On Tuesday morning, the Holy See press office released the text of a rescript — a canonical legal instrument — authorized by Pope Francis, and treating the implementation of Traditionis custodes, the pope’s 2021 motu proprio on the extraordinary form of the Mass.
The purpose of the rescript was, on its face, clear enough: the pope wished to make clear that the power to dispense from the norm of Traditionis regarding the celebration of the extraordinary form is reserved to the Holy See, through the good offices of the Dicastery for Divine Worship.
On that specific issue, the rescript seems to have settled matters beyond question. But the how and why Pope Francis chose to settle it raise additional questions about the relationship between diocesan bishops and the Holy See, and the reality vs the theory of Pope Francis’ signature curial reform: the apostolic constitution on the Roman curia, Praedicate evangelium.
The rescript issued was Tuesday, though dated Monday, Feb. 20, and was signed by Cardinal Arthur Roche, the prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship, on the authority of Pope Francis, with whom Roche had an audience on Monday.
The rescript lists two norms of Traditionis custodes, the power to dispense from which is now “reserved in a special way to the Apostolic See” — meaning diocesan bishops are not able to issue dispensations on their own authority — including the ban on the use of parish churches for the celebration of the extraordinary form of the liturgy.
The rescript followed letters sent from Cardinal Roche to several U.S. bishops, in which he sought to argue that the power to issue the dispensation regarding parish church buildings was reserved to his dicastery already, under the norms of Traditionis — despite the general legal prerogative of diocesan bishops to dispense from universal laws, unless the power is explicitly reserved to Rome.
Although Roche initially insisted that he already had the implicit power to reserve dispensing any of Traditionis’ norms, sources close to the Dicastery for Divine Worship told The Pillar he decided to request the rescript after receiving advice from canonist friends.
The letter to U.S. bishops was not the first time Roche sought to impose his department’s judgment on diocesan bishops regarding Traditionis. In December 2021, the Dicastery for Divine Worship issued an advisory text, responses to questions asked about the implementation of Traditionis.
While such FAQ documents are frequently issued by Vatican departments, they are not legislative instruments, and do not either change or authoritatively interpret papal legal instruments unless the pope specifically approves them for that purpose, using an explicit formula.
Nevertheless, in his 2021 and more recent responses, Cardinal Roche attempted to assert a range of legal prerogatives, down to the power to proscribe which Masses could be listed in parish bulletins.
There was also the curious claim in 2021, that despite the plain text of the Vatican-published versions of Traditionis, bishops were obliged to ask the dicastery’s permission, rather than opinion, before allowing newly ordained priests to celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass — because, Roche claimed, the previously unseen official Latin version mandated it. Addressing this change was the second element of the law authorized by Francis in this week’s rescript.
But while the rescript itself settles some specific questions about the implementation of Traditionis custodes in dioceses, and clarifies that the general principle that bishops can dispense from universal law holds — and had to be specially exempted at Roche’s request in this case — it will also raise among some bishops broader questions about Traditionis, the relationship of the Roman curia to bishops in their dioceses, and the direction of curial reform in relation to the Second Vatican Council.
And the pope could well face those questions from bishops in the months to come.
A key project of the Francis pontificate has been the reorientation of the Roman curia towards a role of service and collaboration with diocesan bishops. The pope has, in his speeches, writings, and legal documents, repeatedly stressed his desire to see the governing center of gravity shift away from the office blocks of the via della Conciliazione.
Recognizing the apostolic role and authority of the bishop in his own diocese, Francis wrote in his apostolic constitution Predicate evangelium, that the Roman curia “is not set between the Pope and the Bishops, but is at the service of both.”
A key purpose of his curial reform, Francis wrote, is “in the spirit of a ‘sound decentralization,’ to leave to the competence of Bishops the authority to resolve, in the exercise of ‘their proper task as teachers’ and pastors, those issues with which they are familiar.”
This general premise of “sound decentralization” and “service” was also present in the text of Traditionis custodes. That motu proprio’s incipit title comes from its opening sentence which recognizes bishops as “guardians of the tradition” who “govern the particular Churches entrusted to them.”
Indeed, Francis wrote that he drafted Traditionis following a consultation with the bishops of the Latin Church, and intended it as a response to “the wishes expressed by the episcopate” regarding the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Mass.
As such, leaving the implementation of Traditionis custodes up to local bishops, including via the power to dispense from its norms in the light of local considerations and the proper discernment of the diocesan bishop, would seem to many like the natural means of serving the principle of “sound decentralization” while offering new norms as a solicitous response to what the bishops had themselves apparently asked for.
Rescripts, as a matter of canon law, are issued in response to a specific petition — rather than being given motu proprio (on the initiative of the governing authority). Cardinal Roche, then, appears to have specifically asked Francis to curtail the discretion of local bishops with regard to Traditionis, though it isn’t clear why, given that the premise of the motu proprio itself was supposed to be in service to the “wishes expressed” by diocesan bishops.
Set against this background, this week’s rescript could appear to be a proactive walk-back of that premise, which is meant to be the bedrock of Pope Francis’ curial reforming agenda.
Roche’s effort to curtail the pastoral discretion and legal authority of diocesan bishops is, to many, even more puzzling because it is often framed as an effort to defend the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
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While Traditionis custodes was issued by Pope Francis with the aim of guarding and promoting liturgical communion in the Latin Church, and recognized “the liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, [as] the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.”
But writing in Traditionis, Francis also acknowledged that “It belongs to the diocesan bishop, as moderator, promoter, and guardian of the whole liturgical life of the particular Church entrusted to him, to regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese.”
“Therefore,” Francis wrote, “it is his exclusive competence to authorize the use of the 1962 Roman Missal in his diocese, according to the guidelines of the Apostolic See.”
But, with the Feb. 20 rescript, the Holy See’s “guidelines” have become laws empowering the curia over local bishops and, as a plain legal matter, drained away much of their “exclusive competence.”
For many canonists, ecclesiologists, and even some bishops, this is part of an emerging wider trend, with other recent legal reforms also stripping away local episcopal discretion on a range of issues — from the founding of associations of the faithful, to approving new diocesan religious institutes.
Indeed, some observers have argued that the pope’s set of legal reforms points to an evolving approach to the nature of ecclesiastical governance in the Francis pontificate, which offers a different take on key themes of the Second Vatican Council - namely the dignity of the particular Church and the governing role of the diocesan bishop.
The council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, emphasized that within the bounds of ecclesial communion, “the pastoral office, or the habitual and daily care of their sheep, is entrusted to [the diocesan bishop] completely.”
Explaining that local bishops are successors to the apostles in their own right, the council taught that bishops are not “to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them.”
Vatican II’s texts had been understood in previous pontificates to be aimed at decentralizing ecclesiastical governance authority - in light of the Church’s theology of the episcopate - after centuries of concentrated authority in Rome - and as an essential complement to the emphasis on the papacy expressed in Vatican I.
In Christus dominus, St. Paul VI’s decree on the pastoral office of bishops, the pope who closed the Second Vatican Council emphasized that “To bishops, as successors of the Apostles, in the dioceses entrusted to them, there belongs per se all the ordinary, proper, and immediate authority which is required for the exercise of their pastoral office.”
For this reason, St. Paul VI wrote, “The general law of the Church grants the faculty to each diocesan bishop to dispense, in a particular case, the faithful over whom they legally exercise authority as often as they judge that it contributes to their spiritual welfare, except in those cases which have been especially reserved by the supreme authority of the Church.”
Yet, under Pope Francis, those special cases appear to be becoming increasingly common, even while the pope has aimed his curial reforming efforts in the opposite direction, towards “sound decentralization.”
The result appears to be a new willingness to stretch the essential link between the exercise of governance in the Church and pastoral care of souls, meant to be bound up together in the office of the diocesan bishop.
And that’s where the pope could face questions. If rescripts like the one granted to Cardinal Roche this week become a normal part of Vatican governance, it could leave Francis with a set of bishops asking whether his legacy embodies the texts of Vatican Council II, or the spirit of Vatican I.