Traditionis Custodes at 30 Days: A Retrospective and a Prospective

Reverend 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.

This is a salutary moment for people on both sides of the aisle to engage in a sincere examination of conscience: Have I weaponized the Sacred Liturgy, using it for ideological purposes, rather than for the glory of the Triune God?

(Image: Simon Hurry/

As we approach the month’s mind marker of Traditionis Custodes, and with the benefit of literally hundreds of articles produced, including my own reflection here at CWR within 48 hours of the promulgation of the document, we are in a good position to see how we got where we did and where we might do well to head in the months going forward. Let’s consider the situation from several complementary angles.

Pope Francis

Commentators across the spectrum have noted that the document is a potpourri of jumbled theology, canon law, history, sociology, and psychology. This happens with great regularity with this Pope because, unlike Pope John Paul II, he doesn’t consult well (or apparently at all).

Francis seems to be ignorant of the Missale Romanum of 1965, simply alluding to the missals of 1962 and 1970; that text, in my judgment (and that of many others), came very close to embodying the desiderata of the Council Fathers, whereas what followed five years later, far exceeded the mandates of Sacrosanctum Concilium and even went against not a few of them. What would his thoughts be on that liturgical form? We don’t know. Nor do we know what he’s thinking is on other ritual expressions like the Dominican or Ambrosian Rites, or the Anglican Usage. Do they fall under the same negative verdict? Again, we don’t know.

Similarly, in drafting the motu proprio, he was apparently unaware of the power of diocesan bishops to dispense from purely disciplinary law (canon 87), which many bishops have already done. Not a few Ordinaries have taken a page out of the approach of the Jansenists and Modernists when faced with unfavorable papal decrees: “We have carefully considered the Holy Father’s concerns, thank him for his paternal solicitude, and thank Almighty God that none of his concerns prevail among us.” Except that in this instance, the approach is valid. This situation has occurred because he doesn’t have the pulse of the worldwide episcopate, which has led to what must be a very embarrassing response to him – it’s called, technically, “non-reception,” about which Cardinal Walter Brandmüller wrote quite lucidly (as is his wont).

Aside from the rambling, often incoherent style, the text is often vitriolic, perhaps exceeded only by Exsurge, Domine of Leo X (1520) in his condemnation of Martin Luther. Good fathers don’t speak that way to or about their children. Many have pointed out the irony that Francis has been kinder to the Society of St. Pius X (in their irregular ecclesial status) than to those “traditionalists” in full communion with the Church. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he testified on behalf of the SSPX to gain for them civil recognition and protection and, as Pope, has accorded their priests faculties to hear confessions and to witness sacramental marriages, leading to the obvious question: Is it “okay” to pray with the Missal of 1962 if you are not in full communion with the See of Rome but verboten if you are?

When Francis appointed Cardinal Robert Sarah prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship, many of us were shocked (since Sarah and Bergoglio do not share liturgical visions). Even more amazing was the Pope’s mandate that Sarah pursues the liturgical trajectory of Benedict XVI! When Sarah began to do that, he was slapped down in a most unceremonious fashion and publicly shamed. Further, on one of Francis’ many airborne press conferences, he praised the Eastern rites of the Church for maintaining a sense of the sacred and lamentably opined that the Roman Rite has lost much of it. A man of many contradictions.

Although Francis taught Latin as a young Jesuit, he certainly exhibits an animus against the language. Strangely, he makes no mention of the possibility of celebrating the current rite in Latin. On his watch, the Vatican Press (LEV) has removed from their catalogue all Latin liturgical books of the post-conciliar era, while the Congregation for Divine Worship is denying permission to other publishers to reprint those books. Are the paragraphs of Sacrosanctum Concilium calling for the retention of Latin in the Sacred Liturgy missing from the Bergoglian editions of that document?

Finally, we are witnessing what can be called “reaction formation.” Some priests have seen the attendance double at their Masses according to the 1962 Missal. Why? When asking new-comers what has attracted them all of a sudden, a very common response has been: “I never knew much about that Mass or was much interested in it, but when I heard that Pope Francis was so opposed to it, I thought I should look into it.” That is not a very appealing response, but it is an attitude “on the ground,” one brought on by this Pope’s consistent pillorying of things he deems unworthy of maintenance. The Pope who constantly talks about the importance of priests having the “smell of the sheep” lacks that quality most evidently – or at least does so when the vox populi is not what he wants to hear.


“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’”

Words have meaning; indeed, even a single letter can have immense consequences. The Christological controversy involving Arius revolved around the little Greek letter “iota” (“I”). Arius argued that Jesus was “homoiousios” as the Father (of a similar nature), while the Nicene Fathers maintained He was “homoousios” (of the same nature), the difference being a single letter, giving us the English expression that something doesn’t make “an iota of a difference,” but the iota did matter.

Several problems have existed with terminology regarding the Sacred Liturgy – on both sides of the ecclesiological aisle.

The first surfaced very soon after the appearance of the Missal of Pope Paul VI. Opponents referred to the work as the “Novus Ordo Missae.” Its use was mischievous, at best, as it has never been used in any ecclesiastical document and was clearly intended to conjure up “novus ordo saeculorum,” found on the obverse of our dollar bill, with its Masonic connections. In like manner, the expression “Traditional Latin Mass” (TLM): garners “Tradition” for one form alone, suggesting that the revised rite is not in keeping with Tradition. In Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict created the terms “ordinary” and “extraordinary” forms of the Mass to describe what he wanted to be side-by-side liturgical realities. That verbiage has not been widely used by people attending the older rite because it connotes that recourse to that form would be rare (“extraordinary” – like “extraordinary” ministers of Holy Communion!).

Since we need descriptors, I think the best, most neutral, and most accurate language (with no ideological baggage) to employ, is usus antiquior (the more ancient usage) and usus recentior (the more recent usage); this language appears to be favored by Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Benedict XVI

With all due respect to Papa Ratzinger, one must admit two unfortunate facts: He did nothing to curb liturgical abuses in the “ordinary form” (in my experience, the principal reason most Catholics attend the “extraordinary form” is to avoid things like altar girls, laypeople distributing Holy Communion, Communion-in-the-hand), nor did he pursue the “reform of the reform” that he had championed for decades as a theologian and as a cardinal.

That said, a careful reading of Summorum Pontificum makes clear that Benedict did not envision his “extraordinary form” to exist in perpetuity; rather, that his notion of “mutual enrichment” would bring about an organic development of a tertium quid. Which makes sense since his major critique of the liturgical revisions was not that change had been introduced but that the changes did not evolve in a natural fashion.

Other considerations

The current Pope grounds his objections to the “old Mass” in supposed positions of its devotees challenging the validity of both Vatican II and the “new Mass.” If that has occurred, one can legitimately ask if priests charged with pastoral care of “conservative” believers have corrected erroneous positions of laity? However, let’s dig a bit deeper.

Regarding councils: One must distinguish between asserting that a council could be valid but ineffectual or ineffective. Here we can recall that the declarations of Nicea I (325 A.D.) did not resolve all the Christological controversies; as a matter of fact, we had to wait for Chalcedon I more than a century later (451 A.D.) for something close to a resolution. The five Lateran Councils (1123-1517) all dealt with issues of Church reform, with nary any effect. On the other hand, no serious Catholic, let alone an informed one, can adopt an ahistorical approach, which would hold that any one council is any more important than another; thus, Vatican II is not more important than Trent or Vatican I, only more contemporaneous.

As far as the Sacred Liturgy is concerned, the usus recentior cannot be treated as invalid because of abuses, any more than the usus antiquior can be invalidated because of fifteen-minute Masses “in the old days.” On the other hand, criticizing abuses in one form or the other should never be seen as a rejection of its validity or an assertion of its invalidity.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI spent more than three decades together in demonstrating how Vatican II was to be interpreted through a hermeneutic of continuity – and they had both the competence and the authority to do that as John Paul was a Council Father and Benedict was a peritus. In a bizarre twist of fate, a hermeneutic of rupture has been the preferred interpretive lens by both the far Left and far-Right. When that happens, amber lights ought to go off. Sadly, the current Pope has given clear signals for eight years that he holds to the hermeneutic of rupture, which is nothing other than an untenable position, precisely because it calls into question the indefectibility of the Church.

Last but by no means least, all too many adherents of the usus antiquior have given ammunition to less than honest brokers by exaggerating the success of the “TLM”: hundreds of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, along with thousands attending the “TLM.” Why do I raise this issue? Firstly, because truth matters. The so-called “traditional” communities of priests – all international – rarely ordain more than ten men a year. One blogger recently declared that his “traditional” parish has 2000 people at their Sunday Mass. Really? Someone who knows the man’s diocese asserts that there isn’t a single church in that diocese that can accommodate anything close to 2000 people! Unnecessary (and unwarranted) triumphalism bred paranoia in the bad brokers, who surely stoked similar irrational fears in the Pope.

No, whether we like it or not, there is no “traditionalist” take-over of the mainstream in the foreseeable future.

Some final thoughts

First, the usus antiquior is not going anywhere, principally because Traditionis Custodes is a dead letter, in fact, dead on arrival. No intelligent diocesan bishop is going to stir up trouble where there has been comparative peace. Here, too, Pope Francis needs to recall that the primary responsibility of the Bishop of Rome is to foster ecclesial peace, not guerilla warfare.

Second, this is a salutary moment for people on both sides of the aisle to engage in a sincere examination of conscience: Have I weaponized the Sacred Liturgy, using it for ideological purposes, rather than for the glory of the Triune God?

One final question: Am I truly grateful that I have such ready access to what the Second Vatican Council rightly called “the source and summit of the Christian life”?

Here’s some food for thought from St. John Paul’s first Holy Thursday letter to his “beloved priests”:

. . . think of the places where people anxiously await a Priest, and where for many years; feeling the lack of such a Priest, they do not cease to hope for his presence. And sometimes it happens that they meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they still keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy; and then, at the moment that corresponds to the transubstantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob… so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a Priest can efficaciously utter. So much do they desire Eucharistic Communion. . . .

Or, can I echo Cardinal Newman’s literary alter ego in Loss and Gain?

. . . to me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming, as the Mass, said as it is among us. I could attend Masses for ever and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words, —it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is, not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. He becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble. This is that awful event which is the scope, and is the interpretation, of every part of the solemnity.