It wasn’t hard to anticipate the reception that Francis’s motu proprio Traditionis custodes would get in the United States: hostile (from those already militantly opposed to the pope) or lukewarm (from most of the U.S. bishops). It follows a pattern that began in 2013, with the reception of Francis’s pontificate in general: a minority of U.S. bishops willing to show their communion of intent with the pope; a majority reluctant to engage with him one way or another; and a very small but very vocal sliver of bishops and lay intellectuals who charge Francis with breaking the Church apart.
The latest addition to this pattern is a new book raging against Traditionis custodes, a multi-authored volume titled From Benedict’s Peace to Francis’s War: Catholics Respond to the Motu Proprio ‘Traditionis Custodes’ on the Latin Mass. There’s a long list of very short chapters written by a number of prominent authors—some cardinals, some bishops, and Catholic activists and journalists known for their animus against Francis, among them Cardinal Raymond Burke, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, and senior writer at National Review Michael Brendan Dougherty. Carlo Maria Viganò makes a predictable appearance, but also included is Michel Onfray, the French atheist whose well-documented, unashamed anti-Catholicism is evidently no problem for the publishers of this volume as long as he professes his love for the old Mass in Latin. Their appearance between the covers of a book probably gives the authors the illusion of power and influence, but this collection shouldn’t be confused with the serious works produced by Catholic publishers with much larger revenues and market share.
Still, it does represent an escalation in the rhetoric against Francis, and it further positions the current pope as the enemy of the pope emeritus. This is remarkable coming from cardinals and bishops and anyone else who, until the beginning of Francis’s papacy, made total obedience to the pope a key element of their Catholic identity. I’m not saying schism is around the corner; it’s hard to imagine that in the universal Catholic Church. But in the Catholic “metaverse” in which many of these authors live, a schismatic mentality has taken root.
This is a crisis in urgent need of a Catholic-to-Catholic ecumenism. It’s a different kind of situation from previous splits between Catholics in communion with the bishop of Rome and those who rejected Vatican II in an earlier post-conciliar period. A helpful comparison might be the movement created by Marcel Lefebvre in the early 1970s, which ultimately led to the creation of the Society of St. Pius X and the excommunication of its leader in 1988 for illegally consecrating four bishops. True, there are similarities between today’s traditionalism and Lefebvre’s traditionalism—namely, that those rejecting liturgical reform represent just a tiny fraction of the college of cardinals, the episcopate, and the Catholic flock; and that their rejection of liturgical reform really amounts to a rejection of Vatican II. But it’s important to note the differences.
The first is that the center of Catholic neo-traditionalism is no longer exclusively French-speaking Catholicism in Europe, but conservative Catholicism in the United States. (In this sense it should be noted that the “globalization of Catholicism” does not necessarily make the Catholic Church theologically more progressive.) While there remains a French component to the opposition to Pope Francis and synodality, the transatlantic axis that has been in place since the eighteenth century has shifted, so that the voice of American Catholic traditionalism has become louder than the French.
The second is that the though the new traditionalists make up a very small minority of Catholics, they nonetheless have an outsized voice both in conservative mainstream media and on social media. Catholic neo-traditionalism in the United States isn’t really on the fringe anymore; it’s not viewed as alien to the culture the way the French viewed Lefebvrists in the 1970s and ’80s, ridiculing the movement as vestige of nineteenth-century Catholic subculture.
A third difference is that neo-traditionalism is attached to and benefits from the momentum of a political crisis in the United States. Lefebvre’s movement remained at the margins of the political battles in France, but American neo-traditionalism overlaps with so-called “Catholic Trumpism” and fuels itself on never-ending culture-war issues. Prominent Catholic clergy and laity resisting Francis and his implementation of Vatican II (not just on liturgical reform) have found representation in one of the United States’s two major political parties, which gives them visibility that Lefebvre’s followers never had. At the same time, this Catholic neo-traditionalist movement does not depend entirely on the insurgency of the political right, since it seems to have adherents among the Catholic hierarchy. Ecclesial discourse itself increasingly includes culture-war language. The speech by USCCB President Archbishop Gomez earlier this month, in which he criticized America’s so-called “new religions,” is an obvious example. This has important consequences for the future: American neo-traditionalism has not had to create separate seminaries for the formation of future priests; it has transformed them from the inside. Consider the election of Bishop Steven J. Lopes as new chairman of the USCCB’s committee of liturgy. Lopes, ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, is responsible for shepherding former Anglicans who came into communion with the Church after Benedict XVI’s 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus and doesn’t even lead an ordinary Latin rite diocese. This is one more signal that on the implementation of Traditionis custodes, most of the U.S. bishops are agnostic at best, if not reluctant or resistant.
One final difference: when Lefebvre was at work, the Church could rely on an institutional narrative of continuity between Paul VI and John Paul II in defending the authority and legitimacy of Vatican II, while at the same time making some liturgical concessions (as John Paul II did) to traditionalists. But the rupture that Benedict XVI created in advancing liturgical traditionalism (see 2007’s Summorum Pontificum) and in his policies on Vatican II is something today’s traditionalists can exploit—and they do. The new Catholic right can now take advantage of the fact that, thanks to Francis’s predecessor, the papacy is no longer identifiable with the task of defending ex officio the conciliar teachings and its reforms (promulgated by Paul VI, canonized by Francis). This is the most consequential difference between the first generation of French-speaking anti-Vatican II traditionalists and this new, English-speaking generation, which plays the game not only from inside the Church, but also from mainstream news outlets.
The appeal to Benedict XVI in this book and elsewhere is particularly dangerous in this regard, given that the emerging Catholic right wing seems to want to roll back much of Vatican II along with the liturgical reform. As for how the rest of the Church—especially the U.S. hierarchy—wants to respond, it’s not quite clear yet. But the threat is real, and it presents a real test. How we face it will say a lot about the Church. Certainly there should be pastoral sensitivity towards those affected by Pope Francis’s motu proprio. But there certainly should not be any catering to the explicitly anti–Vatican II sentiments of these self-appointed defenders of an imagined Catholic tradition.
The campaign against Traditionis custodes by the self-proclaimed movers-and-shakers of “orthodox Catholicism” doesn’t amount to a real schism, and for the most part their rhetoric and social-media strategy of victimization hasn’t spilled over into the discourse of American Catholics whose resentment toward Francis is more vague and amorphous—and who don’t seem to have the same subversive intent. Nor do they have the capabilities that the right-wing elites do—this stunt of a book being an example, which is less an appeal to ordinary Catholics than to the resentments of insiders opposed to Francis. That’s their real audience, and it’s why such books need not become bestsellers to have a long-term impact on the Church. Even as a stunt, it in some ways arrives as a manifesto in advance of the next conclave, whenever that conclave may be.