The release of a new document from the Vatican has ignited controversy and further inflamed tensions within the Catholic Church since its publication on Saturday.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments released its “Responsa ad dubia” (Answers to Doubts) in relation to Pope Francis’s Apostolic Letter “Traditionis Custodes” (Guardians of Tradition).
The Responsa document answers eleven questions concerning the application of the controversial Apostolic Letter issued last July, which had introduced new restrictions on the celebration of the Latin Mass. This week’s document featured Rome’s official intentions with regards to the future of Traditionis Custodes, and has generally been interpreted as signalling an intensification in the campaign to restrict the older form of the liturgy.
The July regulations returned the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) to a status similar to that enjoyed under Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict had granted extensive freedom to celebrate the TLM with his 2007 Summorum Pontificum, which contributed to a considerable growth in Traditional Catholicism worldwide.
Traditionis Custodes abrogated the 2007 decision however, and revived the requirement for priests to obtain permission from their bishops in order to conduct the TLM. It forbade the establishment of new personal parishes dedicated to the TLM, and introduced a requirement for bishops to obtain permission from Rome prior to granting Latin Mass faculties to priests.
Given the fact that many bishops are openly hostile towards the TLM, traditionalists greeted the decision with frustration. The implementation of the letter has been quite slow and varied, as the regulations grant extensive power to individual bishops to make decisions on the matter. The recently published responses give an important insight into the manner in which the Vatican intends to implement Traditionis Custodes in the future. The new document makes clear the extent to which Rome is committed to suppressing the traditional Mass and its growth.
The general tone contained in these responses interprets the new regulations quite severely. TLM Masses are not to be permitted in conventional parishes, and must take place in churches specifically dedicated to the TLM. The Responsa permits the use of parish churches temporarily if a dedicated TLM centre is not available. Bizarrely, such Masses may not be advertised on the parish schedules. The Responsa goes on to make further clarifications.
The administering of the sacraments of Confirmation and Ordination according to the old form is also forbidden. TLM priests who refuse to concelebrate a Novus Ordo Mass when ordered to will have their Latin Mass permissions revoked. Priests are forbidden to celebrate more than one TLM a day, or to celebrate both the TLM and a Novus Ordo Mass on the same day.
Priests and Deacons wishing to celebrate the TLM will have to obtain permission from their bishop to do so. The bishop in question will have to obtain clearance directly from Rome beforehand.
The document thus makes clear the hostility on the part of the Vatican establishment towards the TLM. The changes constitute a concerted effort to suppress the growth of the old rite, which has been experiencing an increase in popularity for some time.
The document describes the traditional mass as a “concession”, one which “is not part of the ordinary life of the parish community.” Although both the Traditionis Custodes and Responsa texts reference a need to restore unity to the Church, the current measures seem likely to worsen tensions within Catholicism worldwide. Archbishop Arthur Roche’s preface to the Responsa states that “every prescribed norm has always the sole purpose of preserving the gift of ecclesial communion”.
Nonetheless, an aggressive enforcement of Traditionis Custodes seems destined to dramatically increase the sense of alienation felt by many traditionalists, and push many towards the Society of Saint Pius X.
Controversy over the type of mass celebrated in churches may seem excessive to outside observers, however it is important to note that the respective forms of the mass possess significant differences in form aside from language. Furthermore, they have each come to represent vastly differing ideological and theological wings within the Church.
Traditionalists argue that the aggression shown by the current papacy and curia towards the mass celebrated by the Church throughout Catholic history (in various though similar forms) is irrational and unfair. Heavy-handed suppression of the TLM appears in many ways as a last ditch effort by an elderly generation of liberal clerics to secure their legacy. With younger laity and priests increasingly turning to traditionalism, a final attempt is being made to secure the liberalising efforts of Vatican II.
Although recent rumours of Francis’ impending death proved inaccurate, the 85 year-old is not getting any younger. His increasingly aggressive stance on traditional Catholics may be rooted in the desire to ensure a liberal future for the Church, something which he has dedicated his life towards. TLM attendance trends and ordination numbers for TLM orders have indicated a promising future for traditionalism, something which can hardly be claimed to exist among the Novus Ordo mainstream.
The application of Traditionis Custodes in the coming months and years seems set to be the cause of much controversy. A Vatican establishment intent on cracking down on traditionalists will find opponents of considerable tenacity in their path.
Despite the apparent severity of the restrictions, they seem unlikely to divert significant amounts of mass-goers or vocations back into the Novus Ordo mainstream. Traditionalist communities are often fervently attached to the old mass, and many may engage in non-compliance.
The degree to which bishops will be willing to enforce increased restrictions and how laity and clergy will respond remains somewhat unclear however. In the Irish context, there is reason for some optimism given how Bishops in many dioceses implemented the initial restrictions.
Groups willing to defy restrictions (such as those outside conventional jurisdiction such as the SSPX) may become refuges for devotees of traditional worship. Traditionis Custodes and its consequences will certainly feature in the annals of Church history.