Rorate Caeli

Vatican II and the Re-emergence of the Traditional Latin Mass


It is often assumed that there is a deep and irreconcilable tension between allowing the continued celebration of the traditional Latin Mass and the Second Vatican Council. After all, the reform of the liturgy was itself set in motion by the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium.  Thus, Pope Francis stated in his apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi,  “I do not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the Council — though it amazes me that a Catholic might presume not to do so — and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document that expresses the reality of the Liturgy intimately joined to the vision of Church so admirably described in Lumen Gentium.” It was for this reason, Pope Francis explained, that he felt it “his duty” to issue his motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, restricting the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass.

In fact, however, a close review of the documents of the Second Vatican Council support a far more generous allowance for celebration of the traditional Latin Mass than that permitted by Traditionis Custodes.

Sacrosanctum Concilium envisioned a more modest reform of the liturgy than the Novus Ordo Missae that was ultimately approved by Pope Paul VI some five years later. Sacrosanctum Concilium called for the continued use of Latin in the Mass, stated that Gregorian Chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services,” and decreed that “there must be no innovations” to the Mass “unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them.” A Catholic today desiring Latin and Gregorian Chant in the Mass has no real option other than to attend the traditional Latin Mass.

There is an even more fundamental inconsistency between Traditionis Custodes and Vatican II, however. Lumen Gentium, a principal document of Vatican II, declared that “[t]he laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments.” While some may contend that the Novus Ordo Missae is superior to the traditional Latin Mass, the latter is still a “spiritual good of the Church” and a valid sacrament. Pope Benedict XVI, in his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum, was surely correct to characterize the traditional Latin Mass as part of “the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer.” And he was undoubtedly right to note in Summorum Pontificum itself that “the Latin liturgy of the Church in its various forms, in each century of the Christian era, has been a spur to the spiritual life of many saints, has reinforced many peoples in the virtue of religion and fecundated their piety.”

Thus, the only conclusion to be drawn from Vatican II is that it is a “spiritual good of the Church.” As such, the faithful have the right to the traditional Latin Mass “in abundance.”

It is perhaps true that, as John Cavadini, Mary Healy, and Thomas Weinandy wrote in their five-part series on the traditional Latin Mass, “the Council Fathers saw themselves as revitalizing the Roman rite, and thus they did not anticipate the continued celebration of its unrevised form.” But by their own account, once it became clear to Pope John Paul II in the mid-1980s that the Old Mass was not going away and could not be suppressed, he made more and more generous provision to allow its celebration. This development accelerated under Pope Benedict XVI with his Summorum Pontificum, issued in 2007, which allowed priests to celebrate the TLM without requesting permission. In so doing, both popes were acting in a manner consistent with Vatican II’s vision for the Church, and its instruction regarding access to valid sacraments.

Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy state that Pope Benedict XVI’s “hope that these two rites will not lead to a division in the Church now appears overly optimistic.” Pope Francis also appealed to the notion of unity in his letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes, stating that he intended to reestablish “a single and identical prayer that expressed [the Church’s] unity.” Pope Francis cited responses to a questionnaire to the Bishops regarding the implementation of Summorum Pontificum, which “reveal[ed] a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene,” namely that the traditional Latin Mass “was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”

For one thing, there is reason to doubt that celebration of the traditional Latin Mass really did lead to division. Reporting by Diane Montagna indicates that the responses to the survey of Bishops were mostly favorable to Summorum Pontificum, especially in countries (France, the United States, and England) where the traditional Latin Mass is most widely celebrated. This is borne out by the fact that the overwhelming majority of dioceses which previously allowed celebration of the traditional Latin Mass have elected to continue it after Traditionis. Monsignor Charles Pope, cited authoritatively by Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy on the celebration of the Mass before 1970, offers an accurate perspective on the reality on the ground prior to Traditionis Custodes: “Here in Washington, D.C., the extraordinary form has existed peacefully alongside the ordinary form in approximately 10 of our parishes . . . Whatever tensions do exist, they are minor and not so different than the tensions that emerge from the diverse mosaic of ethnic communities.” Few people have more intimate, ground-level knowledge of traditional Latin Mass communities than Monsignor Pope, who has been closely involved with such communities in Washington, D.C. for decades and currently serves as the diocesan coordinator for the traditional Latin Mass in the Washington, D.C. Archdiocese.

The broader point, that liturgical diversity within the Catholic Church is inherently inconsistent with unity, is thoroughly rebutted by Vatican II. Start with Sacrosanctum Concilium, which declares, “in faithful obedience to Tradition, the Sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way.” The traditional Latin Mass is, of course, such a lawfully acknowledged rite. According to Sacrosanctum Concilium, then, it should enjoy “equal right and dignity.”

Lumen Gentium also reinforces the conclusion that the Catholic Church’s liturgical diversity is something to be celebrated, not a threat to the Church’s unity. It states: “By divine Providence it has come about that various churches, established in various places by the apostles and their successors, have in the course of time coalesced into several groups, organically united, which, preserving the unity of faith and the unique divine constitution of the universal Church, enjoy their own discipline, their own liturgical usage, and their own theological and spiritual heritage . . . . This variety of local churches with one common aspiration is splendid evidence of the catholicity of the undivided Church.” Further, Lumen Gentium notes that “[b]etween all the parts of the Church there remains a bond of close communion whereby they share spiritual riches, apostolic workers and temporal resources. For the members of the people of God are called to share these goods in common.”

This is particularly so in diocesan Latin Mass communities, where parishioners often attend both forms of the Mass and participate peaceably and fruitfully together in parish life. Cutting off traditional Latin Mass attendees from ordinary parish life, including by prohibiting the TLM to be celebrated in parish churches or advertised in parish bulletins, as the guidelines regarding Traditionis Custodes from the Dicastery of Divine Worship seek to do, is contrary to Lumen Gentium, which calls upon all parts of the Church to “share spiritual riches, apostolic workers and temporal resources . . . in common.”

Thus, the concern of Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy that some Latin Mass attendees “have come to identify themselves by rite preference, as ‘Latin Mass goers’ in opposition to ‘Novus Ordo Catholics,’” would no more seem to threaten the unity of the Church than the preference of different Catholics for the Eastern Rite churches, or churches offering Ordinary Form services in different languages. That is because, as Lumen Gentium notes, “in their diversity all bear witness to the wonderful unity in the Body of Christ.” Surely, Latin Mass attendees, whom Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy describe as “a self-selected group of highly motivated, attentive worshippers” can contribute meaningfully to parish life. This would seem to be especially so in light of the noted orthodoxy of Latin Mass attendees. Indeed, the alternative to permitting the Latin Mass is that some Catholics attached to the older form of the Mass will seek out the Society of St. Pius X, which is not in full communion with Rome. In doing so, then, suppression of the traditional Latin Mass hinders efforts “to heal a wound experienced ever more painfully,” as Pope Benedict XVI described the rupture between the SSPX and the Church.

Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy note that some Catholics associated with the traditional Latin Mass have offered sharp critiques of irreverent celebration of the Novus Ordo, and “blam[e] the adoption of the Novus Ordo for the decline in religious vocations, the prevalence of divorce, and the rise of disaffiliation.” But Lumen Gentium instructs that the laity should “openly reveal” to their spiritual shepherds “their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ.” Indeed, the laity are “permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church.” Thus, sharp criticism of the Novus Ordo, when offered with the intention of aiding “the good of the Church,” is specifically encouraged by Lumen Gentium. (For an extensive rebuttal of Cavadini, Healy and Weinandy's article, check out the excellent collection of essays Illusions of Reform: Responses to Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy in Defense of the Traditional Mass and the Faithful Who Attend It).

Thus, the question of the continued celebration of the traditional Latin Mass is not a matter of black-and-white: the Vetus Ordo versus the Council.  The continued popularity of the traditional Latin Mass even in light of Pope Francis’s crackdown shows clearly that its celebration within the Church is not going away. What to do about the traditional Latin Mass is thus primarily a pastoral matter.

In this vein, Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy note the widespread criticism of Traditionis Custodes as being “less pastoral in approach than it could be, and therefore not as helpful as it could have been in fostering the desired end of liturgical and ecclesial unity.”  Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy particularly note the criticism that Traditionis “gave the impression of wanting to drive the faithful who celebrate the Tridentine Mass to the peripheries of the Church, almost as though they were beyond pastoral care.” Indeed, a close study of the documents of Vatican II, along with the pastoral approaches of subsequent popes, show that the persistence of the traditional Latin Mass should not an occasion for issuing harsh condemnations and restrictions. Instead, pursuant to Vatican II itself, the laity have a right to enjoy this spiritual treasure of the Church “in abundance,” as a means of assistance to living a holy life.