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Cardinal Gregory and the ‘dominant’ rite

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 15, 2023

“Tradition dies a slow death, sometimes a bloody death,” said Cardinal Wilton Gregory told an audience at Catholic University earlier this month. Well, if tradition dies, so too does the authority of Cardinal Gregory.

Think about it: What authority does any bishop have, apart from the fact that he represents the sacred tradition of the Catholic Church, that he is understood to “hold and teach the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles,” that in fact he is a successor to the apostles?

The Second Vatican Council, in Dei Verbum taught that Scripture and Tradition (with a capital T) “coming from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.” Therefore Tradition and Scripture “are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”

Together these two streams of wisdom nourish the Catholic faith, and when belief in that faith declines, so does the tradition (with a small t) of respect for Catholic leadership. Even in our secularized society, and even after years of scandal, most Americans still treat Catholic prelates with at least the outward signs of respect.

When I returned to my native Boston after several years in different cities, I was struck by the fact that at public meetings, everyone would stand when the cardinal-archbishop entered the room. At times I was fully aware that many of those present had nothing but contempt for the Catholic faith and even for the cardinal personally. Still they came to their feet as a sign of respect. That deference, too, will die if the tradition is broken. It could literally be a bloody death, as the late Cardinal George predicted.

But to be fair, when he made that remark about tradition, Cardinal Gregory was not speaking of the Sacred (capital T) Tradition, nor of the local (small t) traditions, but specifically about the traditional liturgy: the Tridentine Mass, the traditional Latin Mass. He was responding to a question about how students at Catholic University should respond to their classmates who ask “why they’re not able to practice the TLM here on campus.”

In answering that question, Cardinal Gregory made the claim that when Pope Paul VI introduced the Novus Ordo, “it was his desire, his intent, to say when that generation goes, then everyone will be in the new Mass.” With Traditionis Custodes, he continued, Pope Francis “is trying to complete what Paul VI began, that is, to put one ritual—the new rite—as the dominant rite, but with exceptions, modest exceptions.”

Take careful note of the adjective the cardinal used there: the Novus Ordo is the “dominant” rite. No one disputes that dominance. The vast majority of Catholics attend the Novus Ordo; in fact only a small minority have any experience with the TLM. But does that answer the question of why the TLM cannot be celebrated on campus? (It is noteworthy in this context that Cardinal Gregory had come to Catholic University to speak about the value of diversity.)

The cardinal explained that when he came to Washington as archbishop, the TLM was available in several places: “Cardinal Hickey instituted it here in 1988 in three places, and then all of a sudden it was growing and it was in eight places. So I went back to the Hickey number…” Again Cardinal Gregory’s language is revealing. At a time when Mass attendance generally was in decline, the TLM was an exception: “all of a sudden it was growing.” Why?

Here the cardinal had an answer: “In many of the places where it grew, the Tridentine rite, it grew because priests promoted it, and not because…” And then he broke off his sentence and started again. He could not go on to say that the people didn’t want the TLM, because—Well, if nobody wanted the TLM, the question would never have been asked, Traditionis Custodes would never have been written, the whole issue would be moot.

But Cardinal Gregory offers the novel theory that the priests alone furnished the support for the TLM—that in a parish where the pastor offered the TLM, “he created the need in places where there wasn’t a need there.” It seems that the cardinal sides with those economists who believe that supply creates its own demand. But wait. No Catholic is required to attend the TLM. Would the pastors have persisted in the traditional liturgy if no one came? Would Catholic families begin traveling long distances to attend the TLM—as many still do—if “there wasn’t a need there?”

In a way—definitely not the way Cardinal Gregory suggests—maybe many priests did create a need for the TLM, by offering a Novus Ordo liturgy so banal that Catholics developed a new thirst for order and reverence.

Consider the Edsel: the brainchild of Ford executives. Rolled out with a vigorous marketing campaign, the shiny new car failed to sell. American consumers saw no need for it; they had better alternatives. The supply of Edsels did not create a demand for Edsels. Yet the demand for the TLM persists; some Catholics feel that need. To say that the Novus Ordo is “the dominant rite” is to state the obvious, not to answer the question.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 16, 2023 11:30 AM ET USA

    Funny how the more solemn denouncements of clericalism I hear, the more I see endorsement for the kiss up kick down attitude. If millions of faithful Catholics under oppressive Chinese regime were thrown to the wolves, why would other faithful Catholics expect to be treated much better? "Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." [2 Timothy 3:12] It's not the persecution, wherever it may come from, but a betrayal of Christ and His Church that is the real tragedy.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 16, 2023 10:24 AM ET USA

    Families traveling long distances? Our FSSP parish has served Catholics from Alabama, Tennessee, the Carolinas, all parts of Georgia, as well as those passing through. In 1995 the laity had to prove the need for the Tridentine Mass: a minimum of 200 every month for a year. I was told the number in attendance was typically 600. I am not sure how far the out-of-state priest had to travel to offer the monthly Mass, but whichever one came, he certainly was not a pastor or even a priest in residence.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Dec. 15, 2023 7:18 PM ET USA

    To dismiss the younger age of the Latin Mass congregation and its faithfulness to ALL Catholic teaching is reasoning of the confound.

  • Posted by: Montserrat - Dec. 15, 2023 6:33 PM ET USA

    If Phil Lawler were a bishop, he would have been swarmed with Vatican "visitators" long ago, but especially with each clear, compelling, and absolutely convincing case he makes, such as this one against a Papa Bergoglo "flagorneur," His Emminence Cardinal Gregoray.