You don’t have to know the entire modern history of the traditional Latin Mass to understand what’s behind Pope Francis’s recent apostolic letter, Traditionis custodes, claiming the ancient rite threatens the unity of the Catholic Church and imposing strict new limits on its use.
All you must do to understand what’s happening now is attend a Latin Mass. There, you will see full church pews teeming with young families and couples, mewling infants and unruly toddlers, single twenty-somethings and teens. The air will be full of incense and, in some parishes, the haunting beauty of Gregorian chant.
Most of the women and girls will be in veils, most parishioners will be following along with a 1962 Roman missal and responding to the priest in Latin, kneeling or genuflecting as required. You will see, in short, a religious ritual that looks odd and shockingly out of place in modern society.
You will also see, unmistakably, the future of the Catholic Church.
How can that be? After all, only a small number of Catholics, perhaps only about 150,000 in the United States, regularly attend a Latin (Tridentine) Mass. Fewer than 700 Catholic parishes in the U.S., out of more than 17,000, even offer Latin Mass. If the Latin Mass is the future of the Catholic Church, it portends a church much diminished in size and prestige.
But it also portends a more faithful church, one more committed to the doctrines and teachings of Catholicism, and the obligations they impose. Indeed, the vast majority of Catholics in America today reject central tenets of the faith. A 2019 Pew survey found that nearly 70 percent of American Catholics reject the doctrine of transubstantiation, which says the bread and wine used in Holy Communion become, during Holy Mass, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
By contrast, polls in recent years have shown that those who regularly attend Latin Mass adhere much more closely to Catholic teaching, including on matters like abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, compared to Catholics who attend the Novus ordo rite that was established in vernacular languages in 1970, after the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
One national survey of Latin Mass attendees, conducted by Fr. Donald Kloster in 2018, found that only 2 percent approve of contraception, compared to 89 percent of Novus ordo attendees. On approval of abortion, the split was 1 percent compared to 51 percent. On gay marriage, 2 percent to 67 percent. The same survey found parishioners at Latin Mass have on average nearly 60 percent larger family sizes, donate on average five times more, and attend weekly Mass at 4.5 times the rate of Catholics who attend the Novus ordo rite.
Another survey by Kloster and others, conducted online last year, found that among adults aged 18 to 39 who attend Latin Mass, 98 percent report going every Sunday. This stands in stark contrast to the findings of a 2018 Gallup poll, which showed dramatic declines in weekly Mass attendance among all Catholics, with the sharpest decline in the 21 to 29-year-old demographic, from 73 percent in 1955 to 25 percent in 2017, the lowest of all age groups.
Even more striking, the survey by Kloster found that 90 percent of these young Catholics were not raised in the Latin rite and that the vast majority were drawn to it by forces from within their own generation, rather than by their parents. A plurality, 35 percent, cited “reverence” as what prompted them to seek out the Latin rite.
The seriousness of Catholics who attend Latin Mass confirms something then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, said in an interview in 1969, the year before the Latin Mass was effectively replaced by the Novus ordo:
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.
Benedict understood that the church was going to shrink, but that as it shrank, the remnant would be more zealous, more closely tied to Catholic teaching and doctrine than it had been before. He must have also understood that beauty and reverence in worship had an important role to play in this smaller but more faithful church.
When in 2007 Benedict gave broad permission to conduct Mass according to the old Latin rite, affirming that it had never been forbidden and that it never could be, and encouraged bishops to allow their priests to offer it wherever it was desired, he launched a movement within the church — not a schism but a revival, which now points the way forward for a church that’s still in crisis, and still shrinking. In the 14 years since, adoption of Latin Mass has grown among the Catholic faithful worldwide, attracting converts and cradle Catholics alike.
Why, then, would Francis punish those who worship according to the Latin rite? Why would he misrepresent, in brutal and authoritarian language, the motives of these Catholics? In the letter to the bishops that accompanies his motu proprio, Francis writes:
I am nonetheless saddened that the instrumental use of Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’
Now we come to the heart of the matter. Francis fears that Catholics who are drawn to the ancient rite are somehow rejecting the reforms the of Second Vatican Council. In another passage, he writes that the effort to expand the Latin rite by both Saint John Paul II and Benedict, “intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was 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.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Catholics who attend Latin Mass are by all accounts the least likely to encourage disagreements, widen gaps, or reinforce divergences in the church. They are far more likely to adhere to Catholic teaching and accept the obligations the church places on the faithful than Catholics who don’t attend Latin Mass. Indeed, they stand in stark contrast to the nearly 70 percent of American Catholics who deny transubstantiation, and the large majorities who support abortion and gay marriage, and feel no compunction to fulfill their religious obligations.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some very online Traditionalist Catholics who boast about the Latin Mass, make inflammatory claims about its superiority, and criticize Francis. But they aren’t representative of Latin Mass-goers as a whole, and the divisions they might foment are nothing compared to the divisions and indeed outright schism that bishops in Germany, for example, have been pushing throughout Francis’s pontificate, seeking to bless same-sex unions and ordain women to the priesthood. The supposed divisions caused by Traditionalists are also nothing compared to the vey real divisions that millions of ordinary Catholics incite routinely when they deny Catholic teaching, bear false witness against the church, and shirk their religious obligations.
Given all this, we have to conclude there’s some other motive, unexpressed in the pope’s motu proprio, for targeting a relatively small group of faithful Catholics who are drawn to the Latin Mass. It’s hard to get at this motive, but it’s perhaps best understood as a generational conflict.
Clerics of Francis’s generation, who came up in the reforms of Vatican II, envisioned a very different future for the church than the one that’s now emerging. They imagined a church that would give no offense, in its worship or its doctrine, to Protestants. They imagined a church that would be pliable, able to change with the times and accommodate new and different mores. The so-called “spirit of Vatican II” was to guide the church into the modern era, make her relevant and attractive to modern people, more welcoming and less severe.
What happened instead, they didn’t see coming. Modern people, it seems, do not want the kind of church that Francis and the German bishops want to give them. Many lapsed Catholics want nothing to do with the church, even a more progressive one, and have simply left it for good. Others would prefer to remain Catholic, nominally at least, but free to ignore or even disparage anything with which they might disagree or that might offend their modern sensibilities.
But a strong and stalwart remnant fervently want a church that espouses and upholds timeless and unchangeable doctrines, given physical form in ancient rituals and worship. They want a church that takes the sacraments seriously, that demands something of them, and in return gives them beauty and truth.
Among these Catholics, a growing number desire to worship according to the Latin rite. Regardless of whatever inchoate and vindictive policy emanates from Rome, their numbers, it seems, will continue to grow.
One gets the sense that this, above all, is what the pope wishes were not so. When Francis looks back over his shoulder to pass the baton to the next generation, perhaps he sees what Benedict saw in 1969: a smaller but more faithful church, young and vibrant, but much diminished in power and prestige.
Perhaps, unlike Benedict, he thought it wouldn’t turn out this way. But it has.