Traditionis custodes: the Council’s last card?

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

The non-reception of the Second Vatican Council was based mainly on the rejection of the liturgical reform, even if a number of faithful attached to the old rite claim their adherence to the  “properly interpreted” conciliar intuitions. In any case, the existence of the traditional liturgy is a phenomenon which is persistant and increasing in terms of non-reception. Is it marginal? Pope Bergoglio, who wants to be the one pope who will see the full development of Vatican II, ended up being convinced that the phenomenon was sufficiently important that it should be actively eradicated. With one consequence that, what was possibly marginal has become definitely central: the Tridentine mass is seen as the evil that is to be stroked down; the seminaries educating the future priests for the celebration of the old mass are like cankers that are to be eliminated as well. And measures are to be implemented without delay.

The return of the original violence of the Liturgical Reform

So, once again, the old mass is banned, like under the pontificate of Paul VI. The letter accompanying Traditionis custodes explains, without any ambiguity, the ultimate goal of the pontifical document which is to ensure “a return to a uniting form of the celebration”, the new liturgy. The decision is brutal and forceful: the pope decides the end of the traditional mass as well as the end of the traditional world which he accuses to be harmful for the unity of the Church.

Vatican II had for a plan openness to the modern world so to be better understood by the people of our times. Subsequently, it placed it in a sort of a medium position between traditional orthodoxy and heterodoxy (in itself, a neo-modernist relativism). The adoption of few ambiguous propositions allows for example to affirm that a separated Christian can, as such, still be in some sort of communion with the Church: according to Unitatis redintegratio, Luther who thought he had broken up with the church of Rome was, in reality, an “imperfect” Catholic (UR 3).

Pope Francis, since his election, has carried this line as far as he could: he has transformed collegiality into synodality, furthered Nostra ætate and the Assisi gathering with the Declaration of About Dhabi, though making sure not to fall into the same abyss where most audacious progressive theologies fall to. Like Paul VI, he remains faithful to the ecclesiastic celibate and to male priesthood though not through the traditional discipline but instead through the ways of lay ministries which pope Montini had introduced (institution of ministries holding clerical roles without being clerics, to probably get to the ministry of deaconess and even women presiding non formal eucharist), and also by entrusting laities, men and women, quasi jurisdictional responsibilities (high positions in Roman dicasteries).

In other words, Francis keeps enough of the institution, while at the same time emptying it of its doctrinal substance. According to his expression, he is taking down the walls:

  • Humanæ vitæ  and a set of documents linked to his same encyclical had preserved moral in regards to marriage from the liberalization that the council had imposed on ecclesiology. Amoris lætitia has now knocked over the barrier: people living in a public adulterous relationship can remain in that situation without committing a grave sin (AL 301).
  • Summorum pontificum had recognized a right to this conservatory of the Church of the past that is the old liturgy, with the catechesis and the clerical positions it includes.

Traditionis custodes has swept away this tentative of “a return”: the new liturgical books are said to be the sole expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite (TC, art. 1).

In the end, the fact is, the pope and his advisers have taken a big risk in taking these dispositions which are as violent as they were hastily written. Surprised commentators speak of a lack of knowledge on the part of the South American pontiff regarding the ecclesial situation in the Western World; they underline the repudiation of the main work of Benedict XVI; they point out the contradiction of a chaotic government which crushes the traditionalists of “the inside” whereas granting faculties to the traditionalists of “the outside”, those of the SSPX, making it look like a semi-recognition; finally, they are surprised, when the fire of schism is burning in Germany and the tranquil heresy is everywhere, that a liturgical practice which finds itself innocent of both schism and heresy is yet the target.

But one can easily imagine that the pope and his entourage are barely moved by these critics. The justification of the repressive assault they have started is for them decisive: the Tridentine mass crystallizes the existence of a Church within the Church because it represents a lex orandi  which precedes the council and thus is anti-conciliar. Some come to terms with the German Church going astray, at worst they consider it too conciliar but, in regards to the old liturgy, it shall not be tolerated for it is anti-conciliar.

Vatican II, and all that relates to it, is not up for discussion. In a very characteristic way, the letter accompanying Traditionis custodes renders the Council infallible: the liturgical reform comes from Vatican II; but as it is, this council has been “an exercise of the collegial power in a solemn way”; doubting that the Council is inscribed in the dynamism of the Tradition is therefore “to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.”

Too late a repression

Except that, it is 2021 and not 1969, the year of the joyful and all new promulgation of the Novus Ordo. It isn’t 1985 either, the year of the publication of the Ratzinger Report and of the Synodal Assembly already looking at the fruits of Vatican II with much concerns; not even 2005, when the expression of “hermeneutic of the reform in the continuity” very much resembled a tentative of laborious recomposition of a reality more and more difficult to grab. Today, it is simply too late.

The ecclesial institution is on edge, the mission light is out and, in the Western World at least, priests and faithful are less and less part of the spectrum of things. Andrea Riccardi, the main figure of the San Egidio Community, certainly not a conservative, in his last book La Chiesa brucia, Crise e futuro del cristianesimo, The Church is burning, Crisis and future of Christianity[1], considers the Notre Dame fire as a parable of the situation of Christianity, and gives an analysis country by country, within Europe, of its collapse. What he says is characteristic of disappointed Bergoglians who become disillusioned conciliar supporters.

How could we not be surprise to see authors, less involved with the ecclesiastic world than Andrea Ricardi, sound the alarm and without hesitation describe where the evil is coming from. In this way, Jean-Marie Rouart, member of the French Academy, in Ce pays des hommes sans Dieu[2], thinks the battle of Western society facing Islam is already lost, that only a “Christian awakening” could save us, that is to say a radical u-turn. He writes: “the Church must engage in  the equivalent of a Counter-Reform, return to this Christian reform which allowed Her to confront successfully protestantism in the XVII century as it tried to blame Her.”[3] Patrick Buisson also, in La fin d’un monde[4], discusses in two large chapters the situation of Catholicism: “The collapse of the faith” and “The sacred being slaughtered”. “In both a brutal and disconcerting way, he says, the Tridentine rite which had been the official rite of the Latin Church for four centuries, was from one day to the next, considered undesirable, its celebration banned, and its faithful harassed.”[5] Catholicism was abandoned for “the conciliar religion.”

Furthermore, in 2021, the ratio of power is very different from the 1970’s between those who had participated in the Council and those who were enduring it. Andrea Riccardi, like everyone else, sees that “traditionalism is a reality of some importance in the Church, in its organization and its capacity.” The traditional world, yet in minority (8-10% in France), is increasing everywhere especially in the United States. It is young and it is a well of vocations – at least in relation to vocations coming from the expression of Catholicism in parishes – able to ensure the catechetic transmission and for that reason attracting many young clerics and diocesan seminarians.

It is actually what Pope Bergoglio, coming from Argentina, took some time to understand, that is until the Italian bishops and prelates of the Curia brought to his attention the unbearable growth of the traditional world, especially visible that it is taking place in the mist of a general collapse. Thus adequate remedies had to be prescribed, the same that were used on the flourishing seminary of San Rafael, in Argentina, on the congregation of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, on the diocese of Albenga in Italy, on the diocese of San Luis in Argentina, etc.

An exit ahead of the crisis

Yet, the conciliar Church is not revitalized and the mission has continuously diminished. An array of documents has been produced on mission: Ad Gentes, the conciliar decree of 1965, the 1975 exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris missio, the 1991 document Dialogue and Proclamation, the apostolic exhortations which repeat unceasingly the theme of the new evangelization, Ecclesia in Africa, 1995, Ecclesia in America, 1999, Ecclesia in Asia, 1999, Ecclesia in Oceania, 2001, Ecclesia in Europa, 2003. A pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization was also established. More and more Symposiums are organized on the subject of the mission which is to be hinged on dialogue, and on the subject of the evangelization which must not be proselytism, etc. Mission has never been so spoken of and yet we have never seen so few conversions.

French president François Mitterrand used to say regarding the resorption of unemployment, “we’ve tried everything.” The same can be said about tentatives to save the Church after Vatican II: with the election of Pope Bergoglio, the tentative of maximization of the Council has misfired; a lack of success also, one must admit, with the election of Pope Ratzinger and the tentative of a more peaceful conciliar environment. So, a U-turn then? Yes, but in the way of an exit “ahead.”

Many are those, including previous supporters of Pope Bergoglio who judge undependable the harsh repression against the traditional world, for the only reason, ultimately, that it is too much alive. Would it be possible that in the next pontificate Traditionis custodes could be reformed and cancelled? Definitively a possibility, but even better: a liberty given to what it is appropriate to call the “lifeblood” of the Church. Regarding this essential force, since it represents the multi secular tradition, we can reasonably consider the negotiation of a compromise which would be more favorable for the Church than was the compromise of Summorum pontificum. We now have to seek for the old liturgy and for everything that goes with it a space of true freedom. This is to be done in the name of common sense. Just like a number of bishops around the world have allowed these “lifeblood”, that is the communities, foundations, and works, all bearing  fruits from their mission, to develop in their diocese, likewise at the level of the universal Church must come the time for “all that bear fruits” to be free.

Summorum Pontificum can be seen as a tentative of coexistence between Catholics who are not receiving the liturgy of Vatican II and those who belong to a moderate conciliar world. A new tentative could be established with a conciliar world apparently more “liberal” than the world of Benedict XVI, but who now realizes the irreversible failure of the utopia embraced fifty years ago.

Rev. Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Tempi nuovi, 2021.

[2] Bouquins, 20121.

[3] Op. cit, p.64.

[4] Albin Michel, 2021.

[5] Op. cit., « La trivialiation du sacré », p. 124.