Disobey and you’ll get your way

Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments

For fifty years “liberal” disobedience and disregard for liturgical norms most often resulted, not only in no punishment, but in having disobedience enshrined in law.

Father Michael L. Pfleger celebrating the Dec. 24, 2021 evening Mass at St. Sabina Church in Chicago, where he has been the pastor since 1981. (Image: Screenshot of St. Sabina YouTube video)

In my senior year of high school, I was taking fourth-year Latin and third-year French; in the latter course, Sister Maria Gemma offered us a proposal: If we completed the whole textbook before semester’s end, she would give us a treat (which she didn’t identify). We took the bait. The “treat” was spending the last two or three weeks of high school French reading Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de St. Exupéry.

For those unfamiliar with the novella, let this very brief (and very inadequate) summary suffice (or whet one’s appetite). A little prince goes on an intergalactic journey in search of a friend. That work became one of the most transformative literary experiences of my life.

On one of the planets visited by the Little Prince, he meets a king – megalomaniacal to the core. He endeavors to impress his little visitor with his power, declaring that everything and every person in his kingdom renders him absolute obedience. The little fellow is skeptical, to say the least, causing the nutty king to assert that even the sun obeys him:

“You shall have your sunset. I shall command it. But I shall wait, according to my science of government, until conditions are favorable.” “And when will that be?” inquired the Little Prince. “Well, well!” replied the king, first consulting a large calendar. “Well, well! That will be around…around… that will be tonight around seven-forty! And you’ll see how well I am obeyed.”

The king based his claim on an interesting premise:

“One must command from each what each can perform,” the king went on. “Authority is based first of all upon reason. If you command your subjects to jump in the ocean, there will be a revolution. I am entitled to command obedience because my orders are reasonable.”

This story came to mind in the aftermath of Pope Francis’ Traditionis Custodes, the follow-up document of Archbishop Arthur Roche, and – most especially – the ultra-draconian edict of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.1 What do all these three ecclesiastics have in common? They have made demands, assuming that they will be obeyed because they are aimed at “conservative” or “traditional” Catholics who, by their very nature, are given to obey their superiors in the Church.

I then recalled an Irish witticism: “The willing horse gets flogged the most.”

Where am I going with all this?

Yes, the prelates in question have made a presumption, based on the theological convictions of their intended audience. That is, that “conservatives” obey. However, “conservatives” are not ahistorical; they have witnessed for more than half a century that “liberals” have never obeyed any liturgical authority, and have done so with impunity. Actually, more to the point, “liberal” disobedience and disregard for liturgical norms most often resulted, not only in no punishment but in having their disobedience enshrined in law!

Let but a few examples suffice.

In spite of the fact that not a word in Vatican II discusses the reception of Holy Communion in the hand, the Low Countries, France and Germany introduced the new way (a “new way” resurrected at the Protestant Reformation), contra legem. Pope Paul VI then polled the bishops of the world on whether that method ought to be permitted. The worldwide episcopate replied with a resounding “No!” In an effort to avoid a schism, the Pope agreed to permit it in countries where the illicit practice had been introduced. Numerous other countries (where Communion in the hand had not been in vogue) petitioned the Holy See; all those petitions were viewed favorably. In the United States, the illicit mode of distribution and reception was spreading; the topic had brought to the floor of our episcopal conference on several occasions, each time defeated. Finally, the topic surfaced for debate and vote during the presidency of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin; it failed yet again, causing Bernardin to resort – illicitly – to absentee ballots, with the result of passage by one vote. Disobedience rewarded.

At roughly the same time, a push occurred for the reception of Holy Communion in both species on Sundays, which was not permitted. The Holy See had repeatedly forbidden the practice because of the unwieldy nature of it, as well as the concomitant almost inevitable recourse to extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to carry it out. Not only did reception under both forms continue, but dozens of bishops mandated it for their dioceses. Rome blinked. Disobedience rewarded.

Throughout the entire Judaeo-Christian Tradition, a female had never served at the altar. That fact did not stop innovators from enlisting girls and women to join the ranks of boys and men. Some bishops attempted to enforce the ban; some winked; not a few encouraged female service at the altar; and, amazingly, some even mandated it. Rome constantly repeated the norm, to no avail. Eventually, Rome validated the use of female altar servers. Disobedience rewarded.

Pope Paul VI, in Immensae Caritatis, opened the door for the non-ordained to assist in the distribution of Holy Communion in very narrowly defined circumstances. These assistants were to be called “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.” The U. S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy determined that such nomenclature sounded like these people ought to be used only in “extraordinary” situations (which was, of course, the point). So, they changed the title to “special” ministers. Pope John Paul II referred to abuse of the permission for extraordinary ministers, “reprehensible”; Redemptionis Sacramentum decreed that such ministers were to be phased out of Masses and not to be introduced where they did not yet exist. Hardly a parish in the country does not have “extraordinary” ministers in grand supply so that more Catholics receive Holy Communion from a layperson than from a cleric on any given Sunday. Disobedience rewarded.

From time immemorial, Jews and Christians alike forbade cremation, except in times of plague. During the so-called “Enlightenment,” cremation was used as a means of mocking the notion of the resurrection of the body. In 1973, the Church permitted cremation, if no such denial of bodily resurrection were operative (with the further caveat that the ashes had to be buried).2 However, the intact body had to be present for the Mass of Christian Burial. More often than not, ashes in an urn replaced a casket in the center aisle of a church. Once more, Rome bowed to the counter-practice; ashes can occupy the place of honor. Disobedience rewarded.

Cardinal Cupich has forbidden ad orientem celebrations of Holy Mass and has intimidated one of his priests with threats of suspension for daring to question his diktat. But no bishop has the authority to forbid what universal law not only permits but actually presumes (the rubrics assume the priest is facing east, hence, the directive to “turn toward the people” to offer greetings or blessings). When authority figures resort to bullying, it is the clearest sign that they know they are constructing their edifice on sand.

We have lived through decades of liturgical abuses, with precious little effort on the part of bishops (or Rome, frankly) to stem the tide. Indeed, one of the principal reasons the usus antiquior has gained such an audience is precisely because weary Catholics have sought safe haven in that liturgical expression. An archbishop of my acquaintance called in a priest renowned for his flagrant disregard for the rubrics of the Sacred Liturgy. He cajoled the priest to mend his ways. The priest smiled at him condescendingly. The archbishop asked him if he intended to comply. “I can’t,” came the swift response. “Would you like me to suspend you a divinis?” “You do what you gotta do, and I’ll do what I gotta do,” replied the renegade cleric. What did the archbishop do in the end? Nothing!3

So, what makes Pope Francis, Archbishop Roche, and Cardinal Cupich think that their current policies will be obeyed, given our long history of disobedience being rewarded? Because their observation of human behavior leads them to conclude that “willing horses” will indeed accept “flogging” in perpetuity. But suppose those “willing horses” recall a canonical maxim, namely, that “custom is the best interpreter of law” – which, in this context, means that disobedience is generally rewarded? Or suppose, more, they have finally learned that the power-crazed king of our novella was correct: Dictates ought always to be “reasonable”? Would it be a vain hope that ignoring unreasonable demands might give way to the reward of having one’s reasonable aspirations become law? Or, what about another canonical maxim: “I have no obligation to obey what you have no right to command”?

The Little Prince ends his visit to the king’s planet with this comment: “Grown-ups are so strange.”

One final thought for our “fathers in God”: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col 3:21).


1Not a few of their supporters are now asking why Latin-lovers don’t just attend a Latin Mass in the current rite. There is a cruel irony here because if a priest had a regularly scheduled Latin Mass in the usus recentior but a few months back, he would have gotten a call from some diocesan bureaucrat telling him to cease and desist. I know whereof I speak because, back in the 1980s, I had to deal with just such interlopers and remind them that no permission is needed to celebrate Mass in Latin; permission is needed for the vernacular!

2The law requires that a priest ensure that the cremains is buried. But how is that to be enforced? How many priests tell stories of visiting parishioners’ homes to meet the whole family in urns on the mantlepiece?

3While the Archbishop of Chicago busied himself with slapping down “traditional” priests and parishes, the whole world beheld the spectacle of the outrageous, blasphemous, sacrilegious would-be Mass on Christmas Eve at St. Sabina’s. Truth be told, such abuses have been weekly fare in that parish for decades. Did Cupich summon the pastor and threaten him with suspension, as he did with the priest alluded to above? If he did, the People of God have a right to know that; if he didn’t, the People of God also need to know why not.