The publication of Pope Francis’s motu proprio Traditionis custodes last summer marked a decisive moment in the history of the reception of the Second Vatican Council. The pope’s concern for the legacy of Vatican II is apparent in the document itself, and even more so in the accompanying cover letter. In essentially revoking Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum pontificum, which gave sweeping permission to celebrate the preconciliar Latin Mass, Francis regretted that his predecessor’s good will had been abused. The “instrumental use” of the preconciliar Mass, according to Francis, “is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself.” The recent motu proprio is in many ways the juridical codification of a position that Pope Francis had already given voice to a number of times. He did so most bluntly in a 2017 speech, describing the liturgical reforms of Vatican II as “irreversible” judgments of “the magisterium” of the Church.
Francis’s recent decisions have greatly intensified accusations that he has repudiated the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” often attributed to Pope Benedict. In truth, Francis and Benedict are in basic agreement regarding the nature of continuity and change at Vatican II. Despite popular belief, Benedict did not advocate for a stagnant hermeneutic of continuity that seeks to explain away all discontinuity. Rather, he taught that Vatican II should be understood through a “hermeneutic of reform” that includes both continuity and discontinuity, albeit “on different levels.” In his own understanding of the relationship between continuity and change, the Argentinian Jesuit is following the path his Bavarian predecessor described, most clearly, in a 2005 address to the Roman Curia. His words on that occasion will be of interest not only to theologians, but to all Catholics intellectually engaged in their faith.
In issuing Summorum pontificum in 2007, Benedict hoped that the celebration of what he named the “extraordinary,” or preconciliar, form of the Roman Rite of the Mass would complement the celebration of the “ordinary” postconciliar form. Traditionis custodes makes clear that Francis believes his predecessor’s project has been a failure. It opens with the striking declaration that the conciliar Mass is the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” Francis seems to doubt that it is still possible to break the link between preconciliar liturgy and anti-conciliar theology. At any rate, he has judged that it is no longer prudent to keep trying to do so.
It is clear that Francis disagrees with Benedict about some important liturgical questions and the best means of reconciling traditionalists with Rome. But has he departed from Benedict’s theological understanding of continuity, discontinuity, and Vatican II? Many of Francis’s critics seem to think so. Fr. Peter Stravinskas, writing in the Catholic World Report this past August, accused Francis of departing from the “hermeneutic of continuity” authoritatively taught by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for over thirty years. According to Stravinskas, Francis “has given clear signals for eight years that he holds to the hermeneutic of rupture.” The pope himself thus “calls into question the indefectibility of the Church.” EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo told his millions of viewers that Traditionis custodes revealed a “preferential option for innovation.” To Arroyo, Pope Francis “seems to be saying everything before Vatican II is null and void.” For Arroyo, the foil for Francis’s instability and radicalism was, of course, the always dependable Pope Benedict.
On Gloria Purvis’s America Media podcast, the Benedictine liturgist Anthony Ruff commented that some “Catholics were misled about the traditional Latin Mass.” It’s a claim that would, and did, infuriate many traditionalists. Ruff’s comment reminded me of the many bitter, shocked, and sometimes sarcastic reactions to the motu proprio that I’ve seen on the internet, reactions expressing not only disappointment but also a sense of betrayal. One could expand on Ruff’s observation, for if some Catholics were misled about the traditional Latin Mass, many of them were also misled about the “hermeneutic of continuity.” The confusion and tumult now afflicting parts of the Catholic Church, especially in the United States, is not only liturgical but also theological and ecclesiological.
Of course, there are many practicing Catholics who are uninterested in these debates. Yet the tide of perplexity and anger rising against the current pontificate is undeniable, and it is rising farthest and fastest among highly engaged American Catholics, many of whom hold ministerial and educational roles. Such Catholics claim to feel a sense of disorientation; they are bracing themselves for what this totally new kind of pope could do next. Such sentiments are expressed not only by peddlers of outrage on YouTube and Twitter, but also by some voices with broader appeal among ordinary Catholics. They thought they knew where they stood, on the firm ground of “continuity,” and now that ground seems to be giving way beneath them.
The pope’s most ardent supporters and most vehement critics would agree on one thing at least: Francis believes that, under certain circumstances, doctrine can change. His words and actions concerning everything from Vatican II to Amoris laetitia suggest such a position. But the clearest evidence is to be found in his teaching on the death penalty, now reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Does such a perspective not contradict Pope Benedict, the guardian of orthodoxy who censured those who maintained there could be “discontinuity” in Catholic doctrine?
Catholics pushing a static understanding of Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” should reconsider the extent to which their understanding of doctrinal development is rooted in the thought of the man who wrote these words:
If it is desirable to offer a diagnosis of [Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes] as a whole, we might say that (in conjunction with the texts on religious liberty and world religions) it is a revision of the Syllabus of Pius IX, a kind of countersyllabus.... Let us be content to say that the text serves as a countersyllabus and, as such, represents, on the part of the Church, an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789. (Principles of Catholic Theology, 1987; originally published in German in 1975)
If this statement was presented without attribution to theologically informed Catholics, and they were asked to guess the author, then I suspect that Hans Küng or Walter Kasper would receive far more votes than Joseph Ratzinger. At any rate, Ratzinger’s statement would certainly be censured by many traditionalists as self-evidently heretical. Orthodox Catholics, surely, should speak of Pius IX’s teaching being “organically developed”; talk of “revision” and the production of conciliar texts “counter” to previous magisterial documents smacks of liberal Catholicism or, even worse, modernism.