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Is there a secret plan to suppress the TLM — again?

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Traditionalist Catholic websites and media began discussing last week what they describe as “persistent rumors” of a planned Vatican document, which is supposedly meant to suppress entirely the celebration of the extraordinary form of the liturgy, often called the “Traditional Latin Mass.”

Credit: Thoom / Shutterstock.

The current round of speculation began in earnest when Rorate Caeli, a traditionalist website, carried a post last week citing “the most credible sources” to say that a “Vatican document with a stringent, radical, and final solution banning the Traditional Latin Mass” exists and was being pushed for papal approval.

The post did not include details about the alleged document’s provisions, who had drafted it, or on whose instructions, but did claim that “the same ideologues who imposed [the 2021 motu proprio] Traditionis Custodes and its implementation… are still frustrated with its apparently slow results” and were pressing for news restrictions by Pope Francis.

The Pillar has not been able to confirm the existence of such a document. But curial officials in Rome hear many of the same rumors, and pay attention to American Catholic media of all kinds, so many of them are now discussing whether the Vatican will really impose new restrictions on the more ancient forms of the liturgy — and if so, what any new policies might hope to achieve.

And some officials said that in their view, any new policies will have to be weighed carefully against the pushback they provoke, both from those committed to the TLM, and those concerned with the reach of papal authority. 


According to curial sources in Rome, the rumor of the supposed document seems to have originated with informal claims made by a single official at the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the department led by Cardinal Arthur Roche, which is charged with the implementation of Traditionis Custodes.

While no official who spoke to The Pillar claimed first-hand knowledge of the document itself or its drafting, several sources speculated that if it did exist, it most likely would have been put in motion with the approval of Cardinal Roche following controversy over the DDW prefect’s attempts to tighten the implementation of Traditionis following its initial promulgation.

Cardinal Roche first faced criticism when his office asserted a set of apparently normative interpretations of the pope’s liturgical policies in December 2021, and reserved to itself some powers which had seemed in the actual text of Traditionis custodes to belong to diocesan bishops.

The DDW followed up that move by telling at least some U.S. bishops that they do not have the authority to dispense from certain provisions of Traditionis custodes, even while - to the mind of many canonists - the papal text itself did not support that claim.

Despite initially rejecting legal criticism of the DDW’s actions, Roche eventually had to seek a formal legal change to Traditionis from Pope Francis, reserving extra powers to his department at the expense of local bishops. 

That move, as was noted at the time, appeared to row back on the ecclesiology of Vatican Council II and Pope Francis’ curial reforms, which the pope said aimed for “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.”

Several curial officials have suggested to The Pillar that Cardinal Roche remains frustrated at his department’s (now enhanced) powers to police the celebration of the traditional Mass in local dioceses, and that the document may have been put into motion last year as a “last resort” to force diocesan bishops into adopting a globally uniform approach to implementing Traditionis.

If that is the case, bringing a new document into force would require convincing Pope Francis of a compelling need for it — arguing, essentially, that Traditionis custodes is not working as planned and, despite several rounds of revisions by the DDW, essentially not fit for purpose.

How this case would be made to the pope is a matter of speculation. 

It is possible that the heightened attention to the case of former nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano — now facing formal charges of schism — could be presented as a kind of “new” cause for urgency. 

Vigano has made the rejection of Vatican Council II a central part of his dissent from the Church and from Pope Francis, and he has taken to appearing in pre-conciliar dress and insisting on traditional liturgical celebration.

At the time of Traditionis custodes’ promulgation, Francis said he was “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’.” 

Such a statement could easily be read against Vigano’s most recent missives against Rome.

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But even assuming the Vigano situation and the association of some traditionalist Catholic groups with so-called “canceled priests” could be construed as a kind of canonical or liturgical casus belli for renewed action against traditional liturgical celebration, it prompts the question: what would a further crackdown achieve?

Supporters of fringe characters like Vigano are a minority and marginal movement in the Church at any level they can be identified. And whatever enhanced canonical measures could be imposed on the extraordinary form of the liturgy, it would seem highly unlikely they would effect a sudden change of mind by those individuals — rather, it could push many into a harder and more formal distancing from the Church. 

Meanwhile, the majority — some would argue the obvious majority — of adherents to the old liturgy are clear their attachment is one of devotion to worship, not ecclesiastical sedition.

In dioceses in the United States where some of the most restrictive, and some would argue deliberately pastorally insensitive, restrictions have been placed upon the celebration of the TLM, extraordinary form communities have in great part made do with what has been allowed.

Such Catholics would become, in all likelihood, a kind of squeezed middle in the wake of any further restrictions — neither inclined to abandon their sincere devotion to what they see as the most edifying way of worshiping, nor enticed to believe the Church considers them to be anything other than a suspect class of crypto-schismatics.

At a time when Rome insists it has adopted a posture of “listening” and a synodal approach to the “peripheries” of ecclesiastical life, it is hard to see how a renewed clampdown on communities who already largely perceive themselves to be unloved and unwanted by the hierarchy could achieve a positive outcome.

Of course, there are some observers who would claim that, in the words of internet memes, “the cruelty is the point,” and that at least some within the DDW and wider Vatican circles view provoking traditionalist communities into further distancing themselves from mainstream Church affairs is somehow desirable.

There is no shortage of speculation, either among curial staffers or among internet commentators, that the ultimate aim is for traditionalist Catholics to be squeezed towards institutions like the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest — whose prior general Francis met earlier this week — and out of ordinary diocesan life.

In fact, one Vatican official told The Pillar that some proponents of new measures to restrict celebration of the TLM were not aiming for complete and total suppression, which they termed “practically unworkable,” but rather a kind of “quarantine.”

“The thinking, and some will put it in these terms, is to ‘force them [traditionalist Catholics] onto reservations,’ with everything that goes with that kind of imagery.”

“Taking them out of diocesan life, driving them into little pockets around things like the ICKSP, the [Priestly Fraternity of St Peter] and even the SSPX [which is in irregular communion with the Church] would take them out of local bishops’ hands,” the official said.

“For the ones pursuing ‘maximum TC’, it would be a welcome relief,” he said. “And for those bishops who have been pushing back [by seeking to make space for traditionally minded communities] it would take the whole issue out of their hands.”

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What everyone seems to agree on, though, is that a new set of restrictions on the extraordinary form would create considerable tensions in the Church, deepen existing divisions, and sow more ill feeling among all sides of the liturgical debate.

Whether that is something Pope Francis would want, or consider worth whatever perceived benefits new restrictions could achieve, is an open question — and given the reports from curial staffers, one not yet resolved, or even formally posed. 

According to Rorate Caeli, opponents of the TLM are hoping to make some kind of “wide, final, and irreversible” progress towards a total suppression in a hurry, supposedly as a hedge against a future pope reversing Francis’ own reversal of Benedict XVI’s great liturgical liberalization in Summorum pontificum

“They want to do it while Francis is still in power,” the website has said.

If that is the case, they — whoever “they” are — would seem to be engaged in a strange kind of gambit. 

If the thinking in some quarters is that Francis’ pontificate represents the last likely window for further restrictions, their premise is, presumably, that the next pope would be less sympathetic to their means and ends. 

But ushering in new, more restrictive action now would seem at least as likely as not to increase the chances of a “snapback” under Francis’ eventual successor. And, whatever gains “they” may hope to make in the short term, they are unlikely to be truly “irreversible.”  

Whatever means are deployed to interpret and enact Traditionis custodes, and whatever new action might be taken to further restrict or suppress the usage of the 1962 missal, the only bankably permanent action taken by Pope Francis on the liturgy will likely prove to be his effective abrogation of Summorum pontificum.

For good or ill, Francis has cleared the path for a pope to perform a total U-turn on his predecessor’s approach to the extraordinary form. Future-proofing against the next pope doing the same again may prove beyond the scope of any new motu proprio.

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