Pope Francis’ Last Stand

Book Review: From Benedict’s Peace to Francis’s War: Catholics Respond to the Motu Proprio ‘Traditionis Custodes’ on the Latin Mass. ed. Peter A. Kwasniewski. Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press. 2021. 406 pp. $22.95.

Four-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a piece here on Medium entitled, “About Those Young, ‘Rigid’, Traditional Catholics”. I wrote that piece, in part, due to the increase of verbal invectives thrown against those who worship at the traditional Latin Mass. That piece was written for an educated, yet unaware, audience. My goal was to introduce to Catholics and non-Catholics alike various intra-Church issues which highlight the divide between the “traditionalists” and the progressives, mostly concerning the forms of Roman Catholic worship, but also hinting towards questions of doctrine and praxis. I stand by everything I wrote in that piece, but given current circumstances, it is important to develop a point within it — namely, Pope Francis’ opposition to the traditional Latin Mass and to those who attend it.

That 2017 piece mentioned Pope Francis’ comments about ‘rigidity’, a label he had occasionally slapped on the backs of those who love the Latin Mass:

A simple search of the official Vatican website reveals five hundred results where Pope Francis is recorded using the word “rigid” or “rigidity” in speeches or writings. “Rigid”, in some ways, is the perfect word to describe this pontificate — at least in its attitude toward most traditionalist Catholics. For as much as Francis warns against rigidity, he himself embodies it. After all, how flexible and lenient can someone be who cannot tolerate diversity in Catholic worship? How tolerant and understanding can someone be who does not seek to “accompany” those worship in an ancient rite, or who thinks “unity” means stark uniformity? “Rigid” is the buzzword of buzzwords for our Servant of the Servants of God. But it is not simply a word — it is an ideology, a modus operandi, a perceived enemy that must be vanquished at all costs. “Rigid”, in Francis-speak, refers to anything from those who seek to restore those spiritual treasures which Church in contemporary times has thrown away, to those who “conserve traditions” or can even refer to a person who observes any of the Ten Commandments.

Of course, the Holy Father rarely implies that the “rigid” are the progressive Catholics who insist on inserting their creativity and personality into liturgical celebrations. Neither does Pope Francis suggest that rigidity was the impetus behind those generations of Catholic priests who removed altar rails and discouraged the Rosary. No, rigidity almost always refers to traditionalist Catholics or even their conservative counterparts, those who believe Vatican II and its nefarious ‘spirit’ went too far, and who think things like objective truth, traditional morals, and old catechisms are actually good. Perhaps the pope of parrhesia would do well to sit and listen to those Catholics whom he often maligns. Fortunately, a recent book edited by a prominent traditionalist Catholic author provides such an opportunity.

Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski, defender of traditional Catholicism

Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski is a well-known name in traditionalist Catholic circles. I myself first discovered his work several years ago on blogs like New Liturgical Movement and Rorate Caeli. In recent years, he has transitioned from being a full-time college professor of philosophy, theology, and music to dedicating his life to the promotion of traditional Catholicism. In 2021, following Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (which set severe limits on the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass), Dr. Kwasniewski collected a number of responses to the document, edited them, and published them as a series of essays in one volume. The contributors are a diverse cast — they include cardinals, bishops, priests, monks and nuns, laymen and women, philosophers, theologians, bloggers, newspaper editorialists, journalists, novelists, and even an Australian barrister! Contributors hail from nearly every continent, and their perspectives on the document range anywhere from reserved acceptance to outright, passionate rejection.

The book is structured by a preface, a prelude (those essays preceding Traditionis Custodes), the responses (67 in total), and a “Letter of the Faithful Attached to the Traditional Mass to Catholics of the Whole World.” By and far, the bulk of the book focuses on Pope Francis’ document: what it says, how it connects to current issues in the Church, the accuracy or inaccuracies of Francis’ claims, and so on. It would be a mistake to think that this book is redundant, as contributors examine the motu proprio from a variety of angles. Some are more popular and journalistic in style; others are academic, focused, and precise. While a summary of each essay is beyond this piece’s intent, allow me to highlight a few major points made by several of the included authors.

1. “Traditionis Custodes” is a messy, contradictory, and clumsy document

For those unaware or who have not yet read the motu proprio, here is the gist. In 2020, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — the Vatican office responsible for preserving orthodox doctrine — sent out a questionnaire to the world’s bishops, asking them to reflect upon the traditional Latin Mass. In the questionnaire, the bishops were asked to define their current situation (is it even being offered?), does it correspond to a “true pastoral need”, are there “positive or negative aspects” concerning its presence in the diocese, its effect on seminarians and clergy, and so on. The results of the questionnaire were never disclosed to the Church faithful, but instead were sent to the CDF, who brought them to the Holy Father. According to Francis, the responses “[revealed] a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene.” He states that his predecessors in the papacy, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, gradually allowed the celebration of the Latin Mass with good intentions, to bring back those who were separated from the Church because of their opposition to the new form of worship. But according to Francis, instead of promoting ecclesial communion, the traditional Latin Mass was “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.”

Let us pause here for a moment. First, regarding the questionnaire, it should be stated that, without access to the actual survey results, we simply do not know what the responses were. Catholics are thus required to take Pope Francis’ word that the responses were predominantly negative. However, this seems to be contradicted by reports of the participating bishops themselves, whose responses were said to be more or less favorable to the presence of the Latin Mass, even if some had limited reservations. Moreover, there is also the issue of a “second report” being prepared for the pope by a small committee even before all of the original responses were received. Given that roughly 1/3 of the world’s bishops were said to have responded to the questionnaire, it would seem that the conclusions were written before true “synodality” and “discernment” could take place. And, if Francis is truly concerned about a Church “closed in on herself”, would it not be appropriate for the pope to be open about the survey’s results?

Aside from the dubious summary of the questionnaire, Pope Francis’ argument in Traditionis Custodes is muddled by its misreading of history. First, at the beginning of the document, Francis states,

In order to promote the concord and unity of the Church, with paternal solicitude towards those who in any region adhere to liturgical forms antecedent to the reform willed by the Vatican Council II, my Venerable Predecessors, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, granted and regulated the faculty to use the Roman Missal edited by John XXIII in 1962.

At first glance, this sentence seems unproblematic. It is true that Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI allowed for the use of the 1962 Roman Missal, commonly known today as the “traditional Latin Mass,” and did so to provide spiritual care to those who desired the old rite. But it is disingenuous to imply that the “reform willed by the Vatican Council II” is identical with the Novus Ordo Missae. Several bishops and scholars have pointed out the divergences of the NOM with Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. It bears repeating this once again — Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Novus Ordo are not logically connected as from point A to point B, but instead are tangentially related by selective bits without reference to the whole.

But it is in his accompanying letter to Traditionis Custodes where Francis’ clumsiness rivals a raging bull in a china shop. He once again claims that the allowance of the traditional Latin Mass by John Paul II and Benedict XVI “was above all motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the schism with the movement of Mons. Lefebvre.” For those who are unaware, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was a French bishop, missionary, and staunch defender of the traditional Catholic faith, who was eventually excommunicated in 1988 for consecrating bishops without papal approval. Francis believes that his predecessors allowed celebration of the Latin Mass to heal the rift between the Vatican and those attached to the old rite. And, while that certainly may have played a part, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were open to the Latin Mass’ celebration by virtue of its dignity and spiritual benefit to the faithful. Those who assume permission was given to celebrate the old rite only to heal a particular rift would do well to listen to Pope Benedict himself in an interview with Peter Seewald:

Benedict XVI: I have always said, and even still say, that it was important that something which was previously the most sacred thing in the Church to people should not suddenly be completely forbidden. A society that considers now to be forbidden what it once perceived as the central core — that cannot be. The inner identity it has with the other must remain visible. So for me it was not about tactical matters and God knows what, but about the inward reconciliation of the Church with itself.

Peter Seewald: The reauthorization of the Tridentine Mass is often interpreted primarily as a concession to the Society of Saint Pius X.

Benedict XVI: This is just absolutely false! It was important for me that the Church is one with herself inwardly, with her own past; that what was previously holy to her is not somehow wrong now. (Last Testament, 2016, pp. 201–202.)

For the sake of time, I am limited to giving just one more example of historical inaccuracy. In one of the most bizarre and confusing passages of the motu proprio, Pope Francis states,

I take comfort in this decision from the fact that, after the Council of Trent, St. Pius V also abrogated all the rites that could not claim a proven antiquity, establishing for the whole Latin Church a single Missale Romanum.

Here, Francis claims that his action of suppressing the traditional Latin Mass is parallel to that of Pope Pius V, who abrogated rites himself. Of course, anyone with a basic grasp of history will know that this is a hilariously false comparison. Pope Pius V abrogated all the rites that could not prove their existence surpassed 200 years; in other words, Pope Pius V was at pains to preserve the ancient rite in light of novel competitors. In contrast, Francis is anxious to suppress the ancient rite to defend one that has not existed for sixty years!

  • Thankfully, Kwasniewski’s volume has several chapters which expound on the absurdity of Traditionis Custodes’ thin grasp of history and its lack of argumentative rigor: Christophe Geffroy’s “An Incomplete Argument and False Information,” (26–30), Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke’s “The Wonderful Gift of the Usus Antiquior” (114–120), Cardinal Walter Brandmüller’s “A Law Must Be Accepted to Be Valid” (205–207). Those interested in comparisons between Pius V and Francis’ approaches would benefit from Fr. John Hunwicke’s chapter, “Illuminating Comparisons: Pius V, John XXIII, Paul VI, and Francis” (155–159) and Dom Alcuin Reid’s “Does Traditionis Custodes Pass Liturgical History 101?” (252–259).

2. “Traditionis Custodes” is an ideological manifesto divorced from reality

It is honestly surprising, at least to me, how a pope whose brand has been associated with “mercy”, “dialogue”, and “accompaniment” completely lacks these three qualities when confronted with Catholics attached to the Latin Mass. During his pontificate, Francis has resisted labeling the LGBTQ community in any derogatory manner, and has repeatedly warned against judging those who are living in an objectively disordered lifestyle (which according to Catholic teaching, would include adulterers, people undergoing gender reassignment surgery, couples who contracept, etc.) Pope Francis has made it clear that the Church is a “big tent”, where all are welcome… well, except for Latin Mass attendees.

In one of his homilies, Francis stated that, “If we want to go on Jesus’ path, more than accusers, we must be defenders of others before the Father”. The man who judges “isn’t imitating Jesus, who always defends before the Father: he’s a defence lawyer”. Such a man “is an imitator of the prince of this world, who always goes against people to accuse them before the Father”. In the past, the Holy Father has condemned what we calls the “adjective culture”, in which “gossipers are not interested (in the person). They quickly seek to put a label to get them out of the way. The adjective culture belittles the person.” The pope of human fraternity also recently tweeted the following:

So, given the above, it is indeed perplexing how Francis approaches Latin Mass attendees. Does he recognize their deep and heartfelt yearning for the sacred, as did Pope Benedict XVI? Does he show pastoral solicitude for Catholics who feel that the Novus Ordo stripped away much of what made Catholic worship so beautiful, as did Pope John Paul II? Does he give traditional Catholics the benefit of the doubt? If he does, it is not to be found in Traditionis Custodes. He states that worshipers at the Latin Mass have “exploited” ”the traditional liturgy 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.” He implies that the vast majority of attendees can be “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.’”

Aside from a few outspoken, formal schismatics, it is unclear who these accusations refer to. Certainly, they do not characterize the vast majority of Catholics worshiping God during the Latin Mass, many of whom are young adults and families with several children. If it is unfair to judge those Catholics who tirelessly worked to remove chant, incense, and traditional art forms in Catholic parishes following Vatican II, then why are traditional Catholics considered fair game? Cannot the hippie iconoclasts who shoved folk music and liturgical puppets also be accused of “rejecting the liturgical reform”, Vatican II, and suggesting that they represent the “true Church”? As Joseph Shaw writes, “Could someone please tell Pope Francis that people who reject the Church and her institutions don’t come to Masses celebrated in union with the Pope, which take place with the permission of the local bishop?” (306) And, as Michael Brendan Dougherty points out, “The majority of priests who say the traditional Latin Mass are now diocesan priests, serving ordinary parishes. They almost all say the new liturgy, which is precisely the thing that Pope Francis deems proof of adherence to the Church.” (84)

Clearly, the Petrine shepherd who reminds his clergy to have the “smell of the sheep” has not sniffed around any Latin Mass communities in recent years. Something else is behind his unpastoral, angry, and cruel decree. The Dutch Bishop Rob Mutsaerts asserts,

  • Chapters in the volume which address the ideology behind Traditionis Custodes includes: Pietro de Marco’s “Let Not the Past or the Present Get in the Way of the Future” (22–25), Sebastian Morello’s “Revolution and Repudiation: Governance Gone Awry” (94–99), Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s “Lapides Clamabunt” (190–204), Fr. Martin Grichting’s “The Faithful of the ‘Extraordinary Form’ Are the Symptom, Not the Disease” (216–218), and Fr. Michael Fiedrowicz’s “They Do Not Even Know What Has Been Taken From Them” (357–361),

3. Traditionis Custodes reveals a deficient understanding of the papacy and ecclesial communion

Perhaps the greatest issue with Traditionis Custodes has to do with its vision of papal authority and its relationship to the liturgy. Admittedly, this was at the forefront of my mind following the document’s publication. My first comments on the motu proprio were concerned with its consequence for papal control over the liturgy. Is the liturgy a garden given to the Church, and the pope its gardener? Or is the liturgy a creative workshop where the pope and others employed by him can do whatever they want to it, and doing so is tolerable simply because he’s the pope? Our gut reaction seems to recoil at this second perspective, but it nonetheless remains a possibility that has, at times, found itself to be a reality in the twentieth century. After all, if the pope has the plenitudo potestatis (the fullness of power) in the Church, what is stopping him from changing the words of consecration or the elements of bread and wine used for the Eucharistic sacrifice?

We already mentioned Francis’ citing of Pius V and the latter’s own acts of abrogation. In the case of Pius V, as previously shown, he fulfilled the task of the gardener. In an effort to codify and unify the already-existing, traditional Roman Rite, he ordered relatively newer rites to cease, as a gardener would tend and till the garden so to protect it against weeds and invasive species. Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum also took a more humble approach to the papacy vis-à-vis the sacred liturgy. His oft-quoted passage, that “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” can only be understood from the perspective that the traditions of the Church are not created by the pope, but are preserved and cared for by him. Pope Francis’ claim that the Novus Ordo is the “unique” (or better translated as “only”) “expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite,” is a puzzling statement. The pope cannot determine the Church’s law of prayer by mere diktat. The Church’s law of prayer exists independently of any papal decision.

Some of the most interesting essays from Kwasniewski’s volume are on this exact topic. Fr. John Hunwicke’s brief reflection on the difference between papal imperium (command) and auctoritas (recognized influence and prestige) is good on this point. “Previously, what every celebrant had said daily at every altar of the Roman Rite throughout the world for centuries obviously had enormous auctoritas. A novel formula which has just been put on some menu from which choices are to be made, manifestly has very much less.” (33) Leila Miller (“There Can Be No ‘Unity’ through the Rejection of Tradition”), Cardinal Gerhard Müller (“Distinguishing Unity from Uniformity”), Tomasz Dekert (“Competing Concepts of Unity”) and Rubén Peretó Rivas (Tradition Devoured by the Magisterium”) all stand out as good pieces which situate the papacy, communion, and liturgy in a healthy relationship.

One last note, and this is something I will write more about another time. The concept of “ecclesial communion” has been weaponized and misused so often that it risks losing its meaning. In seeking to preserve the Church’s unity, Pope Francis actually jeopardizes it. How can the Novus Ordo unite the Roman Church when its celebration vastly differs from place to place? How does a liturgy which lends itself to never-ending “options” unite? A few weeks ago, when addressing Orthodox priests and monks, Pope Francis emphasized that unity is “a gift… harmony… [and] a journey.” As the Holy Father states, “Unity is not uniformity, much less the fruit of compromise or fragile diplomatic balances of power. Unity is harmony in the diversity of the charisms bestowed by the Spirit.” One wonders how the traditional Latin Mass contradicts this unity, and how unity can be achieved by ham-fisting the exclusivity of a reform that does not authentically reflect Vatican II. It ironic that Pope Francis remarks that “[unity] is not a plan to be devised or a project to be worked out around a table,” while simultaneously creating programmatic liturgical re-education camps and forbidding the Latin Mass times to be published in parish bulletins. He has ostracized many faithful Catholics by lumping them in together with a generalized list of accusations and insults. How is it that German bishops who assert that they will “bless” same-sex unions, in defiance of the pope, are somehow not threats to ecclesial communion, but a person who worships in a 1,600 year-old liturgy is?

Conclusion

Theodore Fuchs’ interpretation of the Battle of Little Big Horn (1876)

Francis’ opposition to the traditional Latin Mass can also be understood as his last stand. Like Lt. Col. George A. Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Francis has declared war against a marginalized group who simply wants to protect their precious patrimony and birthright. At first blush, it seems like an easy victory. After all, the pope is the most powerful man in the Church, and most of the hierarchy either supports his animosity against the “trads”, or are simply too afraid to defend them against papal wrath. Custer viewed the Native Americans as primitive and incapable of resisting the strength of the modern American army. Similarly, Pope Francis sees traditionalist Catholics as “indietrists” (quite literally, “growth-retardants”). Traditional Catholics are constantly reminded of their inferiority in size and numbers. If they will not abandon their old ways, such Catholics will face the consequence of worshiping in an old form. Already, we are seeing the euthanizing of entire communities and churches.

Of course, those with a vague familiarity with American history knows why the Battle of Little Bighorn is oftentimes called “Custer’s Last Stand”. Blinded by arrogance and intoxicated with pride, Custer vastly underestimated the strength, will, and resolve of his opponents. Pope Francis is waging war not only on the traditional Roman Rite, but also those faithful Catholics — men, women, children, young and old — who attend it. Kwasniewski’s volume captures several reactions to his attack, and the diversity of contributors along with their variety of arguments will serve as a historical snapshot of Francis’ ill-fated war against the traditional Latin Mass — which will probably be known also as his own “last stand”.

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John Monaco

Doctoral student in theology, seeking the true, good, and beautiful.