Traditionis Custodes as a Hermeneutic of Envy

While there have been some notable attempts to help us understand the rationale behind the most recent motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, the published reflection on the document by Italian Professor Massimo Viglione stands out because it is the only one that recognizes the sin of envy that is driving this latest papal attempt to destroy the Traditional Latin Mass. 

Describing the Latin Mass as “the Holy Mass of all time,” Professor Viglione’s article points to the bitterness that is driving progressive bishops who have been facing declining dioceses and parish closures to try and enlist the pope’s help to stop the exodus of faithful Catholics fleeing their meager offerings in search of a meaningful Mass. Concluding that “it was the uncontainable success among the people—and in particular among young people—that the Mass of all time found after Benedict XVI’s motu proprio that was the triggering factor for this hatred,” Professor Viglione reminds us that we are witnessing “the hermeneutic of Cain’s envy against Abel.” 

Envy is the deadliest of sins because it destroys not only the target of one’s envy, but it also destroys the envier himself. Genesis 4:4 reminds us that “In the course of time, Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions…And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” 

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We are never quite sure why Cain’s sacrifice was not pleasing to God—God only knows that—but even when he was given the opportunity by God to improve his sacrifices (Genesis 4:6), Cain decides that rather than figuring out a way to make his sacrifices more pleasing to God, he will instead destroy his own brother—the target of his bitter envy. Cain murders Abel, but in some ways, Cain pays the far higher price because he is consigned to wander the earth as a homeless fugitive, alienated from those who once loved him, awaiting his own fate—his own murder—at the hands of those who will avenge the death of the beloved Abel.

That is exactly what is happening with Traditionis Custodes. The faithful families once populating parishes led by pastors who appeared to care little for the needs of their parishioners were drawn away to the sacrifice of the Mass that appeared to them to be more pleasing to God and more nourishing for their families. They left the parishes consumed with the City of Man to pursue a parish devoted to the City of God. And now, out of an envious resentment, many progressive priests and bishops—abandoned by growing numbers of their most faithful parishioners—have blocked their escape by locking the doors of the traditional Masses in their own churches.

Professor Viglione understands that the hatred toward the Latin Mass has emerged from envy. But none of the priests, bishops, and cardinals who convinced Pope Francis of the need for this motu propio would recognize this. They would claim—as Pope Francis claimed—that they were simply looking for unity. But the Church is becoming more divided than ever with the release of Traditionis Custodes

In its most virulent form, envy is characterized by a desire to take away the coveted object or advantage from the other—even when depriving them means losing something of oneself. This latest missive from Pope Francis has done nothing to enhance the unity within the Church. Rather, it has diminished it. But, for the truly resentful, it is a small price to pay. They would deny their envious motivations, as most of us refuse to acknowledge our envy—even to ourselves.

In some ways, envy is the worst of the deadly sins because it leads to so many of the others. The resentment that accompanies envy often erupts in anger and resentful rage; and it is inextricably intertwined with pride. Often called the “sin of sins,” the sin of pride is—like the sin of envy—a narcissistic preoccupation with self. The truly envious are the truly prideful who believe that no one is more deserving of advantages and rewards than they. 

Envy derives from the Latin word Invidia, which means “non sight.” This etymology suggests that envy arises from and creates a form of blindness or lack of perspective. In Anthony Esolen’s translation of Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri had the envious punished by having to wear penitential grey cloaks, their eyes sewn shut with iron wire because the truly envious are blind to the goodness, truth, and beauty around them. Dante warned that the envious are blind to reason and love, spending their days tormented by resentment toward those who possess that which they covet. It is an enforced blindness so that the once-envious souls can no longer look at others with envy and hatred.

In the Book of Wisdom, we are told that it is through “the envy of the devil, death entered the world” (Wisdom 2:24). In Genesis, envy is portrayed as a destroyer of happiness and contentment—from the story of Eve’s envious desire to have the wisdom of God, to the first deadly sin of the murder of Abel by his brother. It was Satan’s envy of the love that God had for his new creation, and that Adam and Eve had for each other, that led him to destroy the innocence in the Garden—an envy that was predicted as Adam sadly admits: “that malicious foe, envying our happiness, and of his own despairing, seeks to work our woe and shame by sly assault.”

Milton’s Paradise Lost presents envy as the serpent in the garden. Consumed with envy toward the Son of God and His creation, Milton’s Satan experienced God’s love itself as envy. Envious of the awesome power of the Creator, the sight of the Garden and the happiness and love of God’s creation fills the devil with hateful envy—and a desire to destroy that creation. In his envious rage, Satan begins to believe that God created all of that in order to inspire envy. 

It was Satan’s envy—his hatred for the good, the true, and the beautiful, that moved him to corrupt Adam and Eve’s love for God and for each other. We are often taught that it was Eve’s pride—her wish to be as wise as God—that was the original sin. Yet in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, Milton reminds us that it was Satan’s envy of “this new Favorite of Heaven, this Man of Clay, Son of despite, Whom us the more to spite his Maker rais’d from dust: spite then with spite is best repaid.” It was envy that set off a battle in which “spite then with spite is best repaid.”

Bishops like Bridgeport’s Bishop Frank Caggiano quickly demanded that all priests who currently offer the Traditional Latin Mass—including in private—need to get his temporary permission to continue doing so. He has also warned 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.”

Bishop Caggiano was the first bishop to respond to the motu proprio, yet he has appeared to pay little attention to the mandatum of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the papal document issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990 which requires the presiding bishop to ensure that theologians on Catholic colleges and universities are teaching in communion with the church. The Bridgeport Diocese’s Fairfield University—with its pro-abortion Planned Parenthood information booth on campus each year—boasts theologian and former priest Paul Lakeland, who has worked closely with Voice of the Faithful in lobbying for women-priests, the election of bishops, and the attempted state take-over of the Catholic Church in Connecticut. 

In 2017, Fairfield University hosted a “Let’s Talk Sex” event replete with free condoms and donations collected on behalf of Planned Parenthood and, according to the local newspaper, penis cookies. Sacred Heart University—also in Bishop Caggiano’s diocese—continues to flaunt Catholic teachings on LGBTQ issues by referring students to organizations that offer services in hormone replacement therapy and gender transition surgery. Many of the same bishops who have rejected the demands of Ex Corde Ecclesiae are scurrying to implement the requirements of Traditionis Custodes in their City of Man dioceses. 

Professor Viglione understands that “we are in the most decisive days of human history and also of the history of the Church.” He believes that all that is happening is the “unequivocal sign that the times are drawing near in which God will intervene to save His Mystical Body and humanity.” There is not much that we can do at this point other than band together to continue to support our faithful priests in our faithful traditional parishes—praying that we can be on the right side of this battle.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • 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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