Clarity at Last

If we believe, then we believe in the Lord’s permissive will as well as His active: evil is permitted on the grounds that it will give rise to greater good. This belief, though one of the most difficult in all theology, is also a comforting one as we take stock of crises, Traditionis Custodes being the latest in a long series. It is because of this faith that many are able to project the potential blessings-in-disguise that the restriction of the Latin Mass will bring for the faithful and the earthly Church at large: a strengthening of traditional hubs, a stirring of interest from those who have not yet cared, or the clear delineation between supportive and oppressive bishops. All of this is likely and to be celebrated with gratitude. God writes straight with crooked lines, it’s often said. 

Perhaps one such blessing is how the motu proprio, finally, clearly illustrates the intentions of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. In the nine years since Pope Francis ascended to Peter’s throne, the Church has been troubled by ambiguity and uncertainty. The Holy Father has said and done alarming things, from “Who am I to judge?” to Amoris Laetitia to Pachamama, and he has evaded answering clearly for any of it.

Instead, he has allowed—or forced—the faithful to rely on inference and interpretation to understand his meaning. No dubia is ever answered. As a result, the actual practice of the Church has changed little, especially in the traditional circles enjoying the liberty of Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum. If nothing definite is done, nothing definite can change. Traditionis Custodes, too, is rife with the usual Pope Francis ambiguity—but this time, only in the wording; the pope does us the courtesy of spelling it out for us.  

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The pope’s intentions are laid out in the motu proprio’s accompanying letter: he is “saddened” and wants to heal the divisions in a Church allegedly stumbling toward schism, decrying the “distorted” use of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s concessions toward traditionally inclined faithful. To promote unity in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, restrictions and limitations are necessary and must be enforced by individual bishops as they see fit. 

With this authority abruptly tossed into their laps, some bishops in the United States have stated the need to “take time to study, reflect and consult with others on [Traditionis Custodes] and in due time offer a pathway for implementing what the Holy Father has asked us to do,” as Blase Cardinal Cupich of Chicago put it. Taking time to consider the document and its consequences is a wise and prudent move to make—and also one that illuminates this motu proprio’s complete abnormality. 

There is perhaps no other motu proprio, certainly not throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as confusing in its details as this one. From tiny parochial matters to Church-wide affairs, past motu proprios are defined by their clarity of instruction. Take Paul VI’s Mysterii Paschalis, which overhauled the traditional liturgical calendar, or the aforementioned Summorum Pontificum, which gave the competence for liturgical matters to individual priests. “Study” and “reflection” are unnecessary. Implementation is a matter of time and logistics, not understanding. What the pope has written, he has written. 

In contrast, what exactly has Francis written? What exactly does it mean that the Latin Mass cannot be said in “parochial churches?” How is the novel idea that the Novus Ordo is the “unique expression” of the Roman Rite supposed to be implemented? By what criteria does a bishop determine whether or not traditional societies and institutes “deny the validity and the legitimacy of the liturgical reform”?

The uncertainty results in an uneven implementation of the guidelines across the world because any interpretation seems to be valid. Some, such as Bishop Cordileone of San Francisco, have interpreted them as loosely as possible and even given more support to traditional liturgy by scheduling a Latin Mass monthly in his cathedral. Others, like Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati and Bishop Foys of Covington, Kentucky, have taken a more rigid path, suppressing the Tridentine Mass at any diocesan parish. In practice, there is no right or wrong way to understand the letter of the pope’s law, and he seems content with that for the present.

Ah, but there’s the catch: “for the present.” The dictates for today are unclear and therefore can be interpreted amenably to the traditional faithful. Brutally clear are the dictates for tomorrow, and here one can begin to perceive what the pope means to do. For the present traditional parishes can continue offering the Latin Mass, but under Article 3 Section 2, the construction of new ones is outright prohibited. For the present, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King can survive, even thrive.

If a society develops organically within a diocese, particularly suited to its needs and community, though? Section 6 outlaws “new groups” without exception. For the present, there are priests who can say the Latin Mass. Article 4, perhaps the most destructive restriction: new priests require approval from both their bishop and the Vatican to say the Tridentine Mass. This will certainly be an arduous bureaucratic process that ensures that few priests, if any, will be able to impart the ancient heritage of the Roman Rite to the flock. All of those are doors that the traditional movement requires to continue, and all of them have been locked by the keys of Peter. 

Now, one might protest that this makes things far less clear. If the pope wants unity and reform, how on earth is this the best path to it? There are about a million more charitable ways to do it. Why not just actually leave it in the hands of the bishops? In some diocese this renewed episcopal authority seems to have united the traditional faithful to their bishops more than ever. Better yet, why not reexamine the Novus Ordo in light of the actual dictates of Vatican II, which never dispensed with elements like ad orientem, Gregorian chant, or the Latin language? Or best of all, begin the work of providing a definitive, clear, and orthodox interpretation of Vatican II for the Church to follow hereafter, uniting both the spirit and the letter of the council? Why take the divisive, draconian road of cutting the faithful from the liturgy? 

Well, in that accompanying letter Francis states, “ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions.” 

Based on everything the pope has said and done up to this point, based on the obvious effects this motu proprio will have on the future, there can be no confusion in what the Holy Father thinks, not anymore. To the Holy Father’s mind, “unity,” “reform,” “the Church,” and “her institutions” are understood in a wholly tolerant, ecumenical, and progressive sense; the sense that condones Pachamama and affirms socialism. He is not naïve or misguided in this; he is a true believer, and so he understands quite well that conservative traditionalism is an existential threat to this vision of the Church.

Pope Francis is not looking to bring peace, but a sword: to “reform” the Church, he must abolish his opposition once and for all, and he is perfectly willing to play the long game to do it. That opposition is strong now, but as long as this motu proprio stands, it is nearly impossible—by human means—for it to grow stronger. Traditionis Custodes is intended as a slow, patient chokehold. 

Nevertheless, we have faith, and so we have to accept that God has permitted every letter from the pope’s pen. God has permitted progressivism in the highest offices, and God has allowed confusion to pervade His Church. And somehow, He intends on bringing His Church to greater victories than ever before. It’s backwards and incomprehensible to us, whether or not we believe, which is why we must also hope, and we must also love. Christ, too, plays the long game: if a false vision reigns supreme now, it is only so the true vision can more completely win. For the present, traditionalists must be consoled by whatever good we are granted for now—and remember that suffering, thanks to the Cross, is a good as well. Until now, traditionalism has carried on with ease, but it is not ease that makes saints. 

[Image Credit: Unsplash]


  • Jared Johnson

    Jared Johnson is a recent alumnus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he graduated with a degree in History and a minor in Communication Arts.

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