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A Bumpy Road to Unity

Even Catholics not devoted to the Latin Mass can learn something from what is happening to it.

The average Catholic may hear the term Rescriptum ex audientia and suddenly remember a number of pressing engagements he has to get to. But this term has profound and troubling implications for the faith life of everyone looking for authoritative, magisterial guidance in how best to follow and worship Our Lord.

What is the Rescriptum, or Rescript? It is a document, published on February 21, that doubles down on restricting the availability of the traditional Latin Mass (TLM). It says that bishops may not allow its celebration in parish churches without the agreement of the Dicastery for Divine Worship in Rome. Up to now, when the Dicastery has been involved in such decisions, the number of places where the TLM has been offered has fallen sharply—for example, from seven to three in the Archdiocese of Washington.

It may be helpful to take a wider historical perspective. The TLM was effectively banned after the Mass reformed after Vatican II began to be celebrated in November 1969, but it did not quite disappear. Permissions were given to older priests to celebrate it, and from 1971, it could be permitted by bishops in England and Wales following a petition of artists and intellectuals. Furthermore, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), a priestly society founded in 1970, sent priests around the world to celebrate it for the faithful, even after being officially suppressed in 1975.

The permission for England and Wales became worldwide in 1984 and was reiterated in 1988, when a group of priests from the SSPX were reconciled to the Holy See. They became the Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and continued to celebrate the TLM. Other priestly societies and religious communities for whom the TLM was a founding charism were either reconciled or founded.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the requirement that bishops give permission for every celebration. In 2009, he lifted the excommunication placed on four SSPX bishops. Pope Francis granted SSPX priests faculties to hear confessions and officiate at weddings in 2015. In 2020, he made it possible to celebrate Masses in honor of recently canonized saints in the TLM. At the end of the same year, he granted the traditionalist Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICKSP) the use of a small Roman basilica. The FSSP had been given another Roman church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.

Thus, there had been a series of concessions to the wider use of the TLM, and in the United States, England, France, and a number of other countries, it had become an accepted part of the life of the Church, though bishops were still able in practice to make its celebration difficult. The number of people attending it worldwide remained small, though growing.

Then, half a year after introducing the TLM into a new Roman basilica, Pope Francis announced a “firm decision” to move the Church toward a “unitary from of celebration,” “a single and identical prayer,” for the sake of the unity of the Church (Letter to Bishops, 2021).

This language seems grim—not only for the TLM, but also for the reformed Ambrosian Rite of Milan, the brand new Zaire Rite, and perhaps even the rites of the Eastern Churches. This seems to have been overzealous drafting, however: the Apostolic Letter Traditionis custodes, which the Letter to Bishops accompanies, speaks more soberly of the Latin Church, whose unity is guaranteed by rites approved after Vatican II.

So is there a problem with liturgical diversity, in itself, or not?

Then, on February 11, 2021, Pope Francis signed a decree allowing the FSSP all the old liturgical books, even the ones singled out for special restrictions by Traditionis custodes the previous July. It is natural to read the decree as making explicit the approbation the FSSP got from the Holy See in 1988. On that basis, the same permission logically applies to all the traditional communities and institutes, for whom the TLM is a founding principle, and to the lay Catholics these serve. It seems that the unity of the Church’s liturgical prayer has been indefinitely postponed.

Since then, we’ve had the Rescript already noted, tightening the screws on celebrations of the traditional Mass in parish churches.

I don’t want to enter into a legal analysis of these documents. Rather, I want to ask what the end-goal is supposed to be. What vision of the Church is being advanced? The different documents could point in more than one direction.

First, it is natural to read the language of a “a single and identical prayer” as making a simple connection between liturgical uniformity, albeit with different vernacular languages, and unity, against the danger of a “parallel Church.”

Against this, the phrase “a single and identical prayer” comes from Pope Paul VI’s 1969 Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum. Pope Paul’s point there is that the “legitimate variations and adaptations” allowed by the reformed missal do not prevent it from being the “very same prayer”—the Mass—offered everywhere through Christ. This is a defense of liturgical variety, not a criticism of it.

Second, a quite different reading would be that traditional institutes like the FSSP, and indeed the SSPX, are being recognized as legitimate users of what amounts to a separate rite, along the lines of the Eastern rites, to prevent the integration of the TLM into “the ordinary life of the parish community” (Responsa) by diocesan priests. How the terminology of the two liturgical forms would develop is unclear.

Against this, although so far the restrictions on the TLM have fallen most heavily on diocesan priests, the traditional priestly institutes have also suffered, with the ICKSP, for example, being prevented from using its church in Chicago for public Masses. If that is not what Pope Francis wants, no one has told Cardinal Blase Cupich. Rumors in Rome have it that still more restrictions will target the traditional institutes in the near future.

Third, we could simply see here a tension between the official attitude toward the TLM in general and the official attitude toward the FSSP and SSPX. There may be other tensions among the regulations as well. For example, the SSPX currently has special authorization to officiate at weddings in the former rite, and give the old absolution, while diocesan clergy are forbidden from doing either outside “personal parishes” (Responsa ad dubia). The FSSP Decree does not quite put the FSSP on a par with the SSPX, since FSSP priests need the bishop’s permission outside “their own churches.” This confusion may simply be a sign of a work in progress. Nevertheless, we don’t have much indication of how the tension will be resolved, particularly as the FSSP Decree came after Traditionis custodes. Will the traditional Mass be crushed everywhere, or will the Vatican allow pockets of “disunity” to remain?

Further documents may make the situation clearer . . . or less. What Pope Francis has certainly demonstrated is that the same pope can change policy radically in a short space of time. The same can happen between popes.

Catholics not attached to the “former missal”—considering this situation from the outside, as it were—may be reminded of the confusion that followed other initiatives of Pope Francis, such as his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia in 2016, which addressed the question of Catholics in states of life condemned by the Church. Questions about the authority and meaning of the document’s footnotes, and Pope Francis’s commendation of various interpretations of the document, had people scratching their heads, and bishops around the world eventually settled on a variety of pastoral responses.

In this case, the Dicastery of Divine Worship seems to be making a concerted effort to enforce a particular interpretation, and the Rescript is part of this effort. For the laity, making sense of all this will continue to be an uphill struggle while the central purpose of the documents remains obscure.

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