Saturday marks a year since Pope Francis published one of the most controversial documents of his pontificate: the apostolic letter Traditionis custodes.
The pope had just returned to the Vatican after 11 days in hospital after colon surgery. He had stayed longer than expected following difficulties resulting from a general anesthetic.
Vatican-watchers had been expecting a document on liturgy, focused on the use of preconciliar liturgical texts, usually referred to as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent out a questionnaire in 2020 - at the height of the pandemic - asking the world’s bishops to list the “positive or negative” aspects of the celebration of the older liturgical form.
Many observers thought that the pope would make modest changes to the liturgical status quo established by Benedict XVI. So there was an almost audible intake of breath in the Catholic world on July 16, 2021, when Francis swept away the provisions of the 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, his still-living predecessor’s hallmark reform.
In Summorum Pontificum, Benedict had described the Roman Missal issued by Paul VI after Vatican II as “the ordinary expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite.” But he also recognized the Roman Missal prior to the Council as “an extraordinary expression of the same lex orandi of the Church.”
“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); for they are two usages of the one Roman rite,” he wrote.
In contrast, Traditionis custodes declared that “the liturgical books promulgated by St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II” were “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.”
The document’s eight articles went into immediate effect, without the customary waiting period.
The Extraordinary Form of the Mass, also called the “Traditional Latin Mass” or the “usus antiquior” could now only be celebrated in tightly defined circumstances.
But as so often in the Catholic Church, there was a gap between order and execution. Has that gulf narrowed in the past year? The Pillar takes a look at the available statistics, and talks to experts across the liturgical spectrum about the impact of Traditionis custodes one year on.
Where has it been implemented?
It’s difficult to get exhaustive data on the response to Traditionis custodes around the globe.
But the website traditioniscustodes.info has compiled responses to the motu proprio. While the site doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, it offers an interesting numerical perspective.
The site has recorded reactions from 244 dioceses, out of a total of around 3,000 worldwide. The United States sits firmly at the top of countries with the most responses, with 93. In second place is the U.K. with 28, then France with 16, Brazil with 15, and Poland with 13.
If we took these numbers at face value, what conclusions could be drawn?
First, that just 10% of the world’s dioceses have reacted publicly to the document a year after its publication.
Second, that the U.S. features prominently in the story of the document’s reception. Is this just a reflection of America’s greater size? Perhaps. But compare the U.S. figures to those in France. According to the site, 93 out of the 176 Latin Catholic dioceses and archdioceses in the U.S. responded, while in France 16 out of 98 did so - a response rate of 53% and 16% respectively.
These figures suggest that U.S. bishops are responding to the motu proprio at a higher rate than some of their brothers around the world.
A European traditionalist told The Pillar that this was also his anecdotal impression. He suggested that U.S. Church leaders felt compelled to respond diligently to Vatican interventions in a way that many other hierarchies did not.
Of course, one reason for that could be that the U.S., the U.K, France, and the other countries with a relatively high response rate to the document had more frequent celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass - and thus a greater need to implement Traditionis custodes. Most anecdotal evidence about the celebration of the Extraordinary Form suggests that’s the case.
How have dioceses responded?
Just 26 of the 244 dioceses examined by traditioniscustodes.info suppressed all Traditional Latin Masses. If that figure is accurate, it suggests that just 1% of the world’s dioceses have imposed severe restrictions in response to the pope’s motu proprio.
Around a quarter of these dioceses are in Costa Rica, a Central American country with only five million people, where the local bishops issued a prohibition three days after the document’s release.
According to traditioniscustodes.info, 37 dioceses, 14 of them in the U.S., have suppressed some communities or locations where the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated.
Meanwhile, in 181 dioceses that have issued implementation plans, including 76 in the U.S., no communities or locations where the Extraordinary Form is celebrated have been shuttered, according to the site.
The website’s figures are generated by user submissions, so they are unlikely to be comprehensive. And it’s impossible to compare them with official figures as the Vatican doesn’t release such information.
Still, Daniel J. Aguiar, the Texas-based creator of traditioniscustodes.info, told The Pillar that his site suggests that “Traditionis custodes was like those explosions where the noise is greater than the damage.”
“From 244 dioceses we reviewed, a mere 10% suppressed all TLMs,” he said.
For his part, Aguiar, who prefers the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, argued that the dioceses which ended all celebrations of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass were led by bishops who espoused “modernist and liberal ideas,” and, he said, were hostile to Catholic liturgical tradition.
Experts and interested parties
Fr. Anthony Ruff, O.S.B., who teaches liturgy and liturgical music at St. John’s University School of Theology-Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, and writes at Pray Tell blog, acknowledged that the implementation of Traditionis custodes was patchy.
But he said the document’s impact was nevertheless positive.
“Traditionis custodes helpfully reinforced that the Second Vatican Council intended the previous liturgy to be entirely replaced by a reformed one. At best, those of a traditional mindset will gradually see that their future is in the Vatican II liturgy, and the entire Church will benefit from their contributions to it,” he told The Pillar.
“Alas, some voices are sowing division by tendentiously claiming that the reformed liturgy is not as traditional or Catholic as the old one (it is), or is not faithful to [Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] Sacrosanctum concilium (it is).”
“It’s perhaps understandable, given the strong feelings out there, that not all bishops are implementing Traditionis custodes yet. Doing so more fully will not be easy – patience and sensitivity will be needed while we make steady progress.”
“A year after Traditionis custodes, the availability of the traditional Mass has been only slightly affected in most places. This shows how little desire there has been among bishops to restrict it, and how few problems they were experiencing with it,” he said.
“What Traditionis custodes has done, tragically, is to signal to Catholics attached to the older Mass that they are distinctly unwelcome: a problem which future popes will have to address urgently.”
Gregory DiPippo, editor of the New Liturgical Movement website, described Traditionis custodes as an “act of desperation” that sought to stop Benedict XVI’s program of liturgical renewal.
“Pope Benedict XVI understood, perhaps better than any other major prelate of our times, that the post-conciliar revolution was in fact a revolution, the violent overthrow of an established order, which was neither asked for nor intended by the Second Vatican Council. He also understood that this revolution had set the Church at war with its own past, a war that has crippled its evangelizing mission,” he said.
“Summorum Pontificum was a part of a program (an important part, to be sure, but not the whole), by which the Church could make peace with its past and revitalize that mission. That program proved to be extremely appealing to Catholics of all backgrounds, but especially younger ones.”
“Traditionis custodes was an act of desperation on the part of a revolution that knows that this state of continual war is unappealing to the majority of serious Catholics, and seeks to do by force what it cannot do by persuasion. Its biggest impact has been to give the Church’s shepherds official permission to treat some of their most devoted sheep very shabbily, and some have availed themselves of that permission.”
DiPippo pointed to a document on the application of Traditionis custodes issued by the Vatican’s liturgy department last December, which decreed that Extraordinary Form Masses “should not be included in the parish Mass schedule.”
He described this an “attempt of the listening, synodal, decentralized Church to dictate to the successors of the Apostles by dicasterial ukase what they may allow to be published in a local church bulletin.”
“It has not done what it very much wanted to do, but could never hope to do, which is to make the state of permanent revolution in the Church more appealing to anyone,” he commented.
Quoting from Benedict XVI’s letter to the world’s bishops on Summorum Pontificum, DiPippo concluded: “In the long term, its only impact will be to make it all the more clear how important it is for ‘the Church [to] be one with herself inwardly, with her own past; that what was previously holy to her not be somehow wrong now.’”
Andrea Grillo, an Italian professor of sacramental theology, told The Pillar that the motu proprio had made a significant impact on three levels: the theological, ecclesiological, and liturgical.
Grillo is based at the Pontifical Athenaeum of Saint Anselm, a pontifical university in Rome with a highly influential school of liturgy. He has been described as “the mind behind the motu proprio,” because for years he argued for a single lex orandi should be in force within the Church, rather than the “double” one he saw in Summorum Pontificum.
On the theological level, Grillo said that Traditionis custodes restored “the ‘elementary’ and ‘healthy’ logic of the universal validity of a single Roman rite, without any possibility - unless exceptional or personal - of the parallel validity of an ‘earlier’ form of the Roman rite.”
“The logic of this universal parallelism, which Summorum Pontificum had claimed to make available for the whole Church, has no basis in theology, doctrine, or discipline. It is a mess and a mystification that is surprising to have been allowed by a ‘pope theologian.’ The ‘pastor’ pope is much more theological than his predecessor,” he commented.
“For Traditionis custodes protects not only the liturgy, but also ecclesiology, spirituality, forms of ministry, of spirituality, where one can never assume as a principle that ‘what was sacred for previous generations, must remain so for subsequent ones.’ This is not a theological principle, but a problem of understanding tradition, which is not primarily a monument to be guarded, but a garden to be cultivated.”
Addressing ecclesiology, Grillo said that the motu proprio restored “the unity of the Church on the level of its most original language, the symbolic and ritual.”
“It was evident, since 2007, that to think of a Church that can have, in parallel, even in the same parish, two different calendars, two different spaces, two different times of celebration was crazy,” he argued.
“Perhaps the most serious fact, to which Traditionis custodes reacted decisively, was the public scandal of the parallel formation of seminarians, in many U.S. seminaries and even in the North American College in Rome.”
Grillo suggested that forming seminarians in “the reformed form and, at the same time, according to the form that the Second Vatican Council explicitly wanted to reform” created a split priestly identity and undermined unity.
He added that the pope’s apostolic letter Desiderio desideravi (“I have earnestly desired”), issued last month, shed light on the liturgical value of Traditionis custodes. The document, which addressed “the liturgical formation of the people of God,” drew on the insights from the theologian Romano Guardini, a prominent figure in the 20th-century Liturgical Movement.
“The recovery of the great value of the Liturgical Movement (not of reactionary New Liturgical Movements) and of the Liturgical Reform (not of petty Reforms of the Reform) brings back to the center the two fundamental requests of Vatican II: the recovery of liturgical action as the action of ‘the whole priestly community’ demands a courageous and true shift from the act of ‘reform’ to the act of ‘formation.’”
“The reprise of some texts by Romano Guardini in Desiderio desideravi makes it clear that this is not only the thinking of the Council or the reformers, but of the entire 20th century. It is about releasing the true energies of ritual language (verbal and non-verbal) as the culmen et fons [summit and source] of all the action of the Church. Today this happens no longer primarily in Latin and in a rite of priests and not of the assembly, but in many languages whose cultures have entered, for 60 years, into the common patrimony of the great ecclesial tradition.”
He concluded: “A Church that wants to ‘guard the tradition’ must not be afraid of the different cultures with which we can experience faith and express our creed today. This ‘communal table’ will be able to make it possible to assess the limits of what has been done so far and boldly take the way forward on the level of verbal and non-verbal languages. A great construction site can open up: for the tradition of guarding by walking forward, not backward.”
The future of Traditionis custodes
Given the vast and diverse nature of the Catholic Church, it is not at all surprising that Traditionis custodes hasn’t been implemented to the letter in all the world’s dioceses. Neither has Vatican II, which ended in 1965.
The motu proprio is still very new in Catholic terms. Assessing it on its first birthday is a bit like trying to write a biography of a baby: it’s a guessing game based on meager data.
It’s noticeable that in the past 12 months, Pope Francis has rarely spoken directly about the motu proprio. In a September 2021 interview, he appeared to play it down, saying that it was “simply a constructive reordering,” with an emphasis on pastoral care, albeit setting “very clear” limits.
In February this year, the pope unexpectedly issued a decree confirming that members of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), the largest traditionalist Catholic society of apostolic life, could continue to use liturgical books in force in 1962. The move delighted traditionalists and dismayed advocates of Traditionis custodes. Curiously, the decree, which may also apply to similar groups, has never been published on the Vatican website.
The pope’s most recent statement on Traditionis custodes is in the apostolic letter Desiderio desideravi.
There, he refers to the motu proprio in the new document’s opening sentence, and he reaffirms that the post-Vatican II liturgical books are “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite” and insists that the Church cannot “go back to that ritual form which the Council fathers, cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter], felt the need to reform.”
The pope’s convictions are consistent and clear, but his application of the motu proprio is less so. With so much else vying for his attention - from the Ukraine war to his painful knee - how much energy is he willing to put into enforcing Traditionis custodes?
Francis has said that he is not interested in minutiae, preferring to focus on “generating processes” rather than “obtaining immediate results,” as he put it in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium.
No doubt he expects the Vatican’s Dicastery for Divine Worship to keep an eye on global reactions to Traditionis custodes. But now that he has firmly expressed the liturgical principles he believes should guide the Church, the widely varying responses in dioceses are unlikely to keep him awake at night.