Thoughts on Traditionis Custodes

I am going to post some of the more important reactions to Pope Francis restrictions on the Old Roman rite, and then add my own thoughts. Like many, I was blindsided by the document but more on that below.

First, an English translation of the motu proprio and accompanying letter by Rorate Caeli.

The reaction of Una Voce International, the oldest organization promoting the old rite.

At The Catholic Thing, Cardinal Gerhardt Muller criticizes the motu proprio.

At First Things, Douglas Farrow thinks Francis has “weaponized” the old liturgy by issuing his motu proprio.

Fr. Peter Stravinskas thinks bishops should ignore what is an unnecessary and divisive document.

Damian Thompson suggests that many bishops otherwise indifferent to the old rite will see this decision as arbitrary and unnecessary, and that traditionalists should keep this in mind.

Christopher Altieri says TC gives credence to the contention of the SSPX that Rome cannot be trusted.

Several commentators have noted that the documents seems to have been rushed and is not terribly precise (to say the very least).

Finally, a fascinating reaction from Le Figaro by a French atheist and philosopher, who nonetheless sees in the old rite a valuable part of the heritage of Christian civilization.

A few thoughts.

I am glad that “conservative” Catholics have come to the defense of the small traditionalist community. However, there are still indications in some of the above articles that they haven’t yet come around to traditionalist arguments about the liturgy and Vatican II. This is a pity, for I think there are great insights to be found in some of them (others, not so much).

First of all, with regards to Vatican II. Cardinal Muller, Doug Farrow and others seem to agree with Francis that acknowledging the validity and authority of Vatican II and post-conciliar reforms means never criticizing it. Perhaps they just didn’t want to raise the issue, but this needs to be said: just because you think the council is legitimate doesn’t require you believe it was a good idea or that it has been a resounding success (because it hasn’t been).

Second, almost all of the “conservative” takes ignore the status of the liturgy itself rather than the appropriateness of the motu proprio. The old Roman rite has a claim to go back to apostolic tradition, and if I read them correctly, what traditionalist authors claim is that the old Rite is part of big “T” Tradition, and not merely custom. I think this is basically correct, but from what I can tell, Cardinal Muller and others don’t agree (perhaps I am wrong in this). My impression of conservative Catholics is that they think only dogmatic formulations are irreformable but not the symbols of the liturgy. I think this is a mistake. People naturally tend to think in symbolic terms more readily than precise logical ones, and perhaps for this reason so many artists have defended the old rite over the years, because they understood its value in this respect. Most people will never be able to understand Aquinas but they understand symbolism well enough. That’s why Latin has become such a lightning rod. It is sort of the equivalent for what icons represent in the Orthodox world, a part of the sacred that is symbolic and can be deployed outside the context of the liturgy by anybody, not just the learned. The Eastern churches understand this, as Martin Mosebach pointed out in his book The Heresy of Formlessness.

Third, in regards to papal authority. No one doubts the pope has the right to reform the liturgy. But if the old Rite really is of apostolic origins (I realize many modern scholars would object to this), does he really have the authority to abolish it? In other words, what are the limits of the pope’s authority over Sacred Tradition (as opposed to mere reformable custom)? What are the limits to his authority in these matters? Again, a difference between conservatives and “trads” seems to be that for the former, the only limits concern intellectual formulations but not symbols.

Finally, something no one seems to have pointed out are the possible ecumenical ramifications of this motu proprio. Both Francis and his predecessors have aimed for reunion with the Orthodox, but I can’t imagine this ever happening if TC stands. If the Roman Church doesn’t care about its ancient rites, the Orthodox churches surely do. Would they be willing to accept Rome’s authority, if it included the ability to abolish ancient rites in this manner? I can’t think it. “Sure, we destroyed our own ancient liturgy, but we would never ever touch yours–trust us!” In this one respect, there is an interesting convergence between the claims of the SSPX and the Orthodox: the liturgy is one area where the pope’s authority must have some limits.

Finally a quote for the day:

Of course we know that the rite has not come down to us unchanged since the days of early Christianity. And yet we can regard the old Mass…as something unchanged and unchanging, something that has come down to us directly from heaven. The reason is that these changes were not arbitrary but the result of gradual growth; they took place so slowly that no one really noticed them. The gradual and constant changes that did take place in the rite were not the work of scholars at their desks; they were the result of those praying at Mass over a two-thousand- year history. Only saints such as Ambrose or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas should be allowed to add anything to the Holy Mass, never men at office desks—even if they work in the Vatican.

Martin Mosebach, The Heresy of Formlessness

Leave a Reply