Rorate Caeli

“The Pope’s Boundedness to Tradition as a Legislative Limit: Replying to Ultramontanist Apologetics”—Full Text of Dr. Kwasniewski’s Denver Lecture

The following lecture was given at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Littleton, Colorado, on July 31, 2021. The video has been posted at YouTube; however, the text below features extensive endnotes that contain much important material. My goal, especially in the wake of Traditionis Custodes, is to refute the all-too-plentiful Catholic apologists who—proof-texting magisterial documents the way their Protestant counterparts proof-text St. Paul—maintain that the pope has absolute executive, legislative, and judicial power over the liturgy. I argue, in contrast, that papal power exists within an historical, ecclesial context that conditions and limits its legitimate exercise, and therefore also grounds the right of the faithful to resist egregious violations of immemorial custom and venerable tradition. In short, this is a defense of the very foundations of the traditionalist movement in the Catholic Church.

The Pope’s Boundedness to Tradition as a Legislative Limit:
Replying to Ultramontanist Apologetics

Peter A. Kwasniewski


Catholic apologists have done a lot of great work over the decades. They have refuted many a Protestant, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, or the like oddity, and have helped Jews, Moslems, atheists, agnostics, neo-pagans, and members of all manner of false religions to find Christ and to enter His Church. For this, we are all grateful, and long may their work in this vein continue.

But the same apologists do not perform so well when they turn their sights to intraecclesial affairs, particularly when it comes to explaining the nature, purpose, and limits of papal infallibility. Even there, the apologists do well when they are justifying wonderful things like Humanae Vitae, for its teaching is in accord with natural and divine law and the tradition of the Church, and the pope’s job is to uphold all that, regardless of pressures against it. Yet when popes make spectacularly bad decisions or teach that which is ambiguous or male sonans (evil-sounding) or materially erroneous, these apologists are caught flat-footed and empty-handed. They are tempted either to ignore the problem as an embarrassing exception or to appeal bravely to an unthinking ultramontanism, as if sheer bluster will somehow paper it over.

We have seen a great deal of the latter problem ever since the release of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. Most commentators, it is true, fall into two more obvious categories: the progressives who gloat shamelessly over the defeat of the nasty trads, and nearly everyone else who sees Pope Francis’s move as unwarranted, malicious, inflammatory, bellicose, unworkable, and—the worst sin after Vatican II—thoroughly unpastoral. But there is a coetus of self-styled apologists who have rushed to make podcasts defending the pope’s supposed right to create, abolish, and modify liturgy nearly any way he pleases.

This lecture will not be an extensive critique of Traditionis Custodes—that can be found in many other places at this point.[1] Rather, I want to explain how we reached a point of such absurdity that a Roman Pontiff can dare, with the stroke of a pen, to consign to the margins and to eventual oblivion an unbroken liturgical patrimony of millennia and to claim that the new rites created by committee under Paul VI are the “only” (unica) lex orandi or law of prayer of the Catholic Church—and the even greater absurdity that there are Catholic apologists defending him and his purported “right” to do so.

The fundamental flaw of these apologists is that, like their doppelgänger Protestant opponents, they have fallen for the technique of proof-texting. Instead of sola scriptura, it is often solo papa; where the Calvinist quotes St. Paul on justification by faith alone, the papalist quotes a conciliar dictum on universal papal jurisdiction. Actually, all controversialists (including rad trads) have a tendency to proof-text, as if it concludes a debate, when, in reality, it only starts it. For one must not only quote a passage from Scripture, the Fathers, the Doctors, or the Magisterium, one must also understand when, where, why, and how it was stated—in other words, its context. Some texts are clear enough that they do the heavy lifting for us, but others are subtle, partial, overstated, understated, etc., and need to be fitted into their place like stones into a wall. It is the wall that we are looking for, not the individual stones torn out of it.[2]

Thus, Catholic apologists love to quote the First Vatican Council’s Pastor Aeternus (1870) on the pope’s jurisdiction:

Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world. (Pastor Aeternus, ch. 3, n. 2)

They are quick to quote Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1947): “The Sovereign Pontiff alone enjoys the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification” (n. 58).[3] The Code of Canon Law (1983) affirms the pope’s “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (Can. 331). As John Monaco points out: “As the administration of the sacraments falls within Church discipline, it is not surprising that canon law designates the ordering of the liturgy to the pope (Can. 838 §2) and even grants him the power to ‘approve or define the requirements for their validity’ (Can. 841).”[4]

So far, so good. But to leave them thus is to give texts without context.

First, liturgy cannot be reduced to a matter of discipline alone; it always concerns doctrine of faith and morals as professed by the Church over her entire history, and as expressed in the Magisterium of every age.[5] The pope is not a soloist but a member of an orchestra, and the score he’s playing already exists before he comes to office—the more so, the later in history we are.

Second, papal jurisdiction over disciplinary matters does not exist in a vacuum: it is a component of the office of the papacy, which has its own nature, purpose, and duties. The power to introduce, remove, or alter liturgical rites is not a kind of [Ockhamist] omnipotence with no reference to wisdom, goodness, or rightness: there are conditions inherent in the papacy that delimit and condition the power, that endow its use with authority or a lack thereof.[6] This is why historians can make judgments about when popes exercised their power well or badly, prudently or imprudently, justly or unjustly.

Third, just because something is stated in a magisterial document does not mean it is stated in the best possible way, or in a way that does not open it to an erroneous misunderstanding. A telling example is none other than Mediator Dei, in which Pius XII at one point inverts the traditional axiom lex orandi, lex credendi by saying that the lex credendi should determine the lex orandi, and that this explains why the pope can modify the liturgy to make it express certain doctrines more clearly.[7] In a way, this is true: what the liturgy already teaches, albeit in a muted or diffuse way, can be crystallized in a new observance, as when Pius XI in 1925 introduced the feast of the kingship of Jesus Christ. That kingship was already long professed by the Church and present throughout the liturgy, but the pope, in response to modern secularism, wished to have the liturgy teach this truth more directly.[8] It would be false, however, to say that a pope has the authority to translate whatever fancy comes into his head, or whatever pet theological project, into some liturgical expression—such as (e.g.) an Anti-Gun Sunday, or the excision of all miracles from the readings in response to modern biblical criticism, or the approval of a rainbow-colored chasuble to symbolize LGBTQ inclusiveness. We might laugh at such examples and say “it could never happen,” but the only reason we think so is that we implicitly recognize that the pope is not the one who principally or ultimately defines either the lex credendi or the lex orandi.[9]

In order to grasp the relationship between the papacy and liturgical legislation, we must start with the fundamental question: what is the pope’s obligation to tradition? An exemplary answer to this question may be found in an early medieval source: the Pontiff’s Attestation of Faith, or “Papal Oath,” contained in the Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, a handbook of formularies used by the pontifical chancellery, some of which date back as far as St. Gregory the Great.[10] While there is debate about the exact use of this oath in the rite by which a pope was invested with his office, there can be no doubt that it reflects the mind of Christendom, in the sense that it summed up what was expected of a pope, as well as how the popes viewed themselves, how they spoke and acted. It is thus a valuable testimony of what our forefathers from the end of the first millennium to the start of the second saw as the limits of papal power. “The main obligation and the most distinguished quality of a new pope,” as Bishop Athanasius Schneider summarizes, was “his unshakeable faithfulness to the Tradition as it was handed down to him by all his predecessors.” The oath “named, in concrete terms, fidelity to the lex credendi (the Rule of Faith) and to the lex orandi (the Rule of Prayer).”

According to the Oath, the pope swears:

I, (name), by the mercy of God deacon, elect and future bishop, by the grace of God, of this Apostolic See, swear to you, blessed Peter, prince of the Apostles . . . and to your Holy Church, which today I have taken up to rule under your protection, that I shall guard with all my strength, even unto giving up the ghost or shedding my blood, the right and true faith which, having been handed down by Christ its author and transmitted by your successors and disciples unto my smallness, I found in your Holy Church; and with your help I shall patiently bear the difficulties of the times; I shall preserve the mystery of the holy and individual Trinity which is one God, as well as the dispensation according to the flesh of the only-begotten Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the other dogmas of God’s Church, just as they are deposited by the universal councils and constitutions of the apostolic pontiffs and the writings of the most approved doctors of the Church, that is, all that concerns the rightness of your and our orthodox faith handed down by you; I, too, shall guard unaltered even by a tittle the holy and universal councils . . . and I shall preach whatsoever they preached and condemn in heart and word whatsoever they condemned; I shall moreover diligently and heartily confirm and safeguard undiminished all the decrees of the apostolic pontiffs my predecessors, and whatever they promulgated and confirmed in synod and individually, and maintain them in unwavering vigor just as my predecessors established them, and condemn with a sentence of equal authority whatever things and persons they condemned and rejected; I shall keep inviolate the discipline and ritual of the Church just as I found and received it handed down by my predecessors [disciplinam et ritum Ecclesiae, sicut inueni et a sanctis predecessoribus meis traditum repperi, inlibatum custodire], and I shall preserve the Church’s property undiminished and take care it is kept undiminished; I shall neither subtract nor change anything from the tradition my most esteemed predecessors have safeguarded and I have received, nor shall I admit any novelty, but shall fervently keep and venerate with all my strength all that I find handed down as verily my predecessors’ disciple and follower; but if anything should come about contrary to canonical discipline, I shall correct it, and guard the sacred canons and constitutions of our pontiffs as divine and heavenly mandates, knowing that at the divine Judgment I shall  render a strict account of all that I profess to you whose place I occupy by divine condescension and whose role I fulfill by the aid of your intercession.[11]

Similarly, the fifteenth-century Council of Constance (1414–1418) “pronounced about the pope as the first person in the Church who is bound by the Faith and who must scrupulously guard the integrity of the Faith”[12]:

Since the Roman Pontiff exercises such great power among mortals, it is right that he be bound all the more by the incontrovertible bonds of the faith and by the rites that are to be observed regarding the Church’s Sacraments.

According to this thirty-ninth session of Constance, the newly elected pope was to make an oath of faith that included this passage:

I, N., elected pope, with both heart and mouth confess and profess to almighty God, whose Church I undertake with his assistance to govern, and to blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, that as long as I am in this fragile life I will firmly believe and hold the Catholic Faith, according to the traditions of the apostles, of the general councils and of other holy fathers . . . and I will preserve this Faith unchanged to the last dot and will confirm, defend, and preach it to the point of death and the shedding of my blood, and likewise I will follow and observe in every way the handed-down rite of the ecclesiastical sacraments of the Catholic Church.[13]

Such texts are not bizarre outliers but reflect a common consensus of the pope’s boundenness to tradition, so much so that eminent canonists and theologians could maintain that a pope deserves to be resisted if he is guilty of injuring either tradition or the Christian people who rely on it.

Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388–1468) states that if a pope fails to observe “the universal rite of ecclesiastical worship” and “divides himself with pertinacity from the observance of the universal church,”  he is “able to fall into schism” and is neither to be obeyed nor “put up with” (non est sustinendus).[14] The well-known commentator on St. Thomas, Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534), counsels: “You must resist, to his face, a pope who is openly tearing the Church apart—for example, by refusing to confer ecclesiastical benefices except for money, or in exchange for services… A case of simony, even committed by a pope, must be denounced.”[15] Cajetan is talking about simony, the buying or selling of ecclesiastical offices, which was obviously a massive problem in centuries past; but it is far from being the worst sin or the greatest problem. Objectively speaking, the imposition of harmful discipline such as the promulgation of a valid but inadequate and inauthentic liturgy, or an assault on the integrity of doctrine, is certainly worse than simony. Francisco Suárez (1548–1617) declares: “If the Pope lays down an order contrary to right customs, one does not have to obey him; if he tries to do something manifestly opposed to justice and to the common good, it would be licit to resist him; if he attacks by force, he could be repelled by force, with the moderation characteristic of a good defense.”[16] Suárez moreover claims that the pope could be schismatic “if he wanted to overturn all the ecclesiastical ceremonies resting on apostolic tradition.”[17] (Note he says “resting on,” apostolica traditione firmatas: he’s talking about the whole structure that has been raised upon apostolic origins. That would mean something like the 1570 Missale Romanum.) The Dominican Sylvester Prierias (1456–1523), a leading figure in the initial response to Martin Luther, explains that if the pope is destroying the Church by evil actions,

he would certainly sin; he should neither be permitted to act in such fashion, nor should he be obeyed in what was evil; but he should be resisted with a courteous reprehension.… He does not have the power to destroy; therefore, if there is evidence that he is doing it, it is licit to resist him. The result of all this is that if the Pope destroys the Church by his orders and acts, he can be resisted and the execution of his mandate prevented. The right of open resistance to prelates’ abuse of authority stems also from natural law.[18]

Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546) likewise says: “If the Pope by his orders and his acts destroys the Church, one can resist him and impede the execution of his commands.” St. Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) concurs:

As it is lawful to resist the pope, if he assaulted a man’s person, so it is lawful to resist him, if he assaulted souls, or troubled the state, and much more if he strove to destroy the Church. It is lawful, I say, to resist him, by not doing what he commands, and hindering the execution of his will; still, it is not lawful to judge or punish or even depose him, because he is nothing other than a superior.[19]

Note—and this is a crucial point—that all of these authorities assume we are capable of recognizing that the pope is assaulting souls or destroying the Church at a given moment or with a given policy. In other words, the pope is not the sole judge of whether or not he is helping or harming the Church, as if we are waiting for him to announce: “Brothers and Sisters, I am now helping the Church, so you must needs obey me perfectly” or “Woe is me, I am now harming the Church, so you are permitted to resist me.” There is some role for our informed reason and faith to play in evaluating his words and actions. The faithful of Christ are not simply in a passive stance to papal commands, decrees, or actions; their obedience is intelligent, free, and conscientious.

Of course, the “default position” for a Catholic is to assume the best, to wish to obey and follow; so that one would have to be, as it were, compelled into a different posture, especially a posture of resistance; but even to say this much is to admit that it is possible for a pope to act so wrongly that he can be seen to be harming the Church and to be deserving of resistance. In short: the right to resist an abuse of power logically implies the right to judge that something is an abuse of power.[20] This capacity to recognize abuse is inseparable from the laudable and normative adherence of the faithful to immemorial custom and venerable tradition. For the Church’s “immune system” to be functional in a time of crisis, there must be Catholics who are not so cowed by authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical, that they will cease to hold fast to that which they have received. This, indeed, is exactly what the first generation of traditionalists did in the wake of the postconciliar liturgical reform.[21]

To see that the position I am defending here is not extravagant, we should consider a famous proponent of it in recent times: none other than Joseph Ratzinger. In The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), Ratzinger writes:

After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not “manufactured” by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity.... The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.

Benedict XVI takes up the same theme in 2005, in his first papal homily at St. John Lateran:

The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the Faith. The pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism. … The pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage. Thus, his power is not being above the Word of God, but at the service of it. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.[22]

Note that Ratzinger acknowledges the pope’s freedom to act or not act in accord with his boundenness; he is not an automaton who will never fail to do the right thing, but one who has received a solemn duty that he must fulfill, lest he injure the Church.

If we have this truly Catholic understanding of the papacy—which sees it as an office in service of a sacred heritage to be received, safeguarded, defended, expounded, and handed on—it follows that abolition of immemorial liturgical rites is absolutely out of the question. As Joseph Ratzinger noted in a speech in 1998: “It is good to recall here what Cardinal Newman observed, that the Church, throughout her history, has never abolished nor forbidden orthodox liturgical forms, which would be quite alien to the Spirit of the Church.”[23] We can see already the germ of his well-known statement in the letter to bishops that went out with Summorum Pontificum: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.” Recall the striking statement Cardinal Ratzinger made in an interview in 1996: “A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden, and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent. Can it be trusted any more about anything else? Won’t it proscribe tomorrow what it prescribes today?”[24]

As we saw a moment ago, Ratzinger refers to Cardinal Newman as a witness. Let’s have a look at the pertinent passage in the great Oxford don. In a sermon called “Ceremonies of the Church,” St. John Henry Newman explains that so great is the reverence we must have towards inherited liturgical forms that even Our Lord Himself and His Apostles, instead of creating the Christian liturgy de novo, continued to follow the Jewish rites of worship, which were elaborated and transformed by them into the apostolic rites of the Mass, the sacraments, the Divine Office, blessings and consecrations:

Matters of faith, indeed, He reveals to us by inspiration, because they are supernatural: but matters of moral duty, through our own conscience and divinely-guided reason; and matters of form [i.e., ways of praying], by tradition and long usage, which bind us to the observance of them, though they are not enjoined in Scripture…. The forms of devotion are parts of devotion. Who can in practice separate his view of body and spirit? for example, what a friend would he be to us who should treat us ill, or deny us food, or imprison us; and say, after all, that it was our body he ill-treated, and not our soul? Even so, no one can really respect religion, and insult its forms. Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened them, that to destroy them is, in respect to the multitude of men, to unsettle and dislodge the religious principle itself. In most minds usage has so identified them with the notion of religion, that the one cannot be extirpated without the other….
       The services and ordinances of the Church are the outward form in which religion has been for ages represented to the world, and has ever been known to us. Places consecrated to God’s honour, clergy carefully set apart for His service, the Lord’s-day piously observed, the public forms of prayer, the decencies of worship, these things, viewed as a whole, are sacred rela-tively to us, even if they were not, as they are, divinely sanctioned. Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason,—for the Church’s authority is from Christ,—being long used, cannot be disused without harm to our souls.[25]

Wolfram Schrems comments on this passage:

The Church never abolishes customary prayers sanctified through long use…. It is always a sacrilege and severely damaging to the Faith when an ancient, sanctified custom of prayer is abolished. Pope St. Pius V, whose Tridentine reform of the missal was anything but revolutionary, declared that from thenceforward all rites in the Latin church were prohibited except those that were more than 200 years old. Pius V knew the limits of papal power.[26]

When Ratzinger furnishes a definition of “rite,” he ties it immediately to tradition, the content of the faith, and the act of handing-on (which is what the Latin word traditio and the Greek word paradosis means):

The “rite,” that form of celebration and prayer which has ripened in the faith and the life of the Church, is a condensed form of living Tradition in which the sphere using that rite expresses the whole of its faith and its prayer, and thus at the same time the fellowship of generations one with another becomes something we can experience, fellowship with the people who pray before us and after us. Thus the rite is something of benefit that is given to the Church, a living form of paradosis, the handing-on of Tradition.[27]

In other words, once again: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The rite develops over time in the bosom of the Church as the expression of who she is, what she believes, how she prays, and it is therefore always given to the Church in successive ages. The pope may not and must not interrupt this transmission or cause it to deviate but rather be that “servant of the servants of God” who assists in its faithful realization.

This is why Cardinal Ratzinger was able to write these powerful words about what went wrong in the period after the Council:

The liturgical reform, in its concrete realization, has distanced itself even more from its origin. The result has not been a reanimation, but devastation. In place of the liturgy, fruit of a continual development, they have placed a fabricated liturgy. They have deserted a vital process of growth and becoming in order to substitute a fabrication. They did not want to continue the development, the organic maturing of something living through the centuries, and they replaced it, in the manner of technical production, by a fabrication, a banal product of the moment.[28]

Ratzinger favored a gradual and conservative liturgical reform. Even though he always acknowledged the sacramental validity of the Novus Ordo, he understood the break that had taken place owing to a pope who, unlike hundreds of his predecessors, had failed to act as a gardener and chose rather to act as a mechanic or fabricator, resulting in a form of the Roman liturgy so different from its preceding tradition that it had to be seen as a year zero, the start of a new “tradition” and not the continuation of the old tradition. That is why Benedict XVI could call them two “forms” and propose their coexistence; he could not think of another papally responsible way out of the impasse but to allow what he considered the strengths of each “form” to rub off on the other, for their “mutual enrichment.” However convoluted his solution may have been, we must note that it was chosen (ironically, perhaps) because it best cohered with a traditional vision of the papacy: the pope, concerned above all to transmit what he had received—even if some of what he had received was problematic!—fosters gradual, organic processes rather than imposing sudden “fixes” that threaten further chaos.[29]

I think we are now in a better position to see why the first and most basic mistake the papal apologists make is to assume that liturgy is merely “disciplinary,”[30] and that the pope’s “universal, immediate” jurisdiction endows him with the power to change anything—except for the so-called “forms of the sacraments.”[31] They can cite proof-texts to this effect, but in so doing they remove them from the context of living tradition, at once diachronic and synchronic, that establishes the boundaries for the exercise of such power. Sebastian Morello expresses this point extremely well:

Government exists per se for the protection of society and its way of life, so that society may achieve the ends for which human communities are formed; government is not the creator of society. So too, the pope and bishops are mandated to guard and pass on the tradition that has been handed down to them (2 Thess. 2:15), and are not to repudiate or abrogate it, or concoct their own novel version. The Church’s tradition, both belief and practice, is not theirs, with which they may do as they wish. The Church’s tradition belongs to the whole faithful. Of this tradition, the bishops (including the pope) are the guardians and servants. They can never be the creators nor the owners of the Church’s doctrine, practice or liturgical life, but are charged with protecting and promulgating the common religious inheritance of the whole faithful. For popes and bishops to behave as if the Church’s tradition is their belonging, with which they may do as they please, with the rest of the faithful just having to accept it, marks the crudest form of clericalism.[32]

As John Henry Newman recognized, papal authority makes sense precisely within the context of communal tradition: it serves an obvious purpose of preventing corruption and resolving difficulties that may arise. It is not a free-floating abstraction but a service to a certain deposit, which primarily is the revealed deposit of faith, but also a deposit of ecclesiastical traditions and customs that have grown up with it, expressive and protective of it. This sum total is entrusted to the pope for safekeeping and transmission. Yes, we all know that small additions or modifications are possible and at times desirable, but the general agreement among canonists and theologians is that these should be of a nature as to remain in harmony with, and respectful of, what is already there.

To say that the pope alone gets to determine when and how he exercises his disciplinary authority is to say that there is no possible way the pope can ever abuse it—or abuse anyone or anything. It is to say he has rights, but no duties; power, but no limits—natural, divine, ecclesiastical—to his power. Those who maintain that the pope has the authority to abrogate or abolish an immemorial liturgical rite and replace it with a new construction show that they have abandoned historic confessional Catholicism in favor of a caricature. It is a reductio ad absurdum of the papacy, which plays into the hands of Protestant and Orthodox controversialists who would be entirely right to object to it.[33]

Pope John XXIII celebrates the Byzantine Divine Liturgy

To manifest more fully the absurdity to which Catholicism would necessarily be reduced by following out the logical consequences of the hyperpapalist line, let us consider four sets of questions that might be posed.[34]

1. Can the pope remove entire portions of the Mass—e.g., decree that Mass is just the Mass of the Faithful or Liturgy of the Eucharist, and not it together with the Mass of the Catechumens or Liturgy of the Word?

2. What discretion does the pope have for changing feast dates and liturgical seasons? Can he change the date of Christmas? Could he remove Christmas or Easter from the liturgical calendar altogether? Could he remove Lent and Advent from the calendar?

3. Can the pope change the Byzantine rite, mandating that it be offered only in Latin (or in Esperanto)? Can he completely suppress the Byzantine rite? Can he force a Byzantine rite sui juris Church to use the Armenian rite?

4. Can the pope create an entirely new liturgical rite, based on no precedent? Could he create an Amazonian rite that has no resemblance to the Roman rite? Could he change the rite of the Latin Church to the Amazonian rite or, for that matter, the Byzantine rite? Would that adoption then make the Byzantine rite the Roman rite in that it is literally the rite of the Church in Rome?

To all these questions, a papalist of strict observance would have to answer “yes.” The point at stake is not whether the pope will do such a thing, but whether he can, and whether he may. And there are two possibilities alone. Either he has the power to do it—he could issue a decree with the force of law—but he lacks the (moral) authority to do it; or he has, in fact, no such power at all: he can make a procedurally valid decree that would fail to be legally valid because of its content (as natural lawyers say is possible). In the former scenario he makes a procedurally valid and legally binding decree that was morally wrong to make; in the latter scenario he makes an act that is null and void, not having the ratio of law.[35] In either case, the resulting law or appearance of law would bring grave harm to the Church and the legislator himself would be guilty of grave sin.[36] If it is bad law, we would be right to work and pray for its repeal or modification and to seek to mitigate its effects as much as possible; if it is an unjust law and therefore no law at all, we could rightfully ignore it and freely act contrary to its provisions.

Such questions as the four sets mentioned above help us to see the implicit or explicit boundaries that exist before a pope ever comes to power and that exist beneath and beyond his office. Liturgical realities are concrete and definite; they are genuine regula or rules for the Church. This is why Massimo Viglione is surely right to say:

The lex orandi of the Church, in fact, is not a “precept” of positive law voted on by a parliament or prescribed by a sovereign, which can always be retracted, changed, replaced, improved, or worsened. The lex orandi of the Church, furthermore, is not a specific and determined “thing” in time and space, as much as it is the collective whole of theological and spiritual norms and liturgical and pastoral practices of the entire history of the Church, from evangelical times—and specifically from Pentecost—up to today. Although it obviously lives in the present, it is rooted in the entire past of the Church. Therefore, we are not talking here about something human—exclusively human—that the latest boss can change at his pleasure. The lex orandi comprises all twenty centuries of the history of the Church, and there is no man or group of men in the world who can change this twenty-century-old deposit. There is no pope, council, or episcopate that can change the Gospel, the Depositum Fidei, or the universal Magisterium of the Church. Nor can the Liturgy of all time be [decisively] changed.[37]

Recall a fact that seems astonishing to us today, but would have surprised no one for most of the Church’s history: the liturgy of the Western or Latin-rite Church existed in its many varieties for 1,500 years—for fully fifteen centuries—before any pope wielded papal authority to codify or define a liturgical book. In response to the Protestant Revolt, St. Pius V took the grave step of establishing a definitive edition or editio typica of a rite that had been used for century after century as an authoritative custom. So far from “creating his own missal” (as some people ignorantly continue to say), Pius V took the most conservative action possible in the circumstances: he acted precisely to conserve tradition in the face of a massive heretical onslaught with its innumerable innovations.

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, one of the most eminent canonists in the Catholic Church and for years the chief canonist of the Vatican, takes the same stance, in a passage that summarizes all of our considerations to this point.

Can the Roman Pontiff juridically abrogate the usus antiquior? The fullness of power (plenitudo potestatis) of the Roman Pontiff is the power necessary to defend and promote the doctrine and discipline of the Church. It is not “absolute power” which would include the power to change doctrine or to eradicate a liturgical discipline which has been alive in the Church since the time of Pope Gregory the Great and even earlier. . . . Our Lord Who gave the wonderful gift of the usus antiquior will not permit it to be eradicated from the life of the Church.
          It must be remembered that, from a theological point of view, every valid celebration of a sacrament, by the very fact that it is a sacrament, is also, beyond any ecclesiastical legislation, an act of worship and, therefore, also a profession of faith. In that sense, it is not possible to exclude the Roman Missal, according to the usus antiquior, as a valid expression of the lex orandi and, therefore, of the lex credendi of the Church. It is a question of an objective reality of divine grace which cannot be changed by a mere act of the will of even the highest ecclesiastical authority.[38]

Thus, when apologists blithely say: “The pope can change the liturgy as he pleases,” we might interrupt to express our polite disagreement. The Pope, or others in the hierarchy, can legislate for the liturgy, in the sense of the conditions surrounding it, the printed editions of it, the qualifications of ministers for it, etc., but they do not legislate liturgy per se. Fullness of power means power to do anything that can (lawfully) be done, not power to do whatever the wielder of it wants.[39] If the statement “the pope can change the liturgy as he pleases” is accepted without qualification, then tradition means essentially nothing. And this is not a Catholic view (and never has been), but a nominalistic and voluntaristic one.[40] The Catholic standard is formulated resoundingly by Fr. John Hunwicke:

Holy Tradition, which, of course, has Holy Scripture as one of its ruling structures. Holy Tradition, the foremost manifestation of which, day by day, is in the Liturgy. Holy Tradition is our truest Mistress. Holy Tradition is the ultimate and over-ruling auctoritas in the life of the Household of God.  No auctoritas can subsist in enactments which manifestly subvert Holy Tradition.[41]

*          *          *

In this lecture I haven’t explored in depth the specific provisions of Traditionis Custodes or the account Pope Francis gives of his decision in the accompanying letter.[42] But this is on everyone’s mind and so it seems fitting to address it more directly.

Cardinal Walter Brandmüller wrote a short article in which he pointed out that a law that is not received or approved, that is, set aside in practice and not complied with, is recognized in the canonical tradition as lacking the full nature of law. He says, moreover, that there are situations in which customary law can suspend the obligatoriness of a new law contrary to it; canon law envisions customs that override contrary legislation. Lastly, His Eminence reminds us that a doubtful law does not bind—that is, if the law’s relevance, applicability, or compatibility with other laws is unclear or problematic, it lacks the full force of law. And that is certainly true of this error-ridden and canonically slipshod motu proprio. I would go further and assert that the motu proprio lacks juridical standing—in other words, it is illicit or illegitimate because it is founded on multiple demonstrable falsehoods and contains contradictions and ambiguities that would make its application arbitrary and uncertain.[43]

Even if for the sake of argument we were to grant that the document has legal force (at least to the extent that it is intelligible) and that its provisions fall within what the pope can do, we would still have the right and the duty to strive for its repeal and to resist it in every way open to us. For it would still be a tyrannical use of power by which a hierarch lords it over his subjects and strips them of what belongs to them, and, in fact, seeks ultimately the liquidation of a minority in the Church, much as the Chinese Communist Party, with whom the Vatican has a secret alliance, rounds up ethnic and religious minorities and puts them in “reeducation camps” where they can learn how to be model Chinese citizens.

How did we reach this point, where instead of a pope who receives, guards, promotes, and hands on tradition, we have a pope who has attempted to unleash a global war against Catholics, against priests, religious, and laity, who are doing what he is supposed to be doing? That is a huge question for which another lecture would be needed, but let me give an outline of an answer. There are two primary causes.

The first cause is what I have called “the spirit of Vatican I”—Vatican I, mind you. That council gave a narrow definition of papal infalllibility together with a broad description of the pope’s unique position as vicar of Christ in the visible body of the Church on earth. Tragically, instead of being accepted in its modesty and understood in continuity with the fuller understanding of the papacy’s relationship with tradition that I have summarized in this talk, the constitution Pastor Aeternus was taken by many as an endorsement of a hyperpapalism that concentrates all authority, all truth, all law, and the sum total of “Catholic identity” in the papal office and in the very person of the pope, as if it then emanates from him to every other authority. Although the most flamboyant ultramontanes lost at the council, their cultus of the Roman Pontiff not only survived but thrived, leading over time to the phenomenon of the superstar pope whose every word and action is transmitted instantly across the globe to a palpitating audience awaiting guidance. This has tended to weaken the Catholic instinct for receiving the truth of the Faith from a rich network of sources by which it comes to us: Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, the monuments of ecclesiastical tradition (the greatest of which is the Sacred Liturgy), the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the great mystical and ascetical saints, popular devotions and customs. It has, moreover, substituted a new kind of epistemology or theory of knowledge in which our access to the truth is had not so much by the exercise of the virtue of faith and the power of reason on their proper objects as by the subjugation of one’s intellect and will to a hierarchical superior’s intellect and will, taken as a sole and sufficient measure of truth. Obedience is then reinterpreted as evacuating oneself of one’s own knowledge and judgment in order to be filled with whatever content is filled in, with no questions asked about how it is or is not in harmony with any other content from any other source. Now, Catholicism is inherently about hierarchical submission, and the virtue of obedience is precious to us; but as we know, corruptio optimi pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst: there is a rightful and a wrongful submission, a true and a false obedience, and the difference can be dramatic. Such distinctions are seldom made because we are all under the influence of an exaggeratedly Jesuit notion of blind obedience (which I will not blame on St. Ignatius of Loyola whose birthday into eternal life we celebrate today, but rather on his successors[44]), and, consequently, we have lost a richer sensus Catholicus of the norms that govern Christian life and thought. Returning then to ultramontanism, we see in it a confluence of several factors: a growing tendency for the Church to imitate the absolutism of the modern State, together with the breakdown of intermediate, subsidiary legal structures and cultural centers of gravity that acted as “checks and balances,” so to speak, on centralized authority and monopolizing ideas;[45] a kind of clericalism and triumphalism that are not at all the same as celebrating the dignity of the priesthood and the reign of Christ the King; and, as I mentioned, a Jesuit notion of blind obedience to religious authority. If you put all these things together, you end up with the view that the Church is ruled by an absolute monarch[46] whose ideas are right, whose will is law, whose power unlimitedly surpasses all history, custom, tradition, or even prior magisterial teaching. He is a Delphic oracle, a mortal god, an image of divine omnipotence, a concentration of all of Catholicism. This, needless to say, is not and cannot be what the papacy is.[47]

The second cause of our crisis is Modernism, which emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century, reaching its first apogee during the reign of Pius X, and then, having gone underground, reemerged with greater force during the pontificate of Pius XII, after which it flowed into the Second Vatican Council and exercised an unquestionable influence on the formulation of the documents as well as their implementation. The entire program of “modernization” was given not only a pastoral or practical dimension, which might arguably have been innocent, but also a theological one, which became ideological: a conforming of the Church to the ideals and values of the liberal world produced by the age of revolutions, in perfect contradiction to the condemnations in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors.[48] Until John XXIII, the popes had been more or less resolutely anti-modernist. After John XXIII, the situation becomes more ambiguous, confusing, and anarchic, with the popes seeming to speak out of both sides of their mouths: sometimes they reaffirm traditional teaching, while at other times they appear to contradict it, or mingle it with foreign ideas, or simply avoid it, condemning it to silence.[49] With Pope Francis, however, we have moved into a new phase, where modernism, to one degree or another, is mingled in with nearly everything he says and does; nor is this difficult to prove. So, in the pontificate of Francis the two streams have joined together: he unites in one person the spirit of Vatican I and the spirit of Vatican II, an ultramontanist vision of papal leadership and a modernist theological orientation.[50] Truly a monstrous combination, and the greatest trial the Church has ever faced, even though most Catholics are so besotted with modernity and so star-struck at papal authority that they tend to think it would be worse for the pope to have a mistress or to practice simony. As I like to remind people, Pope Alexander VI—a Borgia who had at least seven children by means of two mistresses who were also married women, and who freely lavished offices on his relatives—did not resist his appetites of lust and ambition, but he never dared to touch the liturgy of the Catholic Church, her doctrine, or even her moral teaching that he himself violated.[51] He did not, for example, suppress liturgical texts that speak of sin, judgment, death, and the reality of hell,[52] or the need to despise earthly goods and long for heavenly ones.[53] He did not declare that capital punishment was wrong or that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive the sacraments without repentance. Such egregious acts against the nature, purpose, and limits of the papacy were left for Paul VI and Francis to commit.

Having opened up these enormous vistas, I must bring this lecture to a close. What should be our response as Catholics to a truly catastrophic situation in the Church? The answer is as simple as it is ancient: ora et labora, pray and work. That is how the Benedictine monks and nuns kept the light of Faith burning in the Dark Ages and laid the foundations for the glorious era that followed, Christendom at its zenith. We have fallen into a new Dark Ages, but our tools must be the same as theirs. Part of our labor must be the labor of study: we need to be reading books—not just spiritual books—that will help us to understand, to think clearly, to act well, and to give good explanations to others. Not everyone is called to be a scholar, but everyone can set aside daily time for ten or twenty pages. I want to recommend four books in particular that relate to my theme.

1. Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age. When people ask me: “What should I read to understand the current crisis in the Church, how we got here, and how we get out of it?,” I always recommend this book, which is written with the clarity, fortitude, kindness, and orthodoxy for which Bishop Schneider is famous.

2. Roberto de Mattei’s Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church. We need to know about times in history where popes have messed up, doctrinally or prudentially, and were legitimately resisted by members of the Church. It is comforting—in both the current meaning of the word (consoling, reassuring) and its old-fashioned sense (strengthening, galvanizing)—to know that there are precedents for such resistance, and to know what they looked like. Divine Providence raises the right people at the right moment.

3. Defending the Faith Against Present Heresies, edited by John Lamont and Claudio Pierantoni. The best one-volume critique of Pope Francis’s theology and Church governance. As I said before, context is very important for achieving understanding, and this book provides a rich and full context for grasping the significance and function of Traditionis Custodes.

4. Lastly, Are Canonizations Infallible? Revisiting a Disputed Question. Many traditional Catholics have been bothered by the rapid-fire canonization of the trio of popes of the Second Vatican Council, namely, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. This collection offers an excellent introduction to the history of canonization, the changes made to the process at various points, the nature and objects of papal infallibility, and, finally, reasons for questioning the infallibility of canonizations—in other words, that some canonizations may be in error, and that this is a stance Catholics are permitted to take.

What, then, do we do? I’d like to echo a recent statement of Dr. Joseph Shaw: “The best way to respond to Traditionis Custodes is to carry on with the work of restoring Tradition,” in whatever ways are available to us. Shaw goes on to talk about altar server training and mending vestments.

Now and always, hold to the Faith. Teach the Faith. Live the Faith with love and zeal. God will take care of the rest.


[1] See the following aggregations at New Liturgical Movement: Roundup of Major Reactions to Traditionis Custodes,” July 22; “Continuing the List of Articles on Traditionis Custodes,” July 23; “Further Articles on the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes,” July 28.

[2] For more on the question of context, see my article “Sun, Moon, and Stars: Tradition for the Saints,” OnePeterFive, February 3, 2021.

[3] It is worth pointing out that the word ritus (translated here as “rites”) is not at all self-evident; in fact, it is a term of almost notorious vagueness, that can refer to anything from a particular ceremony (the “rite of communion,” i.e., how communion is distributed, whether under one or two species) to a full liturgy (the “rite of Mass” or the “rite of baptism,” i.e., the entire thing with all its elements) to an entire rite with all its many liturgies (“the Roman rite,” “the Byzantine rite”) to a particular use within that rite (“the Dominican rite,” which would more properly be called “the Dominican use”). Pope Pius XII would not have meant: “I can make up a Pacellian Rite, to stand alongside the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and the Roman Mass,” but rather something like “the supreme authority of the Church can withdraw the chalice from the non-celebrants.” For that matter, would not a patriarch have an analogous power over his ritual church?

[4] John A. Monaco, “Was the Sacred Liturgy made for the pope, or the pope for the Sacred Liturgy?,” Catholic World Report, July 28, 2021.

[5] All authorities recognize that liturgy is a locus theologicus unto itself. This implies that it is not simply the product of a handful of theologians in a committee rubber-stamped by the Church’s legislative authority.

[6] Fr. John Hunwicke, “Does Traditionis Custodes possess Auctoritas?,” Fr Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment, July 17, 2021. William of Ockham famously argued that divine omnipotence should be understood as not “limited” in any way by logically prior commitments of what God owes to His own goodness or to the nature of His creatures according to His wise design. For a full exposition, see my article “William of Ockham and the Metaphysical Roots of Natural Law,” The Aquinas Review (2004): 1–84 (available here).

[7] For a critique of the Pian formulation, see Fr. Christopher Smith, “Liturgical Formation and Catholic Identity,” in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, ed. Alcuin Reid (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 260–86. Fr. Smith quotes Aidan Kavanaugh: “To reverse the maxim, subordinating the standard of worship to the standard of belief, makes a shambles of the dialectic of revelation… The law of belief does not constitute the law of worship. Thus the creeds and the reasoning which produced them are not the forces which produced baptism. Baptism gave rise to the Trinitarian creeds. So too the Eucharist produced, but was not produced by, a scriptural text, the Eucharistic prayer, or all the various scholarly theories concerning the Eucharistic presence. Influenced by, yes. Constituted or produced by, no” (261–62).

[8] And in fact, the potential falsehood in Pius XII’s reformulation ends up being actualized by Paul VI’s deconstruction and reconstruction of the feast of Christ the King: see Michael P. Foley, “A Reflection on the Fate of the Feast of Christ the King,” New Liturgical Movement, October 21, 2020; idem, “The Orations of the Feast of Christ the King,” New Liturgical Movement, October 23, 2020; Peter Kwasniewski, “Should the Feast of Christ the King Be Celebrated in October or November?,” Rorate Caeli, October 22, 2014; “Between Christ the King and ‘We Have No King But Caesar,’” OnePeterFive, October 25, 2020.

[9] If one objects that the pope couldn’t make such changes because he couldn’t teach the doctrines behind them, I would note that my three examples need not be taken as actually asserting heresies: to be against possession of weapons is not to say self-defense is immoral; to remove miracles from the readings is not, in itself, a denial of their truth or of divine inspiration; to suggest certain sinners should be permitted to attend Mass is not necessarily an endorsement of their lifestyle—although all three would imply errors and promote their flourishing. The absurdity of such papal innovations would not be exclusively doctrinal, but simultaneously liturgical, theological, and moral.

[10] Contrary to what some have claimed, this Papal Oath is certainly authentic, although many spurious versions of it circulate on the internet. There are two modern critical editions of the Liber Diurnus, the one published in 1869 by Marie Louis Thomas Eugène de Rozière, and another published in 1889 by Theodor E. von Sickel. According to Sickel, the three versions that survive to-day (the Vatican, Clermont, & Milan MSS; in 1958 Hans Foerster published diplomatic editions of all three) represents its state of development during the reign of Hadrian I (late 8th to early 9th centuries). The papal oath is formula 83, and although Gottfried Buschbell argued in 1896 that it stopped being used after 787, in his 1948 book on the Photian schism Francis Dvornik makes an excellent case for its continued use in the 11th century, when Cardinal Deusdedit wrote a compilation of canon law and included the papal oath therein. It appears that the papal oath ceased to be used sometime after the 11th century; it is tempting to connect its fall into desuetude with the expansive views of papal power held by St Gregory VII and his reformist successors.

[11] Translated by Gerhard Eger and Zachary Thomas, from the Vatican MS text as edited by Hans Foerster (1958, pp. 145–48). For the full Latin text and additional notes, see “‘I Shall Keep Inviolate the Discipline and Ritual of the Church’: The Early Mediæval Papal Oath,” Canticum Salomonis, July 31, 2021.

[12] See Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “On the question of a heretical pope,” Gloria Dei, March 28, 2019.

[13] This and the preceding text are from the thirty-ninth session of Constance, held October 9, 1417, and subsequently ratified by Pope Martin V and Pope Eugene IV, with the implicit or explicit caveat (to quote the words of the latter) “absque tamen præjudicio juris dignitatis et præeminentiæ Sedis Apostolicæ” (see “The Council of Constance”; cf. T. Shahan, s.v. Council of Constance, in The Catholic Encyclopedia [New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908]). Although the text of this oath was copied from a forged oath attributed to Boniface VIII, it nevertheless expresses a properly Catholic attitude toward the papacy, at a time when many were scandalized by an office that was failing, in practice, to secure unity of faith and governance. See Phillip H. Stump, The Reforms of the Council of Constance (1414–1418) (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 115 (citation: My citing of approved passages of Constance should not be taken in any way as an esoteric hint that I embrace conciliarism, which I reject as much as I reject hyperpapalism. In a healthy ecosystem every organism depends on every other one doing its own thing in its proper place. When one species takes over, or an foreign species is introduced, the whole ecosystem suffers harm.

[14] Summa de ecclesia, lib. IV, pars Ia, cap. xi, § Secundo sic (fol. 196v of the 1489 Roman edition, p. 552 of the 1560 Salamanca edition, and p. 369v of the 1561 Venice edition). For the full text in Latin and in English, see “‘Beyond Summorum Pontificum: The Work of Retrieving the Tridentine Heritage’: Full Text of Dr. Kwasniewski’s Roman Forum Lecture,” Rorate Caeli, July 14, 2021, note 13.

[15] Cajetan, De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii. For a remarkable example of opposition to a papal command, see the account of what was done by Robert Grosseteste, recounted in Paul Casey, “Can a Catholic Ever Disobey a Pope?,” OnePeterFive, July 17, 2020.

[16] Suárez, De Fide, disp. X, sect. VI, n. 16; De Fide, disp. X, sec VI, no. 16. Compare a statement by the SSPX on July 19, 2021: “The traditional Mass belongs to the most intimate part of the common good in the Church. Restricting it, pushing it into ghettos, and ultimately planning its demise, can have no legitimacy. This law is not a law of the Church, because, as St. Thomas says, a law against the common good is no valid law” (“From Summorum Pontificum to Traditionis Custodes, or From the Reserve to the Zoo”).

[17] De Caritate, disp. XII, sect. 1: “si nollet tenere cum toto Ecclesiae corpore unionem et conjunctionem quam debet, ut si tentaret totam Ecclesiam excommunicare, aut si vellet omnes ecclesiasticas caeremonias apostolica traditione firmatas evertere.” It is important to note here that, when it comes to the oldest elements of liturgical rites, we very often don’t have any way to know (and may never have the ability to know) which of these are of merely human institution and which are not, which makes it all the more crucial not to eliminate them.

[18] Prieras, Dialogus de Potestate Papae, cited by Francisco de Vitoria, Obras, pp. 486–87. For a good discussion of this point of Catholic doctrine, see José Antonio Ureta, “The Faithful Are Fully Entitled to Defend Themselves Against Liturgical Aggression—Even When It Comes From the Pope,” The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, July 25, 2021. See also the superb Appendix II, “The Right to Resist an Abuse of Power,” in Michael Davies, Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1979, repr. 2020), 379–419.

[19] Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, Bk 2, Ch. 29, seventh reply. “Judge” here means “bring to judgment” or issue a formal judicial sentence; it obviously does not exclude making a judgment of his words or acts.

[20] Nor can this be excluded as Protestant “private judgement.” Private judgement is, rather, the claim to be the final arbiter about what is contained in the word of God. A pope does not lay claim to be such a final arbiter unless he makes an ex cathedra declaration and anathematizes those who refuse to embrace it as part of the deposit of faith, or unless there is a teaching on a matter of faith and morals that is part of the universal ordinary Magisterium. Here, with papal disciplinary decisions and policies, we are in the realm of practical and prudential matters that can be evaluated by all who are involved, and where the pope’s own mind and will enjoy no guarantee of inerrancy or even of probity.

[21] See my article “It’s Time to Imitate Our Forefathers: Never Give Up!,” OnePeterFive, July 28, 2021.

[22] Homily for the Mass of Installation as the Bishop of Rome (May 7, 2005).

[23] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Ten Years of the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei,” a lecture given at the Ergife Palace Hotel, Rome, October 24, 1998.

[24] Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 176–77.

[25] Someone may object that Newman spoke these words as an Anglican. However, the truth they express is not specifically tied to Anglicanism but is part of that common Catholic inheritance that Newman first recognized and then later consistenly followed back to its root and home in the Catholic Church, whose traditional liturgy he so eloquently praised. See my articles “St. John Henry Newman, the Traditionalist,” part 1 and part 2, published at New Liturgical Movement on October 14 and 21, 2019.

[26] Wolfram Schrems, “The Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy: Reform or Revolution?,” Lecture given in Vienna on April 2, 2017, published at Rorate Caeli on May 3, 2018.

[27] Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, second ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), Preface, 11.

[28] The original quotation is from an article in the German publication Theologisches 20.2 (February 1990): 103–4, referring to Ratzinger’s contribution to the book Simandron—Der Wachklopfer. Gedenkschrift für Klaus Gamber (1919–1989) (see It has been quoted many times in many languages and forms: for a full history, see Sharon Kabel, “Catholic fact check: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the fabricated liturgy,” June 19, 2021.

[29] As Traditionis Custodes makes manifest, Pope Francis does not have the same vision of the papacy, the same patience, or the same trust in the capacity of the “holy people of God” to be drawn toward that which is sacred and great, that which is traditional. For a more critical take on Summorum Pontificum, see my lecture “Beyond Summorum Pontificum: The Work of Retrieving the Tridentine Heritage,” Rorate Caeli, July 14, 2021.

[30] The quotation from Cardinal Burke, below, will make the point most explicitly: a liturgical act is a profession of faith and an exercise of the virtue of religion, so liturgical legislation cannot be divorced from the Church’s dogmatic teaching or her customary (and anthropologically grounded) exercise of justice toward God.

[31] A more fundamental problem, as Tracey Rowland has pointed out, is that neither then nor now has the Church developed an adequate theological language to talk about “culture.” There is law (we can talk about liturgy as a “discipline”) and sacramentology (we can talk about its validity, etc.), but for some reason we haven’t cognized what all the canonists and theologians of earlier ages took for granted, which is the sanctity of inherited custom as constitutive of the Catholic way of life.

[32] Sebastian Morello, “Reflections on Pope Francis’s Motu Proprio ‘Traditionis Custodes,’The European Conservative, July 21, 2021.

[33] For the sake of strict accuracy we would have to distinguish between the act of creating and imposing on nearly everyone a different rite than the patrimonial one (which would be an act of violence and bad enough) and the act of abolishing or abrogating an immemorial liturgical rite (which is very much worse). Paul VI did the former but not the latter, whatever his practical intentions may have been; St. Pius V, St. John Henry Newman, and Joseph Ratzinger all suggest that it wouldn’t be easy to abrogate an immemorial liturgical tradition and that the Church has never actually done so—not even Traditionis Custodes directly attempts to do this. May we draw the conclusion that it is impossible in principle? I think we may.

[34] These questions were inspired by John A. Monaco’s “Some Questions on Traditionis Custodes,” OnePeterFive, July 20, 2021.

[35] See St. Thomas, Summa theologiae I-II, q. 96, a. 4: “The like [unjust laws] are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), ‘a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.’ Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience…”

[36] As Fr. Zuhlsdorf recently reminded us, Karl Rahner (Studies in Modern Theology [Herder, 1965], 394–95) discussed exactly this scenario: “Imagine that the Pope, as supreme pastor of the Church, issued a decree today requiring all the uniate churches of the Near East to give up their Oriental liturgy and adopt the Latin rite….The Pope would not exceed the competence of his jurisdictional primacy by such a decree, but the decree would be legally valid. But we can also pose an entirely different question. Would it be morally licit for the Pope to issue such a decree? Any reasonable man and any true Christian would have to answer “no.” Any confessor of the Pope would have to tell him that in the concrete situation of the Church today such a decree, despite its legal validity, would be subjectively and objectively an extremely grave moral offense against charity, against the unity of the Church rightly understood (which does not demand uniformity), against possible reunion of the Orthodox with the Roman Catholic Church, etc., a mortal sin from which the Pope could be absolved only if he revoked the decree.
       “From this example one can readily gather the heart of the matter. It can, of course, be worked out more fundamentally and abstractly in a theological demonstration:
       “1. The exercise of papal jurisdictional primacy remains even when it is legal, subject to moral norms, which are not necessarily satisfied merely because a given act of jurisdiction is legal. Even an act of jurisdiction which legally binds its subjects can offend against moral principles.
       “2. To point out and protest against the possible infringement against moral norms of an act which must respect these norms is not to deny or question the legal competence of the man possessing the jurisdiction.”

[37] See “‘They Will Throw You out of the Synagogues’ (Jn 16:2): The Hermeneutic of Cain’s Envy against Abel,Rorate Caeli, July 23, 2021.

[38] See the “Statement on the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes.” In a similar vein Martin Mosebach writes: “Pope Benedict did not ‘allow’ the ‘old Mass,’ and he granted no privilege to celebrate it. In a word, he did not take a disciplinary measure that a successor can retract. What was new and surprising about Summorum Pontificum was that it declares that the celebration of the old Mass does not need any permission. It had never been forbidden because it never could be forbidden. One could conclude that here we find a fixed, insuperable limit to the authority of a pope. Tradition stands above the pope. The old Mass, rooted deep in the first Christian millennium, is as a matter of principle beyond the pope’s authority to prohibit. Many provisions of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio can be set aside or modified, but this magisterial decision cannot be so easily done away with. Pope Francis does not attempt to do so—he ignores it. It still stands after July 16, 2021, recognizing the authority of tradition that every priest has the moral right to celebrate the never forbidden old rite” (“Mass and Memory,” First Things, July 30, 2021).

[39] “[A]t the [first] Vatican Council the idea that the Pope could govern the Church arbitrarily was dismissed as an absurdity by the majority of Fathers. Fr Cuthbert Butler, the historian of Vatican I, relates that when Bishop Verot of Savanna (USA) proposed a canon to this effect: ‘If anyone says that the authority of the Pope in the Church is so full that he may dispose of everything by his mere whim, let him be anathema,’ the response was that the Council Fathers had not assembled in Rome ‘to hear buffooneries’” (Geoffrey Hull, The Banished Heart: Origins of Heteropraxis in the Catholic Church [London: T&T Clark, 2010], 148).

[40] For a full exposition of why it is not and cannot be a Catholic view but is, in fact, anti-Catholic, see Fr. Chad Ripperger, The Binding Force of Tradition (n.p.: Sensus Traditionis Press, 2013) and Topics on Tradition (n.p.: Sensus Traditionis Press, 2013); Roberto de Mattei, Apologia for Tradition. A defense of Tradition grounded in the historical context of the Faith (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 2019).

[41] “Traditionis Custodes,” Fr Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment, July 16, 2021.

[42] See my interview at The Remnant published on July 21 and my interview with Cameron O’Hearn.

[43] “Given its foundational falsehoods, does Traditionis Custodes lack juridical standing?,” LifeSite News, July 20, 2021.

[44] See John Lamont, “Tyranny and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: A Jesuit tragedy,” Rorate Caeli, October 27, 2018.

[45] See Bronwen McShea, “Bishops Unbound,” First Things, January 2019.

[46] Contrary to the interpretation of Vatican I that Pius IX himself confirmed to a number of concerned parties.

[47] For more, see “My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism,” Catholic Family News, February 4, 2021.

[48] We are all familiar with Joseph Ratzinger’s comment that Gaudium et Spes represents a “counter-syllabus,” as well as his claim, in the famous Christmas 2005 speech on the hermeneutic of reform-in-continuity, that the Church must sometimes repudiate certain teachings in order to remain faithful to others that are more fundamental.

[49] See my lecture “Modernism: History, Method, Mentality,” available at

[50] I say a “theological orientation” because it is difficult to think of Francis as a theologian; he is rather a product of the great modernists who came much earlier, and inconsistently parrots their views. He also may seem to lack a Pio Nono conception of the papacy, since he refuses to wear pontifical vestments, goes on about synodality, and in general presents himself as a manager rather than a ruler (so that Traditionis Custodes stands out starkly for its sweeping use of papal prerogatives); and yet he is treated like an absolute monarch by the people for whom this is useful, and he knows it. It is, in the end, his view of things that synodality is supposed to endorse, which makes him still the “be all and end all.” It’s a more confusing version of ultramontanism than the straight-up one seen in earlier pontificates, but it would be unimaginable without it, and its capacity for damage is proportionate to the continuing hold of this false view of papal authority. Something similar was true about Paul VI as well: he wouldn’t discipline dissidents against Humanae Vitae and wouldn’t say the magic words even to attempt to abrogate the Old Mass, but he was treated as an absolute monarch by ultramontanists around him and the liturgy was the one area in which he wielded his power atypically.

[51] It seems Alexander VI had more mistresses and children than the ones mentioned here, but historians cannot pinpoint all the details.

[52] See the work of Pristas, Cekada, Bianchi, and Fiedrowicz, inter alia.

[53] See Daniel van Slyke, “Despicere mundum et terrena: A Spiritual and Liturgical Motif in the Missale Romanum,” Usus Antiquior: A Journal Dedicated to the Sacred Liturgy, 1.1 (2010): 59–81,