Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis’s July motu proprio on the pre-conciliar Mass, caught many observers and liturgical experts by surprise. Not because of what it says about Francis’s theological thinking (he has always been adamant in defending the validity of Vatican II’s liturgical reform), but because of the document’s unequivocal rejection of Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, and because of the timing of its release—that is, while Benedict is still alive.
As has been clear since Summorum Pontificum was published in 2007 (and has been underscored by Traditionis Custodes), papal documents on the liturgical rite are not about the liturgy alone, but about the theology of Vatican II, which many proponents of the “old Mass,” both clergy and lay, have rejected. In the English-speaking world, this was confirmed with harsh critiques of Francis’s motu proprio by Ross Douthat and Michael Brendan Dougherty, both writing in The New York Times, and by Cardinal Robert Sarah, former prefect of the Vatican dicastery for the liturgy, in National Catholic Register.
More than a document, Traditionis Custodes represents one of the most important papal acts in the history of the reception and implementation of Vatican II. But it would be naïve to understand Francis’s response to neo-traditionalism simply as a return to the status quo ante. Such a return is impossible. It’s not because a future pontificate could reverse Francis’s reversal of Benedict. Nor is it because the magisterium can no longer expect “obsequium religiosum” (Vatican II, constitution Lumen Gentium, par. 25), not even from bishops and conservative Catholics. Rather, it’s because the ecosystem of Western Catholicism has changed significantly since 2007. The rise of social media has helped nurture a post-modern, media-savvy, resentful traditionalism that plays out in the undermining of this papacy both by prominent conservative laypeople and by clergy—an effort that began within days of the election of Francis in 2013.
Another factor is how our current age of disintermediation has affected the experience of Catholics, particularly our experience of the liturgy. Since March 2020, the celebration of the liturgy for many Catholics has taken place through a computer screen. This affects how we see the link between liturgy and ecclesiology. Covid-time Mass has increased the tendency to re-sacralize the Catholic priesthood: more distance from the altar and within the pews, the impossibility of the kiss of peace (which even in the early Church helped differentiate between a temple-like understanding of worship and the Church as a communion), and a drastic reduction in (if not redefinition of) active participation. The post–Vatican II Catholic Mass has suffered more from the pandemic than has the pre–Vatican II, traditionalist Mass, in which the concept of participation is quite different (to say the least) from the “actuosa participatio” that Vatican II talks about.