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A new Vatican move against the Latin Mass—with or without canonical authority

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 10, 2023

Since Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes, restricting the use of the traditional Latin Mass, some bishops have issued dispensations, allowing their priests to continue using the Tridentine liturgy. Now Cardinal Arthur Roche, the prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship, has ruled that bishops do not have the authority to grant those dispensations. But now a new question arises: Does Cardinal Roche have the authority to make that ruling?

In January, Cardinal Roche wrote to an American bishop, telling him that he must ask for permission from the Vatican before granting a dispensation for his priests to celebrate the traditional liturgy. (I have obtained a copy of the cardinal’s letter, and of the American bishop’s letter informing his priests of the Vatican judgment. But the letters are redacted so that I do not know the bishop’s name or his diocese; I am told it is in California.)

J.D. Flynn of The Pillar, who holds a doctorate in canon law, has written a fine piece on this matter, which I commend to your attention. Although he does not offer a clear-cut conclusion, he does note: “Canon law says that laws which restrict the rights of bishops must be delineated explicitly, and the papal motu proprio does not address the prospect of dispensations at all.”

A bishop is responsible for the liturgical practices in his own diocese. In a January letter to an American bishop, Cardinal Roche underlines that point, claiming that in Traditionis Custodes the Pope “restored to the diocesan Bishops their competency as the guardians and promoters of the liturgical life of that part of the Church entrusted to their care.”

Of course a diocesan bishop cannot ignore the liturgical rules of the universal Church. But he can offer dispensations from Church law, when he judges that by doing so he will serve the welfare of the Church in his diocese. A number of American bishops have made that judgment regarding the use of the traditional liturgy.

The letter of the law

In the Code of Canon Law, #87 affirms the diocesan bishop’s authority to give dispensations—and also sets the limit for that authority. So Canon 87 is the key text here. It reads:

Whenever he judges that it contributes to the spiritual welfare, the diocesan Bishop can dispense the faithful from disciplinary laws, both universal laws and the particular laws made by the supreme ecclesiastical authority for his territory or his subjects. He cannot dispense from procedural laws or from penal laws, nor from those whose dispensation is specially reserved to the Apostolic See or to some other authority.

Cardinal Roche argues that in Traditionis Custodes, the right to grant dispensations is reserved to the Holy See. Thus the bishop cannot grant dispensations without Vatican permission. There’s just one problem with that argument: Nowhere does the motu proprio say that the Holy See reserves the sole authority to grant dispensations. In fact, in his letter to the American bishop, Cardinal Roche acknowledges that “it is for the Bishops to regulate the use of the antecedent Liturgy within their dioceses.”

So how does the cardinal reach the conclusion that the bishop cannot issue dispensations? He cites another passage of Traditionis Custodes, which gives his dicastery the right to “exercise the authority of the Holy See with respect to the observance of these provisions.”

Well, yes; the Dicastery for Divine Worship is authorize to exercise the authority of the Holy See. But that begs the crucial question: What is the authority of the Holy See, as it relates to the diocesan bishops? Cardinal Roche is claiming more authority than the written law affords him. In the most insightful passage of his analysis in The Pillar, Flynn writes:

In the years since Traditionis Custodes was promulgated, Roche has seemed to some Vatican-watchers to gamble, one roll of the dice at a time, on the notion that as long as the Dicastery for Divine Worship is aiming for a robust interpretation of the pope’s liturgical reform, it can also centralize liturgical authority to itself, far beyond the dictates of canon law, and with very little resistance or correction.

Legislating without law

Exactly. The American bishop who received that letter from Cardinal Roche, instructing him to seek permission for the dispensations he has already issued, could make a strong claim that the cardinal has exceeded his canonical authority. But ultimately that claim would be settled by the Pope, or by someone anticipating the Pope’s wishes. So as long as the cardinal has the Pope’s support, his bid for greater control will succeed. Certainly the cardinal is confident of the Pope’s support. He reminds the American bishop that Pope Francis not only issued the motu proprio but also approved the very strict guidelines for its implementation, issued by his (Roche’s) dicastery. So “there can be no doubt about his wishes in this regard.”

The bishop, too, recognizes the reality of the situation. He has written to his priests, telling them that he will need detailed reasons for granted dispensations, to be forwarded to Rome for approval. Morever, he anticipates that Cardinal Roche and his dicastery will continue to tighten the screws.

While I am convinced that the dispensation will be granted, I am equally convinced that it will be granted only for a limited period of time and that it very probably will not be renewable.

In this latest Vatican move to suppress the traditional Latin Mass, we see a repetition of a pattern that has characterized this pontificate:

  • Pope Francis issues a statement (in this case, a canonical ruling) that leaves key questions unanswered;
  • The Pope’s subordinates answer those questions, in ways that go beyond what the Pontiff actually said—always to the benefit of liberal interpreters;
  • By his silent acquiescence, the Pope effectively ratifies the more liberal interpretations, without ever quite taking those stands himself.

Particularly in recent months, Pope Francis has spoken frequently about the need to decentralize Church authority, to listen to the voices of the faithful, to empower diocesan bishops, to develop a “synodal” style of governance. But there is no decentralization, no listening, no synodal style—and now certainly no desire to empower diocesan bishops—in his campaign to suppress the traditional Mass.

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: dcnmthompson7484 - Feb. 15, 2023 9:09 PM ET USA

    Sad. Just sad. It seems like there is a war being waged from within and the target is the life of the Church itself.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Feb. 14, 2023 9:58 PM ET USA

    Let's see:: what office could a cardinal be aiming for?

  • Posted by: B. Hammer - Feb. 11, 2023 9:39 PM ET USA

    Randal, I couldn’t help but think the very same thing. I don’t get it. Was the rubrics of the mass, prior to Vatican II, so damaging for souls that it must be banned forever? The mass can be said in every language but Latin?

  • Posted by: edward.caron2084 - Feb. 11, 2023 9:26 PM ET USA

    Three Catholic Churches within a 2 mile radius closed in the past 20 years in Nashua. St Stanislaus reopened 6 years ago with the Traditional Latin Rites and is thriving. Thirteen hundred families, weekly offerings of $14,000 and numerous young, large families. The respect for the True Presence is amazing. Our home parish, despite an inspiring new pastor, is struggling to regain its parishioners, especially young families. And the Vatican wants to close the Latin Rite. St.Peter must be weeping.

  • Posted by: Gramps - Feb. 11, 2023 7:15 PM ET USA

    Right on! Roche has overstepped his authority and needs to be challenged.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 11, 2023 6:28 AM ET USA

    A church-state alliance? The Vatican and the FBI: both targeting "traditional" Catholics for extinction. Pope Francis' words have consequences.