Traditionis Custodes: A Blessing in Disguise?

As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make a whiskey sour. To this extent, Traditionis Custodes may be a blessing in disguise in the long run. Let me explain.  

Two things seem clear from the motu proprio. One, in fact, is clear. The Extraordinary Rite may now be celebrated only with the permission of the local bishop or only by certain religious communities (e.g., FSSP). The other is that Pope Francis sees the celebration of the EF as a sort of “up or down” acceptance of the “legitimacy” of Vatican II.  

It is to this later point that, in the long run, there may be good news. No one can contest the “legitimacy” of Vatican II, just as no one can contest the “legitimacy” of Vatican I or any of the other twenty-one ecumenical councils of the Church. They happened. They are historical facts. In this respect, I could no more question them than I could question the “legitimacy” of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. 

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The whole point has been what did Vatican II actually mean? It was not a dogmatic or doctrinal one. Anything a Catholic was supposed to believe as a matter of faith before Vatican II he was required to believe as a matter of faith after Vatican II. Instead, Vatican II was a pastoral council and, in this regard, is legitimate, but it is also a “period piece,” like an annual meeting of the board of directors. It met, at a certain point in history, to address the needs of the Church at that point in history. To what extent it succeeded is a subject open to debate and beyond this piece. 

It may be a good thing, though, if Traditionis Custodes forces the Church—laity and clergy—to think about that. The average Catholic would be hard-pressed to name, much less explain, any of the documents of Vatican II. I suppose most prelates could name most of the documents, but I think you would find some good arguments even there as to what those documents actually mean. The documents themselves are the sort of long, turgid affairs you would expect from committees. They seem to fit Mark Twain’s definition of a classic: something that everybody wants to have read but that nobody wants to read. Maybe we should read them and see if the shoe still fits. 

No, the arguments seem mostly to be about the nebulous “spirit” of Vatican II. Pope Francis is definitely on the side that this spirit means “openness,” “dialogue,” and “tolerance”; letting every voice be heard (unless, it now seems, if that voice speaks Latin). These, too, are hazy terms that can mean about as much—or as little—as a pope wants them to. As we’ve seen in Pope Francis’s volte face from Pope Benedict on the Mass, they can change from pontiff to pontiff and risk making the papacy into a sort of religious presidency, not so much a rock of foundation as aluminum siding.  

If Vatican II did mean any one certain thing, it was the “universal call to holiness.” This was not new but just a reiteration of the Gospel. The call is a good thing if it makes Catholics study and live their faith more deeply. This, though, is problematic for those of Pope Francis’s thinking because those that do this tend to be more of the traditional “mind-set” about which he expresses such grave reservations. So, as far as Vatican II promoting learning and living the faith, traditional Catholics would say, “Bring it on.”  

To his credit, Pope Francis seems desirous of avoiding any kind of schism. That would explain both his tolerance of the German bishops and his allowance of the continuance of the EF in some communities. He doesn’t want another Luther and he doesn’t want another Lefebvre. But he sees those preferring the EF through a sort of bifocals. On the one hand, he sees them as wanting to go back to the “good old days” of pre-Vatican II; yet many, if not most, of those wanting the EF can’t. They have no recollection of that time; they would have to be octogenarians. 

On the other hand, he seems to suspect the younger priests and laity, among whom the EF is gaining adherents. This explains why he restricts permission to the bishops—most of whom he has appointed—and not to the priests, many of whom are more of that—here’s that word again—traditional way of thinking. The cardinals and bishops of the “spirit” are the “new old-fashioned”; they’re trying to sell eight-track tapes.     

The “spirit” of Vatican II was to embrace the culture. The problem, though, is that to be a Catholic today means to be almost violently “counter-cultural.” And this is where Traditionis Custodes may prove a boon. If you are a young man or woman considering a religious vocation to this counter-cultural life, or a young couple living the faith and wanting to raise your children to be rocks amidst the stream of “wokeness,” where will you go? To the moribund religious orders, dioceses, and parishes with their “social consciousness,” felt banners, and guitar Masses—or to the places where you can live, grow in, and promote that faith? Pope Francis seems to definitely have wanted to “draw the line” with Traditionis Custodes. He may not like where those lines fall.  

There is a kind of economy regarding religion, and it is capitalistic. Truth, beauty, and goodness attract. They attract because they work. They get results. The idea that you can “stamp out” the competition never works; eventually those economies fail. Look at liberal Protestantism. I won’t live to see it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in fifty or sixty years, should Traditionis Custodes be upheld by Francis’s successors, you found dioceses with one parish of ten thousand families staffed by a flock of young FSSP priests celebrating ten Masses on Sunday next to five parishes of a hundred families each and staffed by two aged, itinerant OF priests celebrating one Mass in each parish every other Sunday. As the saying goes, “by their fruits you shall know them.”


  • Robert B. Greving

    Robert B. Greving teaches Latin and English grammar at a Maryland high school. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from the Dickinson School of Law.

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