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Traditionis Custodes: “An entire generation will now fight for the liberation of the Mass”


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Agnès Pinard Legry - published on 01/05/22

Eminent historian and Vatican specialist Christophe Dickès discusses the context and effects of the Holy See's new restrictions on the Tridentine Mass.

The confusion surrounding Traditionis Custodes did not subside after the publication of a “responsa ad dubia” on Saturday, December 18. This document, which responds to questions about the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (which aims at regulating the traditional Latin Mass), insists on a strict reading of the motu proprio, and has deeply disturbed Catholics attached to the Tridentine Mass.

Eminent historian and Vatican specialist Christophe Dickès says, “No matter how you look at it, the current pontificate has just removed the achievements of a benevolent and patient work of thirty years of the two popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”

Aleteia: Were you surprised by the publication of this “responsa ad dubia” a few days before Christmas? Is it common for clarifications to be made after the publication of a motu proprio?

Christophe Dickès: I was not surprised in principle because pontifical texts, when they are published, cannot take into account the complex reality of ecclesial life. Questions arise as they are put into practice. It is natural that Rome responds to doubts or questions. These make it necessary to clarify points, to correct or to amend. Sometimes Rome chooses not to respond to dubia, believing that the texts are sufficient in themselves: the dubia of the four cardinals regarding Amoris Laetitia in 2016 is the most emblematic case.

What was your reaction in regards to the substance of the text?

At its core, the responses of the Congregation for Divine Worship clearly display a desire to suppress the old form of the Roman Rite, demonstrated by the suppression of the sacraments (Marriage, Holy Orders, Confirmation) of the Old Rite outside personal parishes. Even the Council of Trent, which is believed to have been very harsh in matters of discipline, was not as severe in suppressing the ritual forms. Until the nineteenth century, for example, there were regional forms of the Roman Rite in France.

It is difficult not to see in this suppression a purely ideological design. No matter how you look at it, the current pontificate has just suppressed the achievements of thirty years of patient and benevolent work by the two popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Like certain media outlets, we can ask ourselves if Rome wants to engineer the death of traditionalist communities.

How is this a suppression of the achievements of the two previous pontificates?

The Ecclesia Dei Commission was created in 1988 to “facilitate full ecclesial communion” for those (priests, seminarians, religious communities) who had ties to Archbishop Lefebvre and wished to remain united with the successor of Peter. This followed an indult (Quattuor abhinc annos, 1984), i.e., an authorization for the use of the 1962 Roman missal.

As is well known, these two texts were completed—and/or replaced—in 2007 by Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Ponificum, which created two forms of the Roman rite: an Ordinary Form, that of the new Mass; and an Extraordinary Form, that of the old Mass. Benedict XVI, in a letter to the bishops, stated: “In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.  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.” Yet, in the space of two years, between 2019 and today, Pope Francis has abolished the institution created by John Paul II and has put an end to the liberalization sought by Benedict XVI. Objectively, it is difficult to see a continuity here but rather a rupture.

Do the questions raised and the answers given seem relevant to you? I am thinking in particular of the French dioceses, some of which took action a few weeks ago.

Since the publication of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, and following various talks between the bishops and the Pope, it was understood that the episcopacy was taking over from the former Roman commission Ecclesia Dei. Now, the response to dubia appears to be a return to the control of Rome which is bringing even more restrictions.

Is it not Pope Francis himself who keeps saying that we must put the spirit before the law, in the words of St. Paul?

In this regard, it is surprising that Rome is engaging in a form of legalism: is it not Pope Francis himself who keeps saying that we must put the spirit before the law, in the words of Saint Paul? Moreover, we see people who are far removed from traditionalist circles being surprised by such Roman rigidity.

Finally, the dubia raise other questions! I have personally asked canonists whether the former Ecclesia Dei communities (the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, Institute of Christ the King, etc.), which have the exclusive use of the ancient rite are affected by the prohibition of the ritual sacraments. At this moment, there does not appear to be a clear answer.

Does such a document carry the risk of fracturing the Church?

By adopting such a strict position, where there are conflicts with diocesan authorities, a whole generation that did not experience the liturgical war of the 1960s and 1970s will now fight for the liberation of the traditional Mass. Each community will naturally defend its prerogative because it sees in this decision a profound injustice. However, as the historian Guillaume Cuchet recently explained in his book Does Catholicism still have a future in France? (Le catholicisme a-t-il encore un avenir en France), the transmission of the faith continues more effectively in these communities of the faithful than elsewhere. These communities are alive and give vocations, in a world that is ultra-secularized and constantly de-Christianizing. These communities, far from being isolated from the world, recognize themselves in the observations of Pope Benedict XVI about creative minorities.

Inevitably, others will return to the Society of St. Pius X because of the goodwill that their fidelity to the Roman See has earned them. More seriously, vocations that have matured within traditionalist communities will find themselves faced with a real life choice. This is the most terrible part of this affair. When you have grown up spiritually in a universe, your future may be suspended by a Roman authorization and this one legal act could, possibly, ask you to deny your own journey in the Faith and its liturgical expression. Thus vocations may be lost or, at the very least, there will be serious crises of conscience.  

In other words, the two Roman texts of the last six months create a cluster bomb that the bishops will have to deal with in the coming months. Personally, I think that the Church, deeply tainted by the sexual abuse of minors, has other priorities and that she cannot afford the luxury of a crisis of this kind.

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