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Traditionis Custodes: a needless extension of papal power

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 17, 2022

Even by its own logic, Traditionis Custodes is an unnecessary use of papal power—and another illustration that despite all his talk about decentralization and synodality, Pope Francis has frequently overstepped the bounds of his own proper authority.

Restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass were necessary, the Pontiff argued, because the traditionalist movement had become a source of division within the Church. He said that when the Vatican surveyed bishops about the use of the traditional liturgy, the responses confirmed the divisions.

We have not seen the results of that Vatican survey, of course, so we cannot gauge the depth of concern among the world’s bishops. True, after the promulgation of Traditionis Custodes, several bishops confirmed that they were uneasy about the traditionalist movement. Then again, a number of bishops reported that they had no problems with the trads in their own dioceses.

Granted, some Catholics who attend the traditional liturgy find that they are no longer satisfied with the Novus Ordo, and grow alienated from their parishes. (I wonder: if a drinker who samples fine craft beers loses his taste for Budweiser, is that an argument against craft beer?) Then again, many Catholics who regularly attend the Novus Ordo liturgy also become unsatisfied, and drift away from the Catholic Church altogether. Surely the ongoing departure of countless thousands from the faith is a more grievous sort of division than the formation of little traditionalist enclaves.

But I digress. Let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that some traditionalists really have been divisive, causing problems for their local Catholic communities. If that has been the case, then the local bishops have always had the authority—indeed the duty—to intervene, to correct the situation. The diocesan bishop can remove a pastor, close a parish, or even ask a religious order to leave. No doubt such disciplinary action would prompt canonical appeals, but can anyone doubt that in the end, the Vatican would back the bishop’s decision?

For any bishops who saw traditionalists undermining the unity of the faithful, the solution was always close at hand. So why did Pope Francis, who so often speaks of decentralizing the Church’s decision-making process, seize on this alleged problem as a reason for Roman intervention?

And why did this Pope, who exhorts bishops to “accompany” those who are estranged from the Church, close off an effort to “accompany” traditionalists? With Traditionis Custodes—and even more pointedly with the subsequent responsa ad dubia from the Congregation of Divine Worship—the Vatican ordered bishops to take one particular approach to the “problem” of traditionalism, and to seek permission from Rome for exemptions from that approach.

Nor is this a consistent application of Vatican authority. Bishops are not required to ask (or in any case do not ask) for Vatican permission before allowing other variations from the approved liturgical forms (the Clown Mass, the ‘70s Mass, etc). In the German-speaking world, especially, Catholics now regularly see liturgical celebrations that bear little resemblance to the Novus Ordo.

The rush toward a crackdown on the traditional liturgy—regardless of whether or not diocesan bishops want it—is obviously not a “synodal” initiative. For Pope Francis, the suppression of the ancient liturgy is a priority, and throughout this pontificate he has never hesitated to act decisively on his own priorities.

Traditionis Custodes was issued in the form of a motu proprio—a term that can be translated literally as “by his own motion,” or more smoothly, “on his own initiative.” In a perceptive post on his Crux site, John Allen remarks that the motu proprio is “the purest use of papal authority possible.” It is revealing, then, Allen continues, that the motu proprio has been a favorite instrument for Pope Francis:

He’s now issued this kind of edict 47 times in less than nine years in office; by way of contrast, Pope John Paul II issued just 30 motu proprio across the almost 27 years of his own reign. That’s an average of more than 5 motu proprio per year for Francis, and right at one a year for John Paul.

Allen made that comment after the Pope released another motu proprio—his second of the week—shifting some powers away from the Vatican, to be vested in diocesan bishops and episcopal conferences. Was this a move toward the decentralization that the Pope often touts? Don’t count on it. The administrative powers covered in this latest papal legislation were limited and specialized: the authority to establish inter-diocesan seminaries, to publish regional catechisms, to regulate the satisfaction of Mass stipends. And notice that in making these changes, the Pope did not consult with the world’s bishops; he presented them with the new rules as a fait accompli. When Pope Francis wants something done, forget the rhetoric about synodality; he does it himself.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: petew1977 - Feb. 20, 2022 3:05 PM ET USA

    Jesus commissioned His followers to evangelize, sanctify and teach (Mt 28:19-20). He did not specify how. The how (Practice) has changed over the centuries. The teaching has not. The Church's doctrine has not changed. It has developed, but not changed. The so-called Novus Ordo is derived from the second century liturgy, Easter rite liturgies date back to the third and fourth centuries. How traditional is a sixteenth century liturgy? Catechesis is the key to the Church's revitalization.