Pope Francis became the first pontiff in centuries to announce a new crusade, two weeks ago — this one on the traditional Latin Mass.
In response, unofficial reports from 127 dioceses worldwide suggest only 15 have complied by shutting down the Latin Mass and only nine have partially suppressed it. The remainder are allowing it to continue, at least for the moment. The numbers from the United States alone are even more striking: Of the 64 dioceses reporting, only three have partially suppressed the Latin Mass.
Pope Francis’s new motu proprio, ironically entitled Traditionis Custodes (“Guardians of Tradition”), effectively reverses Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio encouraging the traditional Latin Mass throughout the Catholic world. To justify this reversal, Pope Francis claimed his predecessor’s support for the Latin Mass “was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church.”
In other words, traditional Catholics, with their belief in two millennia of church teaching, were interfering with the church’s new mission to be as “inclusive” as possible through the Novus ordo mass established as a result of the Second Vatican Council.
This announcement, arguably the most important statement of Francis’s pontificate to date, has made little splash outside of Catholic media circles. On the surface, this is not surprising. The corporate news establishment has little appreciation or understanding of religion in general, let alone a church that (despite its internal divisions) stubbornly resists most of the leftist canon.
Yet the omission is glaring given the glowing coverage Pope Francis has received since his election to the throne of St. Peter and the fact that he is targeting those whom the corporate media view as the Catholic faith’s worst of the worst.
A Media Darling
After Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation in early 2013, Jorge Bergoglio’s election to the Holy See was treated by many, Catholic and otherwise, as a “new beginning” for the church. He was the first pope to come from the Western Hemisphere, a sign that the institution was shedding its Euro-centric past.
Bergoglio’s choice of papal name evoked images of the “everyman” of Assisi, a welcome change from the forbidding doctrinal rigor of his immediate predecessors. Then there were Francis’s efforts to display humility, by refusing to wear some of the more opulent apparel of his office and choosing to reside in the Casa Santa Marta rather than the Apostolic Palace.
Here, many people thought, was a pope who could finally drag the church into the 21st century by altering its doctrines to fit modern sensibilities, especially on sex, gender, and marriage. Those doctrinal changes have not come to pass, but hope springs eternal. After the initial euphoria of Pope Francis’s election wore off, the corporate media continued to provide him with positive coverage whenever their ideological bent allowed.
Nowhere was this more obvious than when he said “Who am I to judge?” in regard to homosexuality. Of course, they had to take the pope’s words out of context, but the media could squint hard and read between the lines: if he was given just a little more time (and a little more positive press), Francis would transform the Catholic Church into something that even the most hardened leftist could appreciate.
An Inconvenient Document
Traditionis Custodes and the papal letter accompanying it torpedo the media-crafted image of Francis as a gentle and tolerant shepherd. Much has already been written about the vague approach of the motu proprio. But what stands out most clearly is the high-handed nature of the letter explaining the reasons behind its promulgation.
Pope Francis claims that celebration of the traditional Latin Mass “is often characterized by a rejection … of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’”
While it is true that a relatively small number of “toxic trads” reject Vatican II completely (and many more traditional Catholics question its wisdom and impact), Francis simply lumps all such people together into a single, dangerous group. He makes no effort to explain why these “assertions” are “unfounded and unsustainable,” nor does he explain why a questionnaire given to the bishops about the Latin Mass “persuade[d] him of the need to intervene.”
Pope Francis’s authoritarian approach to this issue not only disparages Latin Mass communities, but also disenfranchises the bishops who guide them. Bishops will now have to ask permission from Rome before allowing any new priest to celebrate the Latin Mass.
What’s more, the new regulations “enter[ed] immediately into force,” giving bishops virtually no time to understand them, let alone explain them to confused and upset communities. This “top-down” tactic marks an abrupt turnaround for a pope who just weeks before encouraged the concept of synodality (dialogue and consensus between clergy and laity in decision-making) in a letter to German bishops, many of whom have been actively courting schism.
Pastoral charity surely requires that such a radical reversal of a previous pope’s policy on the traditional Latin Mass (especially while that pope is still living) be explained to those directly affected by the change. To date, Pope Francis has not done so, nor is there any sign he will do so in the future.
The Fruits of Tradition
Christ taught the apostles that bad trees do not bear good fruit (Luke 6:43-45). The bizarre nature of Francis’s policy shift becomes even more apparent when you consider the fruits of the Latin Mass among the faithful.
At a time regular Mass attendance among Catholics in the United States is at an all-time low, Latin Mass communities are thriving, particularly among people between 18 and 39. While two-thirds of American Catholics admit to not believing in basic church doctrines, Latin Mass attendees are far better educated in their faith.
It will be interesting to see if and how the corporate media chooses to spin Pope Francis’s efforts to force the Latin Mass into the catacombs. Luckily for the Roman Catholic Church, many of the bishops seem to understand the spiritual value of the traditional Latin Mass (though this may change in the weeks ahead). All faithful Catholics, especially we “red-headed stepchildren” who attend the Latin Mass, should pray these bishops continue to bestow more pastoral wisdom and care on their flocks than the current “servant of the servants of God” has.