocalyptic fantasies and maintain a firm balance in the storm; finally, of those who base everything on prayer, in the conviction that only Jesus Christ and no one else will save his Church. 

Reprinted with permission from Rorate Caeli