July 16, 2021 was a great day for the Roman Rite and for the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. Finally, after years of accommodating those who dislike or actually reject the liturgical reforms of the Council, the Catholic Church’s highest authority took a definitive step to re-establish the reformed rites as normative for the whole Latin Rite Church, without exception.
Pope Francis, in his motu proprio Traditionis custodes, not only firmly abrogated Pope Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum pontificum (2007), which had “freed” the older rites, allowing them to be celebrated by any priest at any time, he also declared and established that the reformed liturgy is “the unique lex orandi [law of prayer]” of the Church today.
This puts an end to the bifurcation of the Roman Rite that Pope Benedict endorsed when he wrote Summorum pontificum. He invented the term “Extraordinary Form” to refer to the older rites, and called the reformed rites the “Ordinary Form.” The Roman Rite had never existed in two forms at the same time, yet that is what he envisioned. He urged the bishops to trust that these “two forms” of the Roman Rite would peacefully coexist and enrich one another. After thirteen years, however, it became evident that this dream was not going to materialize.
Clearly, some individuals find serene enjoyment in attending Mass according to the older rites and have no other agenda. But, overall, opening up more space for the older rites has deepened conflict in the Church and led to politicization of the Eucharist. This was always a danger. Traditionalist movements—both those that went into schism, as did the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and those who remained in communion with Rome—have long been associated with hard-right and authoritarian political regimes. Everything from the effort to restore the monarchy in France (a hopeless cause) to suppression of the indigenous peoples of Brazil (an ongoing problem) has flown under the flag of Catholic traditionalism. Pope Benedict did not believe the danger was there, but it was.
Opposition to Pope Francis has also found a base in traditionalist communities. His teaching on marriage and family, his call for pastoral accompaniment, and especially his commitment to ecological responsibility and economic justice, have been virulently opposed in such circles. It is no accident that the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the pope’s most public antagonists, is a worldwide chaplain to Catholic traditionalist communities, or that the Austrian who threw the Pachamama statue into the Tiber during the Amazon Synod was a traditionalist, or that when the disgruntled former Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, tried to unseat Pope Francis, he allied himself with traditionalists.
Even beyond the scandal of a series of attacks on a reigning pope, a political struggle over the enduring legacy of an ecumenical council has been hanging in the balance. Vatican II’s opening to the world—its commitment to ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and discerning the signs of the times—has been sharply criticized and rejected by advocates for the older rites.
Pope Francis has, no doubt, been hearing for a long time about such tensions and difficulties, but a turning point was reached when he commissioned a worldwide survey of bishops to evaluate Summorum pontificum. The results of the survey were deeply troubling, compelling him to act, he said in a letter accompanying his motu proprio.