A traditional Tridentine Mass at St. Josaphat church in New York City, July 18, 2021 (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

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.

Affirming the “validity and the legitimacy of the liturgical reform” is not enough.

In divinity school I studied with the liturgist Aidan Kavanagh, OSB. In 1988, twenty-five years after the introduction of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms, Kavanagh wrote a commentary on a recent study of how the reforms had been implemented and received. (The essay appears in The Awakening Church: 25 Years of Liturgical Renewal, edited by Lawrence J. Madden.) He was, it should be said, a strong advocate of the council’s actions. As he notes in his article, his research as a graduate student in Germany played a small role in persuading the council’s bishops that the liturgy needed reforming. Kavanagh had no illusions about any attempt to revive the Tridentine Mass, an effort he regarded as a “vast mistake, often well-meaning but still mistaken.” He knew well what worship was like in the pre-conciliar “golden age” that traditionalists pine for. “Those were the days when the main liturgical rubric was minimalism, piety was something else, and liturgy had nothing theological about it except in the form and matter required for the valid confection of the sacraments,” he wrote. “The Tridentine liturgy was, by the twentieth century, a liturgy filled with non sequitur. It was rarely done well, but contained enough late medieval and baroque elements…to intrigue those with recondite tendencies.” Most Catholics who are honest about the pre–Vatican II Church will confirm Kavanagh’s assessment.

Because we know vastly more about the early Church and its worship than the Council of Trent could, the reform rite, in Kavanagh’s view, is “incomparably more rich,” more Catholic, and even more traditional than the Tridentine rite. But neither did he have any illusions about how the reforms had been carried out. These were, he argued, unprecedented both in their scope and in the speed with which they were enacted. Yet ritual behaviors are simply not that malleable. He did not question the motivations or faith of the clergy and laity who implemented the reforms, but he did question their judgment and knowledge of what makes ritual practices work. “Far from suffering from too little change, the present Roman liturgy, if anything, suffers from the abnormality of too much change executed too rapidly,” he wrote. “If sustained too long, confusion begets demoralization, self-doubt, and finally resignation, a void. All manner of things rush in to fill this void.”

That, it seems to me, is an apt description of the ongoing liturgical crisis, one that has seen Catholics abandon Sunday Mass in droves and all but ignore Holy Days of Obligation. Kavanagh believed that too many contemporary middle-class expectations had rushed in to fill the new void, subordinating the “vertical” dimensions of the liturgy to the “horizontal.” Too much of the Mass had become a celebration of community and the assembly, and not enough a veneration of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus the Christ. “I see very little that is countercultural in the parish liturgies reported in the study,” he wrote. One “reason seems to be a decline in emphasis on the transcendent holiness of God, and consequently on the lack of this quality among worshipers.” The Church, Kavanagh argued, understands itself “as a distinctive counterpoise to the world,” and the liturgy must cultivate “a spirit of adoration in leading a life toward God.” If it doesn’t, Catholics will begin to seek substitutes for that spirit elsewhere. In Kavanagh’s view, the superficial enthusiasms and devotions permeating popular culture are where many people turn.

Admittedly, Kavanagh tended to paint with a broad brush, but the precipitous decline in belief in the Real Presence and in Church membership since 1988 seems to confirm many of his fears. He knew the recondite antiquarianism of the Latin Mass was no answer, and to his credit so does Pope Francis. But affirming the “validity and the legitimacy of the liturgical reform” is not enough either. The Mass must not just comfort the faithful; it should, as Kavanagh wrote, discomfort us as it comforts us. Defenders of the Council’s liturgical reform should not be complacent about the problems in its implementation. As long as those problems persist, so will the temptation to look elsewhere.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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