The Dynamics of Restricting Liturgical Rites

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The essential argument of Pope Francis and others who wish to restrict or even ban the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass boils down to “If a liturgical rite is causing people to embrace bad theology, then it should be banned.” Since some attendees of the TLM are embracing a bad ecclesiology (i.e., “schismatic tendencies”), then the TLM itself should be removed from the equation, they believe.

On the surface, this is a plausible argument. After all, one of the fundamental maxims of Catholicism is lex orandi, lex credendi, which means the law of prayer is the law of belief. In other words, how we pray and worship greatly impacts what we believe. So, if a liturgy is influencing bad belief, perhaps it needs to be curtailed by Church authorities.

However, let’s examine this argument a little more specifically in today’s situation, and dig into the track record of the traditional Latin Mass (TLM), as well as the Novus Ordo Mass (NO). After all, if a liturgical rite can be blamed for the bad theology of some of its attendees, then all rites should be examined to ensure we remove any and all offending liturgies.

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The TLM as celebrated today is the result of an organic development that stretches over a millennium in the past. How the TLM is celebrated in 2023 isn’t much different than how the Roman Rite was celebrated in 1923, 1223, or 623. Millions of Catholics have been formed in their beliefs by this Mass during this long time, including saints such as St. Gregory the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Maximian Kolbe. 

Of course, this liturgy also formed many of the great heretics of the past, such as John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. In other words, the traditional Roman Rite does not have a 100% batting average, producing only orthodox believers. Due to the fallen nature of man, there will always be those who attend a perfectly orthodox liturgy and still end up professing heresy. But on the whole, it’s hard not to be impressed with what the traditional Roman Rite has produced; it was the bedrock of medieval Christendom, the most glorious and authentically Catholic era of all time.

The Novus Ordo, it goes without saying, has a much shorter history, having been instituted in 1970. Now for those who argue that the NO is simply an organic reform of the TLM, I would just note that this is not what those who wish to restrict the TLM are saying. They are treating the NO as fundamentally different from the TLM; after all, they are claiming that the TLM is harmful to the faithful (why else would you restrict it?) whereas the NO is not. They are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) arguing that the Novus Ordo didn’t reform the traditional Latin Mass, it replaced it.

But in the short history of the NO, what do we see? In the West at least, we see mass apostasy: millions of Catholics, who grew up in the NO, have left the Church. Just as troubling, a majority of those who still regularly attend the NO are functional heretics. As just one example, polls show that almost 70% of Catholics in America do not believe in the Real Presence. Other indicators, such as the widespread Catholic acceptance of artificial contraception, confirm this tragic reality. 

Now, just as the traditional Roman Rite produced some heretics such as Martin Luther in the midst of centuries of widespread orthodoxy, likewise the NO has produced saints in the midst of 50 years of widespread heresy. Of course, since the new Mass is so, well, new, there are only a few canonized saints of this era, but suffice it to say that many holy people have attended the NO for either their whole lives or at least for a large section of it.

That being said, if we are going to establish the standard that “a liturgical rite that causes people to embrace bad theology should be banned,” it’s hard not to see which of the two liturgies should be eyed for retirement. The contrasting track records of the TLM and the NO, when put side-by-side, are clear. If we are going to establish the standard that “a liturgical rite that causes people to embrace bad theology should be banned,” it’s hard not to see which of the two liturgies should be eyed for retirement. Tweet This

To be clear, I’m not arguing here for the restriction or elimination of the Novus Ordo. I’m arguing against the logic promoted by the pope and others to curtail the TLM. It places the blame for supposed bad actors away from the individuals and toward a practice that has over 1,000 years of proven value. Should 16th century popes have banned the traditional Roman Rite because it was what Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli grew up in? Of course not, such a suggestion is absurd. But it’s actually less absurd than the idea that today’s TLM should be shut down because of issues with a few YouTubers and mean tweeters. 

When the Church has a problem with individuals in her midst that are sowing dissent, she has a mechanism to deal with that: confront the individuals and call them to retract their problematic views or be excommunicated. The fact that Church leaders today don’t do that but instead direct their ire on a venerable and proven rite of the Church suggests that the issue is not what they claim it to be.

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  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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