Traditionis Custodes Was Never Merely About the Liturgy

On the surface, Pope Francis’ July 16 decree Traditionis Custodes (“Guardians of Tradition”) is all about the liturgy. This motu proprio, a kind of papal executive order, drastically curtails the celebration of the pre-conciliar form of the Mass (that is, before the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65, and often called the “Tridentine Mass” or the “Traditional Latin Mass”)[1] reversing the sweeping permissions Pope Benedict XVI extended in his own motu proprio of 2007, Summorum Pontificum.

Indeed, while certain provisions for the celebration of the pre-conciliar Mass remain, Pope Francis pretty clearly lays out a long game. Traditionis Custodes appears to envision eventually bringing all, or virtually all, Roman Catholics into the exclusive celebration of the conciliar Mass. This is evident in the striking statement of article 1, where the pope asserts that the liturgy according to the reformed Missal of Paul VI, that is, the conciliar form normally celebrated in the vernacular, is “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” This reverses Pope Benedict’s classification of two “forms” of one Roman Rite: one “ordinary” (conciliar) and one “extraordinary” (pre-conciliar). The implications of this decisive papal claim about the nature of the liturgy are worked out concretely in the provisions that follow.

Writing as a church historian, historically and descriptively, I want to show that Pope Francis’s motu proprio is only superficially about the liturgy. It is not about Latin, as Robert Mickens and others have rightly stated. The “issue under the issues” is Vatican II.[2] If the lex orandi (law of prayer) is the lex credendi (law of belief), as the venerable old adage goes, then we should not be surprised that just beneath the surface of this liturgical decree lays the real concern of Francis’s striking intervention: the legacy of the Second Vatican Council and the contested lex credendi of the Catholic Church. Much more than a decree regulating liturgy, Traditionis Custodes is a decisive moment in the history of papal reception of Vatican II.

No single English word encapsulates the concept I am trying to convey, but thankfully the Germans have a word for everything. I believe Pope Francis’ motu proprio is the latest in a long series of papal assertions of Deutungshoheit over the legacy of Vatican II. Literally “interpretation-sovereignty,” to have Deutungshoheit means to have sovereignty over a narrative, which is the power to control meaning. Pope Francis’s many and virulent critics (my fellow Americans are especially numerous and sometimes vicious in this regard) typically see dangerous innovation and glaring discontinuities littered throughout his pontificate.

They cite everything from the provisions on receiving communion in Amoris Laetitia to the changed teaching on the death penalty to airplane interviews about gay Catholics. Whatever discontinuities are present in the Francis pontificate, I think we should actually see a document like Traditionis Custodes primarily in continuity with an established preoccupation of the postconciliar popes: controlling the narrative about Vatican II. In fact, controlling or attempting to control the reception, interpretation, and implementation ecumenical councils is a pivotal way (perhaps the pivotal way) in which the early modern and modern papacy has asserted its supremacy within the Catholic Church. Francis’s “bombshellmotu proprio should be seen in this long line of papal attempts to maintain Deutungshoheit vis-à-vis ecumenical councils. These assertions of interpretation-sovereignty stretch back at least six centuries from Vatican II and Vatican I (1870) to the councils of Trent (1545–63) and Constance (1414–18).

Pinpointing the “Issues Under the Issues”: Four Basic Reactions to Traditionis Custodes

For most Catholics, even most devout practicing Catholics, the news from the Vatican on July 16 changed nothing about their day-to-day life. But for attendees of the preconciliar Mass and their sympathizers, as well as for those of us highly engaged with Church life for personal or professional reasons, that Friday morning initiated a blizzard of news, analysis, predictions, and hot takes. Reactions to Traditionis Custodes have been rapid-fire, ranging from quick crash courses on the history of the Roman Rite, to summaries of the post-Vatican II liturgy wars, to exhaustive parsing of the text, to canonical analysis, to raw and bitter cris de coeur.

For the sake of convenience, permit me to map the many diverse reactions, pro and con, under four basic headings. Supporters of Traditionis Custodes have generally either (1) “celebrated” the pope’s move, or (2) accepted it as a “sad necessity.” Opponents of the pope’s legislation have typically adopted postures I call (3) “mourn and move on” or (4) “reject and resist.” In addition to the words of the pope himself, these diverse reactions can help us dig deeper into the “issue under the issues”—the legacy and interpretation of Vatican II.

The first reaction, that of celebration, can be seen in headlines like the National Catholic Reporter’s, which gloated that the pope “pull[ed] off” the Latin Mass “Band-Aid.” Those celebrating Francis’s move praise him for “unifying the Roman Rite” and reversing Benedict’s mistake. The second posture, one of “sad necessity,” was bluntly expressed by an important ecclesial figure, Archbishop Augustine DiNoia OP. By no means a spirit-of-Vatican II progressive, DiNoia bemoaned that an anti-conciliar “TLM movement” had “gotten totally out of control” especially in the USA, England, and France (incredibly, though the USA is home to only 6% of the world’s Catholics, it hosts almost 40% of the locations which celebrate the pre-conciliar Mass worldwide).

This “movement,” which never should have been a movement, has “hijacked” Summorum Pontificum, in DiNoia’s words, and betrayed the goodwill extended by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. DiNoia’s stern evaluation of a “TLM movement” that he believes de facto rejects the Council are revealing: “The TLM movement promotes the rejection of that which the liturgical movement sought above all: active participation of the faithful in the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of Christ.” Against this “TLM movement” which erroneously claims that they offer “the true liturgy for the true church,” DiNoia sees Pope Francis’ legislation as protecting the legacy of Vatican II and the liturgical movement of the twentieth century. That movement:

Was recognized at Vatican II as the work of the Holy Spirit and became the basis for a massive overhaul of the liturgical life of the church . . . Pope Francis is right to see in the repristination of the pre-conciliar liturgy at best a form of nostalgic dalliance with the old liturgy and at worst a perverse resistance to the renewal inspired by the Holy Spirit and solemnly confirmed in the teaching of an ecumenical council.

Quite clearly, for DiNoia, a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog organization) under each of the last three popes, Francis’ motu proprio is more about protecting the legacy of Vatican II than about liturgy per se.

A number of prominent social media personalities, especially American, have advocated my fourth position, to “reject and resist” the pope. This is not the first such call, for many of them. Cardinal Burke, probably the most senior Catholic prelate who promotes the preconciliar Mass, has publicly challenged Pope Francis, appearing to assert that the Successor of Peter does not have the right to enact this liturgical legislation, a rather dubious assertion especially in light of Cardinal Burke’s sterling ultramontane credentials during the last two pontificates.

Many of those troubled by the motu proprio, however, are taking a posture of mourning, but moving on and hoping for a better future—whether that entails hoping that traditionalist Catholics will act as a liturgical and theological leaven in their new “Novus Ordo” communities, or hoping a future Pope Pius XIII or Benedict XVII reverses Francis’s reversal. A friend of mine referred to this possible dynamic as a motu rodeo. Some are noting, quite rightly, that a pope with universal jurisdiction, as proclaimed at Vatican I, cuts both ways, and that what is given by one Supreme Pontiff can be taken away by the next. As Adam DeVille incisively put it, “a papacy big enough to fulfill your wishes can also destroy them.”

For other attendees of the pre-conciliar liturgy and their supporters, the pope’s legislation is an “atom bomb” that threatens to annihilate much more than a preferred form of worship. Many traditionalist Catholics see this liturgical bomb exploding with some very dangerous theological and ecclesio-political shrapnel. Normally North American or European, they see the curtailing or elimination of the pre-conciliar liturgy as a threat to carefully curated socio-cultural traditionalist havens (parishes, schools, social networks, online communities), where the putative rot of “modernity” or “the culture” and the errors or even heresies rampant in the post-conciliar Catholic Church can be held at bay, ideally to be eventually reversed.

Pope Francis and most of the bishops are, to put it mildly, not generally seen as protagonists among these communities and networks. There is real danger that the pope’s actions will push such communities, either due to manufactured martyr-complexes, a genuine sense of alienation and betrayal, or a combination of the two, into more adversarial and combative stances vis-à-vis the rest of the church, the pope, and Vatican II. There are quite strong and troubling precedents for such a possibility in the papacy’s (mis-)handling of the Jansenist crisis with heavy-handed documents like Unigenitus.

Pope Francis on the Link Between Pre-Conciliar Liturgy and Anti-Conciliar Theology

Pope Francis has judged whatever risks are present to be worth taking. His own words, in a very revealing cover letter that accompanied the motu proprio, make crystal clear what he believes is at stake. First, he judges that the “opportunity offered” by Benedict XVI in liberalized permission to say the pre-conciliar Mass has been “exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”

This is not a theological judgment but a historical one, which Francis implies is backed up by the survey of the world episcopacy conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Presumably it is also the opinion of some of his closest advisors. The nature of this “peril” is not the existence of different liturgical forms and languages, calendars, or traditions—the various “rites” are accepted and celebrated in contemporary Catholicism. Rather, the “peril” that Pope Francis sees is in the cover that the pre-conciliar Mass provides for a theological rejection of Vatican II:

I am nonetheless saddened that the instrumental use of [the pre-conciliar Mass] is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the “true Church.”

The pope then cites Dei Verbum §8, the seminal Vatican II text on doctrinal development.[3] This passage was principally authored by the ressourcement theologian Yves Congar, himself deeply influenced by St. John Henry Newman’s (1801–90) theory of doctrinal development.[4] The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, one of the key figures behind Vatican II’s massive shift in teaching on religious liberty and Church-state relations, rightly pointed to development of doctrine as the “issue under the issues” at Vatican II.[5] John O’Malley summarizes the nature of this debate at Vatican II as one over “the circumstances under which change in the Church is appropriate and the arguments with which it can be justified.”[6]

Pope Benedict’s often misunderstood “hermeneutic of reform,” which he laid out brilliantly in a 2005 speech, was an attempt to explain the presence of obvious discontinuities amongst a greater and deeper continuity in Church teaching (he spoke of Vatican II reform as “continuity and discontinuity on different levels”). Whatever else it is, we should see Traditionis Custodes as a decisive contribution by Pope Francis to the continued debate not just over Vatican II specifically, but over a broader postconciliar Catholic debate regarding the nature of doctrinal development.

Especially germane for an institution that exercises plenitudo potestatis is the connection between changes in teaching and discipline and the papal and conciliar authorities that authorize them. It is thus critically important to note that Francis links rejection of Vatican II (whether de facto or explicit) to a broader rejection of doctrinal development and, crucially, of the conciliar and papal authorities under which such developments are formally sanctioned. To doubt such a process and the authorities who sanction it, according to Francis, is in fact to doubt the Holy Spirit:

A recent stage of this dynamic was constituted by Vatican Council II where the Catholic episcopate came together to listen and to discern the path for the Church indicated by the Holy Spirit. To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner cum Petro et sub Petro[7] in an ecumenical council,[8] and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.

These are weighty words, with implications far beyond the immediate reception of discrete doctrinal or disciplinary ideas in the text of Vatican II. For Francis, the Council did something holistic: it discerned “the [not “a”] path for the Church” that the Holy Spirit was indicating. From this conception, the interminable debates in some quarters over the precise doctrinal weight of Nostra Aetate or Dignitatis Humanae are missing the point. Pope Francis is also, rather explicitly, defending the postconciliar papacy in general, which has tied its own authority ever more tightly and irrevocably to the legacy of Vatican II. This is one of the most important developments in modern Catholicism, and a fact not without irony given the long history of tension between pope and council. The canonizations of the pope who called the council (John XXIII), who led the implementation of it (Paul VI), and who celebrated and defended it throughout his long pontificate (John Paul II) are merely ornaments of a strategy and agenda that the modern papacy has deeply internalized.[9]

This trajectory was not inevitable, even after the First Vatican Council linked the conciliar process to ultramontanism through the ironic act of a council voting for papal infallibility and jurisdictional supremacy. Nevertheless, there is a certain logic to the modern papacy linking its own authority so tightly to Vatican II as it seeks to govern a global Church that is incredibly diverse culturally, politically, and theologically. Indeed, though the Council was undoubtedly papally-centered, it was also global and had a kind of quasi-representative element through the world episcopate.

Following from this defense of the postconciliar papacy in general, I think Francis is also implicitly seeking to defend his own magisterial legacy: from Amoris Laetitia’s liberalization of norms regarding the reception of Holy Communion, to the death penalty change, to what might be the most significant act of his entire pontificate in Traditionis Custodes. The accent in the block quote above, then, should be placed on cum Petro et sub Petro. In granting the permissions in Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict very clearly wished to sever the link between pre-conciliar liturgy and anti-conciliar theology, a problem no one can doubt he takes gravely seriously. Francis has now judged that project a failure, and Traditionis Custodes implies the incongruity of clinging to pre-conciliar liturgy while accepting conciliar theology.

The Continuities of Papal Deutungshoheit

The debates sparked by Traditionis Custodes, like the document itself, are at the messy boundary of pastoral prudence, historical judgments, and theological commitments. Some of the statements in Pope Francis’s motu proprio might seem shocking to Catholics who came of age during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, when the pre-conciliar Mass recovered so much ground, especially in certain Catholic enclaves. I was a high school senior when Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, and the distinction between an “extraordinary” and “ordinary” form was soon a talking point in most of the US and UK Catholic circles I have travelled in. The official line from clergy was usually that they were equally valid and equally encouraged, but often in devout circles there was a clear preference for “the traditional Mass” (or “the real Mass” as several of my graduate school colleagues called it) as a kind of inner sanctum of holiness and unadulterated tradition, even among those who did not impugn Vatican II or the postconciliar popes. 

We should recall, however, that Francis is in many ways returning to the policy and rhetoric of Paul VI (pope from 1963–1978), who reigned during the final three sessions of the Council, and oversaw the first long phase of conciliar implementation. When the philosopher Jean Guitton asked Pope Paul why he did not grant the use of the preconciliar Mass to SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers, the pope replied:

Never. This Mass . . . becomes the symbol of the condemnation of the council. I will not accept, under any circumstances, the condemnation of the council through a symbol. Should this exception to the liturgy of Vatican II have its way, the entire council would be shaken. And, as a consequence, the apostolic authority of the council would be shaken.[10]

Just as I highlighted Francis’s evocation of the adage cum Petro et sub Petro, I think the key to understanding Pope Paul’s statement here lies in his concern that “apostolic authority” not be “shaken.” Lefebvre’s resistance was a direct challenge to the pope, and Paul VI feared that the pre-conciliar Mass had become or would become a shibboleth for the rejection not just of the authority of Vatican II, but that of the popes who sanctioned it.

Pope Francis’s break with Summorum Pontificum, then, should not be interpreted as an act of stark discontinuity, but as a return in many ways to a prior state of affairs. There is precedent for such papal action long before Paul VI and Vatican II. For example, Pius IX’s suppression of Gallican liturgies in the mid-nineteenth-century lead up to Vatican I[11] was about papal supremacy and ultramontane theology much more than about liturgy.

I have also argued that Pope Francis’s motu proprio is continuous with a consistent papal preoccupation with asserting Deutungshoheit over the interpretation, implementation, and legacy of ecumenical councils. In the case of Vatican II there is a further layer of irony beyond the combative history of Catholic conciliarism. Many of the Vatican II reforms that Traditionis Custodes sees itself as defendingvernacular proclamation of scripture and prayers, active liturgical participation of the faithful, modernizing (or primitivist) liturgical forms—were once concerns strongly associated with enemies of papalism like Jansenists and certain Gallicans and Catholic Enlightenment figures. The memory of anti-ultramontane Catholic reformers like Scipione de’ Ricci (1741–1810) is now even more complicated. A longue durée approach to doctrinal development must revisit and account for moments in church history like Ricci’s Synod of Pistoia (1786), an event which anticipated so much of Vatican II reform, and which Archbishop Viganò and other extreme traditionalists often evoke in rebuke of the Council and postconciliar Catholicism.        

Conclusion: Guardians of Tradition

Francis’s motu proprio—indeed, his entire pontificate—is inexplicable without taking into account his understanding of doctrinal development. There is an integral connection, I would suggest, between Traditionis Custodes and a number of other acts of Francis’s pontificate, including Amoris Laetitia and the death penalty amendment. Appeals to doctrinal development—initially baptized as, among other things, ultramontane weapons against Jansenists and Gallicans[12]—are now being employed explicitly by the papacy not only in retroactive defense of the council but as a vanguard in justification of new teachings or reforms.

If Traditionis Custodes is a rebuke of the wild conspiracy theories of an Archbishop Viganò and the anti-Vatican II polemics of an Archbishop Schneider, it is also a fairly clear rejection of the rigid and static view of “continuity” espoused by figures like Cardinal Burke. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Burke, probably the most senior ecclesiastical advocate for the pre-conciliar Mass, also denies Francis’s authority to amend the catechism regarding the death penalty and to teach what Francis has clarified he is in fact teaching in Amoris Laetitia.

The eponymous “guardians of tradition” are the bishops of the Catholic Church, charged with executing the pope’s motu proprio. If my analysis is correct, however, it would be more germane to conceive of the Traditionis Custodes as the postconciliar popes. They have so tightly linked their own authority, theology, and ecclesio-political agenda to Vatican II that loyalty to the papacy and loyalty to Vatican II have become, for all intents and purposes, inseparable.

[1] Discussing the two forms of the liturgy in question can be complex, wordy, and can carry ideological baggage. In this article, I will refer to the “conciliar” liturgy (Missal of Paul VI) and the “pre-conciliar” liturgy (Missal of John XXIII), in keeping with my thesis that the issue for Pope Francis is Vatican II. Referring to a “Latin Mass” is not helpful, since the conciliar liturgy can be celebrated in Latin, and in fact is sometimes done so by Pope Francis. The language of Pope Benedict XVI in Summorum Pontificum (“ordinary” and “extraordinary” forms of the one Roman Rite) is no longer germane. The essential background is that the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) initiated a reform of the “Roman Rite” (the form in which Roman Catholics celebrate Mass) a process fully implemented with the publication of the Missal of Pope Paul VI in 1970. The “Traditional Latin Mass” refers to Mass celebrated according to the Missal of John XXIII, published in 1962. This Missal is in strong continuity with the Missal of St. Pius V, promulgated in 1570, which was a codification and streamlining of the Roman Rite after the counter-Reformation Council of Trent (1545–63). It was not, however, used universally by Roman Catholics, though ultramontane centralization in the nineteenth century eliminated some of this diversity.

[2]  On the “issues under the issues” at Vatican II, see the important overview of John O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), esp. 8–12 and 298–313. O’Malley uses this phrase to illuminate the subtext of a number of debates. The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, one of the chief architects of the Council’s teaching on religious liberty, used it in discussion of tensions over doctrinal development specifically (8).

[3] On this point Francis writes that “the path of the Church must be seen within the dynamic of Tradition ‘which originates from the Apostles and progresses in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit’ (Dei Verbum §8).”

[4] See Andrew Meszaros, “‘Haec Traditio proficit’: Congar's Reception of Newman in Dei Verbum, Section 8,” New Blackfriars 92 (2011): 247–54. On Newman and doctrinal development see the classic Owen Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman (Cambridge, 1957) and the recent corrective from C. Michael Shea, Newman's Early Roman Catholic Legacy, 1845–1854 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[5] O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, 8.

[6] Ibid. 

[7] “With Peter and under Peter”; that is, the pope.

[8] Francis here footnotes Lumen gentium §23.

[9] The last millennium has seen only seven popes canonized as saints, and four of these died after 1900 (the three cited above, and Pius X).

[10] Cited in Massimo Faggioli, True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), 150.

[11] See Austin Gough, Paris and Rome: The Gallican Church and the Ultramontane Campaign, 1848–1853 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018) 73–79; 92–94.

[12] See the magisterial account of Bruno Neveu, L'erreur et son juge. Remarques sur les censures doctrinales à l'époque moderne (Naples: Bibliopolis, 1993). The more mature nineteenth-century theories were anticipated in the eighteenth century by figures like the Italian Scotist Ignazio Como, who appealed to an inchoate theory of development in his debate with Lodovico Muratori on the Immaculate Conception in the 1740s. See Pietro Stella, Il giansenismo in Italia, vol. 2: Il movimento giansenista e la produzione libraria (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2006), 294.

Featured Image: Photo by Servus Tuus Traditional Latin Mass celebrated by a priest of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Zagreb, Croatia, taken on 2 April 2017; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Shaun Blanchard

Shaun Blanchard is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies. He is the author of The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform and co-author of a forthcoming Oxford Very Short Introduction to Vatican II.

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