In Traditionis custodes, his recent apostolic letter on the traditional Latin Mass, Pope Francis repudiates his predecessor’s recognition that the Roman liturgy exists in two forms, the ordinary (the 1970 Mass of Pope St. Paul VI) and the extraordinary (the 1962 Mass of Pope St. John XXIII) [art. 1]. He announces that pastors and individual priests no longer may celebrate the extraordinary form freely, but rather now must obtain (or confirm) the permission of their diocesan bishops [arts. 4 & 5]. Moreover, with few exceptions, these celebrations no longer may take place in parish churches [art. 2]. Finally, the pontiff forbids diocesan bishops to authorize the establishment of any new groups devoted to the traditional Mass [art. 6].
In an explanatory letter, Pope Francis provides his reasons. Those reasons are rooted in the responses to a 2020 questionnaire that he directed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to send to diocesan bishops about their experience with the traditional Mass since Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 recognition in Summorum Pontificum that that Mass never had been abrogated.
Those responses, Francis says, reveal that his predecessors’ (Pope St. John Paul II’s and Pope Benedict XVI’s) attempts to recover unity have been disregarded and have been “exploited 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.” Moreover, he says, use of the 1962 Missal is “often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’”
A final reason for my decision is this: ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is 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’.
Reactions came quickly. Several U.S. bishops issued letters the very day that the pope’s apostolic letter appeared, either confirming permission for existing celebrations of the traditional Mass or else modifying or limiting it. Individuals and associations—either devoted to the traditional Mass or sympathetic to its adherents—issued statements of shock and disappointment. Some of these statements took issue with the charge of apparent widespread rejection of Vatican II and the promotion of division within the Church.
The style of the explanatory letter leaves some questions open. In particular, the use of the passive voice prevents the reader from knowing whether the apparent fault lies primarily with the priests or with the lay faithful. Indeed, it is not entirely clear whether the seeming problem lies with those taking advantage of the pronouncements of John Paul and Benedict, or with other societies entirely.
Pope Francis says that what is becoming “ever more plain” is a “close connection” between devotion to the traditional Mass and “the rejection of the Church and her institutions.” This no doubt is true to some degree. However, the place where this “connection” is evident is among societies such as those connected with the legacy of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that remain in an irregular situation with regard to Church authority. Is the pontiff saying that the questionnaires reveal this same attitude as also characterizing those who have availed themselves of Summorum Pontificum and who are (and, in most cases, always have been) Catholics in good standing?
The answer is not clear from the text of the explanatory letter, and a number of the faithful who have responded have said that they do not reject Vatican II and that they do not recognize this attitude among their fellow worshipers.
A partial measure to resolve these questions (and perhaps even to ease the disappointment of these faithful to some degree) may lie in Vatican II itself, namely, in the Council’s teaching on the right to information. That is, a way to promote the goals of clarification and of further actualizing the Council’s teachings would be to disclose (in some form at least) the diocesan bishops’ responses to the 2020 CDF questionnaire.
Three considerations in particular support such a step. First, Pope Francis’s Traditionis custodes represents such a profound reversal of his immediate—and still living—predecessor that it is a matter of intense public interest, both for those who welcomed the apostolic letter and for those who did not.
Second, the incongruence between, on the one hand, the charges of denying Vatican II and sowing division, and, on the other hand, the experience of those Catholics in good standing who attend Mass in the extraordinary form, suggests that it would promote justice to allow these faithful the opportunity to discover whether they may have been misunderstood or mischaracterized in their bishops’ questionnaire responses.
Finally, such a step would find support in the Second Vatican Council’s own teaching.
Inter mirifica, the Vatican II Decree on the Means of Social Communication, recognized the right to information:
There exists therefore in human society a right to information on the subjects that are of concern to men either as individuals or as members of society, according to each man’s circumstances. The proper exercise of this right demands that the content of the communication be true and—within the limits set by justice and charity—complete. [§5]
The context of this Decree was the practice of the media in general (especially the news media) and also more broadly the growing sense that the Church and individual Catholics should make increased use of the means of social communication. In 1964, Pope St. Paul VI transformed an existing commission on cinema, radio, and television into the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, and in the years following Vatican II, this Commission would develop further the Council’s teaching on the media and on the right to information.
In 1971, the Pontifical Commission issued Communio et Progressio, in which it recalled that John XXIII, Paul VI, and Vatican II all had recognized a right to information [§33]. This right is connected to man’s social nature, and it is important not only for the individual, but also for the public interest [§35]. Moreover, in 1992, the office (now a Pontifical Council) declared in Aetatis novae that this right to information applies not only in secular society, but in the Church as well:
[I]t is necessary constantly to recall the importance of the fundamental right of dialogue and information within the church, as described in Communio et Progressio, and to continue to seek effective means, including a responsible use of media of social communications, for realizing and protecting this right. [§10]
In addition, in a 2000 document on Ethics in Communication, the Pontifical Council warned against the demonization of others [§13] and—specifically in the religious context—noted the need to avoid “practicing unnecessary secrecy and otherwise offending against truth” [§18].
Pope Francis’s explanatory letter contains other reasons as well, but what lies at its heart are the reports that those devoted to the traditional Mass have rejected Vatican II and have exploited this devotion to create division and to injure the Church. These are serious charges, and the faithful should have the opportunity to learn whether there may have been errors in the questionnaire process and whether their bishops’ responses accurately have described them and their true attitudes towards the Council and towards Church authority.
How many diocesan bishops returned the questionnaires? How widespread was the sentiment that so saddened the Holy Father? Was the reporting of these sentiments and attitudes based on real familiarity with these faithful, or was it rather reflective of widespread but often mistaken assumptions about them? Do the faithful have reason to believe that they have been misunderstood, or perhaps that a stray remark from one of their members mistakenly has been taken as representing the views of their entire community?
Some diocesan bishops already have expressed appreciation for the fruits of this devotion and have announced that they will take steps to ensure that the faithful attached to it continue to receive pastoral care. If nothing prevents it, perhaps some of these bishops might consider making their own questionnaire responses public. However, given the importance of the subject and the possible threat to the reputations of these faithful, the disclosure of the questionnaire responses should be as complete as possible, and it would appear that only the CDF would be empowered to make such a disclosure.
The disappointment of these faithful on the margins likely will endure for a long time, but it may fade to some degree if they at least can verify that this measure has not been based on their bishops’ misunderstanding of them and on a misreporting of their beliefs.
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