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On 'Traditionis' dubia, will power overrule authority?

Bishop Arthur Roche, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship. Credit: © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk/ via Flickr.

When the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments issued new instructions Saturday on a papal plan to limit the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the document seemed to be a strong assertion of the Vatican’s will on an issue of serious controversy.

Commentators and pundits — for and against — have taken for granted that the directive will reshape the rules regarding the Extraordinary Form in dioceses around the world.

But bishops, for whom the instructions were actually intended, have thus far said very little.

Some may be planning how best to implement the congregation’s directions. But others have told The Pillar they’re giving the instructions a beat or two, to see whether anything more might be coming down the pike — including canonical clarity on the actual authority of Saturday’s instructions.

Other bishops, of course, may be trying to wrap their heads around a rather dizzying turn of events.

Consider an example: When Pope Francis published Traditionis custodes in July, the text was made available in English, Spanish, Italian, and German.

In one provision, each language told bishops the same thing: If they wanted newly ordained priests to be able to offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form, they’d need to consult the Vatican before they gave permission.

The English, Italian, Spanish, and German texts each used similar verbs: “consult,” “consulterà,” “consultará,” and “konsultiert.”

But when the Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments responded on Saturday to questions about the Traditionis custodes, it said that bishops should not “merely,” seek a “consultative opinion, but a necessary authorisation given to the diocesan Bishop by the Congregation for Divine Worship.”

It wasn’t that they had to consult, the Vatican said. It’s that they had to get permission.

And bishops should know that’s what was required, the Congregation suggested, because that is what the Latin text — the official text —  of Traditionis custodes had said all along.

The only problem?

The Latin text of Traditionis custodes did not appear on the Vatican website, or anywhere else, until Dec. 17, the day before the Congregation issued its interpretation.

In light of that circumstance, bishops who have been trying since July to navigate the actual implementation of the pope’s motu proprio might be forgiven for feeling they’d gotten a bit of a bait and switch.

And it might be understandable why Catholics who have felt aggrieved about the pope’s restrictions on the Extraordinary Form might feel like that “clarification” is but another turn of the screw, aimed at squeezing out from the Church’s life a form of the Mass that many of them have come to love, and to experience as the source and summit of their Christian faith.

Indeed, even among Catholics with no particular attachment to the Extraordinary Form, the Vatican’s responsa, issued Saturday to apparently submitted questions on the meaning of Traditionis custodes, has sent up alarm bells in many corners of the Church.

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While some have praised the text, many Catholics have said it seems punitive, divisive, or at least unwelcoming that Extraordinary Form Masses can’t be advertised in parish Mass schedules, or that weddings and baptisms in the Extraordinary Form can take place in only a narrow band of circumstances.

It is true that some of the Church’s more divisive figures attend the Extraordinary Form, which seems to be a motivating factor for the Vatican.

But priests and bishops, among others, have told The Pillar that they more commonly find witness of true faith in Extraordinary Form communities, which constitute only a small minority of practicing Catholics.


Need a primer on terms like “Extraordinary Form” and “Ordinary Form?” Not sure what “ad orientem” means, or why it matters? Read our Latin Liturgy Lexicon here.

Ultimately, it is diocesan bishops who are responsible to decide what to do about the CDWS’ responsa on Traditionis custodes. Some may have no concern about implementing the responses.

But for many bishops, implementing the CDWS provisions wholesale would mean going back to communities for whom they have just issued implementation plans of the pope’s July text, and wiping most of those plans clear from the drawing board.

If bishops had offered dispensations to have the Extraordinary Form in parish churches, because few other locations would be available, the CDWS expects they be revoked, at least temporarily, while Vatican permission is sought.

If bishops had permitted local pastors to offer Extraordinary Form Masses for, say, cloistered religious communities, they would probably now be expected to withdraw that permission — at least for priests who also offer the Ordinary Form each day, as most do.

If bishops had okayed weddings or confirmations in the Extraordinary Form, many of them would now have to be cancelled.

Some bishops have told The Pillar they’re reticent to make those changes. One bishop told The Pillar that as he considers the challenges his flock has endured among the coronavirus pandemic, and the difficulties his chancery has had developing reasonable and pastoral implementations on the first round of Traditionis custodes, he just doesn’t have the heart to reshuffle things again.

Complicating things, of course, is that bishops do not seem technically bound by the provisions of the Congregation for Divine Worship’s Saturday responsa.

Canonists have generally agreed that a Vatican dicastery, responding to dubia under its own authority, has no authority to authentically interpret canon law — to create the kind of legally binding interpretations that might have been made with a specific approval, or a specific delegation, from Pope Francis.

So what the bishops have is a document which gives them the mind of a Vatican office — and presumably the mind of Pope Francis — but which probably does not bind them. Of course, some will use that document to enact liturgical policies they’d like to see. And some, with no particular interest in the issue, might be glad to do what the CDWS directs.

A few might write back to the Vatican to ask about the responsa’s authority.

But other bishops might decide that the Vatican knows what it’s doing — and if the pope had wanted to bind them with a definitive legal interpretation, he would have done it.

There is, of course, a difference between legally binding authority and power. And bishops who decide that instructions from the pope’s newly-selected liturgy czar do not have legal authority — even if they’re correct — might well discover that difference quickly. More than a few bishops will decide that whatever the canonists say, if the Vatican says it, they’d better do it.

On the other hand, though, the pope has emphasized frequently that diocesan bishops don’t answer to curial prefects, and shouldn’t answer to curial prefects — that the curia was made for bishops, not bishops for the curia.

If bishops don’t take up the instructions of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, Pope Francis may have to decide how seriously he means that — whether he’ll force the question, or let it go.

And, while diocesan bishops weigh how much back-and-forth a portion of their flocks can take, the pope may have to make a similar discernment about their shepherds.

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