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A Hard Challenge for Traditional Catholics

The Holy Father has issued a new liturgical law (Latin title: Traditiones Custodes) regarding the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (also known as the Traditional Latin Mass, in contrast to the Ordinary Form, which is the usual Mass in English).

This is going to be a hard challenge for many good Catholics to accept and obey in the right spirit.

The Holy Father of course has the authority to modify any prior disciplinary or canonical actions of prior popes (not doctrinal matters, of course, but matters of practice or law). The prior decree from then-Pope Benedict on the Extraordinary Form (Summorum Pontificum) was a provisional measure that in its very terms envisioned a review and revisiting after a few years of practice, in consultation with the bishops. That’s what happened here – bishops were consulted, they gave their feedback, and the Holy Father made a decision modifying the terms and conditions for the celebration of the Extraordinary Form.

Certainly, the vast majority of people who attend the Extraordinary Form Mass are good, loyal and faithful Catholics. Many of them are drawn to that form of the Roman Rite because of its tradition and its perceived beauty. Others see it as an expression of a more serious and intentional Catholicism, in contrast to what some see as the more cultural and banal Catholicism they see in some parishes. These people certainly derive great spiritual benefit from the Extraordinary Form. They are understandably heart-broken by this decree, and fear that their beloved rite will either immediately or eventually vanish.  

But the Holy Father had obviously been advised by his bishops (and probably by his own eyes, if he ever goes online at certain websites) of a significant problem in some parts of the traditionalist wing of the Church. There has been a great deal of inexcusable hostility and venom expressed towards the Holy Father and the bishops. There are people who accuse the Holy Father of being a heretic, a false pope, etc. There are some who scorn the Ordinary Form of the Mass, and even see it as inherently invalid. Many others deny the authority of the Second Vatican Council or the Holy Father himself.

This is not a Catholic spirit, but rather a spirit of schism and division, the same kind that was repeatedly and vigorously criticized by St. Paul in his various letters. This is unquestionably the spirit that the Holy Father wished to address in his appeal to unity, as he explained in his letter to the bishops that accompanied the decree. Some of the loudest and most virulent critics of Traditiones Custodes are in this camp, and are demonstrating the precise schismatic spirit that the Holy Father identified. They are proving the case against themselves, and in a sense only have themselves to blame for this decree.

As for the way that the Holy Father chose to deal with this situation, that’s a prudential matter and good Catholics can certainly wish that he chose otherwise. They can wish that closer scrutiny had been given to other groups whose loyalty to the Church is very much in doubt. They can also respectfully critique the Holy Father’s decision (as many Catholics have done). But the form of the Mass is not a divine command. It is a creation of the Church (with the exception of the words of institution of the Eucharist, obviously, which come from Jesus Himself). It is for the Holy Father and the bishops to determine the best way for the Church to pray together.

I actually think that the feared imminent death of the Extraordinary Form is greatly exaggerated. Some bishops, of course, will strangle it as soon as they can. But I think a great many bishops will permit it to continue. We’re already seeing that in the early responses of the bishops here in the US. Bishops have a lot of authority within their own dioceses to oversee the liturgy, and, as the final section of the Canon Law says, the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church. So I expect that many bishops will interpret this decree liberally, especially where the loyalty of the clergy and people involved is certain and they derive spiritual benefits from the Extraordinary Form.

The Latin Mass community is small (an estimated 4% of Masses in the US, attended by an about 100,000 Catholics). But the people I know who are in that group are the most loyal and fervent Catholics you will ever find. So it’s going to be a difficult test of their Catholic spirit to accept this decree and obey it respectfully (but sadly).

In the end, the Church is an absolute monarchy, with the ultimate executive, legislative and judicial authority lodged exclusively in the Roman Pontiff. And we all have a duty to obey the Pope – we’re Catholics, after all, not protestants. But that doesn’t make it any easier.


Published by Ed Mechmann

I am a life-long New Yorker, a graduate of Columbia College and Harvard Law School, and a former state and federal prosecutor. I am currently the Director of Public Policy and the Director of Safe Environment at the Archdiocese of New York. All opinions here are mine, and mine alone, and do not represent official statements of the Archdiocese. All Glory to God.

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