Like many of the faithful who love the Traditional Catholic Liturgy, we have received the Apostolic Letter ‘Traditionis Custodes‘ of 16 July 2021 with great sadness and dismay, and – affirming our unconditional loyalty to the teaching of the Church and to the successor of St. Peter – we would like to give our reaction to and thoughts on this new development.
It is not only the harshness of the restrictions that the letter imposes on the celebration of the Ancient Liturgy – which are perceived by many as quite merciless – that is astonishing; even more astonishing are the reasons given for this step. In his accompanying letter to the bishops, published with the Motu Proprio, the Holy Father describes the measures he has decided to take as ‘necessary to preserve the unity of the Church‘, since he is concerned about the “close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church’”.
First of all, it should be noted that this wording (indicating that traditional Catholics see themselves as the “true Church”) is not at all common – and would, in fact, be considered highly unusual – among the Catholics who attend the Tridentine Mass; this can easily be verified by a look at the extensive literature published on the Tridentine Mass in recent years, and at the numerous tradition-friendly online blogs. Nor does the underlying attitude implied by such a choice of words exist in the traditional groups within the Church. There are no writings, sermons or other types of publications by the Society of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, the Institute of the Good Shepherd or any other traditional priestly communities, traditional monasteries, diocesan groups or lay movements such as Una Voce that indicate such an attitude. Any such thing would, in any case, have been discovered and dealt with very quickly under the current pontificate.
Another source of discomfort for us in the Letter is the underlying tenor that John Paul II and Benedict XVI misjudged the consequences of their actions when giving permission to celebrate the Old Liturgy – that their naive generosity was maliciously abused “to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division”.
We are not aware of any actual situations that could have given rise to such a grievance – in fact, such conclusions are more likely to apply to the situation created by the so-called ‘Synodal Path‘ in Germany, a development that unfortunately seems to encounter very little opposition under the current pontificate. Pope Benedict XVI, far from having made naive concessions to allegedly divisive supporters of the Old Mass, even explicitly addressed this argument in the letter accompanying his own motu proprio, ‘Summorum Pontificum‘: “In the second place, the fear was expressed in discussions about the awaited Motu Proprio that the possibility of a wider use of the 1962 Missal would lead to disarray or even divisions within parish communities. This fear also strikes me as quite unfounded.“
As far as the actual text of the Apostolic Letter is concerned, the first aspect to strike the reader is the number of glaring contradictions with regard to Summorum Pontificum. While Art 1 of the latter states that “[t]he Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V and revised by Blessed John XXIII is nonetheless to be considered an extraordinary expression of the same lex orandi of the Church”, Traditionis Custodes, in its Art 1, calls the New Rite “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite”.
It seems to us that the goals behind the two Apostolic Letters could not be more different, either. If Benedict XVI wanted to give unhindered access to the Old Mass to all priests and all the faithful – precisely for the purpose of preventing division – the accompanying letter to Traditionis Custodes states unequivocally that tradition-oriented Catholics “need to return in due time to the Roman Rite promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II“. In his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI stated: “It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew”.
The requirement for an authorisation by the bishop according to Articles 2, 4 and 5 of the new Motu Proprio (Benedict XVI, probably because he was aware that many diocesan bishops had adopted a rather cautious stance towards the Tridentine Mass, deliberately omitted such a requirement), the prohibition of celebrating the Tridentine Mass in parish churches (Art. 3 para. 2), the order to use only churches or chapels expressly designated by the bishop for this purpose, and then only at the times specified by the bishop (para. 3), and the prohibition of setting up “new groups” contained in para. 6, unfortunately appear to indicate an intention to let the Old Rite “die out“ in the long term.
A theological and canon law-based assessment of these differences should be carried out by the real experts; H. E. Cardinal Burke, H. E. Cardinal Müller and H. Ex. Auxiliary Bishop Schneider have already put out their first statements on this matter. As cathechised and confirmed members of the Mystical Body of Christ, however, we too want to express our grief and disappointment regarding these recent developments. As Catholics loyal to Tradition, we respectfully reject the accusations of being divisive and ask – in full submission to the Magisterium of the Holy Father – for the spiritual treasure of the Tridentine Liturgy, which for so many young and old people is at the heart of their religious life, to be made available again to those who yearn for it, without obstacles.