I am of two minds about Pope Francis’s apostolic letter, Traditionis custodes, which reimposes restrictions on the use of the traditional Latin Mass that were removed by Pope Benedict. On the one hand, I believe liturgical pluralism is usually a good thing. In fact, the Catholic Church has long recognized the legitimacy of the Eastern rites of the Melkite, Maronite, Greek Catholic, and other Churches in communion with Rome. Shouldn’t the traditional Latin Mass, like these liturgical traditions, be judged only by whether it builds up the Church?
On the other hand, I understand that having a stark division in the principal liturgical rite in the Catholic Church raises serious concerns about ecclesial unity. Certainly some, if not most, of those devoted to the Tridentine Mass tend to see themselves as a church within the Church, and even perhaps as a holy remnant. The pope’s principal concern is the threat of disunity posed by such enclaves, increasingly led by younger, self-styled “orthodox” priests, who, like many of their congregants, question the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In his letter, Francis insists that those attending Tridentine liturgies must explicitly profess the “validity and the legitimacy” of Vatican II’s reforms. He also forbids the groups from using parochial parishes when celebrating the Tridentine rite, which is clearly an effort to stymie the appeal and growth of Latin Mass communities.
Predictably enough, Latin Mass enthusiasts have reacted with outrage to the pope’s decision. One of them responded by quoting from the Gospel of Luke: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” Such denunciations would seem to confirm the pope’s worries about division within the Church. In his letter, Francis notes that he consulted widely with bishops around the world. It is local bishops who believe the Latin Mass communities present an unwarranted challenge to unity and to the acceptance of Vatican II’s reforms. Critics say the pope’s effort to cabin the Latin Mass is yet another step in his loosening of Catholic doctrine and practice. The likely result, of course, will be resistance from bishops and priests sympathetic to those who prefer the Tridentine liturgy, if not outright rebellion in the pews. Beyond a pope’s ability to discipline the ordained and those in religious life, the power of the papacy is quite limited.
On a number of occasions back in the 1990s, I attended a traditional Latin Mass in a nearby town. There were a lot of smells and bells, as advertised, but I never felt transported to some transcendent reality. Of course, that could have been a failure on my part. A decade or more later, I attended a meeting of Latin Mass devotees with the intention of writing about it. The meeting began and ended with a recitation of the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, a call to cosmic warfare. In between, there were a lot of cult-like pronouncements about Armageddon and much condemnation of Vatican II. I never wrote the piece.