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Vatican permission still unclear on 'Traditionis'

A Georgia bishop’s announcement that celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass will end in his diocese next year raises unresolved questions about the power of the diocesan bishop to dispense from the provisions of Traditionis custodes, and about the authority of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Divine Worship over diocesan bishops leading local churches.

In an announcement Friday, Bishop Stephen Parkes of Savannah said the Vatican’s liturgy office had granted permission for the celebration of the Extraordinary Form to continue in two parish churches - something otherwise prohibited by Traditionis - but only until May of next year.

“After prayer and discernment,” Parkes said, “I wrote to the Congregation for Divine Worship (now the Dicastery for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments) in mid-April to request permissions for specific parish churches in our diocese” to continue using the Extraordinary Form.

The response, which he received in May, allowed for a one-year continuation in two parishes.

Parkes thanked the dicastery for the “permissions” it had granted him. But, one year on from the promulgation of Traditionis, some canonists debate whether the bishop needed permission at all.

Traditionis custodes introduced a number of new restrictions on the celebration of the Extraordinary Form, including barring its celebration in parish churches, and requiring that priests wishing to celebrate Mass according to the former missal receive formal permission from the bishop to do so.

But, quoting the Second Vatican Council, the motu proprio recognized 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.”

In light of that, the text of Traditionis custodes required local bishops to consult with the Holy See before making some decisions — like authorizing a priest ordained after the motu proprio’s promulgation to use the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

Of course, there is nothing especially controversial about requiring a bishop to consult before placing an act of governance; canon law requires that diocesan bishops consult with a range of bodies, like the diocesan finance council or college of priest consultors, before making importance decisions.

And requiring a bishop to take advice before making his decision does not revoke his authority to decide eventually as he sees fit.

But in the months after the promulgation of Traditionis, the Dicastery for Divine Worship decided to upgrade the requirement of “consultation,” and instructed bishops to begin asking its permission on a number of liturgical questions — like the authorization of newly ordained priests.

In December 2021, the Dicastery for Divine Worship published a list of responses to questions reportedly received about Traditionis custodes.

In that context, prefect Archbishop Arthur Roche said diocesan bishops “can” seek from the dicastery to dispense from the ban on the celebrating of the Extraordinary Form in parish churches — but only “when it is not possible” to find a suitable alternative.

Parkes asked for an allowance for two parishes in Savannah under that provision.

But other bishops, meanwhile, have made their own provisions for local needs, and done so on their own authority as expressed in the Church’s universal law.

In July last year Springfield’s Bishop Thomas Paprocki issued a formal decree implementing the motu proprio in his own diocese.

Recognizing particular pastoral needs and existing circumstances, the bishop, who is himself a canon lawyer, included a number of dispensations from the norms of Traditionis for different parishes in the Springfield diocese.

In granting these dispensations, Paprocki invoked the provisions of canon 87 of the Church’s universal law, which states:

“A diocesan bishop, whenever he judges that it contributes to their spiritual good, is able to dispense the faithful from universal and particular disciplinary laws issued for his territory or his subjects by the supreme authority of the Church.”

The canon continues:

“He is not able to dispense, however, from procedural or penal laws nor from those whose dispensation is specially reserved to the Apostolic See or some other authority.”

Lying between the approaches to Traditionis taken by bishops Paprocki and Parkes is the question: has dispensation from the motu proprio on the Extraordinary Form been reserved to the Vatican?

The answer isn’t straightforward.

The text of the motu proprio itself says that “The [Dicastery] for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments… for matters of [its] particular competence, exercises the authority of the Holy See with respect to the observance of these provisions.”

This is, as a matter of legislative form, not a legal reservation to the dicastery of the power to dispense — and Traditionis does explicitly affirm the diocesan bishop’s power to “regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese.”

But in Roche’s published responses to questions about the motu proprio in December, he cited his dicastery’s competence while appearing to upgrade the requirement of “consultation” by bishops to their seeking his permission on the authorization of newly ordained priests to celebrate the Extraordinary Form. Those “responses” raise a number of canonical questions.

While Traditionis would appear to hand Roche’s department the power to interpret the application of the motu proprio and issue “guidelines”, the act of “interpreting” legislation is not normally held by canonists to extend to re-writing the plain text of the law itself, and it’s unclear on what basis Roche is apparently asserting that power.

Moreover, an authoritative interpretation of the law has to be issued in a recognizable legal form in order to have effect. Usually this is done through a properly issued canonical instruction, or by a vademecum outlining explicit guidelines from the competent authority.

Published responses to questions are regularly used by Vatican departments to clarify points of confusion on different issues, but they are, canonically speaking, advisory opinions and not binding law.

Taking the specific permission sought by Bishop Parkes for the Extraordinary Form to continue in some parish churches, Roche’s December responses say simply that the diocesan bishop “can” ask the dicastery to dispense, not that he “must.”

Some Church commentators in favor of a strict application of Traditionis have argued that such distinctions are mere semantics, and that bishops like Paprocki, who have acted in line with the plain text of the motu proprio (and the teachings of Second Vatican Council and canon law), are flouting Pope Francis’ will.

Apart from having no obvious legal basis, those arguments fail to account for the fact that Roche has, so far at least, not challenged bishops acting on their own proper authority. But this also leaves unexplained why Rome would allow bishops to seek a dispensation they could grant themselves.

One possibility is that, given the often emotive and divisive nature of decisions around the use of the Extraordinary Form in some places, Rome is essentially offering local bishops the option to pass them the buck and allow the dicastery to be the “bad cop,” a role with which Roche has appeared to signal he is comfortable.

Another possibility is that the dicastery wants to encourage a stricter application of Traditionis than the motu proprio itself requires, and is pushing an expanded role for itself in its interpretation, but is doing so gradually, by applying pressure to dioceses through things like the December responses, while stopping short of calling out the authority of bishops like Paprocki.

As more dioceses move to announce permanent settlements for the application of Traditionis in their dioceses, we are likely to see very different conclusions, delivered with very different pastoral and canonical rationales behind them. That diversity, and Rome’s reaction to it, will likely prove the true limits of Archbishop Roche’s power to impose his own interpretation of the pope’s law.