The Vatican directives aiming to effectively eliminate the widespread celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass requires the cooperation of bishops and priests (Pope Francis’ Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes and “Responses to doubts” of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments). The Vatican action is the equivalent of spiritual capital punishment. It not only willfully marginalizes faithful Catholics devoted to the Extraordinary Form (EF), but it also places a wedge between the celebration of the Mass and segments of Sacred Tradition by eliminating the complementarity of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms.
Of course, the Pope and the bishops have a right to regulate the celebration of the Sacraments. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Summorum Pontificum: “It is therefore permitted to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal, which was promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated [emphasis added], as an extraordinary form of the Church’s Liturgy.” The assertion was unexpected and provocative. Benedict’s legendary orthodox theological expertise and precision endows it with great weight.
Whether the Church has the authority to suppress an entire liturgical form (and whether Pope Benedict holds this view) is open for discussion. Since the sacred liturgy is an indispensable vehicle of Sacred Tradition, a presumed right to suppress an entire form seems far from certain. Few would deny that the post-conciliar Novus Ordo represents a significant repackaging of the Mass (and other rituals). Benedict was keenly aware of this sorrowful legacy and the ensuing liturgical ruptures from tradition. He attempted to heal them by urging “organic growth from existing liturgical forms” and “reform of the reform” — directing attention to the legacy of the Extraordinary Form. Summorum Pontificum is authoritative primarily because it removes any ambiguity associated with claims that the Church suppressed the EF.
The prayers of the EF and its widespread celebration preserve the Deposit of the Faith — lex orandi, lex credendi. Its continued celebration accentuates Pope Benedict’s maxim of “organic growth from existing forms.” The prayers of the Mass of innumerable saints preserve what Catholics believe. It’s not surprising that the doctrinal chaos that followed the Second Vatican Council correlates to the liturgical upheavals at the same time. Liturgical ambiguity and uncertainty has doctrinal effects. Poor liturgical translations – effectively remedied by Liturgiam authenticam – added to the confusion.
Obedience to Vatican decrees is the default response of a faithful priest. He is bound in conscience to obey just directives from ecclesiastical authorities. Obedience also binds Church authorities to Sacred Tradition and the moral law. Church authorities may reasonably regulate and tweak the celebration of the Mass. (An example of the gradual development of the Roman Canon – a beautiful homestead of Catholic prayers – was Pope John XXIII’s 1962 insertion of Saint Joseph into its litany of saints.) But bishops have no right to deny the faithful the sacraments.
The decision of the hierarchy to shut down all public Masses during the pandemic seems to illustrate the supreme power of bishops regulating the celebration of the sacraments. However, an increasing number of priests now reject, in good conscience, the exercise of that presumed authority because it deprives the faithful of their right to the sacraments. Many priests – and perhaps bishops – will consider repetition of a forced Mass shut down a grave injustice. (The sense of the Faith doesn’t need academic credentials.) Hence, disobedience to unjust directives may indeed express a priest’s obedience to the Church.
In an opinion piece in The Catholic Thing, Father Gerald Murray highlights the mean-spiritedness of the Vatican’s directives. Father Murray demonstrates that the mandates are cruel and incoherent. The reasons invoked for effectively suppressing the EF smear the reputations of the clergy and laity devoted to the EF. But most of those who participate in the Extraordinary Form do so peacefully, reverently, and with orthodox faith.
These liturgical directives could provide the foundation of future mandates hostile to traditional Church teaching. The (alas, expected) aggressive suppression of the EF by gay-friendly bishops has already begun. But the same bishops are more likely to overlook Novus Ordo liturgical abuse. Many bishops – particularly in Germany – propose “blessing” so-called LGBTQ unions (so far, with impunity). With the support of prominent prelates, Vatican approval of “synodal” same-sex blessings is no longer beyond the pale.
Hence, the new Vatican liturgical directives dislodge extensive swaths of the heritage of orthodox worship from Sacred Tradition and open the door to immoral innovations. So priests and bishops may face a crisis of conscience. With hindsight informed by the pontificate of Benedict, they may conclude they cannot cooperate with the attack on the sacred without sin.
Strategies may vary. There are reports of unresolved canonical questions. Honest and direct conversation is the stuff of authentic dialog. But habitual vindictive proclivities punish good-faith dialog. Hence, simply ignoring the problematic directives may be the better course. A bishop could craft a completely unintelligible policy governing the EF (like the USCCB holy day regulations) that concludes with, “When in doubt, the first rule of pastoral charity is the salvation of souls” (cf. c. 1752).
The Pope famously disdains “doctors of the law.” He tolerates divergent responses to Amoris Laetitia (and refuses to answer the Dubia). He frequently warns us of the danger of “rigidity.” These patterns suggest his teachings and directives do not bind in conscience or practice, and he doesn’t care. Perhaps the new directives are non-binding “discussion documents.” Who are we to judge?
Possibly, ecclesiastical authorities will treat the celebration of the Extraordinary Form like the myriad liturgical innovations and atrocities (remember “Clown Masses”?) that comprise ongoing post-conciliar liturgical chaos. If so, maybe priests openly celebrating the Old Mass have nothing to fear.
Archbishop Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, while imprisoned by the Communists, secretly celebrated Mass using the palm of his hand as a chalice and ciborium, violating most of the Church’s liturgical legislation. Nobody, except Communists, would object to his heroic devotion to the Mass. Under the tyranny of unjust Vatican decrees (or are they merely suggestions?), perhaps priests and bishops could similarly justify, in conscience, furtive celebrations of the old Mass to avoid vindictive censure.
In the months and years ahead, the moral analysis of rejecting Vatican directives canceling the widespread celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is worthy of robust debate, adjudication, and repeated appeals for clarification – or just neglect, hoping for healing in time – although that seems unlikely without pushback. But a detailed examination of the binding relationship of the Sacred Liturgy to the Church’s Sacred Tradition is long overdue.
In the meantime, Vatican officials should apologize for their cruel and unusual punishment of faithful Catholics devoted to the Latin Mass of the Extraordinary Form.
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