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'Traditionis custodes' and unhelpful observations

It has been nearly two weeks since Pope Francis promulgated Traditionis custodes, a legal document that dramatically remade the rules governing the Extraordinary Form of the Mass — which, according to at least some interpretations, probably ought not be called that anymore.

Naming conventions aside — and rest assured, liturgists and canonists are robustly discussing the naming conventions — the pope’s new rules for the usus antiquior have set off predictable responses from most affected groups. 

Bishop Athanasius Schneider preaching in 2016. Credit: Lawrence OP via Flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

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Many diocesan bishops in the U.S. have said they’ll “study the issues,” and given permission for the status quo to continue temporarily. Some have already promulgated policies, while others have reportedly begun restricting or cancelling Masses. Pundits on all sides have lined up to explain how the pope’s new rules confirm their prior positions on “trads” and the place of “trad” culture within the Church.

Traditionis custodes was the subject of considerable disagreement among Catholics long before it was ever promulgated, as rumors circulated for months that the pope would issue a document on the usus antiquior, and commentators squared off over speculation. 

The text will spur not just disagreement but practical disunity. Because it entrusts considerably more authority over the pre-conciliar liturgy to the diocesan bishop, the motu proprio will lead inevitably to neighboring dioceses with markedly different implementation plans, and to groups of Catholics concentrating themselves in dioceses they perceive as “friendly” to their liturgical practices, while others grouse because their bishop has not permitted what some other bishop has made frequently available.

None of that is especially surprising. And, in fact, much of it hearkens back to the situation of “traditionalist” Catholics before Pope Benedict XVI issued in 2007 Summorum pontificum, which both liberalized and standardized the Church’s approach to the Extraordinary Form, and mostly muted the cultural impact of diocesan variability on the issue. 

What is new is that by all available evidence, and by the experience of most people who pay attention to the life of the Church, the number of Catholics who attend or offer the Extraordinary Form is on the rise. Even while they remain a relatively small portion of practicing Catholics in the U.S., such Catholics seem to skew younger, more engaged, and more “mainstream” than did the “traditionalist Catholic” set before 2007. And they seem to include a not-insignificant portion of priests who have found some spiritual benefit to offering Mass in the Extraordinary Form, and would like to continue doing so.

In the months to come, bishops will have to grapple with the spiritual needs of the Extraordinary Form attendees in their dioceses and within their presbyterates, while at least some Catholics who love the Extraordinary Form will have to grapple with the demands of obedience in a hierarchical institution. None of that will be easy, tensions will be high, and it seems unlikely that charity will always prevail, on either side of the equation.

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If the Mass is the source and summit of the Christian life, as Lumen gentium says, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is also a topic over which division seems especially pernicious, and nearly ubiquitous.

But fueling the fire, at least potentially, are a few bishops who have introduced a more contrarian strain into the discussion — seeming to call into question whether the pope actually has the authority to regulate the liturgy in the manner of Traditionis custodes, or urging that clerics disobey the prescripts of their diocesan bishops. 

The effect of bishops seeming to call into question the pope’s authority to regulate the liturgy could be to amplify a practical schism in the Church that the last three popes have said they are making efforts to repair. And the impact of calling directly for disobedience speaks for itself.

Most theological and canonical commentators acknowledge that the pope has the authority to regulate the form of the celebration of the liturgy, but not the authority to change essential aspects of matter and form; the pope can permit or prohibit particular liturgical rites, but not, for example, allow grape soda and Doritos to replace bread and wine as the Eucharistic elements. 

But some voices, even while not disputing that view directly, have raised ancillary points that could muddy the waters.

In a July 22 statement, the Apostolic Signatura’s former prefect, Cardinal Raymond Burke, raised a somewhat technical question in the middle of a lengthy statement on liturgical history and Traditionis custodes, which he placed on his website

“Can the Roman Pontiff juridically abrogate the UA?” Burke asked. 

The cardinal concluded in the negative, positing that the pope’s authority does not allow him “to eradicate a liturgical discipline which has been alive in the Church since the time of Pope Gregory the Great and even earlier.”

Burke did not offer substantive reasoning for that view, but others have suggested that because the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is a unique expression of Sacred Tradition, it is in some way an integral part of the divine patrimony, the Deposit of Faith, which the Church is compelled to protect. 

“Our Lord,” Burke wrote, “who gave the wonderful gift of the UA will not permit it to be eradicated from the life of the Church.”

While Burke’s point was focused on the technical question of whether a liturgical rite can be expressly abrogated, and did not say that Pope Francis exceeded his mandate by the promulgation of Traditionis custodes, the cardinal’s statement was not unambiguous on that point

As Burke wrote that the motu proprio’s restrictions “signal” the “ultimate elimination” of the Extraordinary Form, it has been taken as a repudiation of the motu proprio’s actual norms.

In response, at least some commentators and social media figures have rallied around the idea that Traditionis custodes is an excessive, ultra vires, and therefore invalid act.

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Going even further, Dutch auxiliary Bishop Robertus Mutsaerts has also written on the subject.

The bishop wrote that Francis’ regulations on the Extraordinary Form “brush aside” natural law, divine law, and Sacred Tradition. Any papal mandate violating divine law would be de facto invalid; Mutsaerts, who wrote that Traditionis custodes reads like a “declaration of war,” will be seen by at least some Catholics to be encouraging non-compliance with the decree.

Still another auxiliary, Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, went well beyond the statements of those bishops, rejecting explicitly the norms of the pope’s regulations, and urging seminarians and young priests to ignore them.

If they are not given permission to celebrate the usus antiquior, priests should do so “nevertheless, perhaps in a clandestine manner. This would not be an act of disobedience, but rather of obedience to Holy Mother Church, who has given us this liturgical treasure,” Schneider wrote.

Neither Burke, nor Mutsaerts, nor Schneider are diocesan bishops; none has the obligation to interpret or implement Traditionis custodes in their dioceses. But they do have large audiences, some of whom will take up an argument on the pope’s authority as an excuse to reject the motu proprio, or embrace Schneider’s call to disobey both Roman Pontiff and diocesan bishop. Some practicing Catholics will urge their priests to do exactly that, claiming that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. 

The likely impact on the social and sacramental fabric of the Church is predictable.

There will not be many, but priests who actually refuse obedience could find themselves in the practical circumstance of schism. Eventually, a few will face ecclesiastical discipline. In some corners of social media, they will be regaled as martyrs. They will likely raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. And their bishops will likely be overwhelmed with phone calls and emails of opposition.

Of course, canon law explicitly permits Catholics to express their opinions on ecclesiastical matters, both to their pastors and in public. It is neither sin nor surprise that some Catholics are angry about Traditionis custodes, that they feel aggrieved, marginalized, or persecuted, and that they are expressing their frustration on social media, in calls to parishes and chanceries, and in conversation among themselves. It is incumbent upon their bishops to try to reach them pastorally, which, in the current circumstances, is no easy task. The Church’s unity is not easily preserved. 

But Traditionis custodes has been promulgated. It is the law of the Church. Even diocesan bishops who are sympathetic to the Extraordinary Form will have to take it seriously, and will likely need, for the sake of ecclesial unity, the trust and cooperation of those Catholics discouraged by the text’s norms.

And if history is any teacher, the sirenic voices calling for disobedience, or casting into doubt the authority of the Vicar of Christ, are not likely to make easier the challenges facing those entrusted with interpreting, implementing, or accepting the pope’s act of governance.    

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