Altar servers lead the closing procession during a Tridentine Mass at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, New York, July 1, 2021 (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz).


Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.

In December Rome’s Congregation for Divine Worship responded to queries from bishops about Pope Francis’s new restrictions on the pre-Vatican II liturgy. The fury and contempt that greeted this response were to be expected—more of the same that followed Traditionis custodes, the motu proprio in which those restrictions were announced last July. But this time the familiar objections from traditionalists found an echo of sorts among some more liberal-minded Catholics.

The Thomas Merton scholar and Bellarmine University theologian Greg Hillis, for example, wrote in America about the apparent contradiction between the pope’s call in Fratelli tutti for loving dialogue and his “uncharacteristically heavy-handed” treatment of the traditionalists. “At a time when we as a church are embarking on a synodal path,” Hillis wrote, “I have difficulty understanding why a more synodal—a more dialogical—approach is not being taken with traditionalists.” 

This criticism in turn raised objections. As Rita Ferrone has pointed out in Commonweal, Traditionis custodes was the fruit of a process far more collegial than the ones that produced the liturgical edicts of Francis’s predecessors: Francis had consulted with bishops around the world before issuing the new liturgical rules. As for openness to dialogue, there are limits to what it can achieve with those who claim to be in sole possession of the complete truth. Traditionalist enclaves have become hubs of resistance to the very idea of a living tradition. Benedict XVI had not foreseen this when he relaxed the restrictions on the Tridentine Rite in 2007, but it happened, and now it has fallen to Francis to return the Church to its tradition of a single Roman Rite. The so-called ordinary form of that rite was not simply an alternative to the “extraordinary” form, but a reform of it—and a reform undertaken at an ecumenical council under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Still, Hillis was not questioning Francis’s right to impose new restrictions but asking whether there was not a better way. His point was that, apart from those who were using the liturgy wars to undermine the pope and the Second Vatican Council, there were ordinary adherents to the older rite who had nothing against Vatican II or Pope Francis, and felt, as a result of Traditionis custodes, hurt and rejected.

This was the essence of a letter sent in August last year from the superiors-general of the Ecclesia Dei communities to the bishops of France. They did not recognize themselves in the description of traditionalism in Traditionis custodes, which claimed that “the instrumental use of the Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II.” This “harsh judgment,” they said, “creates a feeling of injustice and produces resentment.”

The superiors-general went on to cite Amoris laetitia, which, given the ferocity of traditionalist rejection of that apostolic exhortation at the time, seemed a bit opportunistic, if not hypocritical. But it was also astute. Where was the merciful face of God in a document that ordered traditionalist Masses not to be advertised in parishes? Where was the attentiveness to the particular? What of the oddballs spotlighted by Stephen G. Adubato in the National Catholic Reporter—the non-ideological, neurodivergent traditionalists, the ones with Asperger’s, or extreme introversion? Had these innocents not been sledgehammered?

The question nagged at me over Christmas. What was the key to Francis’s discernment in this case? Then I remembered a talk he had given in March 1991, which was later published as an essay with the title “Some Reflections on the Subject of Corruption.” And in re-reading it, I understood.


The so-called ordinary form of that rite was not simply an alternative to the “extraordinary” form, but a reform of it.

“Corrupción y Pecado” is one of Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s most finely argued and nuanced writings from the time of his so-called “Córdoba exile” in the early 1990s. It was a time of great desolation and suffering for the erstwhile leader of the Argentine Jesuit province, but also one of great fruitfulness, the period in which he produced his best writing. Bergoglio’s distinction between sin and corruption is both clear and fascinating. And the conclusion that follows from that distinction—that sin and corruption call for very different responses—explains why Francis chose to act as he did in the face of the traditionalist insurgence.

While corruption is of course connected to sin—resulting from sins repeated and deepened over time—in crucial respects it is different, not least in the corrupt person’s distinctive way of proceeding. Hence, writes Bergoglio, “we could say that while sin is forgiven, corruption cannot be forgiven,” for at the root of corruption is a refusal of God’s forgiveness. The corrupted person or organization sees no need of repentance, and their sense of self-sufficiency gradually comes to be regarded as natural and normal.

Unless corrected the corruption deepens over time, for the corrupt, far from being in reality self-sufficient, are in fact slaves to a “treasure” that has conquered their hearts—e.g., money, power, honor, or privilege. To conceal this enslavement, the corrupt energetically cultivate an appearance of righteousness and good manners. Always justifying themselves, they finally become convinced of their own moral superiority.

Conversely, the sinner—even when not ready to repent—knows that he is a sinner and yearns to throw himself on God’s mercy. This is the key distinction: the sinner remains, however obscurely and unconsciously, open to grace, while the corrupt deny that they sin. Enclosed by their pride, they shut out the possibility of grace.


Unlike sin, corruption is not forgiven but “cured.” Rather than dialogue, which would only serve to feed the corrupt person’s self-justification, the proper response is to put such a person in crisis. As Bergoglio observes in a footnote, the Lord cures the corrupt not through acts of mercy but through major trials: grave illness, bankruptcy, the sudden death of loved ones, the FBI raiding your office. Such traumas uniquely have the potential to “break down the armor of corruption and allow grace to enter,” Bergoglio writes.

Francis has often used armor as a metaphor to describe the heart closed to God. He did so recently at the Mass of the Epiphany, when he said faith was “not a suit of armor that encases us” but rather “a fascinating journey, a constant and restless movement, ever in search of God, always discerning our way forward.” To treat faith as a suit of armor—a means of self-defense—is to corrupt it and oneself.

Certain kinds of behavior serve as indicators of corruption. The corrupt typically justify themselves with comparisons to others, like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11. Another warning sign is triumphalism. Whereas the sinner feels not only guilt but shame, the corrupt are triumphantly shameless. They secure accomplices by offering them the same feeling of superiority and self-satisfaction.

It is easy to see why Francis’s response to the Italian mafia has been non-dialogical, even “merciless”: threatening hell if they do not repent, warning them to renounce their “culture of death,” and so on. For violent murderers in organized crime who consider themselves Catholic, to receive a tongue-lashing from the pope might, just possibly, trigger a crisis sufficient to pierce the armor of their corruption. In the same vein, Francis has frequently ordered abusive or corrupt religious communities to be investigated or even closed down.

It is striking how rarely one finds “good” traditionalists repudiating the bilious denunciations of Francis and Vatican II that swamp the internet.

In his essay, Bergoglio discusses the corruption of Jesus’s day, above all in the religious elites of the time: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Zealots. All developed doctrines and rituals—a rigid legalism or a ritualism of purity—that concealed their corruption and allowed them to hold themselves aloof from the people, whom they despised as sinners. The exact nature of the corruption differed in each of the four groups, but always manifested itself in an attitude of remote superiority.

Bergoglio observes, too, that Jesus’s response to the corrupt involved recalling the promise of redemption God made to the whole people, re-reading the Scriptures in the light of that promise, and performing God’s closeness to the poor in his acts and words. As Pope Francis puts it in Let Us Dream, “Jesus had to reject the mindset of the religious elites of his day, who had taken ownership of law and tradition. Possession of the goods of religion became a means of putting themselves above others, others not like them, whom they inspected and judged.” By walking with the poor and outcast, says Francis, Jesus “smashed the wall that prevented the Lord from coming close to His people, among His flock.”


Does Francis see the traditionalist movement as corrupt? He has not used the word, but his actions suggest as much. As someone close to him told me, the pope felt compelled, in Traditionis custodes, to “deal with the growth of this discarnate ideology with charity, understanding, and courage to put things in their place.” The words “growth” and “put things in their place” are suggestive: this is an effort to lay down boundaries and to forestall an expansion. Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, the American adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), told Catholic News Service that traditionalism “has gotten totally out of control,” becoming “a movement that aggressively promotes the Traditional Latin Mass among young people and others as if this ‘extraordinary form’ were the true liturgy for the true church.”

Di Noia was vice president of the Ecclesia Dei commission, which oversees relations with traditionalists, and he has coordinated dialogues with the Society of St. Pius X. The survey of bishops he had carried out at Francis’s request showed, he said, that the TLM movement “has hijacked the initiatives of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI to its own ends.” It has promoted division by rejecting the key reform of the Second Vatican Council, the reform of the liturgy. At its “worst,” Di Noia said, the movement represents “a perverse resistance to the renewal inspired by the Holy Spirit and solemnly confirmed in the teaching of an ecumenical council.”

These comments, together with the letter Pope Francis sent to bishops when Traditionis custodes was first promulgated, leave little doubt that he believes he is confronting corruption. Though outwardly pious and religious, it is unmistakably a kind of ideology. These traditionalists see themselves as the faithful remnant of a Church in disarray, from which they need to defend themselves. This is the special knowledge revealed to them alone, that justifies holding themselves aloof from mainstream, postconciliar Catholicism, and requiring adherence to special rituals and rules to avoid the contamination of modernity. That this corrupting ideology now permeates the culture of the traditionalist movement is plain to anyone who—like Rachel Dobbs—has seen it from the inside.

Hillis and other irenic critics of Traditionis custodes do not seem to have noticed this. They present traditionalists as people with harmless if peculiar liturgical tastes—as if traditionalism were simply a matter of preferring lace and Gregorian chant to the sign of the peace and folk guitars. Peter Seewald displays a similar naïveté in volume two of his Benedict XVI: A Life, in which he describes the taste for the old Missal as a cultural trend, a reaction to “adulterated wine and fast food” that has nothing to do with opposition to Vatican II. And while St. John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel accepts that “some proponents” of the Old Rite “think themselves the sole faithful remnant of a decaying Church,” he rejects the suggestion that “this is the new normal” for traditionalist Mass-goers.

But in that case, why are they—the ones who go purely out of love for this form of liturgy—not rising up against their self-appointed leaders, for whom traditionalism is clearly about much more? Where are the “not-in-my-name” internal movements, the repudiation of the ideologues, the calls for renewal? At the very least, one might expect calls for a rigorous self-examination. Yet it is striking how rarely one finds “good” traditionalists repudiating the bilious denunciations of Francis and Vatican II that swamp the internet, or the “recognize-and-resist” defiance of the high priests of traditionalism, with their QAnon conspiracies and claims of globalist conspiracies.

Bearing in mind Bergoglio’s distinction between sin and corruption, the absence of real contrition also speaks volumes. In response to Traditionis custodes, some traditionalists have acknowledged the hypothetical possibility of sin, yet never admit to any actual wrongdoing. “We are ready, as every Christian is, to ask forgiveness if some excess of language or mistrust of authority may have crept into any of our members,” say the superiors general of Ecclesia Dei. “We are ready to convert if party spirit or pride has polluted our hearts.” Why if and may? Isn’t “party spirit and pride” one thing traditionalism has become famous for?   

In a similar vein, the UK-based Latin Mass Society says, “God is calling us to atone for our sins,” yet one searches their site in vain for any recognition of what those sins might be. In the place of actual contrition, you find indignation, grievance, defiance, and self-justification, an endless outpouring of carefully parsed legal objections, and claims that the pope lacks the prerogative or jurisdiction to restrict the practice of the preconciliar Mass, along with a pained insistence that all anyone wants is to be left alone to say prayers as their forefathers did. 

Such reactions reveal the depth of the corruption. This is why Francis has not “dialogued” with the traditionalist movement but instead put bishops back in charge of regulating it. By acting firmly, he has created a crisis that may bring about, in those ready for it, a smell-the-coffee moment. An Opus Dei member tweets about a young, traditionalist priest she knows who had come to see that Francis had done the right thing. The priest had celebrated both the Tridentine and the reformed Roman rite in a hospital, and noticed that certain people who came expecting the old Mass would stand up and leave if he celebrated the reformed rite. He realized that they had constructed their whole identity as Catholics around the TLM, and that they could not recognize Christ’s presence in the Eucharist of the reformed liturgy. This identity, the priest had come to see, was not spiritually healthy and needed to be challenged.

A synodal approach is the “style of God” with people of good will, however great their sins or disagreements. But dialogue cannot heal corruption. The merciful response to the corrupt is to place a stumbling-block, a skandalon, in their path, forcing them to take a different one. One must first offer those who are ready for it an escape from the corruption. Then, if they accept it, one can welcome them back into the fold with open arms.

Austen Ivereigh is a British biographer of Pope Francis, and a Fellow in contemporary Church history at Campion Hall, Oxford.

Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the March 2022 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.