Rorate Caeli

Op-Ed: "Traditionis Custodes: Vatican II at the Throes of Death"

Father Claude Barthe
September 2021

The non-reception of the Second Vatican Council has focused in a concrete way on the refusal of the liturgical reform, even if a certain number of practitioners of the old Mass affirm their adherence to the "well interpreted" conciliar intuitions. In any case, the existence of the traditional liturgy is a persistent and even growing phenomenon of non-reception. Marginal? Pope Bergoglio, who wants to be the pope of the full realization of Vatican II, has come to be convinced that the phenomenon is sufficiently important that he must work to eradicate it. With the consequence that the possibly marginal has certainly become central: the Tridentine Mass is elevated as the evil to be destroyed; the seminaries training priests to say it, as cankers to be eliminated. And this is business as usual.

A return to the original violence of the liturgical reform

So the Mass is once again outlawed, as it was under Paul VI. The letter that accompanies Traditionis custodes explains unambiguously the ultimate goal of the pontifical text: to ensure "a return to a unitary form of celebration": the new liturgy. The decision is brutal and peremptory: the pope decides both the end of the traditional Mass and the end of the traditional world, which he accuses - and only he! - of attacking the unity of the Church.

Vatican II, whose grand design - an opening to the modern world in its modernity in order to be better understood by the men of this age - is a kind of in-between between traditional orthodoxy and heterodoxy (in this case, a neo-modernist relativism). The adoption of some ambiguous propositions allows, for example, to affirm that a separated Christian can, as such, be in a certain communion with the Church: according to Unitatis redintegratio, Luther, who thought he had broken with the Church of the pope, remained in reality an "imperfect" Catholic (UR 3).

Pope Francis, since his election, has moved along this apparent ridge as far as possible: he transmutes collegiality into synodality, he goes beyond Nostra Aetate and the Assisi Meeting with the Abu Dhabi declaration, but he is careful not to cross the threshold beyond which one would fall - or fall faster - into that nothingness where the most daring of progressive theologies are already tipping. Like Paul VI, he remains faithful to ecclesiastical celibacy and the male priesthood, but bypassing the traditional discipline through the path of lay ministries opened by Pope Montini (the institution of ministers who hold clerical roles without being clerics, probably to arrive at the ministry of deaconess or even president of a non-formal Eucharist), and by entrusting to lay men and women quasi-jurisdictional offices (ever higher positions in the Roman dicasteries).

In other words, Francis is keeping enough of the institution, but continuing to empty it of its doctrinal substance. In his words, he is tearing down the walls.

* Humanæ vitæ and a set of texts following that encyclical had preserved conjugal morality from the liberalization that the Council had brought to bear on ecclesiology. Amoris Letitia has overturned this dam: people living in public adultery can remain in it without committing a serious sin (AL 301).

* Summorum Pontificum had recognized a right to that conservatory of the early Church, the ancient liturgy, with its associated catechesis and clerical personnel. Traditionis custodes swept away this attempt at a "return": the new liturgical books are the sole expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite (TC, art. 1).

The fact remains that the pope and his advisors took great risks in making these hastily drafted and violent provisions. Stunned commentators speak of the Latin American pope's lack of knowledge of the Western ecclesial terrain; they point to the stinging disavowal of the major work of Benedict XVI; They point to the contradictions of a chaotic government that crushes the traditional "insiders" while granting faculties that amount to a semi-recognition to the traditional "outsiders", those of the SSPX; they are surprised, finally, while the fire of schism rages in Germany and quiet heresy spreads everywhere, that an innocent liturgical practice is being attacked by both.

But one imagines that the pope and his entourage only shrug their shoulders at such criticism. The justification for the repressive assault they have unleashed is decisive for them: the Tridentine Mass thus crystallizes the existence of a Church within the Church because it represents a lex orandi ante and therefore anti-conciliar. One can compromise with the drifts of the German Church which are at worst too conciliar: one cannot tolerate the ancient liturgy which is anti-conciliar.

Vatican II with what is in it is not debatable! In a very characteristic way, the Letter that accompanies Traditionis custodes infallibilizes the Council: the liturgical reform stems from Vatican II; however, this Council was an "exercise of collegial power in a solemn way"; to doubt that the Council is inserted in the dynamism of Tradition is therefore "to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church."

A repression that comes too late

Except that, now, in 2021, we are no longer in 1969, when the new missal was promulgated in a fresh and joyful way, nor in 1985, when the Ratzinger Report and the Synod on catechetics assembly made an already anxious assessment of the fruits of Vatican II; nor even in 2005, when the appearance of the expression "hermeneutics of reform in continuity" sounded like an attempt to painstakingly recompose a reality that was increasingly escaping. Now, it is too late.

The ecclesiastical institution is, as if it were ,on edge, the mission extinguished and, in the West at least, the visibility of priests and faithful vanished. Andrea Riccardi, the main character of the Community of Sant'Egidio, the opposite of a conservative, in his last book, La Chiesa brucia [The Church Burns]: Crisis and future of Christianity. Crisis and Future of Christianity, considers the burning of Notre Dame in Paris as a parable of the situation of Catholicism, and analyzes its collapse country by country, in Europe. His discourse is characteristic of that of the disappointed Bergoglians, who become disappointed conciliars.

How can we be surprised that authors, much more free than he is from the ecclesiastical apparatus, sound the alarm and do not hesitate to say where the evil comes from. Thus the academician Jean-Marie Rouart in Ce pays des hommes sans Dieu [This Country of Godless Men], who thinks that the battle of Western society against Islam is lost in advance, whereas only a "Christian leap", that is to say a radical reversal, could save us: the Church, he writes, "must proceed to the equivalent of a Counter-Reformation, to return to that Christian reform which allowed it in the 17th century to confront victoriously a Protestantism which challenged it". Or Patrick Buisson in La fin d'un monde [The End of a World], who devotes two parts of his large book to the situation of Catholicism: "The Crash of the Faith" and "The Sacred is Massacred". In a way that is both disconcerting and brutal, he writes, "the Tridentine rite, which had been the official rite of the Latin Church for four centuries, was, overnight, decreed undesirable, its celebration proscribed and its faithful hunted down." We have left Catholicism to go "to the conciliar religion".

Moreover, in 2021, the balance of power is very different from that of the 1970s between those who had "made the Council" and those who were subjected to it. Andrea Riccardi, like everyone else, makes this realistic observation: "Traditionalism is a reality of some importance in the Church, both in organization and in means." The traditional world, although a minority (in France, 8 to 10% of churchgoers), is growing everywhere, especially in the United States. It is young, fertile in vocations - at least in relation to the fertility of Catholicism in parishes - capable of ensuring catechetical transmission, attractive to young clergy, and to diocesan seminarians.

This is what Pope Bergoglio, arriving from Argentina, took a long time to understand, until the Italian bishops and the prelates of the Curia pointed out to him the unbearable growth of the traditional world, all the more visible because it was taking place in the midst of the general collapse. It was therefore necessary to apply the appropriate "remedies", the same ones that were administered to the flourishing seminary of San Rafael in Argentina, to the Franciscan congregation of the Immaculate, to the diocese of Albenga in Italy, to the diocese of San Luis in Argentina, etc.

Towards an exit "forward" from the crisis

However, the conciliar Church has not been revitalized and mission has continued to decline. A plethora of documents have dealt with mission: Ad Gentes, the conciliar decree of 1965, the exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi of 1975, the encyclical Redemptoris missio of 1990, the document Dialogue and Proclamation of 1991, the apostolic exhortations which tirelessly take up the theme of the new evangelization, Ecclesia in Africa, 1995, Ecclesia in America, 1999, Ecclesia in Asia, 1999, Ecclesia in Oceania, 2001, Ecclesia in Europa, 2003. A Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization was created. Colloquia have multiplied speaking of the mission which must be articulated to dialogue, of evangelization which must not be proselytism, etc. Never has there been so much talk about mission. Never has there been so little conversion.

François Mitterrand used to say about the reduction of unemployment, "we have tried everything." The same goes for saving the post-Vatican II Church: the attempt to maximize the Council, represented by the election of Pope Bergoglio, was a failure, just as the attempt to soften the Council, represented by the election of Pope Ratzinger, was a failure, we must admit. So, a return to the past? Yes, but in the manner of a "forward-looking" exit.

There are many, even among yesterday's supporters of Pope Bergoglio, who consider the brutal repression of the traditional world indefensible, for the sole reason that it is too alive. Can we imagine, with a future pontificate, a bracketing of Traditionis custodes? Certainly, and even better, it seems to us: a freedom given to what are called the "living forces" in the Church. With regard to this essential force, since it represents the multi-secular tradition, it is reasonable to envisage the negotiation of a compromise that would be more favorable to the Church than the compromise of Summorum Pontificum. The aim should be to remove all framing, in other words, to give the ancient liturgy and all that goes with it complete freedom. And this in the name of common sense. Just as a certain number of bishops in the world have allowed all those "living forces", communities, foundations and works that bear missionary fruit to develop in their dioceses, so, at the level of the universal Church, the time must come for freedom to be given to everything that works.

Summorum Pontificum can be analyzed as an attempt to allow Catholics who do not receive the liturgy of Vatican II to coexist with a moderate conciliar world. A new attempt could be established with a conciliar world apparently more "liberal" than that of Benedict XVI, but which is now aware of the irremediable failure of the utopia embraced fifty years ago.