Pope Francis vs. the Traditionalists: It was Never About the Liturgy
Posted below is my take on the recent kerfuffle over the traditional latin Mass. I am hoping the new subscriber list has been properly transferred to the new platform and I hope every one of my subscribers gets this in their email. If you did not get the email, check your spam folder.
It began upon the following Occasion. It is allowed on all Hands, that the primitive way of breaking Eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger End: But his present Majesty's Grand-father, while he was a Boy, going to eat an Egg, and breaking it according to the ancient Practice, happened to cut one of his Fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penaltys, to break the smaller End of their Eggs.
The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us there have been six Rebellions raised on that account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown. These civil Commotions were constantly fomented by the Monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the Exiles always fled for Refuge to that Empire. It is computed, that eleven thousand Persons have, at several times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End.
And so it begins. The squeeze is on and the expected sledgehammer has fallen from the Vatican on the Traditional Latin Mass. Everyone was expecting this of course because the handwriting was on the wall, especially in light of the fact that many conservative bishops had decided to just summarily ignore Traditionis Custodes and continue on with the status quo. And I applaud them for that since Traditionis was a legalistic and autocratic solution to what is in essence a set of spiritual disturbances and dislocations in the Church that had red-pilled many conservative Catholics, demoralized them, and sent them in search of various spiritual life boats that were bouncing around in the oceanic churn of the post Vatican II hurricane. But instead of “accompanying” them and sending them a life ring and a proper rudder and an engine for their little boats, the Pope in Traditionis tossed them an anchor and an Ikea-grade set of navigational “directions” written in Sweenglish. Hence the need for the current “clarification,” which leaves us now with little doubt that the original intent of Traditionis was to hasten the demise of the traditionalist movement by killing off its liturgical rallying point.
I am reminded of an excellent essay by Shaun Blanchard in Catholic Life Journal wherein he says something that I think is entirely correct: Traditionis Custodes was never about liturgy at all. What we are witnessing with regard to the recent “clarification” is not about the so-called “liturgy wars” but is instead about Vatican II and its interpretation. You can access Blanchard’s marvelous essay here. It is all worth reading, but for me here is the most salient thing he says:
“No single English word encapsulates the concept I am trying to convey, but thankfully the Germans have a word for everything. I believe Pope Francis’ motu proprio is the latest in a long series of papal assertions of Deutungshoheit over the legacy of Vatican II. Literally “interpretation-sovereignty,” to have Deutungshoheit means to have sovereignty over a narrative, which is the power to control meaning. Pope Francis’s many and virulent critics (my fellow Americans are especially numerous and sometimes vicious in this regard) typically see dangerous innovation and glaring discontinuities littered throughout his pontificate.”
In other words, Traditionis Custodes is about whose interpretation of the post-conciliar reforms will be ascendent in the Church going forward, and the Pope making it clear that he wants it to be his vision of the Council and not that of the traditionalists. This is Pope Francis applying his hermeneutic to the Council and imposing it on the rest of the Church through an exercise of raw papal authority. And what is the hermeneutic of Pope Francis you might ask? Who knows? We are eight years into his pontificate and he has not yet articulated a “theology of the Council” that comes anywhere near the profound theological appropriation of the Council by his predecessors. But perhaps the lack of theological clarity on the level of doctrinal and moral issues is precisely the “tell” here since Pope Francis does not view “proper theology” or even “proper doctrine” as the engine that drives the Church, and he seems to prefer instead the view that the Church is most herself, and most effective, when she is in the mercy and forgiveness business. And to those who would criticize him for pitting “truth against mercy” (as I have criticize him for) he would most likely retort that he is doing no such thing and all that he is doing is pointing out that a truth without mercy as its first word cannot be considered a properly Christian one. Therefore, it is his view that a proper reading of Vatican II leads us away from a Church focused on morality as a set of obligations and doctrinal propositions that must be assented to, and toward a more pastorally focused Church that is, as he so often says, a “field hospital” for sinners rather than a club for saints. He therefore sees the traditionalist movement as a return to a more pharisaical Church that reaches back beyond the Council to a form of Catholicism known for judgment rather than mercy and which was “hung-up” on the institutional pursuit of doctrinal purity at the expense of a more intellectually open “process” of mutual searching after the truth.
However, the question that immediately then imposes itself is the matter of just what Pope Francis thinks mercy and forgiveness look like, concretely, in our current cultural circumstances. Pope Francis is clearly not a moral relativist but he is clearly a moral gradualist who views the Church’s moral and doctrinal truths as “ideals” that we all fall short of in varying degrees on a sliding scale. And no matter where you fall on that scale, the Church must be there to greet you with open arms. Thus, Pope Francis seems most comfortable in the thought world of the pastoral latitudinarianism of the immediate post-conciliar era, which I define as the “here comes everybody” vision of Catholicism where “all are welcome” regardless of where they fall on the yardstick of orthodoxy or orthopraxy. Christ said he came to minister to the humble sick and not to the healthy self-righteous, and in the immediate aftermath of the Council it was the self-righteous Church of purity and anathemas that was being repudiated, no matter how much of a false caricature that is. And that, in my view, is how Pope Francis still views the Church. He views it all through the simplistic binary categories of “rigidity” vs. “openness, which were all the rage “back in my day,” with “rigidity” vaguely defined, impressionistically, as anyone who thought doctrinal and moral orthodoxy were the most important pastoral categories, and “openness” defined as anyone who thought “real life” came first - - a “real life” that is often messy and complex and which requires of the pastor a willingness to “bend the rules” in order to best attend to “real folks” in a pastoral manner. And these very disincarnate binaries - - disincarnate because they treated people as ideological abstractions - - were most rigorously applied to seminarians and young priests.
Pope Benedict, in a self-critical moment during an interview, said that if the Council could be faulted for anything it would be that it was too focused on “getting the theology right” and not enough on the pastoral revolution in the Church that was needed. In other words, he criticized the Council for being too dominated by the theologians and thus too fixated on doing theology in the abstract, and that it should have given more space for input from those who had purely pastoral concerns. After all, the Council did bill itself as a pastoral, and not a dogmatic Council. Therefore, it would seem that Pope Francis desires to redress that wrong in his own pontifical appropriation of the Council, wherein he does not negate the theology of the Council or of the post conciliar pontiffs, so much as he simply wants to ignore it as largely irrelevant to the task at hand. I disagree with that approach since the theology of the Council is important for how one develops pastoral practice, but it is how I view the project of conciliar retrieval in Pope Francis.
I am sensitive to these issues, and thus think I do have some insights here, because I was a seminarian of an orthodox and conservative bent during the post-conciliar era who was accused of being “rigid” since I thought truth and mercy were not at odds with one another. I thought the most “pastorally merciful” thing a priest could do was to uphold the Church’s teachings in season and out. Granted, I was immature and rough around the edges and was a bit of a pinched-up library rat nerd, and so I did need some formational kicks in the butt. But the demoralizing thing was that those “kicks” were not geared toward making me a better priest someday but were more in the form of ideological punishments for not adhering to the reigning latitudinarianism. Furthermore, like it or not, but conservative Catholics are … well … Catholics, and part of the Church too, and yet one was treated in those days like a pariah that needed to be expunged simply because you thought that truth was still an important pastoral category in a world become drunk with the nihilistic relativism of modernity. But saying such things made the powers in charge think of you as a dangerous throwback to the days of a coercive and judgmental Church obsessed with its own purity. And, as it was then, so it seems to be again now.
Therefore, when I hear Pope Francis invoke the term “rigid” to describe modern conservative Catholics, and when I see him making the Church’s doctrinal and moral teachings an “ideal” that is actually at odds with “real people” in their “real lives,” and when I see him using vague buzzwords like “openness,” “dialogue,” and “accompaniment” in a weaponized way, I am led to believe that he is, as I have written before, an unreconstructed post-Vatican II pastoral liberal since his actions and his words are exactly the same as those of the seventies. Many others have noted as well this “seventies vibe” in Pope Francis, but I have seen precious little attention paid to the pastoral latitudinarianism that was the hallmark of that era which most defines Pope Francis. And this is important because, despite the deficiencies of the false binaries and the false caricatures I described above, the “field hospital” approach of a concrete pastoral latitudinarianism of the “here comes everybody” variety is not necessarily wrong tout court. Indeed, conservatives such as myself, who have spent our entire adult lives reacting against the ecclesial culture of the seventies, need to avoid becoming dismissive of the great truth that resides at the heart of the latitudinarian approach out of a false antiquarian reduction of our own to binary ways of thinking. Pope Francis might be autocratic, erratic, a bit vindictive, petty, and thin-skinned, but that does not mean that his central vision of a Church suffused with mercy, is without merit. Because I too (and don’t we all?) adhere to all kinds of theological truths that I scarcely embody myself.
Theologically I think Pope Francis is orthodox, but in very undistinguished and conventional ways. I just don’t think theology concerns him that much, and we see evidence of this now and then when he lets slip a snide remark or two about the “theologians” and their silly head games. This explains the seeming disparity between his frequent affirmations of theological orthodoxy and his pastoral actions which do not seem to use that orthodoxy as much of a reference point. For example, he tells the Germans through the CDF, “No, you cannot have intercommunion with Protestants,” but then at an audience he tells a Lutheran woman to just follow her conscience with regard to receiving the Eucharist with her Catholic husband at Mass. On the surface this seems to make no sense and comes across as a simple contradiction, an inconsistency in his thinking, but in reality it makes perfect sense within the thought world of post-conciliar pastoral thinking. There are “doctrines” on one side, and “real people” on the other. And since Jesus did not care much for the “religious rules” of his time, neither should we. I do not say this at all in an accusatory or defamatory way, even though I disagree with it, since many wonderful and holy people I have known in my life think this way. I think they are wrong, but not maliciously so, and so I can break bread with them and recline at their table.
But it is important to at least identify it properly and to name it publicly for what it is, especially when we are talking about a Pope. Along those lines it should by now be clear why there really is a tension between Pope Francis and his appropriation of the Council, and the appropriation of the same by JPII and Benedict. Francis most likely thinks that the papacies of JPII and Benedict represented a "stalling out" of the process of “reform” of the kind that transpired under Paul VI. And he wants to retrieve that trajectory and reinvigorate it. He thinks 1965-1978 were headed in the right direction pastorally and thinks 1978-2013 were hiccups on the path to true pastoral renewal. And he sees the TLM communities and traditionalists in general as the number one enemy of that vision. The fact that they prefer the old liturgy is irrelevant here. Because Francis has no appreciation for the old liturgy he cannot imagine why anyone else would either and thus thinks it is all just a pile of romantic, restorationist nonsense fit only for cranky antiquarians. Therefore, for Pope Francis the “liturgy wars” are an irrelevance and he does not take seriously why anyone would consider such things important and is more concerned with the kinds of communities that have arisen around the TLM and the ecclesiastical vision such communities espouse and champion. Pope Francis wants to revive the post-conciliar latitudinariasm and the traditionalists want to revive the pastoral tone and tenor of the pre-conciliar era. End of story. It is a clash of ecclesial ideologies and he is the Pope and so he has wielded the sword of censure to his advantage. Live by the papacy, die by the papacy, and as Blanchard notes, quoting the ever-insightful Adam DeVille, when you have a hypertrophy of papal authority in the Church it cuts both ways. As DeVille puts it: “A papacy big enough to fulfill your wishes can also destroy them.” But… that is a blog post for another day.
All that said, and irrespective of the pastoral mistake that is Traditionis as a means of dealing with the issue (and I do think it was an autocratic and draconian mistake), perhaps it should be added that Pope Francis might just be right about the fact that the deepest internal threats to the Church today come not from "liberals" but from the radical trads. Not in terms of sheer numbers since the rad trads are a very small minority of Catholics, but in terms of the fact that this movement is increasingly popular among young seminarians, who, once ordained, must minister in Novus Ordo parishes where most people don’t give a damn about whether or not the priest’s vestments have the proper maniples or not. Now maybe they should care about maniples, as well as how many phylacteries the priest is sporting, but I would wager good money that they have greater concerns than that in their lives. Furthermore, as the essay by Blanchard makes clear, what is at play here has nothing whatsoever to do with maniples or Latin or the missal of 1962 or 1955 (or whatever missal is deemed “most pure” by the traditionalists). What concerns the Pope here is the deeper theological and pastoral mindset of these young traditionalist priests.
Sadly, rather than taking their concerns seriously and seeking to address them pastorally, Pope Francis has chosen the path of the blunt instrument of authority, which ironically indicates a lack of confidence in the persuasive power of his own message. After all, he must be aware that unlike the previous two papacies, his has decidedly NOT inspired a new generation of “Francis priests” and that his “big tent” vision of Catholicism does not seem to inspire in young people the same kind of a sense of holiness as an epic “adventure” of heroism, like Frodo and Sam on their way to vanquish Mordor, as did the papacy of John Paul. Indeed, rather than inspiring young seminarians he has only red-pilled them even more, creating resentments that will only fester beneath the surface of a coerced “obedience.” The end result will be a Church of balkanized resentments on all sides, with all camps entrenched in a “noble victim” narrative complete with an ornate martyrology that reinforces an “Athanasius contra mundum” bunker mentality that will rob the Church of the very evangelical missionary zeal that was the core of Vatican II’s universal call to holiness. Therefore, on a pastoral level Pope Francis is undermining the very Council he says he is defending, rendering the very title of Traditionis Custodes deeply questionable.
Therefore, I think Pope Francis is wrong to act in such draconian and autocratic ways against the TLM based on his desire to nip in the bud this drift of young seminarians into traditionalism. Pope Francis says he wants the Church to reach out to those on the margins. But how much more marginalized can you be in this age of priestly scandal and societal mockery of the priesthood because of those scandals, than a young and vulnerable seminarian? These are fine young men full of devotion for the Church who have given their lives to the service of the Church that Francis has just tossed under the bus of a crushing, uncaring, legalistic, papal fiat. Where is the accompaniment for them? Especially since much of the radicalization of young conservative seminarians - - and the conservative trending had begun before Francis - - has happened precisely because of Francis, as young men of a conservative orientation became increasingly befuddled, then demoralized, then radicalized into traditionalism by his sloppy and erratic papacy.
But I also think Pope Francis, despite his own complicity in the problem, is not entirely wrong on an empirical level about some of the dangers lurking in the traditionalist movement. All Church factions and groups have their fanatical fringe, and their dirty little secrets. The liberal wing of the Church is loaded with them as are the JPII “ressourcement” types (which is my type). We all have our crazy uncle who lives in the attic. And lurking in the shadows of the traditionalist courtyard are anti-Semites, misogynists, QAnon wingnuts, hard integralists who hate the notion of religious freedom, and not a few theological morons who nevertheless fancy themselves as Grand Inquisitors of orthodoxy, tilting at the windmills of heresy armed with Denzinger and Taylor Marshall.
And what of my charge of misogyny in that list? I have spoken to many women who left the traditionalist movement and cite this as the number one reason. And these are good, orthodox, spiritually healthy women who are not bitter, but are concerned. What is that all about? I can cite one example. I had a young traditionalist friend of mine over for drinks two months ago and in the midst of a great conversation about the state of the Church and the beauty of the TLM he starts telling me that he does not think married women should have the right to vote. He said families, and not individuals, are the bedrock of society and therefore “households” should have a single vote, and since the man is the head of the family the husband should vote but not the wife. When I objected to this sophistical and clever packaging of misogyny and told him I supported universal suffrage, he told me I was thinking like a Protestant with its false individualistic anthropology. Stunned by the nonchalance and unselfconscious confidence with which he expressed these views I asked him, “How prevalent is this view of yours in your TLM parish?” He told me it was the common view held by most people in his parish. And so I started asking around to other friends who either are now, or were once, in the TLM movement. And it turns out that they all said this has become a very common view, though most would say it is not the majority view.
This has never really been about the Liturgy.
None of what I have described above is necessarily what the majority of traditionalists think mind you, but such attitudes are more common than they are willing to admit, and it is precisely their refusal to confront the elephants in their living rooms that has led, at least in part, to this papal overreaction. My traditionalist friends say I am attacking a straw man, but then they allow folks to post on their Facebook pages, or post themselves, statements that prove the opposite. A straw man? Ecce homo. Sometimes it seems that traditionalists think that the rest of us do not have eyes and ears and that we cannot see what is hiding in plain sight, or that we don’t know loads of traditionalists and ex-traditionalists personally. You can scream all you want at me, send me hate mail, tell me I am a jerk, tell me that what I say is not true, tell me that I am being vicious, call me a Bishop Barron groupie without a soul, call me a heretic hippie and send me to bed with a doobie but without my supper, but I know what I see and hear. I trust my eyes and ears and my ecclesial instincts. And whether the traditionalists want to admit it or not, there is a lot of mud in that house. And it isn’t at all about the liturgy.
The fact is that even if the average traditionalist is not concerned with all of these issues and is just seeking a beautiful liturgy and an intentional Catholic community, that the leading lights of the traditionalist movement are the public face of that movement. And their popularity is testimony to the fact that some of these negative currents run more deeply than they will acknowledge. Not content to simply enjoy the beneficence of Summorum Pontificum and to worship now as they wish, they decided to become champions of a new ecclesiological ideology filled with vitriol and viciousness. And champion it they do, with the various internet fiddleback fussbudgets who are the public face of the movement becoming increasingly vocal, even shrill, in their attacks on Vatican II, the Novus Ordo, and the entirety of the post Vatican II Church, including all of the popes of that era. They think Archbishop Lefevbre was “right after all” and that Vigano, though an insane hypocrite, is right about the entire modern Church being nothing but Freemasonry in drag. I saw one exchange on social media involving a well-known traditionalist lamenting the fact that even Bishop Fulton Sheen had grown “modernist” in his dotage since he had endorsed the Pauline liturgical reforms. And when even Sheen is deemed not “pure” enough you know that there is something stirring in that pot that goes well beyond liturgy as its primary concern. And don’t get me started on their vile and vicious ad hominem attacks on Bishop Robert Barron, whose only crime seems to be that he is successful at helping millions of people to embrace the faith more deeply. But, apparently, it is the “wrong kind” of faith, insufficiently aware that Hell is the Levittown for Democrats, Hindus, and masturbators, and that there is no way Barron’s kind of Catholicism, absent such infernalist ravings, can attract people. Except that it does. Oops.
What is at stake here therefore is the ongoing reform of the Church, and not a bunch of squabbles over liturgical real estate that the vast, vast majority of Catholics do not want to buy anyway. I do not like the latitudinarianism of Pope Francis since I think it just recycles some shopworn and superficial bromides from the seventies and repackages them for contemporary consumption. I pray that the next Pope isn’t a rewarmed shepherd’s pie from 1975, but is a real shepherd instead. But even less do I like the traditionalist restorationist agenda that is being pushed by its leading celebrities since it is larded with a constricted pharisaism, theological ignorance, antiquarian esotericism, and quite a bit of some good old fashioned “mean girls at the sleepover” viciousness. Furthermore, since many of those who attend TLM parishes are simply salt of the earth people who merely want an intentional community and a reverent liturgy minus the Chinese fire drill stuffing of the sanctuary with flip-flop wearing eucharistic ministers, the co-optation of this wonderful desire by a few ideological internet Blunderbuss blowhards intent on denigrating the modern Church at every turn, is a betrayal of those salt of the earth people and a betrayal of Summorum Pontificum and what it hoped to accomplish.
Further evidence for the truth of Blanchard’s thesis that this debate is not really just about the liturgy, but about deeper ecclesiological issues, can be found in the extreme reactions of many traditionalists to the recent crackdown. I think, as I said, that Traditionis is a mean spirited and authoritarian mistake and is rooted in a set of false binaries. However, I also think the rage one sees in the traditionalist reaction to it is very telling. I attend an Anglican Ordinariate parish and I do so precisely because I love its liturgy and the intentional community at the parish. But if tomorrow the Vatican suppressed the Ordinariate liturgy I too would be angry, hurt, wounded, and demoralized, but I would pick myself up off of the ground, lick my wounds, pray that the next Pope will restore the Ordinariate liturgy, and move on. I would then attend the same parish but now with a Novus Ordo liturgy and would receive my eucharistic Lord therein with great joy. I would say to myself, “The Church is a funny bird, shit happens, and this too shall pass”. Furthermore, and this is key, it is not as if the Novus Ordo is just a miserable, soul killing wasteland that is just too intolerable to put up with. It is the Novus Ordo that has sustained me my entire adult life, including my years in the seminary, and has nurtured my faith often in quite profound and deeply significant ways. It is simply a lie that the Novus Ordo liturgy is incapable of this and it is part and parcel of the traditionalist propaganda that we need the TLM because the Novus Ordo is so uniquely wretched as a liturgical form. Along these lines, the current reaction of the traditionalists to the crack-down on the TLM goes well beyond pain and sadness and resentment, and into a call for disobedience, rebellion, and defiance since in their view they are now the true remnant Church preserving the “true Tradition” of the Church in doctrine and that they only have the “real” Mass. Their internet leaders are organizing a pitchfork brigade of angry resisters and are calling for defiant priests to say the TLM in private homes and compare it all to the underground Church in Elizabethan England and other similar situations where the “true faith” had to hide from the authorities. What this demonstrates is that this is far more than a dispute about a certain liturgical rite and that what has coalesced around the TLM movement is precisely a quasi-apocalyptic “true remnant” ideology that really does view itself as “Athanasius contra mundum” in ways that go far beyond liturgy and involves a rejection of what they disparagingly call, “the Vatican II Church,” but which, in reality, is just a rejection of the Church as such since the Church is always a mess.
This has never been about the liturgy.
This entire debate just leaves me cold and wondering where in the hell the adults in the room ran off to. I have many, many traditionalist friends who are crushed and hurting today. They were dislocated Catholics in search of a binding spiritual address in the Church and they found it in their TLM parishes. What could it have hurt to just leave them be? And so I am angry for and with them. Angry at Pope Francis. But also angry at those within the TLM movement who used it as their hobby horse for pushing other issues and thereby betrayed and undermined it from within. There is a lot of blame all around and the simplistic competing narratives of a good and holy Pope under siege from horrible dissenters vs. poor victimized and misunderstood traditionalists at the hands of an antichrist pope, are serving no one’s interests.
Finally, to me all of this just smells like the decomposition of a corpse. Or at the very least the last gurgling death throes of “establishment” Catholicism. I am no sociologist, but by my armchair reckoning this is most likely the kind of thing that happens when institutions are dying and they know it. They fight amongst themselves over turf no other sane person actually cares about. Latin or vernacular? Pre-1955 Missal or Post-1962 Missal? Big-Endians or Little-Endians? I can hear the retort now, “But this is about the Liturgy of our Lord!” No it isn’t. This is about the liturgy of egos, both in the Vatican and in Michael Matt’s basement. This is about controlling the narrative, only in this case it is a narrative told by an army in full retreat with everyone arguing that the defeat was caused by the other guy, with some even arguing that the retreat is actually a form of victory.
What we need is a new understanding of “traditionalism” grounded in a hermeneutics of kenosis that judges everything in the light of the cross. Those aspects of the tradition that were the product of triumphalist institutional chest-thumping and the assertion of ecclesial “privilege” in a coercive register must go. The last vestiges of our Constantinian legacy must go, if for no other reason than the fact that the legacy is dead anyway and only romantics and lunatics still cling to it as a noble lie that furthers some worldly political agenda. And worldly progressive dreams of a Church that opposes all illiberalisms must go, since it too is triumphalist and coercive - - the “curve of history” and all that bilge where a few elites decide for the rest of us what constitutes “illiberalism,” widening the circle of those who are defined into that camp at every turn, until the only ones left in charge are authoritarian bureaucrats and their flying monkey apparatchiks.
My prayer is for a Church stripped-bare, standing naked in the public square and covered with the bloody stripes of its own humiliations. Of a Church following its master along the way of the via Crucis and living in humble submission to the logic of that Camino. Vatican Bank causing yet more scandals? Get rid of it then. Liquidate it and send its assets to the Swiss who know just what to do with dirty money. The Pope of Rome has become too much of an autocrat? Then move the See of Peter to Port au Prince and have the Pope rule from the cross of true poverty. Then sell Vatican City to the French who can redesign it as a kind of therapeutic monument to secular modernity. Or perhaps to the Germans, who are apparently in need right now of some ecclesial Lebensraum. I can hear it now: “There you go Chapp with your usual hyperbolic and overheated rhetoric.”
We’ll see. In the words of Hannibal Lector: Tick-tock, Tick-tock.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.