Ignoring Papal Mandates

The sadness that many of us feel about the release of the motu proprio Traditionis custodes restricting the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass cannot be denied. There is great uncertainty as to whether those of us who attend the Latin Mass regularly will continue to have access to it. While some bishops—like the courageous San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone—have said that there will be no changes made in their dioceses, it has been reported that Latin Masses have already been cancelled in parishes in at least six dioceses in the United States.

Bridgeport Bishop Frank Caggiano quickly demanded that all priests who offer the Traditional Latin Mass—including in private—need to get his temporary permission to continue doing so: 

All pastors, whose parishes already sponsor the celebration of Mass according to the 1962 Missal, whether on a weekly or periodic basis, are asked to write to me directly, asking permission for such celebrations to continue. The same is required for all priests who serve as chaplains or celebrate Mass according to the Missal of 1962 in a venue other than a parish Church…. Any priest who wishes to celebrate Mass according to the Missal of 1962 privately, that is, a low Mass without the presence of a server or the faithful, should submit a letter requesting permission to do so directly to me. I will grant him faculty to do so through September 29, 2021, at which time the process to request a more permanent faculty will be in place.

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Bishop Caggiano added that his permission to celebrate the Mass of 1962 will “not extend beyond September 29, 2021”—and that a separate process will be created to seek a permanent faculty to celebrate the Latin Mass. Worse, Bishop Caggiano warns that “if permission is not granted for the celebration of Mass according to the Missal of 1962, the priest will lack the faculty to celebrate that Mass.”

While most bishops are taking a more cautious approach to the papal document and have refrained from making the kinds of draconian demands issued by Bridgeport’s bishop, one cannot help but be reminded of the bishops’ response in 1990 to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, yet another controversial papal document. Responding to concerns about the loss of religious identity on most Catholic campuses, Pope John Paul II released the papal document, Ex Corde Ecclesiae on August 15, 1990, identifying the centrality of Catholic higher education to the Church. 

Literally translated as “from the heart of the Church,” Ex Corde Ecclesiae attempted to address the slide toward secularism by calling for Catholic colleges to be accountable to the local presiding bishop. A key component of the papal document was a controversial requirement that all theologians obtain a mandatum, or certificate, from the local bishop attesting that their teaching was consistent with official Church doctrine. 

More than three decades later, most of the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities have continued to ignore the tenets of Ex Corde, with faculty and administrators seeing it as a threat to their academic freedom and independent governance; and most of the bishops have refused to implement the mandatum

After the document was “accepted” by the bishops in 1998—eight years after Pope John Paul II first released it—Notre Dame’s faculty senate voted unanimously to ignore it. In the Jesuit publication America, Notre Dame’s then-president Rev. Edward Malloy co-authored an angry response with the Rev. Donald Monan, then-chancellor of Boston College, warning of “havoc” if Ex Corde were implemented. 

Calling the papal document “positively dangerous” to Catholic institutions, Frs. Monan and Malloy revealed their status concerns when they wrote that they would have preferred a “document that they would be proud to display to sister institutions of higher education.”[i] In other words, these leaders of prestigious Catholic colleges are embarrassed by any suggestion that their schools are “different” or “lesser” than the prestigious secular schools—what they call their “sister schools.”

In an especially hyperbolic article, one theologian likened the approval of Ex Corde Ecclesiae to the “Doomsday Clock” for Catholic higher education. Drawing on the metaphor of the doomsday clock, a vestige of the Cold War, when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists showed how close the world was to the midnight of mass nuclear annihilation, Jon Nilson, a theology professor at Loyola University in Chicago, warned of a similar annihilation for Catholic higher education.[ii] 

Rev. Raymond Collins, dean of the Religious Studies Department at Catholic University of America, advised faculty members to “selectively dissent” from Ex Corde Ecclesiae by refusing to implement the parts they disagreed with. In an attempt to avoid outright confrontation with Church authorities, Fr. Collins advised that theologians should “set aside Church teachings they found wanting, but without fuss, thus implementing the Ex Corde Ecclesiae guidelines selectively—being faithful in their fashion.” 

In a 1999 letter to the National Catholic Reporter, Fr. Collins wrote that he hoped that Catholic University would become a model of “selective dissent” by refusing to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Fr. Collins, who finally retired from Catholic University in 2005, knew that outright confrontation with Church authorities would bring negative attention, but he also knew that Catholic University’s theology department would gain higher status by refusing to comply. 

For those few faithful faculty members on Catholic campuses who have spent the past three decades fighting for the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, it must appear that the war is over—and their side lost. Some of us have sought refuge in teaching on a handful of faithful Catholic campuses like Franciscan University or Ave Maria University where the mandatum is fully implemented and parents can be assured that their children are receiving a faithful Catholic education. 

The contentious battles that once surrounded the release of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic education have ended as most other Catholic college presidents refused to implement it and most of the bishops lacked the will to require it. Most seem to have abandoned the fight. Even University of Notre Dame Professor of Law Gerard Bradley, a longtime proponent of the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, pronounced the document “dead” because the bishops lacked the will to confront the progressive professors who so strongly resisted it.[iii] 

It is unlikely that most bishops will ignore the demands of the motu propio issued by Pope Francis in the same way they resisted Ex Corde Ecclesiae because in this case the progressives are promoting it. In fact, progressive priests and bishops have been demanding it because they have seen their parishioners leave their Novus Ordo Masses in search of the sustenance many of us find in the Latin Mass. But perhaps a few courageous bishops will put the pastoral needs of their faithful above the machinations of the progressive lobby.  

[i] Edward Molloy and Donald Monan. “New Norms for Catholic Higher Education: Unworkable and Dangerous.” (America, November 14, 1998) 3-4.

[ii] Jon Nilson. “The Impending Death of Catholic Higher Education.” America. (May 28, 2001).

[iii]Gerard V. Bradley. “Looking Ahead at Catholic Higher Education.” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. (Spring, 2002) 16.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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