Incomprehension is the dominant feeling upon reading the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes and the accompanying letters to bishops. It is impossible to understand either the justification or the necessity of the text, especially because that the pope has legislated on the basis of an incomplete argument and false information.

(1) Incomplete argument. It is not correct that John Paul II’s motu proprio Ecclesia Dei was only motivated by “the ecclesial intention of restoring the unity of the Church.” Of course, that was a major reason, but there was another Francis left out: “However, it is necessary that all the Pastors and the other faithful have a new awareness, not only of the lawfulness but also of the richness for the Church of a diversity of charisms, traditions of spirituality and apostolate, which also constitutes the beauty of unity in variety: of that blended ‘harmony’ which the earthly Church raises up to Heaven under the impulse of the Holy Spirit” (Ecclesia Dei n. 5a).

(2) False information. Pope Francis claims that John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s generosity was used by trads as a means of opposing the Mass of Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council, thereby emperilling the unity of the Church. He writes: “An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, 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 [....] But I am nonetheless saddened that the instrumental use of Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church’ [....] Ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church.’”

The vocabulary Francis uses here is taken straight from the Society of St. Pius X’s playbook: the “true Church” indeed! No trad faithful to Rome uses that expression! His observation is true enough if limited to the Society of St. Pius X. But applied to the vast majority of the Ecclesia Dei movement, it is false. True, there are cases that correspond to the pope’s accusations, but they are a minority: why deal out a collective punishment for the faults of a few? Wouldn’t it have been enough to crack down on these few? Clearly, we are not looking at the same traditional world as the pope and his advisers, because their picture has no correspondence to reality. They paint it as a homogenous world when the attitude they describe is actually only found within the Society of St. Pius X! Who is advising and informing the pope on these subjects? 

If we base our view on real-world information, we suspect that the pope is responding to the demand of a tiny minority in the Church who have always been fiercely hostile to the extraordinary form.


(3) The pope’s objective...and the dramatic consequences we can expect. “In defense of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors. The distorted use that has been made of this faculty is contrary to the intentions that led to granting the freedom to celebrate the Mass with the Missale Romanum of 1962.” In the interest of unity, this motu proprio will bring incomprehension, disarray, and conflict, and in the end will widen divisions instead of reducing them: the opposite of its stated objective! With the stroke of a pen, he overturns 35 years of efforts by John Paul II and Benedict XVI to calm the situation and establish a certain level of imperfect but genuine peace. Even the statement of the French Bishops’ Conference, which is hardly well disposed to the trad world, recognizes that Summorum Pontificum has led globally to a “peaceful situation,” which our investigation has largely confirmed (cf. the article on “traddies” in La Nef n°338, July-August 2021).

It will reignite the liturgy wars, exacerbate traditionalist resistance, and especially lead many to leave for the Society of St. Pius X (which will rejoice to see this motu proprio swell their ranks, confirming what they have warned about ever since 1988, namely that Rome cannot be trusted, a conviction that underlies their refusal of any reconciliation). This is precisely what John Paul II and Benedict XVI were able to avoid with their attentiveness to the trad world. Francis’ new decision risks creating a huge mess.

An important historical and psychological remark: Paul VI was ready to make concessions over the Mass if Mgr Lefebvre had not rejected Vatican II (his famous November 21, 1974, declaration against the “modernist Rome” of the council is what got him into trouble). But John Paul II and Benedict XVI understood that liturgical appeasement was a necessary condition for getting those trads who were most reserved about Vatican II to open up to the council and assimilate. By tightening the vice around the Mass, Francis will end up with a result opposite of the one that has been legitimately sought so far.

4. A double-standard? The tone of the motu proprio and letter is so harsh and severe toward trads that one resist the suspicion that there is a double standard at work: while Francis insists so often on mercy, humility, forgiveness, and is so patient with the German Church which is on the verge of schism, he, our common Father, shows not a trace of love or understanding for those who are only a tiny fraction of his flock! In these texts, trads comes across as a threat, barely tolerated on their “Indian reservation” until they can get back in line. The explicit goal is to make them disappear, without even stopping to wonder if they might have something to offer the Church, in terms of youth, dynamism, vocations, etc. Are there so many convicted, practicing Catholics in the West that it has to be a priority to drastically limit one group of them?

Recent experience has shown that to despise and persecute trads in this way does not help them evolve; on the contrary, it fuels the resistance of hard-liners, they become more rigid: which goes against the sought-for goal of favoring unity.

The French Bishops’ Conference deserves credit for their communiqué of July 17th, which conveys their respect for “trads”: “The bishops wish to express to the faithful who regularly celebrate according to the Missal of John XXIII and to their pastors, their attentiveness and the respect they have for the spiritual zeal of these faithful and their determination to continue the mission together in the communion of the Church and according to the norms in force.”

(5) Disrespect for the great work of Benedict XVI.These two texts return without nuance to John Paul II’s and especially Benedict XVI’s efforts at reconciliation in an erroneous analysis of the facts. And they go so far as to annul the essential contribution of the Pope Emeritus when he distinguished two forms, ordinary and extraordinary, of the same Roman Rite. In so doing, the pope suppresses the juridical existence of the ancient extraordinary form in one fell swoop, treating it as if it does not exist. This plunges the Church back into the endless liturgy wars over the juridical status of the Mass of St. Pius V. We are going back to the regime of toleration on terms even more severe than those of 1988, a sort of “merciful parenthesis”, but there is nothing merciful about it! A single decree sets us back more than thirty years.

(6) What can we deduce about Rome’s strategy, reading between the lines? Francis’s two texts show clearly that the pope wants to eradicate the trad world from the Church and to ensure that the Mass of St. Pius V disappears. It prevents the movement from taking shape, forbidding any new groups and setting up obstacles for any diocesan priest who wants to celebrate the old ordo missae. The motu proprio envisions those devoted to the extraordinary form one day using the new missal. The stage is set for a future in which the traditional mass will only be celebrated by the Society of Pius X and its satellites. The pope’s strategy seems to be to push the resistance toward the Society of St. Pius X so that the whole traditional world concentrates there, where they will be isolated and controlled on their little reservation, cut off from Rome and the dioceses, maintaining just enough connection to avoid formal schism. This explains why the pope is not seeking full reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, but has shown great generosity toward them by recognizing the full validity of their marriages and confessions, encouraging people to welcome them into the churches during pilgrimages, etc. It all makes sense, and flies in the face of John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s efforts toward Church unity.

(7) Liturgical exclusivity? This motu proprio is a chance for the institutes who refuse to celebrate the ordinary form—and let’s be clear, they are a minority in the Ecclesia Dei world—to seriously examine the liturgical, theological, and ecclesial basis for this refusal. Since 1988, the popes have invited them not to refuse the celebration of the new Mass in principle. (Although the position of the Ecclesia Dei Commission has fluctuated on this point, resulting in a certain lack of clarity.) This does not detract in any way from the special charism of these institutes to say the old Mass. Benedict XVI was very explicit in his letter to the bishops in 2007. Admittedly, the battle-lines haven’t budged since. If they obey the pope on this sensitive point, won’t these institutes demonstrate by their example that Francis’s analysis is flawed?

(8) Conclusion.

All this is sad, because it's unjust. It is therefore legitimate to complain, to argue, and to relentlessly demand a reform of this motu proprio or for the most flexible possible application, while respecting the pope’s role and authority. The bishops will have a pivotal role to play. Everything will depend on how they choose to apply this motu proprio. Early reactions have been encouraging: a big thank you to bishops who care for their whole flock. It’s their responsibility to make sure that Rome is more justly apprised of reality on the ground in the traditional world. Recently they have proved unwilling to just roll over: let us hope that most do not fall back into a “resistance” that verges on revolt and open disobedience. Mgr Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X are not the examples to follow. We know where that leads. Suffering for the Church is never easy, but it is always fruitful.

LA NEF, July 17th 2021

Christophe Geffroy is the founder and director of La nef, an independent French monthly that aims to deliver serious intellectual commentary from a Catholic perspective, in total fidelity to the teaching of the Church and in service to the New Evangelization. He is the author of books on liberalism, Islam, and Benedict XVI.