Rorate Caeli

“Liturgical Survival in Gray Areas”: Michael Charlier on Room for Maneuvering without Schism

Rocca di San Leo

A thoroughly friendly discussion is currently taking place between the blogs Caminante Wanderer (Argentina) and MessaInLatino (Italy) about Pope Francis’s part in the activities against the traditional liturgy. Caminante Wanderer is of the opinion that Francis is, in principle, uninterested in liturgy, that he devotes himself exclusively to the things his neo-Jesuitical thinking considers important and otherwise follows the voices that fit best into his current power calculations. We do not intend to disagree with this, especially since the Wanderer can certainly cite serious arguments in support of his view.

MessaInLatino counters that the actions of the pontificate so far have very well revealed a strong interest on the part of the Pope to expel the traditional liturgy from the Church’s worship, and that the concessions granted to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter have the sole purpose of establishing and isolating a “ghetto” there, which would then be all the easier to eradicate when the occasion for doing so arises. We do not want to and cannot disagree with this either, because Messa in Latino can also cite serious arguments in support of its view.

It seems to us that the two versions are not actually in direct contradiction with each other. They differ only in the degree of their assessment of Francis’s personal commitment—and in our opinion, this is rather a dispute about the Pope’s beard, so to speak. Francis tends to do right by, or at least not to openly contradict, precisely those who oppose him—and the contradictions that can arise from this line of conduct do not interest him as long as they do not endanger his political position. On the contrary, when the courtiers beneath him quarrel, their ruler gains all the more leeway to act according to his own plans—or according to his own arbitrariness, as one must often assume in the case of Francis.

For the parties at the papal court—and, of course, even the defenders of traditional doctrine and liturgy appear, under the present circumstances, as no more than one party among others—this has ambivalent consequences. The actions of the pope, whose word is law, actually become incalculable and contradictory. In the end, everything becomes possible, depending on the mood of the day and the opportunism of the spirit of the times—and exactly this seems to be the extremely dangerous common denominator of this pope’s line. Uncertainty spreads, planning becomes impossible, and of course this means great risks also and especially for the tradition-oriented communities, which belong to the few “growing branches” of the Church. According to its self-understanding, tradition avoids gray areas.

Just as there are hardly any vocations to the priesthood in the modernist-led ecclesial provinces (interested parties do not know whether there will still be priests at all in such places in a decade or two and what their ministry will look like at that time), the current state of limbo can also become a mortal danger for the traditional seminaries. Zones of discord are spreading in which no one knows how to proceed. The enemies of the tradition can take note of this with satisfaction; it serves their goals, and this, completely independently of whether their agenda is Francis’s or not.

One can understand this state of suspension [of clarity] with St. John Henry Newman’s “state of suspension of the Magisterium” [in his analysis of the Arian episcopacy of the fourth century], or one may simply speak of anarchy. The fact is that in the present deliberately-created gray zone, far more than in other periods of modern church history, what is called for is pastors who can take responsible action, once they see that they will be disappointed in their desire for reliable and active guidance from elsewhere. The article by MessaInLatino linked at the beginning draws attention to an interesting detail in this regard: While the Roman parish church of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter was able to celebrate the Paschal Triduum in the usual manner this year, the church of Sts. Celso and Giuliano—located only a few hundred meters away and cared for by the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest—remained closed, in accordance with the order of the Roman Vicar General.

Of course, there may be good reasons why the Institute has not appealed directly to the Pope in the same way that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter has done. There are undoubtedly also reasons for not simply ignoring the Vicar General’s decree even when many legal experts consider it to be unlawful and thus non-binding. The question is whether they are good reasons in each case. This remains to be investigated and, in individual cases, it may also be fraternally disputed. Would the Vicar General of Rome or elsewhere set the Sbirri [police] in a march formation to haul off the recalcitrant to Rocca di San Leo? Would the pontiff himself attempt to hurl at them an excommunication—which, after all, would have lost all legitimacy through decades of non-application to heretics of all varieties?

If there is anything to be learned from the development of the last decades—and this is especially true for Francis’s pontificate—it is this: Whoever pursues his plans without asking for approval for a long time will prevail in the medium term, even if his actions violate applicable law and the millennial tradition of the Church. The teaching and pastoral office in general appears to have lapsed into paralysis. The Synodal Way of the German Catholics, which is heading for its (provisional) end, offers the most recent and most drastic example: of course, “Rome” will shrink from confirming, even in form, a schism that has long since been internally completed; of course, it will assist in the establishment of a gray zone now of continental proportions, in which the heresies of an entire millennium are elevated to the status of valid doctrine.

But even if the teaching and pastoral office may make dispensations, no one can grant a dispensation from doctrine. And doctrine has been handed down clearly enough that it can be faithfully followed even for a period during which the supreme shepherds fail in their duty. For the defenders of the tradition, therefore, it can only be a question of the concrete balance of power “on the ground” and of expediency whether they too make use of the gray area opened up by the present Church regime, or choose to submit to the dictates of a modernism usurping a de facto teaching authority. What the preferences of an erratically ruling pope may be, or what intentions one suspects behind his actions, has little meaning here. What counts first is what is possible “on the ground.”

The scope for this action must be explored and expanded. Bishop Meier’s willingness [in Germany] to ordain deacons for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, and the fact that Cardinal Müller has ordained deacons for the particularly staunch Community of the Good Shepherd, are signs that there is indeed room for maneuver, without recklessly causing a schism.

Michael Charlier
May 10, 2022