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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.