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.