Making Mountains out of Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes

Pope Francis yesterday published, motu proprio, Traditionis custodes, revising certain regulations regarding the observance of what is commonly called the Traditional Latin Mass–though, as too often with language these days, abbreviated into jargon as TLM. Very modern–or the Tridentine Mass. Our modern, instantaneous communications tend to encourage a knee-jerk response to any stimulus. One might call such responses reactionary, as opposed to thoughtful, since so little time is permitted for thought, and as such are typically passionate. The general tenor of those I read was not anger but hurt dismay.

The tumult is normal, but seems premature.

In the official English translation, traditionis custodes is given as guardians of the tradition, though “custodians” or “caretakers” or “keepers” or “those who carefully watch, as over their flocks by night” also expresses the sense of custodes. One might also say “shepherds.” That is, the bishops. Authority rests with the bishop alone to determine whether or not a Mass according to the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal (first ed. 1570; revised 1604, 1634, 1884, 1920, 1962) may be celebrated. And what is it the bishop must watch over, what constrains his authority? Tradition.

Until yesterday, any priest in good standing could celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass without asking permission. Now he, or rather the congregation seeking to be served, needs to ask. And the bishop needs to determine that they are acting in good faith and do not deny the authority of the Church. Additional strictures, such as forbidding the use of the parochial church, are to ensure unity among the faithful. The bishop should also take care that celebrants are “suited for this responsibility, skilled in the use of the Missale Romanum antecedent to the reform of 1970, possess a knowledge of the Latin language sufficient for a thorough comprehension of the rubrics and liturgical texts, and be animated by a lively pastoral charity and by a sense of ecclesial communion. This priest should have at heart not only the correct celebration of the liturgy, but also the pastoral and spiritual care of the faithful.” [emphasis mine]

The Roman Missal (2002) (more fully, Missale Romanum ex decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici Concilii Vaticani II instauratum auctoritate Pauli PP. VI promulgatum Ioannis Pauli PP. II cura recognitum, editio typica altera, 1975; editio typica tertia, 2002; (reimpressio emendata 2008)) remains authoritative, as it has been since the first Sunday of Advent, 1969.

Both are in Latin.

There are other differences; the choice of language being merely the most obvious.

Perhaps more interesting is the letter which accompanies Traditionis custodes.

An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.

At the same time, I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides. In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that “in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions”. But I am nonetheless saddened that the instrumental use of Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the “true Church”. 

A final reason for my decision is this: ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the “true Church.” One is dealing here with comportment that contradicts communion and nurtures the divisive tendency — “I belong to Paul; I belong instead to Apollo; I belong to Cephas; I belong to Christ” — against which the Apostle Paul so vigorously reacted.

In less polite words, some people have used their free will to be jerks, and are spoiling it for everyone. I’m looking at you, Church Militant. You are why we can’t have nice things.

It is up to you [the Bishops] to authorize in your Churches, as local Ordinaries, the use of the Missale Romanum of 1962, applying the norms of the present Motu proprio. It is up to you to proceed in such a way as to return to a unitary form of celebration, and to determine case by case the reality of the groups which celebrate with this Missale Romanum.

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.”

The Mass should unify the Church, not divide it.

At the same time, I ask you to be vigilant in ensuring that every liturgy be celebrated with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books promulgated after Vatican Council II, without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses.

No dancing in the aisles, and get rid of the electric guitars. That party can happen outside.

Sheep may stray off the path all sorts of ways. Limiting use of the Extraordinary Form is not a grant for license in celebration of the Ordinary Form. Parishioners may wish to speak with their pastors regarding their longing for a more formal liturgy.

Now, admittedly, I have a Presbyterian perspective rather than that of a practicing Catholic, but isn’t one of Catholicism’s great strengths obedience to the hierarchy? Even Dorothy Day in disagreeing with Francis Cardinal Spellman over wages for the cemetary workers was obedient to her bishop. There come problems, of course, when a priest or bishop or pope forgets his reciprocal responsibilities and insists on the arbitrary exercise of power because he can. But grumbles and complaints about far-off decisions do not change the fact that the practice of worship happens locally, in your neighborhood, in your parish, with the people immediately around you.