Skip to content

How 'Traditionis custodes' brought American liturgy wars back to the future

Dioceses in the United States continue to adjust to the new normal, following Pope Francis’ promulgation of the motu proprio Traditiones custodes two years ago.

The papal law, which abrogated Pope Benedict XVI’s signature liturgical reform Summorum pontificum, ushered in a widespread restriction of what used to be properly called the extraordinary form of the liturgy, often known as the “traditional Latin Mass.”

Mass according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Birmingham Oratory, 2009. Credit: Matthew Doyle via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

But, while Traditionis sets up clear obstacles to the celebration of the old liturgy in American dioceses, many bishops have found ways to live-and-let-live within the new framework — often incurring criticism for being “anti-Francis” in the process.

Meanwhile, some diocesan bishops have pressed on further, issuing strict and sometimes legally controversial restrictions on how their clergy are to celebrate the ordinary form of the Mass.

Above both, the Holy See seems to be taking an asymmetrical approach to the emerging trends, vacillating between aggressive interventions and a more hands-off approach.

The results are still in flux, but they so far draw an increasingly divided liturgical map of U.S. dioceses. 

With the future uncertain, to date the liturgical landscape of the post-Traditionis custodes Church in the U.S. has come to resemble, in some key ways, the Church of the 1980s. 


When Traditionis custodes was promulgated in the summer of 2021, many Catholics were surprised by the sweeping nature of its provisions. 

While there had been a general expectation that some document was in the offing, few anticipated what was widely viewed as a wholesale rollback of Benedict’s liturgical legacy.

But as Catholics grappled with the document’s effects, it quickly became clear that diocesan bishops were now expected to exercise a great deal more discretion and oversight over the use of the old liturgy in their territory — with the expectation being it would very much be considered an exceptional circumstance.

A ban on the use of parish churches for the celebration of the extraordinary form has been a key provision of the new law, and a defining criterion of its implementation across dioceses in the U.S.

Some devotees of the TLM expressed disappointment and anger at the provision, saying that many dioceses lack suitable alternatives to parish churches, making the Traditionis provision effectively a total ban — and a novel kind of punitive action by Pope Francis. 

But in fact, the restriction on celebrating the old form of the Mass in parish churches was a part of the indult for the liturgy’s use under Pope St. John Paul II as well.

The 1984 indult Quattuor abhinc annos provided that: “Such celebrations must be made only for the benefit of those groups that request it; in churches and oratories indicated by the bishop (not, however, in parish churches, unless the bishop permits it in extraordinary cases); and on the days and under the conditions fixed by the bishop either habitually or in individual cases.”

Similar restrictions on time and place of celebration — and the need for a recognizable group to request it — are all key features of Traditionis as well, though one apparent difference between the two is the explicit reference in the 1984 text to bishops having the power to permit the use of parish churches in “extraordinary cases.” 

At the time of Traditionis’ promulgation, the changed phrasing was widely understood to be a distinction without difference. 

As many canonists pointed out at the time, diocesan bishops have the general authority in canon law to dispense from the provisions of any universal norm not explicitly reserved to the Holy See, and several bishops proceeded to issue such dispensations in the weeks and months immediately following Traditionis’ promulgation, citing the lack of suitable alternative venues.

In some cases, perhaps eager to ensure visible compliance with both the letter and spirit of the pope’s new norms, bishops sought the pre-approval of the Dicastery for Divine Worship, and were usually granted a one or two year transition period to make alternative arrangements. 

Other bishops proceeded to act on their own canonical authority, prompting something of a confusing and ultimately unseemly set of reactions from the dicastery, which first asserted that dispensing from the norms of Traditionis had always been explicitly reserved to Rome, even though the plain text of the law did not support this interpretation, and then asked the pope to amend its documents retroactively, to fix the issue.

But even with the parish church question settled by secondary papal legislation, the effect of Traditionis so far has not been the wholesale closing down of extraordinary form Masses which many predicted. 

Instead, many bishops have taken to allocating for TLM use of former parish churches left over after the merging of several parish communities in the process of wider diocesan restructuring programs — a provision within the norms of Traditionis

Those moves have been widely portrayed as cunning (or sinister, depending on the commentator) circumventions of the often-assumed intention of Pope Francis in Traditionis — to shut down TLM Masses and communities. 

Yet this presumption doesn’t seem entirely in line with Franicis’ own statements on the subject, nor does the portrayal of bishops using the norms of Traditionis as somehow “outmaneuvering” the pope appear to extend far beyond the politics of the Church in America.

Francis himself has said he sees Traditionis as “simply a constructive reordering” of liturgical practice, rather than a wholesale suppression of extraordinary form celebration. And most Church watchers would agree that, had the pope wanted to ban the TLM outright, he has the legal power to do so, even if it would have been deeply unpopular with some communities.

Similarly, dioceses like Springfield, Illinois, and Cleveland have come under fire online for being supposedly “anti-Francis” by designating non-parish churches for TLM use. 

But that view of things has not, apparently, made it as far as the pope’s own Diocese of Rome, which designated five churches at which the extraordinary form could be celebrated every day apart from the Easter Triduum, or to the Diocese of Bologna, where the pope’s personal peace ambassador and president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, both allowed TLM liturgies to continue in designated non-parish churches, and even dispensed from Traditionis to allow it to continue in a parish church until an alternate venue could be identified.

Subscribe now

On the other side of the re-emerging diocesan liturgical divide, several bishops have moved to both curtail the celebration of the former liturgical rite and to impose new restrictions on their clergy’s celebration of the ordinary form, too — even though Traditionis makes no such provisions.

An increasing number of U.S. bishops have sought to impose new restrictions on the freedom of priests to celebrate the ordinary form of the Mass either in Latin or ad orientem even if in English. 

In some cases, bishops, as in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, have been clear that they don’t want to limit the use of ad orientem in itself, but are addressing specific instances of pastors bringing in new liturgical styles without sufficiently preparing their congregations for the change through catechesis.

Others, in dioceses like Chicago, Seattle, and Venice, Florida, have opted for more sweeping restrictions, insisting that all priests must always seek permission to celebrate Mass ad orientem and rolling that requirement into broader regulations of Traditionis.

Yet these regulations would seem to fall foul of standing guidance from the Dicastery for Divine Worship, which has previously advised U.S. bishops that “As both positions [ad orientem and versus populum] enjoy the favor of the law, legislation may not be invoked to say that one position or the other accords more closely with the mind of the Church.” 

In 2000, before Summorum pontificum and still under the previous norms of the John Paul II era, the then-Congregation for Divine Worship clarified that a diocesan bishop “is unable to exclude or mandate the use of a legitimate option,” but is only “competent to provide further guidance to priests in their choice of the various options of the Roman Rite.”

While jealously guarding their authority to dictate the implementation of Traditionis in dioceses, the now rebranded dicastery has, so far, declined to intervene to reinforce its own ruling on the celebration of the ordinary form of the liturgy.

Perhaps the most likely reason for this, and for the debate over Traditionis going well past simple liturgical preference and practice, is that liturgy isn’t really the issue at all in the mind of many bishops, including Pope Francis — it’s about theology. 

And reading the provisions of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, perhaps that has always been the case.

If you surveyed them, the vast majority of devotees to the older liturgy would likely say that they are drawn to it for its reverence and solemnity. Many, too, would speak about the beauty of the extraordinary form of the liturgy and how it has aided their growth in faith — or even helped to effect their conversion in the first place.

Few would consider any of these experiences to be at odds with the Church’s theology, or would find it in conflict with accepting the whole of the Church’s teaching authority including during the Second Vatican Council and the decades that have followed. 

Presumably all of them would be offended at the implication that they are doctrinally suspect just because they like a particular liturgy. 

But trying to separate liturgical preference from doctrinal suspicions has proven difficult for decades — long before Traditionis custodes.

When St. John Paul II authorized the 1984 indult for the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Mass in certain restricted circumstances, he included the specific provision “That it be made publicly clear beyond all ambiguity that such priests and their respective faithful in no way share the positions of those who call in question the legitimacy and doctrinal exactitude of the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970.”

“Those” people in the 1980s were the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who definitively broke communion with the Church in 1988, when he was excommunicated for the illicit consecration of several bishops intended to sustain the community he led and which rejected both the liturgical changes which followed Vatican II and the legitimacy of the council itself.

In the intervening decades, the Lefebvre schism began to heal. The leadership of the Society of St. Pius X continued in dialogue with the Holy See, and a kind of “irregular communion” was declared — while the society’s leadership were urged to formally accept particular points of doctrine and teaching authority in relation to the council.

Formal reintegration of the SSPX into the Church remains incomplete, to say the least. 

But the doctrinal and disciplinary distance between the SSPX and Rome has allowed for a generation of Catholics to emerge within the Church who sincerely prefer the extraordinary form of the liturgy but without the theological “irregularities” associated with the society and the Lefebvrist schism.

This discernment underpinned Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum pontificum, in which he wrote that “These two expressions of the Church’s lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s lex credendi (rule of faith).”

Yet it was exactly this division which Francis cited in Traditions custodes some 14 years later, when he wrote that he found “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’.”

Ironically, Francis made this declaration even as he has overseen even closer reintegration of the SSPX into the sacramental life of the Church by extending confessional faculties to priests attached to the society.

There of course remains much work to be done in the bid to bring the SSPX back into full regular communion with the Holy See — in addition to ongoing doctrinal issues, there also remain real and increasingly apparent concerns about the lack of credible safe environment policies in many SPPX communities — but the Vatican’s commitment to the task remains clear under Pope Francis. 

But it appears paradoxical for Francis to be working to bring the SSPX ever closer to regular communion with Rome, while at the same time raising the very concerns articulated by St. John Paul II in 1984. The likely explanation is that his concern is not with those attached to the society at all, but others within the Church attached to the former liturgy. And he may have a point.

The last decade has seen the rise of populist figures who themselves link their preferences for the former liturgy to a theological critique of the direction of the Church during the Francis pontificate. 

While these include lay media personalities on platforms like Twitter or YouTube, others — like the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, and Fr. James Altman of the Diocese of Lacrosse, Wisconsin — are clerics, in some cases members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and explicit in their denunciation of Pope Francis and his leadership.

Those figures, and those Catholics who look to them for leadership against what they claim is a papal plot to undermine Church teaching, would seem to merit the suspicion and concern expressed by Traditionis custodes

And their often explicit attachment to the extraordinary form of the liturgy as somehow more authentic or pure than the ordinary form would seem to justify Francis’ concern about a breach in the lex credendi

If this phenomenon is real, it does seem clearly to be an equally clear minority problem within traditional liturgical communities, and perhaps the most potent criticism of Traditionis remains that it effects a dramatic restriction of the many for the correction of the few. 

But setting aside the question of proportionality, if the pope’s concerns expressed in Traditionis are not wholly without foundation, and if Francis has, in effect, ordered a return to the status quo ante prior to Summorum’s promulgation, the question becomes: is it working?

Upgrade your subscription

The implementation of Traditionis custodes in several American dioceses has extended beyond the motu proprio’s actual provisions for the celebration of the extraordinary form.

In some dioceses, new regulations for the celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass actually aim to link the priest’s choice of ad orientem or versus popolum with his “acceptance of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council” to justify restricting what the Vatican has called equally legitimate options.

It is possible that these policies — despite the canonical issues they raise — are meant as a response to specific circumstances and cases identified in local communities, though they have not been identified.

But, by rolling up licit ordinary form liturgical practices under the pope’s concerns about the extraordinary form, the problem many would identify is that it presumes (or even creates) a cloud of suspicion over ordinary Catholics, including many priests, formed in the last two decades to understand celebration ad orientem as an normal part of the Church’s ordinary liturgical life, and in now way connected to doctrinal disputes or questions of papal authority.

At the same time, distinct ecclesiological and theological debates within the Church in the U.S., which have nothing to do with liturgy, have acted to seed confusion among some Catholics and may, perversely, be creating exactly the kind of mutual separation of lex orandi and lex credendi between some Catholics that Traditionis proposed to prevent.

Alongside the implementation of Traditionis, which has varied from diocese to diocese, bishops in the United States have been engaged in several high-profile debates — often acrimonious — about the Eucharist, the Church’s sacramental and moral teachings, and the ongoing synod on synodality.

Without suggesting causality, it can be observed that rigorous application (not to say zealous overreach) in the application of Traditionis in some dioceses tends to map over the same places led by bishops who have taken a more progressive stance on moral and doctrinal issues, and vice versa.

The correlation between these two issues has not gone unnoticed by Church commentators, with some on the so-called “right,” including online polemicists, seizing on prelates like Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego’s endorsement for the synod to consider ordaining women priests to suggest exactly the kind of link between the liturgical reforms following Vatican II and a breach with traditional Church teaching which John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all rejected.

On the other end of the spectrum, so-called “progressive” commentators have taken to hyperbolically warning of a wholesale “American schism,” rolling up the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference with problematic outliers like Bishop Strickland, and accusing Catholics of harboring “anti-Francis” attitudes for rejecting the possibility of women’s ordination or favoring ad orientem Mass. 

Ironically, Pope Francis himself has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of priestly ordination of women, and frequently celebrates Mass ad orientem

But that irony to one side, and while these debates are, for the moment, relatively limited to the sphere of professional online polemics, the chances that such a narrative could bleed through to ordinary parish life seem likely only to rise in the current climate.

If Pope Francis is correct in his assessment that liturgical and doctrinal issues are again being linked in the minds of some faithful in a kind of mutual rejection of the post-conciliar Church, it raises the question: Is his response in Traditionis well-suited to address it, or is its application in some places exacerbating the problem?

And perhaps the answer is: yes, and yes.

If we are seeing again the problems identified by St. John Paul II, it could be that the same solutions will find purchase. If this is the case, Traditionis could be read in line with the 1984 indult Quattuor abhinc annos, though it is worth noting that John Paul II did not limit his attention to one side of the emerging divide.

During the 1980s, Pope John Paul also authorized the visitation, and in some cases public correction, of bishops who used the so-called “spirit” of Vatican Council II to challenge Church teaching — most notably Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle in 1986.

Francis has shown himself comfortable in ordering such visitations of dioceses for various reasons, pastoral and practical, though not yet for doctrinal concerns.

It may be that, in order to shore up his interventions to preserve the lex orandi, the pope will need to take an equal interest in reinforcing the lex credendi, too, if they are to remain linked in the way he clearly wishes.

Subscribe now

Comments 108