Rorate Caeli

Allen and the "Consensus" Myth - A Chronology of Events

"Quid est veritas?" ("What is truth?"), we heard Pilate ask Our Lord in the Passion according to Saint John, read last Friday. Maybe I cannot provide an answer to this question (an answer you will find in your Catechism), but it is usually not difficult to see that which is NOT true. Let us examine, for instance, the central account of the conversation John Allen reports he had with two "Vatican Officials" (a term which could cover thousands of people around the world) regarding the supposed "liberalization" of the Traditional Mass:

"Whenever there have been meetings about this among the cardinals, it's not just that there's division," he said. "The overwhelming majority is against it [universal permission to celebrate the old rite]. It's not like it's fifty-fifty." ... "But Benedict is trying to operate on the basis of consensus, and there's just no consensus," he said. Another senior Vatican official said simply, "It is not a theme that is yet mature."
Anyone who has ever been in charge of any operation with two or more subordinates knows it is great to work in consensus -- if possible, with no dissension at all. We can be absolutely sure that Benedict would like nothing better than to have no opposition whatsoever to whatever he wishes to do. However, Benedict knows that this perfect operation does not exist, and it certainly cannot be found at the Vatican. No Vatican official truly knows what Benedict will do, for he will do whatever he is willing to do (and Allen admits this by writing a disclaimer), with no need for consensus -- even though very few are able to know what are his plans.

His many meetings regarding the same issues are not to find consensus, which he does not need to enact any measure, but to guide the Vatican machinery to whatever he has planned to do, particularly in the cases where there is no consensus at all: the need for meetings is greatly reduced when the issue involved is the object of majoritarian consensus among the members of an organization, and that is true in any organization of any size.

So allow me to dismantle this consensus myth by remembering the chronology of some verifiable events regarding the Traditional Mass and reconciliation with the SSPX in the past 12 months. I know some consider the SSPX-reconciliation process and the recognition of the Traditional Roman Liturgy (or Traditional Latin Mass, TLM for lack of a better abbreviation) as separate issues, but that is true only in a "structural" sense: both issues are very much related to each other in a logical level.

Behold the chronology:

May-July 2005: sometime during this period, by provocation of the Pope, certain dicasteries were asked to present their opinions on matters related to "the Traditionalist question", including the current status of the TLM.

August 29, 2005: Papal meeting with Bishop Fellay and Father Schmidberger; also present were Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos and the Papal secretary. Both sides vowed to proceed "gradually and in reasonable time".

September-October 2005: sometime during this period, an internal memo prepared by the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW), Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino, was signed by him and by the Prefect, Cardinal Arinze, and forwarded to some dicasteries. It is not known if the Pope had knowledge of this memo (the "Sorrentino Memo") immediately thereafter.

October 2005: 11th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The theme of the Synod was the Eucharist, which made it the first major worldwide meeting of Bishops to discuss the Holy Mass since the Second Session of Vatican II which approved Sacrosanctum Concilium.

-October 13: In an interview to several journalists, the Prefect of CDW, Cardinal Arinze, affirms that the "Tridentine" Missal "is not a priority, as no one has spoken about it".

-October 15: Cardinal Castrillón speaks on the floor of the Synod on the possibility for the universal usage of the TLM. Almost complete silence meets his intervention (NCR report).

-October 20: The propositions made by the Synod Fathers are made public, in a first leak to the press, with no mention of the TLM.


And with this I interrupt this first part of the chronology of events. Let me emphasize: THERE WAS NO CONSENSUS WHATSOEVER for the Traditional Missal. Actually, there was a clear consensus, by representatives of all episcopal conferences, seconded by the silence of most Curial Synod Fathers, AGAINST ANY concession to Traditionalists.

So, if Benedict wished to solve "the Traditionalist question" through some kind of "consensus", the whole matter would obviously have been dead and buried in October 2005. The "Vatican official" interviewed by Allen is certainly correct: it is not a "fifty-fifty" matter; it is not even a 95-5 matter (against Traditionalists)... It is worse than that.

Let us now see Benedict work against the overwhelming consensus in the second part of this chronology of events.


-October 22: On the eve of the closing of the Synod, the secret "Sorrentino Memo", with the conclusion that the Traditional Liturgy "was abolished", is made public by Vaticanist Andrea Tornielli in Il Giornale.

November 15, 2005: 5-hour-long meeting between Cardinal Castrillón, Bishop Fellay, and Father Schmidberger (some reports mention that the meeting extended into November 16).

November 19, 2005: The Bollettino surprisingly published the dismissal of the only Dicastery secretary removed in the first year of the pontificate. Domenico Sorrentino, author of the "Sorrentino Memo" on the "abolition" of the Traditional Mass, is promoted to Assisi.

December 10, 2005: Archbishop Albert Ranjith P. Don, a known proposer of a "reform of the reform" and sympathetic to Traditionalist claims, is brought from the Nunciature in Jakarta to the Secretariat of CDW.

December 2005-January 2006: Dicasteries are informed that the studies and proposals regarding Traditionalist matters are to be discussed in an early February meeting of the heads of Dicasteries.

February 13, 2006: First meeting of the Pope with the heads of Dicasteries during the Pontificate. The only issue was the "Traditionalist question", both in terms of liturgical law and of possible canonical structures. The Pope guides the discussion, but mostly listens, and asks for specific proposals to be offered in a March 23 meeting (the consistory had not yet been announced) and also in an early April meeting. (More details on this meeting here and here).

March 23, 2006: Pre-consistory meeting with the College of Cardinals. The main issues of the day were "the Question of Abp. Lefebvre and of the liturgical reform willed by the Second Vatican Council". It is known that, as it had happened during the Synod, most cardinals who intervened were opposed to any openness to Traditionalists, though, in view of the obvious willingness of the Pope to discuss this issue, many yielded some aspects. In the end, the general feeling was that the Pope merely wanted a "via libera", the go-ahead, which he achieved at some level. (More details here and here).

March 30, 2006: ACI (Spanish version of the Catholic News Agency) is the first news outlet to mention a possible "liberalization" of the Traditional Missal.

April 6, 2006: Reporting from the assembly of the French Bishops, at Lourdes, the semi-official daily of the Catholic Church in France, La Croix, is the first respectable source to mention the words "Motu Proprio" regarding a document for the "liberalization" of the Missal.

April 7, 2006:
-In Rome: the second meeting of the heads of dicasteries with the Pope. It is important to mention that not a single word of this meeting has actually been made known. It was expected that the Pope would speak more and listen less. Whatever was discussed or decided then is unknown.

-In Lourdes: the General Assembly of the French Episcopal Conference (CEF) published its final conclusions. Regarding the "Traditionalist Question", the bishops recognize that the Pope "has a concern" and that "in the weeks or months ahead, [the pope] shall lay down the directives to facilitate the way to a possible return to full communion" [of the SSPX/FSSPX]. The bishops, with little subtlety, attack the apparent Papal willingness to grant some kind of canonical structure.

So much for a "blogosphere" fever... It is obvious that, whatever he wishes to do, Pope Benedict wishes to do so in a smooth way. But one cannot simply say he wants "consensus", and dismiss all that is related to the issue because a "Vatican Official" said "there is no consensus". The Pope already got his consensus: an almost unanimous consensus from representatives of all bishops of the world meeting in the Synod of Bishops that "the Traditionalist question" was irrelevant to them; and they were clearly AGAINST any concession. This "consensus" did not prevent the developments of the subsequent months.

The consensus myth makes even less sense when we remember who Pope Benedict is: he is not a Cardinal with little Curial experience, arriving from Krakow. He is the man who knows the Curia best; he KNOWS the opinions of all heads of dicasteries and of all cardinals on the matters he wished to discuss. If he had been looking for consensus, he would never have brought up for discussion this delicate matter in the first place.

It is obvious SOMETHING is going to happen, though we do not know what: the French bishops themselves wrote the first offifical document with the admission that something (or some things...) will happen "in the weeks or months ahead". One thing is certain: the Pope will do whatever he believes to be just, regardless of a lack of "consensus". The consensus he wishes to portray is to make known that whatever he does will have been done with his full knowledge of the positions taken by the bishops in the October Synod, by the heads of the Roman Dicasteries, and by the members of the College of Cardinals.
What about Allen? Allen is a fine fellow, but he is more a newsmaker than a news gatherer, in the best "tradition" of contemporary American Church reporters, such as Robert Blair Kaiser. He and his sources wish to influence events or to alter the way future decisions are perceived and interpreted, and that is how his words should be read.
Do not forget to read my general caveat here. (April 18, 1000 GMT): Just to make it clearer, as I have recently written to a curious reader: even though it appears "something" may come, this something may represent nothing. Do not lift your hopes too high. If something is to come, let us be pleasantly surprised.