It’s been one week since Pope Francis issued his motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, which targets the traditional Latin Mass for eventual ecclesial extinction. The document shocked many Catholics, including public intellectuals and commentators like Samuel Gregg and George Weigel, men with no particular attraction to the traditional liturgy. Weigel, who describes himself as a “Novus Ordo man” nevertheless referred to Traditionis Custodes as “theologically incoherent, pastorally divisive, unnecessary, cruel—and a sorry example of the liberal bullying that has become all too familiar in Rome recently.” Many expressed dismay at the document’s remarkable severity and heavy-handedness, issued from the pen of a pope who routinely warns against rigidity and stresses the need for compassion, dialogue, mercy, inclusion and trips to the periphery to meet people where they are. A glaring inconsistency is evident. A pope of mercy and encounter, who has time and words of praise for Fr. James Martin, Hollywood celebrities and atheist, left-leaning journalist Eugenio Scalfari, shows little time and patience for a minority of faithful Catholics. (We’ve seen hints of this troubling behavior before. Long before Traditionis Custodes, Cardinals Burke and Zen have expressed their own dismay at the pope’s icy refusal to meet with them about important questions for the life of the Church and the state of persecuted Catholics in China.) 

Reacting to Traditionis Custodes and in reference to young Catholics drawn to the traditional liturgy, Cardinal Gerhard Müller observed that “the shepherd [Francis] hits the sheep hard with his crook.” Cardinal Joseph Zen referred to Pope Francis’s clear assault on Benedict XVI’s legacy quite starkly as a “humiliation” of the aged Benedict. It is well-known that Benedict, even as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, encouraged wider access to the traditional liturgy. He put pontifical gravitas behind this vision in 2007 with his own motu proprioSummorum Pontificum. Since this document was issued, the traditional Latin Mass has experienced a steady growth across the Catholic world. Milwaukee’s Saint Stanislaus offers the traditional liturgy and has seen remarkable growth in Mass attendance in recent years. Young Catholics in particular have flocked to parishes that offer the traditional liturgy. Benedict recognized this as a factor in his decision when he observed, “It has clearly been demonstrated that young persons, too, have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction, and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist particularly suited to them.”

In the wake of Francis’s Traditionis Custodes, many bishops have reacted with fatherly compassion. While the document has a stern, “end-of discussion, effective immediately” tone to it, most bishops around the world have applied the episcopal brakes on its implementation within their jurisdiction. While respectful in their public statements, these shepherds were clearly blindsided by Francis’s heavy-handed approach. In many dioceses, including Milwaukee and Madison, bishops have made clear that the traditional liturgy is not going anywhere. Grateful Catholics breathed a sigh of relief. One has to wonder if bishops, in addition to a genuine pastoral concern for their flocks, decided that the full implementation of Traditionis Custodes would result in an enormous headache and unleash discord within their own dioceses. Facing the likelihood of such an unnecessary local backlash, many bishops seem to be (politely) saying, “Thanks, but no thanks” to Francis.

One of the overarching thrusts of Traditionis Custodes is the desire for unity. The traditional liturgy is being exploited, the pope suggests, by seditious elements within the Church that reject the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reform. This is an astonishing and sweeping generalization. Does the pope consider that maybe, just maybe, Catholics simply appreciate the traditional liturgy on its own merits, the beauty, reverence and prayers, without any reference to a combative liturgical dialectic?   

In an awkward and strained attempt to exhibit continuity with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis claims that the pastoral concern of the previous popes was rooted in a sincere desire to bring back into the fold Catholics loyal to Archbishop Lefebvre who belong to the Society of Saint Pius X. Francis writes in his letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes,

Most people understand the motives that prompted St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI to allow the use of the Roman Missal, promulgated by St. Pius V and edited by St. John XXIII in 1962, for the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The faculty — granted by the indult of the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1984 [2] and confirmed by St. John Paul II in the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei in 1988 [3]— was above all motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the schism with the movement of Mons. Lefebvre. With the ecclesial intention of restoring the unity of the Church, the Bishops were thus asked to accept with generosity the “just aspirations” of the faithful who requested the use of that Missal.

Opening up access to the traditional liturgy was a temporary, tactical maneuver according to Francis, and nothing more. From the tone of Francis’s letter, traditional Catholics only have themselves to blame for what he had to do for the sake of ecclesial unity. But in his book Last Testament, published in 2016, Benedict explicitly rejects this claim about his motivations. In answer to Peter Seewald’s comment that, “The reauthorization of the Tridentine Mass is often interpreted primarily as a concession to the Society of St. Pius X”, Benedict replies: 

That is just absolutely false! It was important for me that the Church is one with herself inwardly, with her own past; that what was previously holy to her is not somehow wrong now. … But, as I said, my intentions were not of a tactical nature, they were about the substance of the matter itself.

Anyone familiar with the writings of Pope Benedict knows that he views the traditional liturgy as a good in and of itself, worthy of wider exposure, apart from papal calculations and controversies around the liturgical reform. Francis clearly disagrees, but he chose to mischaracterize Benedict’s motivation in order to strengthen the already shaky grounds of his own document. The fact that Francis selectively appeals to Benedict, but fails to mention his predecessor’s true motivation and his genuine appreciation for the traditional liturgy is deeply troubling and indicative of a weak argument. Rather than showing continuity with his predecessors, Traditionis Custodes has revealed a pope conspicuously isolated from them.

As mentioned earlier, one of the main themes of Francis’s motu proprio is unity. It is an extraordinary irony that the one place we’ve clearly seen unity since the publication of Traditionis Custodes has been in Catholics, across the liturgical spectrum, coming together in opposition to it.