Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Rome, April 11, 2021 (CNS photo/Vatican Media).

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 timeshas 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.

Opening up more space for the older rites has deepened conflict in the Church and led to politicization of the Eucharist.

The actual responses have not been made public. Only one document has been leaked: the summary report from France. It was fair-minded, yet also critical. Crucially, it observed that the goals of Pope Benedict’s project—reconciliation and enrichment—had not been reached. In a nice turn of phrase, the French bishops reported that those who desired the older rites were “pacified,” but not reconciled.

We’ve certainly seen harmful results in the United States, which has the world’s highest proportion of locations offering the older rites. Instead of promoting greater harmony with and closeness to the universal Church, broad availability of the older rites has been used as an opportunity to create a “church within a Church,” a community apart from the mainstream. Dubious pastoral practices have attended this development, such as using the Baltimore Catechism instead of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or reading the Douay-Reims Bible in preference to modern Scripture translations. It is not just a matter of lace and Latin. A reactionary thought world is being cultivated as well.

One can hardly overstate the noise that freeing the older rites has introduced into liturgical discussions, even though the actual number of traditionalists remains small. A constant stream of criticism has poured forth from traditionalist enclaves challenging liturgical decisions flowing from the reform, such as use of the vernacular, Communion in the hand, women in the sanctuary, and the priest facing the people at Eucharist. This noisy opposition grabs attention and causes distraction. A graver problem is that some adherents of the older rites have sown doubts about the validity of the liturgical reform overall, and propagate the erroneous view that the reformed liturgy represents a betrayal of orthodoxy and a departure from “the true Church.” Rather than a softening, there has been a hardening of ideological opposition to the Council as a whole. This is no trivial matter. When someone attacks the liturgical reform, they attack the Council.

This situation is getting worse, too. Leading voices among traditionalists in America lately have totally abandoned Benedict’s project of “mutual enrichment.” There can be no real peace with the newer liturgical forms, they argue, because the reformed rite is fundamentally flawed, a modernist creation. It is not even a rite, they claim, but a mere “construction.”

In this context, Pope Francis’s move is one of great strategic importance. It corrects the balance. It safeguards the integrity of the Council. It decisively rejects frivolous claims (“this isn’t what the Council wanted”; “the reformed liturgy is irreverent and unorthodox”), and calls everyone back to one common path. It will not eliminate political conflicts or disagreements in the Church, but it deprives traditionalists of the possibility of using the Eucharist as a hub of resistance to the Council and its legitimate implementation.

Some have charged that Pope Francis acted autocratically in abrogating Summorum pontificum, but actually his actions have been far more collegial than those his predecessors took in expanding availability of the older rites. A brief look at the history reveals this. In 1980, when Pope John Paul II was considering giving an indult for celebration of the Tridentine Mass, he took a survey of the world’s bishops. Most expected it to cause division and were opposed. Only 1.5 percent were in favor. Nevertheless, he went ahead with it. He was hoping to effect a reconciliation with Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers who had broken with the Church because they would not accept Vatican II. This outreach proved unsuccessful.

When John Paul considered whether to broaden this permission in 1988, he didn’t ask the bishops. Instead, he consulted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. Once again motivated by hope for the healing of a wound caused by schism (which is why the motu proprio is called Ecclesia Dei afflicta), he expanded access further. Still, there was no reconciliation with Lefebvre’s group, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

When Benedict XVI issued Summorum pontificum in 2007, he conducted no survey, but it appears that some bishops did voice doubts and try to dissuade him. He overruled them. History repeated itself; the overtures to the SSPX were again rebuffed. He said (in 2007) that the bishops could evaluate how Summorum pontificum was going in three years. But no evaluation was sought until 2020 when Francis sent out his survey.

If you want to find traditional liturgy, here it is—in the reformed rites.

Once Pope Francis consulted with the bishops of the world, he saw it all clearly. It was time to put his foot down. Accordingly, as of July 16, 2021, there is no more “Extraordinary Form” and “Ordinary Form.” There is but one form of the Roman Rite: the liturgy as it was reformed by decree of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis reaffirmed what his predecessors have also been saying since the Council: this reform is an expression of the living Catholic tradition.

Tradition is not the preservation of old things; it is a vital reality, guided by the Holy Spirit working through the Church and its leadership. Francis is saying, if you want to find traditional liturgy, here it is—in the reformed rites. He has not outlawed the older rites altogether. The liturgical books antecedent to the reform may still be used to celebrate the liturgy (according to the 1962 edition) but under limited circumstances, not in parishes, and not at the whim of individual priests. It is up to the local bishop to decide when and where these liturgies may be celebrated, and by whom. Pope Francis has made it clear that the bishops are not to give this permission to anyone who challenges the legitimacy and orthodoxy of the reform or who rejects the authority of the pope and bishops. Any priest ordained after July 16, 2021 who wants to celebrate the older rites must obtain permission from his bishop and from Rome.

The bishop also gets to decide how long such celebrations may continue. Several American bishops have already been responding to Traditionis custodes as though they have carte blanche to continue use of the older rites indefinitely. This is not true. Francis has specifically said that their job is to guide these communities that currently follow the older rites to a state of mind and soul where they can celebrate the mainstream liturgy of the Church with full, heartfelt assent. This is the goal—not pacification, not perpetuation of the older rites, but rather the embrace of the reformed liturgy as a “unitary expression of the Roman Rite.” The bishop, as a custodian of tradition, is obliged to exercise his authority in concert with the Holy See, and this means walking in the direction outlined by Pope Francis.

Most Catholics never objected to Benedict’s initiative because, as they viewed it, it pertained to a small group of people and wouldn’t affect them personally. In an age when individualism and consumer choice seem like the normal state of affairs, it didn’t seem outlandish to provide boutique alternatives for different liturgical tastes, even if this included a taste for a liturgy that had been superseded by a lawful reform called for by an ecumenical council. But liturgy is not just a matter of personal taste. It is a matter of faith and obedience. It belongs to the collective, which is why it is enshrined in law and subject to authority.

It’s worth remembering that establishing the reformed liturgy as the “unitary expression of the Roman Rite” does not in any way compromise the Church’s commitment to inculturation, as Swiss liturgical scholar Martin Klöckener has rightly noted. Inculturation is an entirely different question, because in every case the reformed Roman Rite is the basis of inculturation.

Pope Francis wants to advance the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. His recent decision to open instituted ministries of lectors and acolytes to women gives evidence of this, as does his emphasis on the Word of God, mystagogy, and liturgical catechesis. Through his openness to inculturation, his decision concerning washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday, his return of authority over liturgical translations to the bishops, and even by restricting private Masses at St. Peter’s Basilica in favor of concelebration, he has pressed forward with the reform.

The last surviving Italian bishop who participated in the Second Vatican Council is the retired bishop of Ivrea, Luigi Bettazzi, age ninety-eight. He is also the last surviving signer of the “pact of the catacombs” (a pledge made by forty council fathers to embrace evangelical poverty, humility, charity, justice, and witness). Four days after Francis promulgated his motu proprio, and surely with these events in mind, he said, “We are halfway across the ford, but let’s remember that we still have to cross it.” The ford is the full implementation of Vatican II.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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Published in the September 2021 issue: View Contents
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