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Reflections on Pope Francis’s Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes by Sebastian Morello

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Reflections on Pope Francis’s Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes

Photo: Image courtesy of Servus Tuus, licensed under CCA-Sa 3.0 Unported.

Last week, Pope Francis issued a Motu Proprio—an edict—whose aim is that of dramatically restricting the celebration of the Roman Rite liturgy according to its ancient use, and declaring its 1960s ‘reformed’ use to be the only true ‘expression’ of the Roman Rite liturgy. This is a massive assault on the tradition of the Catholic Church by one whose office is that of foremost guardian of that tradition. The document was not without its humour, however, as the Holy Father picked an ironic title for the edict: “Guardians of the Tradition.”

From the outset, I wish to state that what follows is not a theological analysis, for which I am untrained (that has, in any case, been provided by Cardinal Gerhard Mueller). I am a conservative philosopher who has researched mainly on the early conservatives: Maistre, Burke, Bonald, Chateaubriand, Cortés and others. Ordinarily, I analyse the content of political and social topics. Nonetheless, the Church is analogous to a political society, is admixed with natural society, and is a true society in its own right, being both a nation (the New Israel, according to Lumen Gentium, 9) and possessing a government, namely the bishops. A conservative analysis of events may be applied to the Church and its government, especially for the task of detecting and criticising revolutionary activity.

In his new edict, Pope Francis claims to foster “ecclesial communion,” but in order to achieve such unity in the Church he calls for the marginalisation of a specific group within the body of the faithful. An odd way of achieving communion, to be sure. By so doing, the Pope makes a grave mistake of government, that of using his power to damage that which his power exists to protect, namely the Church’s tradition. 

Perhaps nothing can so undermine the authority of government than such an obvious blunder. During the Soviet terror, in places like Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania, for example, ‘the people’ were told that they were being liberated by the commissars who were systematically abolishing the traditions and ways of life of those very people. They were being ‘emancipated’ without choice from their very own cultural inheritance. When the people reacted negatively, they were told that they were the enemy of the people. That this was all being done with the best of intentions was hardly convincing then, as it isn’t now.

Civil society is a logically pre-political entity, as there can be no societal ordering principle (the State) if there is no society of which State officials are already members. So too, the whole faithful of the Church, as a community, is logically prior to the episcopacy, even if the episcopacy and the wider ecclesial community are correlative and brought into being together. The reason for a Church government (as leaders, rather than sacrificial priests) is found in the community of faithful for which such government exists. 

Government exists per se for the protection of society and its way of life, so that society may achieve the ends for which human communities are formed; government is not the creator of society. So too, the pope and bishops are mandated to guard and pass on the tradition that has been handed down to them (2 Thess. 2:15), and are not to repudiate or abrogate it, or concoct their own novel version. The Church’s tradition, both belief and practice, is not theirs, with which they may do as they wish. The Church’s tradition belongs to the whole faithful. Of this tradition, the bishops (including the pope) are the guardians and servants. They can never be the creators nor the owners of the Church’s doctrine, practice or liturgical life, but are charged with protecting and promulgating the common religious inheritance of the whole faithful. For popes and bishops to behave as if the Church’s tradition is their belonging, with which they may do as they please, with the rest of the faithful just having to accept it, marks the crudest form of clericalism.

By his edict, the Pope has simultaneously committed a second blunder of government. He has set an even stronger precedent than that which already existed regarding the repudiation of papal predecessors. 

In his Letter accompanying the Motu Proprio, Pope Francis writes that his (living) predecessor “granted freedom to celebrate” the ancient liturgy because he had good intentions. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI did not so much grant freedom as simply acknowledge that such freedom had always existed within the Church. In any case, these good intentions were then purportedly exploited by people attending traditional Masses to foster disunity in the Church. Due to this alleged appropriation of the ancient liturgy to create disunity in the Church—it seems we just have to take Pope Francis’s word for this—the Pope tells us that he is moved out of necessity to reverse the liberties that were “granted” by Pope Benedict to the Church’s faithful. Pope Francis goes further, however, and states a point of principle in his edict: Pope Benedict had advanced the theory that there are two equally valid ‘forms’ of the Roman Rite, the ‘ordinary’ (1960s) and ‘extraordinary’ (ancient) forms; Pope Francis has declared this to be untrue. 

According to Pope Francis, the 1960s reformed liturgy is the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” The word “unique” in this sentence is the official Vatican translation of the original Italian l’unica. The sentence is better understood, then, as ‘the only expression of the … Roman Rite.’ It is clear how extreme Pope Francis’s position really is. He claims that a new liturgy concocted by a committee (one led by a rather shady character) half a century ago is to be understood as the only legitimate expression of a liturgical tradition with a pedigree going back to apostolic times. How can this be so? We are given no explanation beyond, ‘Because I say so.’

Now, presumably, if Pope Francis can reject the claims of his predecessor by the click of his fingers, his successor will be free to do the same to him. Catholic faithful attached to the traditional liturgy may derive comfort from this, as there remains the possibility that the whole thing could be reversed by a future edict. Do not be consoled, for here lies the path to ever intensifying ecclesiastical tyranny. For example, the reason why revolutionary governments become so draconian when they attain power by the overthrowing of government, immediately requiring a secret police and increasingly severe punishments, is because the revolutionary government has, in acquiring government, legitimised revolution against government. So too, in the game of predecessor repudiations, evermore draconian measures are needed to prevent any reversal by a future edict. In the case of the new Motu Proprio, the measures are so harsh that it is clearly hoped that by the time any future pope is inclined to reverse them, the faithful attached to the traditional liturgy will have been scattered and purged.

According to the Motu Proprio, priests who already know how to offer the ancient Mass may continue to do so only if they obtain permission from their bishops. If a priest does not have a sympathetic bishop, tough luck. If a priest obtains permission, he cannot choose the days on which he offers this Mass—that is now for the bishop to decide—and it is forbidden to offer it in his parish church (thankfully, this last detail is being ignored by some bishops who have already responded to the edict). So, occasionally, with permission, a priest with this newly invented ‘faculty’ may visit the catacombed faithful for a gathering that is only just tolerated by the regime if completely out of sight. Any priest who wants to learn the traditional liturgy, however, must now ask permission from his bishop, who in fact (despite the edict asserting that the bishop is the “moderator … of the whole liturgical life of the particular Church entrusted to him”) cannot grant such permission. The bishop must first consult the Holy See, and I have a suspicion that the Holy See (as in, the office whose incumbent is trying to suppress the ancient liturgy) will be reluctant to grant such permission. One thing is clear: Pope Francis’s new ‘collegial Church’ does not look very collegial. 

The themes of revolution and repudiation have troubled me for some time in regard to Pope Paul VI. Pope Paul seemed to abrogate the ancient liturgy (though Pope Benedict claimed he never actually did so, seemingly because that would have been beyond his authority—take note, Pope Francis) after he issued his brand new ‘reformed’ liturgy called the New Order of the Roman Rite. Pope Paul claimed that the Second Vatican Council had called for this new liturgy, but in fact the reforms proposed by the Council did not correspond to Pope Paul’s final liturgical product, which I am informed even he eventually grew to regret. 

I have wondered for some time: if a pope can bring out his very own liturgy, and force it on the whole Church’s faithful, and foster a culture that makes life very difficult for those who wish to worship as did their forefathers in the Faith, why cannot every one of his successors, in principle, do the same? Presumably, in principle, the faithful could be forced to radically change the practice of their religion every ten years or so, which, if the effects of the 1960s reform is anything to go by, would be catastrophic for faith-retention and faith-induction.

What essentially has been establishment is a programme of ongoing repudiation and revolution, which, from the perspective of basic governmental competence and regnative prudence, is a spectacularly unwise way to govern the Church. The subterranean presence in such a programme is that of a hyper-voluntarism: I want it to be so, therefore it will be so. The Motu Proprio, for example, has no explanation contained within it. It is a list of demands without reasons. The accompanying Letter offers no further explanation beyond a list of observations that Pope Francis says makes him “sad.” As things stand, until further explanation is offered, including some account of how the principled claims of his new edict can be squared with those of previous documents of the same authority (if they cannot be, we have no reason for taking this edict seriously), all we have is a pope saying, ‘This is how I feel. This is what I want. I demand obedience!’ Behaving in such a way not only lacks the maturity expected of a leader, but turns the papacy into exactly what protestants have accused it of being for centuries: an arbitrary authority demanding mindlessness of its subjects.

This is the terrible effect of this revolutionary voluntarism: the exercise of arbitrary power. Arbitrary power, free from accountability, is what Edmund Burke in his Speech on the Impeachment of Warren Hastings characterised as “wholly satanic.” Now, the Catholic Church’s faithful may have to adopt new teachings and practices of piety, and do so regularly, solely because the emotional states and cultural preferences of the reigning pope have been announced. Such a situation is so abusive of the religious life of the faithful that, in the climate it creates, the religion itself cannot be expected to persist.

The legacy of Pope Paul VI is important, for Pope Francis’s edict is not about the liturgy, but about that legacy. Pope Francis has said as much. It is about the Second Vatican Council and its effects. This is indeed the major theme of the accompanying Letter.

I will say nothing about the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council. It is, however, important to understand the role of the Second Vatican Council in the life of the Church. Councils had previously been called to condemn threats to doctrinal orthodoxy. Councils were not for scrutinising the Church itself. It was stated from the outset that the Second Vatican Council was not to have error as the object of its concern, but the Church itself, which it was to re-organise and re-configure by its novel principles. In turn, the historical role of the Second Vatican Council has been that of giving to the Church something like a written constitution. As the celebrated Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens ecstatically proclaimed after the closing of the Council, “Vatican II is the French Revolution in the Church!” Since the Council, Church leaders have not been able to speak authoritatively without concurrently claiming to be furthering the Council’s cause. For this reason, no bishop, including the pope, can publicly teach without beginning most of his sentences, ‘As Vatican II taught us…’

The Council was received as the author of a new Church. Ever since, the preoccupation of the Church’s government has been that of implementing the principles of the Church’s new constitution. As the existent reality fails to conform itself to the new ideas, evermore draconian measures must be put in place, especially against those most noticeable hotbeds of resistance, the traditional Masses. They have enjoyed a decade or so without persecution, and now the Church’s government deems that to have been a grave mistake. The congregations attending such Masses could not avoid drawing attention to themselves; they are frequently made up of young families with many children whose parents succeed in passing on the Faith—a rare spectacle in the Catholic Church today. Such signs of life are always quashed by revolutionaries, who see things only from the deconstructive perspective.

In a conservative analysis, employed to detect the presence of revolution, one must distinguish the revolutionaries from all others. Revolutions always mark the overthrowing of an established order in favour of a new system. Revolutions can come from society, as is the case with plebeian uprisings, or from the government, as was the case with our very own King Henry VIII, who launched a revolt against the religious inheritance of his people. 

Those Catholics who are anxiously conserving their inherited religious beliefs and practices are not the revolutionaries, and they are not the disobedient. Shamefully, such Catholics will be accused—indeed, already are being accused—of disobedience. In reality, such Catholics simply do not want to be part of a revolutionary cause. It is precisely their obedience and fidelity to their tradition, in the face of the abusive exercise of arbitrary power, that makes them the targets of revolution and disobedience. Such Catholics must be clear about this in their minds: they are not the revolutionaries; they are not the disobedient; they are the faithful.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children. He is essays editor of The European Conservative.


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