Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Disaster looms if Pope Francis restricts the traditional Mass

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 02, 2021

The rumors are true. My sources in Rome—too many and too reliable to be doubted—confirm that a document is circulating at the Vatican which, if given papal approval, would significantly restrict use the “extraordinary form” of the liturgy, the traditional Latin Mass (TLM).

This document is in draft form. It could be amended. It might never be released. But it would not even be under discussion without at least tacit approval (if not active support) from Pope Francis. And if it is released in anything like its current form, it would be a pastoral and doctrinal disaster. It would thwart a powerful movement for reform in the Church, and it would—paradoxically—undermine the Pope’s own authority.

Let me explain.

In Summorum Pontificum, his apostolic letter of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI gave the Catholic faithful much wider access to the TLM. With this new document, styled as an “instruction” for the “implementation” of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Francis would in effect repudiate the work of his predecessor, and at the same time cut off the blood supply to the fastest-growing part of the universal Church.

Pope Benedict wrote Summorum Pontificum because he recognized, in the growing demand for the traditional liturgy, an authentic movement of the Holy Spirit within the Church. The desire for the TLM is not prompted by nostalgia; the overwhelming majority of people in the pews are not old enough to remember the liturgy that was universal before Vatican II. At a time when the Catholics are leaving the Church by the thousands, and young people especially are deserting the faith, traditionalist parishes are seeing explosive growth, marked in particular by an influx of young families.

So why would any Catholic prelate, intent on evangelization, want to interfere with the growth of traditional Catholicism? Why mess with success? Could it be because the obvious pastoral health of the traditionalist communities makes for an unpleasant contrast with the failures of the rapidly shrinking parishes in the Catholic mainstream? As I observed just a few weeks ago, it is revealing “that the one liturgical option liberal Catholics cannot abide is the option for the ancient liturgy.”

In Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict declared that any priest has the right to celebrate the traditional liturgy, without requiring an “indult” or special permission from his bishop. The draft document would reportedly rescind that permission. To be perfectly honest, in practice this change would not have too much impact on the availability of the TLM, because any prudent diocesan priest already knows that if he displeases the bishop by offering the TLM without his approval, he will likely suffer reprisals. In that way, contrary to the spirit of Summorum Pontificum, many bishops have continued to smother the demand for the traditional liturgy.

However, the requirement of episcopal approval (which is only one of several new restrictions being proposed) would have a very significant effect in another way. In Summorum Pontificum Pope Benedict also made it clear that—contrary to a widespread impression—the TLM had never been abrogated. “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,” Pope Benedict explained.

Clearly, if Pope Francis now effectively forbids the celebration of the TLM, and/or says that the traditional liturgy is harmful—or gives diocesan bishops the power to do so—then he is directly contradicting his predecessor. And if Pope Francis can contradict the teaching of Pope Benedict, what is to prevent a future Pontiff from contradicting Pope Francis? Anyone who is genuinely interested in preserving papal authority (as opposed to gaining a temporary advantage in intramural debates) should recognize the mischief this draft document could cause.

Ironically, the Catholic leaders who are lobbying for a heavy-handed use of papal power in this instance have spent the past several generations railing against the invocation of papal authority in other cases—including the case of Summorum Pontificum. But the rightful authority of the Roman Pontiff is severely limited. He can only proclaim the truths passed down in the Catholic Tradition. If he contradicts the teaching of previous Pontiffs—if he suggests that what was once sacred is sacred no longer—he attacks the base on which his own authority rests.

This draft document, then, represents not just a problem for traditionalists, but a grave danger for the Church. It should be vigorously resisted by anyone who cares about the mission of evangelization, the integrity of doctrine, and the preservation of papal authority.

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.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jun. 09, 2021 1:58 PM ET USA

    You’re right, of course, that for Francis to contradict Summorum Pontificum would logically undermine his own authority. Trouble is, most people don’t think very logically, and are happy to attack authority when they dislike its direction, then reverse themselves and appeal to authority when it changes its aims to align with theirs.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jun. 04, 2021 6:10 PM ET USA

    Keep it up, Pope Francis, and you can check my dust at the church door. My patience is running out.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 03, 2021 2:38 PM ET USA

    It will be an interesting challenge if Pope Francis stays true to form and continues to disrupt the continuity instituted by the rule (i.e., letter) of Vatican II. Even so, there have been moves underway to circumvent the liberalism of many in the Church hierarchy. For example, locally a pastor has implemented Latin and ad orientem at every Sunday Mass. Given that Pope Benedict's translation of the Roman Canon in the ordinary form aligns with the 1962 Roman missal, disruption could be minimized.

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Jun. 03, 2021 12:48 PM ET USA

    Why the skepticism that Pope Francis would contradict his predecessor? He has already done so. Amoris Laetitia is a contradiction of Familiaris Consortio. Sure, we were told that AL wasn't *really* a contradiction and that it had to be read in line with tradition. But Pope Francis himself endorsed an interpretation of AL that leaves no room for such congruity. Clearly, then, he is concerned neither with breaking from tradition nor with contradicting previous popes.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Jun. 03, 2021 11:18 AM ET USA

    On its face, a restriction like this appears to be nothing but petty, and so we ask ourselves, why? Taken together with the more than strong reluctance on the part of how many bishops to correct on Eucharistic reception, and the blatant acceptance of homosexual behavior, even to the point of the persistence of homosexual parishes by how many bishops, can't we justifiably conclude the smoke of satan within the priesthood? Your last two books have together a tour de force, Philip, for the faithful

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 02, 2021 9:53 PM ET USA

    This could also become for some the straw that broke the camel's back and lead to schism, especially if the recent blessing of sodomy by Germany's bishops is not properly condemned. I know personally two practicing Catholic families who have migrated to SSPX after the 2014-2015 "Synod on the Family."