Traditionis Custodes: How Did We Get Here?

Early reactions to Pope Francis's July 16, 2021 liturgical initiative Traditionis Custodes and its accompanying Letter, have been quick and plentiful. In time, more detailed study will pursue broader implications of these documents on a variety of issues—the role and authority of the papacy, the right interpretation of Vatican II, the place of mercy in the administrative life of the Church, and the relation of Gospel, Church, liturgy, and culture, among others. Here we aim to situate Traditionis Custodes, and its key features, in their proper historical context. What follows offers the historical background on relevant liturgical initiatives and priorities of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. A subsequent essay will address pastoral questions and challenges raised by this new liturgical initiative of Pope Francis.

Why Was the Old Mass Permitted Again Anyway?

The Second Vatican Council's liturgy constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), called for “a general restoration of the liturgy itself” (§21) leading to a revision of the Church's liturgical books (§25). Pope Saint Paul VI almost immediately established a task force of bishops and experts, the Consilium, to do the work. The revised liturgical books began to be available in Latin half a dozen years later, with vernacular translations to follow. The first edition of the revised Missale Romanum was promulgated in 1970.[1]

Under Paul VI, the prior Roman Missal could no longer be used once the revised Missal became available. Use of that prior Missal then became a magnet and symbol for those who became seriously opposed to developments unfolding in the Church after the council. Notable among them (i) was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and members of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) who rejected Vatican II as a betrayal of true Catholic tradition, but (ii) there were other Catholics who shared that assessment of the council but did not affiliate with the SSPX. But this hardly exhausts the reasons Catholics in the postconciliar era found attraction in that historic form of worship. A more detailed analysis would include (iii) those Pope Paul VI early on termed “the malcontents,”[2] disturbed in their devotional practices at Mass, (iv) persons who considered it a unique cultural artifact (as those who requested the 1971 indult for England and Wales) and (v) some simply moved by nostalgia.

The list includes two other constituencies, to be discussed later in the essay: (vi) those who accept the council in general but judge the liturgical reform flawed because it disrespected “objective liturgical Tradition” and proceeded more by innovation than organic development, and (vii) those whose theocentric liturgical spirituality was disregarded and offended by continuing “abuses” in postconciliar liturgical celebrations.[3] Church documents after the council regularly critiqued abuses attributable to presiders ignoring liturgical norms, a sense of open-ended creativity, unauthorized experimentation, personal and arbitrary innovations, and so on—none of it, as those documents endlessly repeated, intended or authorized by the council, the Consilium, or the pope.

Mindful especially of this last group (vii), Pope Saint John Paul II decided in 1984 to reauthorize limited use of the 1962 Missal. It was a shepherd's act of mercy toward a portion of the flock, as well as an effort to preserve the unity of the whole, for this single act aimed at once to acknowledge and provide for the liturgical spirituality of Catholics drawn to the prior Missal, and thereby to lessen their attraction to the separatist SSPX where the old Mass was also celebrated.

John Paul II took this step after the Vatican surveyed episcopal conferences in 1980 to learn about the reception of the liturgical reforms and any remaining difficulties or resistance to it. Based on the responses, the Congregation for Divine Worship reported in its 1984 letter, Quattuor Abhinc Annos (“Four years ago”), that the “problem” of some Catholics still “holding to the so-called ‘Tridentine’ rite was almost completely solved.” In a remarkable non-sequitur the next sentence began, “Since, however, the same problem continues . . .” with the letter then proceeding to lay out the specific and limited conditions under which the pope gave diocesan bishops the faculty to use an indult to allow celebrations of Mass with the preconciliar Missal. A few weeks later the Pro-Prefect of the Congregation described Quattuor Abhinc Annos as motivated by “considerations of compassion and pluralism”[4]—and also, it seems clear, unity. 

In 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre ordained four SSPX priests as bishops without papal mandate, thus incurring automatic excommunication. In response John Paul II issued his motu proprio, Ecclesia Dei. While critiquing the Society's disobedience to the Roman Pontiff and misunderstanding of tradition, and defending the legitimacy of Vatican II developments (§3-4), he also decreed that “respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application” of the provisions of Quattuor Abhinc Annos, which he reaffirmed but did not expand (§6.c). He emphasized his intent to “facilitate their ecclesial communion” (§5.c), and offered a theological framework for the kind of communion he envisioned by affirming the Church's Spirit-inspired “beauty of unity in variety,” a “blended ‘harmony,’” mentioning in particular “a diversity of charisms [and] traditions of spirituality” (§5.a).

Cardinal Ratzinger supported this outreach, but as the years passed came to think that bishops failed to be generous, as encouraged, in granting Quattuor Abhinc Annos' permissions, instead remaining intolerant toward Catholics drawn to the old Mass. (Again, recall the complex range of motives, sketched above as (i) to (vii), connecting people with that Missal.) As Pope Benedict XVI, with his 2007 motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, he chose to legislate a wider permission for use of the prior liturgical books in local dioceses, designating such usage the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite, with the Church's postconciliar liturgy remaining as (we might say: reaffirmed as) the “ordinary form”, which most Catholics would continue to celebrate as usual. Summorum Pontificum's multiple aims included putting in place a symbol to demonstrate the unity and continuity of the Church before and after the council,[5] bringing some peace to a contentious liturgical landscape, gradually amending the abuses that Benedict saw and Francis also deplores, accommodating what he considered the legitimate spiritual aspirations of a segment of faithful Catholics, and through all this to foster liturgical inclusion and ecclesial unity.[6]

The means and engine Benedict established to accomplish these goals was the mutual enrichment of the ordinary and extraordinary forms. Article 5 of Summorum Pontificum envisioned this taking place typically in diocesan parishes, those where a stable group of Catholics desired to worship in the form of the preconciliar Mass. Their pastors were to “willingly accede” to their request, providing Mass in the extraordinary form, presumably to be offered by a priest of the parish who had become competent to do so. Masses could be scheduled on weekdays or Sunday.

Imagine pastors alternating both schedules, or celebrating the extraordinary form only on weekdays, so that these parishioners regularly celebrated Mass in both forms with a priest of their parish presiding. The result would be a cohort throughout the diocese of priests and people familiar by personal experience with the distinctive characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of each form as celebrated.

This would position them—not so much popes, bishops, or liturgical scholars but them, ordinary Catholics, clergy and lay—to be the prime contributors to mutual enrichment serving liturgical reconciliation—if they had a mind to, that is, if they did what Summorum Pontificum allowed in a manner faithful to Pope Benedict's intent in issuing it: seeking liturgical reconciliation, not creating entrenched liturgical enclaves. If practiced in this spirit, then through “the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they [would] experience” (Dei Verbum, §8) in these varied celebrations, they would come to discern how certain elements in each form, if adopted or adapted into the other, might enrich that other form. The process would take place little by little, over time, even over generations, with local customs arising occasionally, not by imposition but by pastoral discovery in a spirit of gift-sharing, with gradual sifting and discernment, all ultimately under episcopal moderation exercised not intrusively but with judicious patience.

This was Benedict's vision of lay empowerment, clerical service, and liturgical change that is slow and grassroots rather than mandated and top-down. It is also quite idealistic, assuming parish priests with time, ability, and means to learn to celebrate the extraordinary form with competence and grace, and train a choir to sing Gregorian chant well. So Pope Benedict pragmatically added a back-up provision in Summorum Pontificum (Art. 10) giving bishops another way to provide the extraordinary form: by erecting personal parishes dedicated to use of that form, to serve Catholics from multiple parishes.

Benedict knew the dangers of this option but kept it anyway. Without it, Catholics who sought that form of Mass might not receive access to it, with overworked parish priests, some responsible for multiple parishes, being hard put to provide it. But that provision, which became commonly used, entailed a likelihood of continuing liturgical differentiation by limiting the number of diocesan priests familiar with the extraordinary form and segregating extraordinary form Catholics from ordinary form parishes and parish life, thus reducing opportunities for liturgical and ecclesial reconciliation to develop through contact. Article 10 was the Achilles' heel of Summorum Pontificum, working at cross-purposes to its own goals and apparently contributing to its undoing—unless Pope Francis simply did not give it time to work.

The Plan of Pope Francis 

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, two men who participated in the council, chose a strategy of governing the postconciliar liturgical reform with an ecclesiology of unity in variety. Pope Francis has determined to follow the liturgical policy of Paul VI, the pope who oversaw the revision process and authorized the postconciliar ritual books and them alone (with exceptions irrelevant to the present discussion) for use in the postconciliar Church. Here are four features of Traditionis Custodes and its Letter worth noting.

(1) Safeguard the unity of the Church. Invoking his role as “the permanent and visible principle and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the multitude of the faithful” (Letter, paragraph 9; Lumen Gentium, §23), Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes in service to the unity of the Church in its adherence to Vatican II whose legitimacy he asserts, supporting that claim with reference to the collegial power of the bishops meeting in council “cum Petro et sub Petro,” to the authority of the papal office, and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Letter, par. 6).

Traditionis Custodes's specific area of concern is the council's liturgical reform. Francis was prompted to act in this area by responses to a 2020 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith questionnaire sent to bishops (how many? which?) to assess the effects of Summorum Pontificum. Those survey findings gave troublesome evidence of ecclesial disunity manifest in rejection of the liturgical reform and the council as a whole, linked with implementation of Summorum Pontificum by those who “exploited” its permissions “to widen the gaps” of division in the Church today (Letter, par. 5). On that basis, Francis judged that he had to act and the time was now.

It is an absolutely fundamental question: where is the Catholic Church to be found today? With those who accept the teaching of Vatican II and the popes and bishops who have implemented it? Or with those, as Francis describes them, who claim “with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that [Vatican II] betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church’” (Letter, par. 6) which they with true fidelity are upholding, and who celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal as the symbol and center of their opposition?

Traditionis Custodes says, in effect: it is time to decide. By declaring the postconciliar liturgical books “the unique expression of the Roman Rite” (Traditionis Custodes, Art. 1) Francis establishes a legal fact, revising the legislation of Pope Benedict. He may also intend to create a litmus test for who is and is not Catholic, calling for decision by those who presently use only the prior Missal. The aim seems to be to serve Church unity by opposing, outing, and delegitimizing those who will decide to continue to reject the legitimacy of the council and the postconciliar magisterium, and persuade others to follow them.

As for the actual impact of Traditionis Custodes, however, what Francis plans will not silence the websites, blogs, essays and online videos that preach rejection of Vatican II and the liturgical reform. On the contrary, it pours fuel on the fire, intensifying anti-Francis and anti-conciliar invective, deepening the climate of opposition and division in the short term and for the foreseeable future.

(2) Temporarily, limit the use and spread of the 1962 Roman Missal. Traditionis Custodes legislates the first and temporary stage of a two-stage process explained in the Letter. From the day of its promulgation, blogs expressed outrage at the document for imposing draconian limits on use of the prior Missal, and outrage at Pope Francis for a vindictive and unprecedented attack on Catholics drawn to that Missal. In fact, though, Traditionis Custodes largely reinstates the status quo established under John Paul II and in place from 1984 to 2007.

For example, diocesan bishops having the right and discretion to grant (under Vatican-specified conditions) or to withhold permission to use the 1962 Missal in their diocese, and to specify the days such celebrations may occur; the prohibition against using parish churches for such celebrations; the requirement that those participating in no way call in question the legitimacy of the reformed Missal—all this is in Quattuor Abhinc Annos. Traditionis Custodes's prohibition against creating new personal parishes for use of the prior liturgy functions as did two of Quattuor Abhinc Annos's provisions—one stipulating that indult Masses were “only for the benefit of those groups that request it,” that is, not open to others, and the other insisting Quattuor Abhinc Annos's permissions not be used “to prejudice the faithful observance of the liturgical reform in the life of the respective ecclesial communities,” that is, no efforts to spread adherence to the old Mass, inviting or persuading other Catholics to prefer it to the new. In my view, John Paul II did not envision, and Francis aims to limit, further spread of adherence to that Missal.

(3) Immediately end liturgical abuses on all sides. Pope Francis recognizes and is grieved by liturgical “abuse . . . on all sides” (literally, “on one side and the other / di una parte e dell'altra”; Letter, par. 6). He mentions no specific abuses in ritual celebrations with the preconciliar Missal but only the “instrumental use” of it to reject the liturgical reforms and the council. Francis's actions suggest he judges the misuse of that Missal as an instrument of unwavering and polemical opposition to the postconciliar Church so damaging, enduring, and even growing that he must remove it, exploited as it is as a tool of disunity.

On the other side, Francis explicitly calls out those who misuse the postconciliar Missal by not following its “prescriptions” and rubrics, instead feeling authorized to exercise a “creativity” which, says Francis quoting Benedict, “leads to almost unbearable distortions” of the reformed liturgy. Aimed primarily at abuses on the “left,” this lament re-echoes similar criticism and admonitions voiced repeatedly for forty years. In 1965, before the council was over, the President of the Consilium, Cardinal Lercaro, had to urge bishops to restrain their clergy from “uncontrolled arbitrariness” and from “any personal, precipitate, and harmful innovations” through ignoring ritual norms (Documents on the Liturgy, 31). Such warnings continued up to 2004 when the Vatican's Redemptionis Sacramentum was still critiquing postconciliar liturgical “abuses, even quite grave ones” (§4) including sacrilege with the consecrated species (§172) but others as well, such as priests using personally composed Eucharistic Prayers (§51) or not wearing proper liturgical vestments (§126), persons changing the texts of the liturgy (§59), laypersons giving the homily at Mass (§64–66), or extraordinary ministers distributing the Eucharist when ordained ministers are present (§157).

Further, ritual “abuses . . . on all sides” can refer also to those on the “right”—for example, presiders who undermine and limit external forms of the active participation of the congregation which the Church defines as their right and duty (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §14, eloquently reaffirmed in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, §18) by interpreting relevant norms consistently in the most restrictive sense. Or clergy who ignore the Missal's prescription to prepare and celebrate Mass being “attentive rather to the common spiritual good of the People of God than to [their] own inclinations” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, §352).

Such abuses whether from left or right arise when clergy follow first their own inclinations and impose their own liturgical theology and spirituality on congregations. As the remedy, in effect to protect the faithful from idiosyncrasies and “eccentricities” from all sides, and to respect their right to the Roman Rite, Francis calls for due observance by all of the Church's prescribed liturgical norms, in that way allowing “the full, conscious and active participation of the whole People of God” (Letter, par. 7) that was explicitly promoted, he rightly notes, by both Pius XII and Vatican II.

(4) Ultimately, decommission the 1962 Roman Missal. Francis intends eventually to eliminate use of the 1962 Missal entirely. His two-step process walks back the liturgical legislation of his two predecessors, as though today's liturgical disunity is a knot best untied by reversing the way it was made: first returning to the status quo under John Paul II, later to that under Paul VI, so that ultimately “a single and identical prayer can rise to God from the whole Church” (Letter, par. 10; quoting Paul VI, Missale Romanum, 1969; Documents on the Liturgy, 202). “This unity,” Francis states, “I intend to re-establish throughout the Church of the Roman Rite” (Letter, par. 10), promoting ecclesial unity through liturgical unity.

What Can a Pope Do?

Francis embraces and pursues this end because he sees fidelity to the council to require it, and because he sees the need to end now the postconciliar ecclesial disunity to which, according to the 2020 survey, Summorum Pontificum has been a contributing factor, even if only when wrongly “exploited.” The principle underlying his decision and strategy seems to be clear and beyond dispute: Catholics accept and obey the papally-authorized decisions of ecumenical councils, rather than not. What Catholic could object to that?

But there are Catholics who do object (see group (vi), above). Alcuin Reid's The Organic Development of the Liturgy articulates this perspective with detailed historical analysis of liturgical change over the centuries, especially the years from 1903 to 1958. In this view, “objective liturgical Tradition” is an element of the Church's life which all must respect and popes must safeguard, not modify at will, even at the behest of an ecumenical council. Liturgical change is recognized, but by a process best imaged as a gradual organic development. While allowing some recovery of lost elements of ritual from the past and some modest simplifications (pruning), this process proceeds with respect for the Church's “received, developed liturgical Tradition” (Reid, 38) as handed on through the centuries. What is rejected? The assumption the pope has unlimited authority over the liturgy (termed ultramontanism); an idealizing of earlier liturgical forms as such (termed archaeologism), with later developments thus deemed corruptions (as by the influential Jungmann); the subordination of objective Tradition too thoroughly (root and branch) to the results of historical scholarship and to contemporary (and thus, temporary) pastoral expediency; and change that is too rushed, causing scandal or turmoil among the faithful.

In developing “fundamental principles of liturgical reform” by organic development and identifying by those criteria “instances of reprobate liturgical reform in the history of the Roman rite,” Dom Reid sought to provide tools “for a critique of the controversial work of the postconciliar Consilium” (Reid, 17) though he did not pursue that application himself in his book. Others have done so, however, and found the postconciliar reform problematic in its assumptions, process, and results.[7]

Francis's Traditionis Custodes constitutes a rejection of this analysis and an assertion of his authority as pope to moderate the Church's liturgy as he and most of his twentieth-century predecessors have done.[8] If he maintains that the council intended to replace the liturgical books in use beforehand with those revised for use after, and if he determines to be faithful to this intention in the same manner as Pope Paul VI, the first pope of conciliar implementation, few Catholics will dispute his right de iure to do so. This is what a pope can do.

The challenge for organic development Catholics will be to accept the postconciliar liturgy as “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite,” flawed as they may consider it and now, with Summorum Pontificum abrogated, beyond mutual enrichment with and by the extraordinary form. At the same time, it would be well to recognize the gift and challenge they can present the postconciliar Church of today, making the case for their understanding of organic development as a legitimate and helpful interpretation, yet to be sufficiently considered, of this conciliar principle of liturgical reform and its operative place in the Church's liturgical life today: “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §23).[9] Not a blunt instrument opposing all reforms but a set of principles requiring discernment in their application, “organic development” merits a place alongside other methods in the Church's hermeneutical toolkit.[10]

EDITORIAL NOTE: A subsequent essay will analyze various implications of Traditionis Custodes, see what challenges it may pose to all those most directly involved in its implementation, and recommend some steps for moving forward.

[1] Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, Decree, Celebrationes Eucharisticae; in Documents on the Liturgy 1963–1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1982), Document 213.

[2] Paul VI, General Audience on August 20, 1969; Documents on the Liturgy, 46, at paragraph 493.

[3] The word “abuse” carries strong emotional overtones in English, from use in such phrases as “sexual abuse” and “child abuse.” In a liturgical context it simply indicates a violation of a liturgical norm, whether more serious (sacrilege with the Blessed Sacrament) or less so (a priest breaking the host while reciting the institution narrative).

Also, another group for this list is the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FFSP), “a clerical Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right, canonically erected by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988. Their priests serve in apostolates across the world, with the faithful celebration of the traditional Mass and Sacraments (Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite) at the center of their charism” (from their website). Assessing the future of the Fraternity is beyond the scope of this essay.

[4] As reported in Aelred Tegels, “Chronicle: A Minisynod on Liturgical Reform,” Worship 59 (1985): 72–78, at 77.

[5] It is intriguing that Archbishop Lefebvre’s celebration of the old Mass was for him a symbol of rejection of the council and an affirmation of rupture between the Church before and after, while Pope Benedict posited continued use of the prior Missal as a symbol and affirmation of ecclesial and liturgical continuity before and after the council.

[6] See William H. Johnston, Care for the Church and its Liturgy: A Study of Summorum Pontificum and the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2013), esp. Chapter 3, “The Multiple Purposes of Summorum Pontificum,” for more detail on this point. 

[7] For example, László Dobszay, The Restoration and Organic Development of the Roman Rite (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010). His earlier and more argumentative study is The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (Front Royal, VA: Catholic Church Music Associates, 2003).

[8] Consider Pius X’s reform of the breviary and calendar; Pius XII’s claims to authority over the liturgy in Mediator Dei, §58 and §65; John XXIII’s addition of the name of St. Joseph to the Roman Canon, which Reid describes as “extraordinarily ultramontane” (Reid, 293, note 582); Paul VI’s authorization of a “New Order of Mass” and the rest of the liturgical reform; John Paul II’s decision to re-allow the 1962 Missal; Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, and his additions to the dismissal rite of the Roman Missal.

[9] For example, see Alcuin Reid’s August 6, 2021 essay, “Does Traditionis Custodes Pass Liturgical History 101?” in The Catholic World Report. His critique of “loud self-styled ‘rad-trads’” is more biting than that of Francis. But his critique of Traditionis Custodes is thoroughgoing, coupled with commendation for the approach of Francis’s two predecessors, especially Pope Benedict, for respecting the integrity of the liturgy.

[10] To illustrate what I mean by “discernment”: I began Reid’s analysis of H.A. Reinhold’s 1940 essay, “My Dream Mass,” assuming he would excoriate anyone’s description of their dream of a future Mass; the very idea seemed to me anathema to the principle of respect for objective liturgical Tradition. But Reid’s assessment was more discriminating; he offered it as his considered “opinion” that Reinhold’s various proposed “modifications are either the arguably apposite restoration of lost practices… or are arguably reasonable adaptations . . . The proposed reforms do no violence to objective liturgical Tradition.” The exception is H.A.R.’s proposal of the priest “facing the people from the offertory onward,” something Reid always opposes (Reid, 110).

Featured Image: Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe 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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