When Pope Francis published his apostolic letter, given motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, on Friday, July 16, he expected the document’s sweeping restrictions on celebration of the traditional Latin Mass to come into immediate effect. But bishops struggled to implement the motu proprio’s strictures for that very weekend. The most that could be done in many dioceses was to give hasty permissions for whatever already existed, meaning that many Latin Masses, particularly in the English-speaking world, received a lifeline. Since then, a good number of these hasty permissions have turned into less hasty ones—but even this has changed the situation in subtle ways, and some bishops have taken things in a more restrictive direction.
A test case is provided by Abp. Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool in England, who issued a formal decree implementing Traditionis Custodes, listing the churches where the 1962 Missal has been a regular feature in recent years and allowing them to continue to offer the traditional Mass. He notes that some of these locations are parish churches, and while this appears to conflict with Traditionis Custodes Article 3.2 (explicitly forbidding parish churches to celebrate the traditional Mass), he grants them permission to continue in any case, using his prerogative under Canon 87 to derogate from the law of the Church for the good of souls.
The Latin Mass Society’s Canonical Guidance pointed out bishops’ power to do this, but it was no secret, and many bishops in the U.S. and elsewhere have used it in exactly this way. Whereas it might be quite easy to find non-parochial churches in Italy, where in the historic city centers there seem to be churches on every street corner, this is not so elsewhere. Pope Francis himself, asked about this issue by some French bishops on their ad limina visits to Rome, seemed relaxed about it.
On the other hand, Abp. McMahon’s decree suggests that where permission has not been given explicitly, the celebration of the 1962 Mass is forbidden. The Canonical Guidance just noted argues that Traditionis Custodes Article 3 regulates the celebration of Mass specifically for formally constituted “groups,” and Article 4 regulates which priests can celebrate the Latin Mass publicly. This leaves open the private celebration of this Mass by any priest, and even its public celebration by priests who have been given personal permission by their bishop, on an indefinite number of occasions and for any who wish to attend, if these do not constitute a “group.”
Despite this, many bishops, like Abp. McMahon, have taken the opportunity to insist on an extraordinarily tight control of celebrations. Unless the bishop sees some special reason for it, new occasional, let alone regular, celebrations of the 1962 Mass are going to be impossible.
The next level of stringency in regulating the celebration of the ancient Mass is when bishops cut down the number of permitted celebrations. This is not demanded by Traditionis Custodes, but bishops certainly have the power to do it. According to the Traditionis Custodes website, out of 243 dioceses about which the site’s operators have data, 182 have not canceled any Masses, and thirty-six have canceled some but not all. This includes eleven in the United States.
Restricting, but not eliminating the availability of the Usus Antiquior gives bishops the opportunity to determine exactly where and by whom it is celebrated, and at the same time impose any conditions they wish on priests.
In the Diocese of Rome, to an otherwise benign document listing churches where the older Mass is currently said, and will continue to be allowed, Rome’s vicar general, Cdl. De Donatis, adds the surprising and—so far—unique provisions that it not be used for the Easter Triduum and that the old Roman Ritual not be used. This is the book containing the formulas for the other sacraments and blessings, which corresponds to the 1962 Missal.
Finally, there is the nuclear option: banning the old Mass altogether, adopted in thirty-six of the dioceses worldwide listed by the Traditionis Custodes website, only two of them in the U.S., with one in England.
Where restrictions are being imposed, it is hard to know whether the bishop is reacting against the clergy, the laity who attend, or the rite itself. The text of Traditionis Custodes and its accompanying letter are themselves unclear about where the problem lies, and this makes applying the documents to bring about what Pope Francis wants to achieve very difficult. Bishops, like the rest of us, are in the dark as to what exactly that is.
The letter refers to the kind of exaggerated traditionalist rhetoric that can more easily be found on the internet than among the real people who attend the Latin Mass, particularly when it is celebrated under the authority of the bishops. Bishops seeking assurances that congregations don’t “doubt the Council” (as Pope Francis expressed it), and pastors giving these assurances, have taken on a ritual quality. What does it mean for a group of people, often drawn from a wide geographical area, to hold a specific theological position? And what exactly is the anathematized claim?
Again, the clamping down on which priests celebrate where might suggest that the central concern is about priests spreading the Vetus Ordo in an uncontrolled manner—even when, in the words of the survey done last year by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is supposed to be the justification for Traditionis Custodes, there is no “true pastoral need.” This would suggest diocesan clergy, as opposed to priests of the Traditional Institutes, whom bishops bring in precisely to attend to a pastoral need. Indeed, so far, apart from being forbidden to use the Roman Ritual in Rome, the Traditional Institutes have escaped the worst of Traditionis Custodes, though this could change at any time. On the other hand, diocesan priests who like the older Mass can’t be accused of doubting the validity of the reformed rites, since they nearly always celebrate them themselves.
The letter that accompanies Traditionis Custodes suggests that the unity of the Church requires “a single and identical prayer”—a statement that must be difficult to interpret for bishops who preside over parishes where Mass is celebrated in many different languages, innumerable liturgical styles, and perhaps several rites: Roman, Greek, Melkite, and so on.
The degree of liturgical diversity in a diocese is largely a matter of demography, which bishops are unable to influence. The exception is the situation with the 1962 Missal, where, even before Traditionis Custodes, how much it was being celebrated was very much the result of diocesan policy. Abp. McMahon, for example, is in the position of many bishops around the world in having a church in his diocese served by one of the Traditional Institutes, simply because he welcomed it. When a bishop does this, he presumably does it for reasons he regards as good. The unity of the Church, the good of souls, and the preservation of historic church buildings may all be factors. None of these has been obviated by Traditionis Custodes.
It is not surprising, therefore, that we hear of the most hostile reports about the older Mass coming from bishops, notably in Italy, whose dioceses contained no celebrations anyway. They can ban the Usus Antiquior, but they had effectively done so already. Bishops who had allowed it, on the other hand, such as many in the U.S., often had good things to say about it and seem likely to continue to implement Traditionis Custodes in a gentle way.
What has changed is that the Latin Mass is now less likely to spread to new locations, even within a more open-minded diocese. The Vetus Ordo faces a period of consolidation: congregations will be able to grow, but not multiply. It remains to be seen, however, how long this phase of liturgical history will last, and what will succeed it.