Traditionis Custodes Challenges Everyone

The earlier installment of this discussion offered the historical background leading to Pope Francis’s promulgation of Traditionis Custodes on 16 July 2021. This installment analyzes various implications of the document, explores challenges it may pose to those most directly involved in its implementation, and considers some recommendations for the next steps moving forward.

Caught in the Crossfire 

After reviewing the actions of his recent predecessors, we concluded the first installment of this discussion with the recognition that Pope Francis has, as his predecessors did, a de iure right and responsibility to govern the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

In addition, though, to this de iure right, there is also a de facto reality now in place to be considered. Despite what the council expected and Pope Paul determined, after Vatican II a pope did permit some use of the unrevised preconciliar missal. Then another pope broadened that permission, even creating new legal categories for its continuing existence and offering rationale for doing so. As a result, for thirty-seven years, and especially the past fourteen since Summorum Pontificum, a community or sub-culture of Catholics has been legitimately existing, growing, and celebrating Mass using the preconciliar missal.

Pope Francis’s target is those among them who militantly make the older Mass the centerpiece of their rejection of the council, and Francis calls them “many” (Letter, par. 8). But there are others as well, less vocal but perhaps also many in number, who only seek and find in that Mass, as Pope Benedict recognized, “a form particularly appropriate for them to encounter the mystery of the most holy Eucharist" (Letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum). Though some of them may also grumble about the new Mass or the “new church,” others (recall in particular group vii in the earlier installment) care little about ecclesiastical politics and want no part in fostering division in a diocese. Rather—one thinks of young adults with growing families—they like being Catholic, are joyful in their faith, appreciate their parish, can be committed and effective evangelizers, and find the center and heartbeat of their Catholic life in the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass.

Francis is aware of them. He refers to those he says Pope Benedict was “comforted” (odd word; Letter, par. 4) to acknowledge, who only seek the form of the liturgy “dear to them” while accepting the council and the authority of the hierarchy.1 Francis believes “realities are greater than ideas” (Evangelii Gaudium, §231), and at present their existence is a reality of the Church’s life, an ecclesial fact, sheep of the flock with their own particular smell for Francis to accompany and pastor. Their fate deserves consideration. How does their reality weigh in the balance with the idea, the principle, of Church unity in use of the postconciliar liturgical books alone? This is an honest, not a rhetorical question. What should be done about these members of Christ’s faithful, in the larger scheme of things? 

Given the human reality of this complex situation, the question can be posed this way: must the ritual form enriching these relatively few devoted Catholics drawn to it be sacrificed in Pope Francis’s effort to rid the Church of others, the fewer but louder divisive Tridentine Mass extremists, for their rejection of the council? Are there no other viable methods to maintain postconciliar ecclesial unity?

Social psychologists recognize different forms of unity. One form is assimilation or “one group identity,” preferred by majority groups, where distinct groups merge into a larger, single, inclusive entity, typically that of the majority group. Another form is integration or “dual identity,” preferred by minority groups, where sub-group identities are maintained and valued within a larger, superordinate identity.2 Which form might best serve the needs of the whole Church today? Pope John Paul II adopted and Pope Benedict XVI further developed a strategy of integration. As it stands now, Pope Francis has chosen instead to replicate in the 2020s the strategy of Pope Paul VI in the 1970s, the way of assimilation.

The consequences of this for those non-divisive Summorum Pontificum-Catholics in the interim short term will depend on what each diocesan bishop does now to implement the provisions of Traditionis Custodes. As for the permanent long term, when Francis decommissions the prior ritual books and disbands the Summorum Pontificum-authorized personal parishes that use them, and bishops no longer have authority to govern use of the prior missal in their diocese—how will that decision impact those Catholics who deepen no divisions but love that missal? Here are two possible scenarios, one more friendly to them, the other perhaps more obvious and likely.

In the first, imagine a diocesan bishop canonically re-categorizing a current Summorum Pontificum-parish into a territorial (Canon 515, §2) or personal (Canon 518) parish that he staffs and charges with this specific two-fold liturgical mission. First, its celebrations will be marked by full, untroubled adherence to the prescriptions of the postconciliar liturgical books, as Pope Francis desires: no “abuses.”

Second, by catechesis on active participation both internal and external, appropriate selection among legitimate ritual options, and the “noble simplicity” with cultivated beauty of their ars celebrandi, these celebrations will also be notable for their theocentric orientation and the spirit of sacrality, mystery, and reverence typically associated with the traditional Latin Mass when well celebrated. Offering today’s Mass regularly in this manner and spirit, the parish could become at once a home for Catholics who already are or come to be attracted to such a fully legitimate postconciliar liturgical spirituality (recommended by Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) and also a model for an ars celebrandi other parishes could adopt to the extent desired by people and pastor.

This scenario retains some elements of the liturgical-ecclesial vision of diversity in unity shared by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, without contravening any of Pope Francis’s stated intentions. Indeed, it actively fulfills them, eliminating abuses, and furthers a more complete implementation of the liturgical vision of Paul VI who affirmed that “Catholic liturgy must remain theocentric; that is its very nature and it inspires the reform the Council has brought about.”3

The second scenario sees parishioners of Summorum Pontificum-authorized personal parishes dispersed and assimilating into their territorial parishes. Ideally, a smooth transition follows, the new parishioners cooperative and participating in parish life, the parish and its staff welcoming and supportive of their form of Catholic life and worship—though, given the unfortunately polarized, siloed nature of the Church in the United States at present, that may pose quite a challenge on both sides.

In particular, what forms of liturgy do the newcomers find in this territorial parish? Even in a large parish offering several Masses each Sunday accommodating a variety of liturgical spiritualities, does it accommodate theirs? Pope Francis made these Catholics a promise: that “whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy”—which describes well what they wish: to celebrate holy Mass with devotion—“can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements” (Letter, par. 7).

Leaving aside the question of the frequency of the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) in typical parish life, Francis’s promise that they “will not find it hard to find”4 in the reformed liturgy what they are seeking is striking, almost inconsistent, coming just one paragraph after he has “deplor[ed] the fact that ‘in many places’” there are violations of the Church’s ritual norms, and creativity leading “to almost unbearable distortions” of the liturgy (Letter, par. 6).

Viewed in the best light, perhaps this promise reflects his sense that the postconciliar liturgy in itself, in the ritual books, is a superior ritual form than the preconciliar liturgy, even if it falls short in actual practice in “many places.” That echoes the summative assessment of Patrick Regan who asserted, in his detailed comparative study of the liturgical seasons in the Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form, “the excellence and superiority of the reformed liturgy over the previous one,” while also identifying as a “most urgent pastoral challenge,” that of “rais[ing] the ars celebrandi of the ordinary form” in actual practice “to the same level of excellence as these books” (Regan, xx and 305). Yet, it is actual practice that Summorum Pontificum-Catholics will find in the actual territorial parishes they will be joining. What can we say about that liturgy?

What Did Vatican II Want?

It is hard to say what liturgy Vatican II wanted the Church to have because Sacrosanctum Concilium did not specify a final product. Its mix of detailed ritual provisions and general reform principles set the direction but, rather like Trent, left the details in the hands of the pope. Paul VI necessarily put the task in the hands of an implementation task force of bishops and liturgical experts whose results he reviewed and, when he so determined, approved as the postconciliar liturgical books. In one sense, then, obviously we have the liturgy Vatican II wanted us to have—that is, when Catholic communities use the translations of those books, they do the liturgy of “Vatican II.” This is the “single and identical prayer” (Letter, par. 10) in which Francis wants to unite the whole Church.

But in another sense, it is more complicated than that. First, consider the steps or filters between what Sacrosanctum Concilium said and what happened in Catholic parishes in that era. Here’s a sketch: what Sacrosanctum Concilium taught > what the Consilium developed and Paul VI approved > what bishops conferences advised > what diocesan bishops allowed > what academic or pastoral writings advocated > what secular media thought and wrote about it all > what individual priests, impacted by some or all of this, decided to do the next time they celebrated Mass—is what ordinary Catholics experienced when they went to Church week by week and year by year in the late 1960s into the 1970s.

Then there is the passage of time from then till now. As already noted, “creativity” and “experimentation” were the watchwords then, at least among many of the liturgically-interested. Among them and those they influenced, to keep strictly to the rubrics seemed seriously out of tune with the times and actually resistant to what everyone knew “the church wants today.” That cast of mind, forged in that era, authorized doing what you thought best, whatever any “norms” from higher up and far away might dictate—resulting, inevitably, in what are technically “abuses.” And that basic cast of mind and its ritual results, though the sharp edges have smoothed out over the years, have arguably ever since been the underlying shape and style of our liturgical celebrations and the thinking and practice of some church ministers “in some places [where] the perpetuation of liturgical abuses has become almost habitual.”5

As one example, consider Sacrosanctum Concilium’s chapter on sacred music. It affirmed solemnity, active participation, the Church’s heritage of sacred music, music appropriate to the culture, new compositions—and also this: “The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as proper to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should hold pride of place in liturgical services” (§116). Yet on that last point, exactly the opposite happened: chant, whether in Latin or English, disappeared almost immediately, banished from the liturgy. This is worth analyzing.

First ask: Why? What dynamic was at work then that made it, contrary to Vatican II, unacceptable and even unthinkable to allow chant, or only minimally and rarely? Then wonder: what other aspects of Mass as it came to be newly-celebrated in that era on the ground, in American parishes, campuses, seminaries and religious houses, might have taken form under the influence of that same anti-conciliar dynamic? What else in our liturgical interpretation and adaptation of “Vatican II” was shaped, or should we say, using the language of Benedict and Francis, was deformed by that powerful dynamic, leaving an enduring imprint?

Francis recognizes and objects to the continuing presence of such abuses. Yet they are, wherever they may exist, what Summorum Pontificum-parish Catholics eventually dispersed into their territorial parishes will find, possibly the very liturgies whose eccentricities or abuses (Francis words) or habitual banality (a Ratzinger word) left them spiritually hungry for worship in mystery and adoration before the throne of God, which they sought and found in the Extraordinary Form. Unless and until that legitimate liturgical desire is provided for as a regular staple in Catholic parishes, sending Summorum Pontificum-Catholics to those parishes may be asking them alone to bear the weight and cost of Francis’s strategy to oppose the extremists on the right.

Might that weight be more evenly borne, involving others while also more fully achieving Francis’s aims? Might this even be the right criterion for implementing step two of Pope Francis’s liturgical plan: decommission Summorum Pontificum-parishes only when ordinary territorial parishes reliably offer liturgy that is free from the abuses Francis insists must cease, and can meet the authentically Vatican II Catholic theocentric spiritual hunger of Summorum Pontificum-Catholics?

Double-check the Bishops

Even before considering this line of thought, though, I have a question. As already noted, Francis was moved to act after “having considered the wishes expressed by the episcopate” in the 2020 CDF questionnaire (TC, par. 4). But what if a number of U.S. bishops, upon assessing their own dioceses now, as Traditionis Custodes requires them to do, determine that existing Summorum Pontificum-authorized communities are not divisive?

For what it is worth, in the week to ten days after promulgation of Traditionis Custodes, I made a quick, informal survey of sixty-some American archdiocesan and diocesan websites. This amateur effort revealed no bishops who indicated they had responded to the CDF’s 2020 questionnaire, reported problems due to the Latin Mass communities, and/or expressed gratitude for Traditionis Custodes as the needed tool to address local divisiveness. Most websites made no mention of Traditionis Custodes; fourteen bishops granted permission for current arrangements to continue while he studied the situation; four had already concluded their study, found no problems, and reaffirmed existing arrangements for continued use of the 1962 Missal, within the provisions of Traditionis Custodes.

In a spirit of transparency, then, to reinforce his decision, to aid in its reception, and to quell any possible questions or doubts, it would be prudent and helpful if Francis soon instructs the CDF to publish their 2020 questionnaire responses for wider review—just as the Consilium did after their survey of the world’s episcopal conferences in 1967 to assess the progress of the liturgical reform, and as the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship did after their 1980 survey of the world’s bishops on the use of Latin and the “Tridentine” liturgy.6  

In any case, I still wonder about this hypothetical: what if bishops, perhaps especially those not directly consulted in the 2020 questionnaire, report no negative issues with Summorum Pontificum-communities, or even find them places of notable Catholic vitality? If so, those communities would begin to look, not like part of the problem, but more like a new “sign of the times” (Gaudium et Spes, §4)—a hopeful sign of ecclesial vitality emerging half a century after the council, not anticipated by the council but arising in Church life from the prudential actions of Pope Francis’s two predecessors in their efforts to govern and unite a divided, contentious postconciliar Church.

If that hypothetical actually happened, might such an outcome challenge Francis to re-consider his assessment and methods? The conciliar principle is: “not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good” (Lumen Gentium, §12, referencing 1 Thess 5:12,19–21). If enough bishops were to report good things of Summorum Pontificum-communities, could Francis deal with that emerging reality accordingly—even to allowing Summorum Pontificum more time to do its work? Could he and his staff find a way to deal with divisive Tridentine Mass extremists with more administrative precision, impacting them and not others?

Challenging Left and Right

Yet, Francis might still want to insist the old missal be decommissioned, even if Summorum Pontificum-communities were assessed positively, for two possible reasons. 

There is the question of whether the prior missal, even if some of its adherents today live commendable Catholic lives nourished by that form of Mass, is nonetheless no longer legitimate because it represents a preconciliar lex credendi incompatible with the doctrinal developments of Vatican II which informed the work of the Consilium and the postconciliar liturgical books. This conviction is held by some on both sides. On one, their number includes Archbishop Lefebvre and his SSPX followers, and on the other are some theologians of the postconciliar liturgy. Abbot Patrick Regan, for example, rightly identified “paschal mystery” as a key and new theological concept in Sacrosanctum Concilium. He described it as widely accepted in postconciliar liturgical documents and theology but “virtually absent from the 1962 Missal or extraordinary form.” He then argued, “Obviously, the use of the post-conciliar liturgical books form people for life and ministry in the paschal-centered post-conciliar Church. Continued use of pre-conciliar books either fails to do so or else impedes it.” He concluded his argument by quoting Italian liturgist Andrea Grillo’s warning that “unless we enter into a phase of initiation into the ecclesial life of faith that draws upon the new rites, the reform will have been for nothing.”7

This perspective posits a definitive and incompatible difference between the two leges credendi (“paschal mystery” largely absent in preconciliar sacramental theology and prominent in postconciliar) and leges orandi (the pre- and post-conciliar liturgical books). It sees drastic consequences, the undoing and dissolution of the council’s reform effort (“the reform will have been for nothing”), if any Catholics at all are allowed to celebrate the Mass and sacraments in their preconciliar forms. This exemplifies a hermeneutic of rupture from the “left.”

John Paul II, operating from a different starting point, his dealings in the 1980s with a hermeneutic of rupture from the “right,” rejected that drastic degree of difference and called on theologians instead to study the council in depth so as better to see and explain its “continuity with Tradition, especially in points of doctrine which, perhaps because they are new, have not yet been well understood by some sections of the Church” (Ecclesia Dei, §5b), such as the SSPX.

The challenge here is twofold, to those on both left and right who see definitive discontinuity: for the sake of Church unity, “ut unum sint,” look more broadly and see the continuity-in-reform that is genuinely there—just as one can, if one chooses, see the water in a glass that bothers you being half empty.

Francis, in contrast, may hold there is a “definitive difference”; Traditionis Custodes can be read as making that assumption. But there is another reason he would in any case determine that those currently celebrating Mass with the 1962 Missal must stop. Regardless their form of Catholic life, however commendable, and regardless their attitudes toward the liturgical reform, whether accepting or resistant, their actions, their persistent celebrations with the preconciliar missal de facto reject that conciliar reform. Again, Francis’s principle is straightforward: the Church after the council will be faithful to the council and the papacy; we will use the ritual books revised at conciliar mandate and given papal approval.

Moving Forward

Unless new evidence moves Francis to rethink his methods, this is where we ultimately return: adherence to only the postconciliar liturgical books. If so, and Francis proceeds to implement the second stage of his plan, hopefully he will in some fashion offer, as Pope Paul did in 1969, words of understanding and advice to those Catholics losing the form of the Mass they hold dear. In that era and overseeing the liturgical reform with great care, Pope Paul recognized “that devout people are the ones who will be most disturbed.” He recommended that, to ease the transition, they become well-informed of the “richness” of the new missal (in our day, Pope Benedict’s Sacramentum Caritatis would help); that they understand and accept that it was being introduced in “obedience to the Council” and “to the bishops, who interpret and carry out its prescriptions”; and that they embrace the Church’s aim of uniting priest and people in praying the Mass together as one, something more integral in the postconciliar ritual than the preconciliar. He also offered these strong words of encouragement: “The will of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit summon the Church to this change”8—the very sentiment of Francis.

But if Francis considers further the example of Paul VI, he will also see this. In his first act to implement the liturgy constitution, a motu proprio issued the month after promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, Pope Paul explained the very basis motivating his and his predecessors’ concern to safeguard, develop, and restore the sacred liturgy. He used a quotation from that constitution—not its teaching on the full, conscious, and active participation of all the faithful as the principal aim of the whole liturgical reform (SC, §14), or on the liturgy as an exercise of the priestly office of the mystical body of Jesus Christ head and members (SC, §7), or on the many ways Christ is present in liturgical celebrations (SC, §7), or even on the liturgy as summit of the Church’s activity and source of all its power (SC, §10). Rather, he grounded this concern in the fact that the liturgy we celebrate is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy: he quoted Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph eight, in full.9

Yet arguably that paragraph, that feature of the conciliar theology of the liturgy so prominent for Pope Paul, remains one of the most under-implemented paragraphs of the whole liturgy constitution, whether in postconciliar theological reflection on the liturgy,10 pastoral planning for liturgical celebrations, or preaching during Mass or the other sacraments. This is so despite the council’s articulation of this specific theological dimension of the liturgy in three of its four major constitutions, consistently from the first to the last.11 But have you heard a homily lately explaining the Mass as a foretaste and sharing in the eternal liturgy of heaven? Has the music or space of that celebration veritably brought you “above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1, referenced in SC, §8)?

If not—then what if this changed? What if a thoughtful, determined implementation of the heavenly liturgy theology taught by Vatican II took hold in the way we thought about, planned, conducted, and experienced the liturgies we celebrate today? This need not govern the whole of postconciliar liturgical practice, but it is now virtually absent, surely a telling failure in conciliar fidelity. Imagine one of a parish’s Sunday Mass celebrations manifesting this character. Can such a goal be tolerated? And actually implemented? I believe that form of Mass might go a long way toward serving the needs of Catholics who have resorted to Extraordinary Form celebrations, facilitating their welcome into regular parish life and thus serving the unity of the Church.

Again, what if this were the criterion for when to implement stage two of Francis’s liturgical plan—challenging all who promote the postconciliar liturgy to be newly or further enriched by this genuinely conciliar vision, even as it challenges those accustomed for years now to offering “worship of the divine majesty” (SC, §33) through the extraordinary form to seek and find that theocentric worship in these future enriched celebrations of the postconciliar missal? This solution seeks fittingly and fairly to challenge and affirm “all sides” (Letter, par. 6).

Pursuing this path, a whole host of questions arise. What does Mass in a heavenly liturgy modality look like? Sound like? Feel like? These are good and challenging questions. Out of full commitment to the council, and to address the realities of today’s Church, let us entertain them! How shall the conversation begin?

1 For example, Holy Family Catholic Church, the designated Extraordinary Form parish in Dayton, Ohio, with a FSSP pastor, commented on Traditionis Custodes in the two Sunday bulletins after July 16. On July 25, an entry titled, “Traditionis Custodes—PLEASE PRAY AND DO NOT WORRY!" (emphasis in original) included this advice: “Remember, this is in God’s hands! Again, please be sure to stay away from internet sites that attack the Pope or any Bishops or priests! These are NOT Holy Family nor true traditional Catholic Sites.” Summorum Pontificum-parish disassociated itself from websites that source the kind of divisive content that prompted Traditionis Custodes, even as it acknowledged the drawing power, persuasiveness, and fundamentally anti-Catholic message and impact of those websites.

2 See, for example, John F. Dovidio, Samuel L. Gaertner, and Tamar Saguy, “Another View of ‘We’: Majority and Minority Group Perspectives on a Common Ingroup Identity,” European Review of Social Psychology 18 (2007): 296–330.

3 Paul VI, address to bishops from the southwestern region of France, April 18, 1977 (DOL, 63).

4 The translation, “will not find it hard to find,” is more literal than “can find,” and captures more of the meaning of the Italian phrase, “non stenterà a trovare.”

5 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), §4. The text of Sacrosanctum Concilium is the one fixed object in this schema; everything else is subject to critique. For Reid, for example, this begins with the work of the Consilium, which in his judgment significantly went beyond what Sacrosanctum Concilium intended. As a result, he speaks of “the liturgical books of Paul VI, not of the Second Vatican Council. And on this basis,” he writes, “it is legitimate to question their continuity with liturgical tradition.” See Reid, “Does Traditionis Custodes Pass Liturgical History 101?” 

6 Regarding the 1967 survey, see “Relationes super Reformationis Liturgicae Progressionem,” in Notitiae 4 (1968): 15–34, 114–128, 185–202, 253–266, and 282–306; fully 102 pages of first-hand reports. The 1980 survey of 2,317 local ordinaries, 1,750 of them responding, yielded eight volumes of documentation; a summary appeared in Notitiae 17, no. 12 (December 1981): 589–611; see the January, 1981 issue of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter, in Thirty-Five Years of the BCL Newsletter 1965–2000 (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2004), 797–800, which translates pages 603–09 of the Notitiae report.   

7 Patrick Regan, “The Liturgical Year as Agent of Formation from the Pioneers Through Vatican II,” Studia Liturgica 46 (2016): 55–67, at 67, quoting Andrea Grillo, Beyond Pius V: Conflicting Interpretations of the Liturgical Reform, trans. Barry Hudock (rev. ed., Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 20 (italics in original). 

8 Paul VI, General Audience, November 26, 1969; DOL, 212.

9 In Paul VI, Sacram Liturgiam (January 25, 1964), the second paragraph (DOL, 20).

10 For example, Anscar Chupungco’s major Handbook for Liturgical Studies, in its five volumes and eighty seven chapters, lacks a chapter devoted to this topic. 

11 See SC, §8; LG, §50; GS, §38. See also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§1090, 1137–1139, 1326.

Featured Image: Photo by Saint John's Seminary on Unsplash.


William Johnston

William H. Johnston is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton, a Catholic and Marianist university. He is author of Care for the Church and Its Liturgy: A Study of Summorum Pontificum and the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

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