Cardinal Müller on Traditionis Custodes: ‘The Shepherd Hits the Sheep Hard With His Crook’

The prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published his reflections on Pope Francis’ motu proprio that sweepingly restricts celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass

Cardinal Gerhard Müller
Cardinal Gerhard Müller (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register)

Cardinal Gerhard Müller has argued that Pope Francis failed to adequately make his case in Traditionis Custodes, the decree that imposes sweeping restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass, saying that “instead of appreciating the smell of the sheep, the shepherd here hits them hard with his crook.” 

In a lengthy July 19 commentary on Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of Tradition) which reversed the efforts of Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI to liberalize celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes the case that the Pope’s accompanying letter to bishops contains an inadequate vision of Church unity and lacks both expertise and context. 

The Pope signed and promulgated Traditionis Custodes issued motu proprio (of his own accord) on July 16, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, arguing that the efforts of his predecessors to liberalize the Mass have been “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.” 

Taking as his starting point that the Pope wishes to “drastically” restrict the celebration of the old Mass by “total unification” with the Mass of Paul VI, Cardinal Müller writes that Francis’ clear intention is actually to condemn “to extinction in the long run” celebration of the old Mass, also called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. 

But to do so, “a stringent and logically comprehensible theological argumentation” would be appropriate, Cardinal Müller argues, and that references to statements from the Second Vatican Council should be “used precisely and in context.” 

He criticizes what he sees as the decree’s call for “a sterile uniformity in the external liturgical form” rather than “unity in the confession of revealed faith and the celebration of the mysteries of grace in the seven sacraments.” 

“The unity of believers with one another is rooted in unity in God through faith, hope, and love and has nothing to do with uniformity in appearance, the lockstep of a military formation, or the groupthink of the big-tech age,” he explains.

And although he supports the Pope for his concern about those who resist “the authority of Vatican II” and for insisting on what the cardinal calls the “unconditional recognition of Vatican II,” he also notes a recent “paganization of the Catholic liturgy” such as the Pachamama controversy in 2019 — developments, he says, which are “rather counterproductive for the restoration and renewal of a dignified and orthodox liturgy reflective of the fulness of the Catholic faith.”

Cardinal Müller, who stresses that Traditionis Custodes is disciplinary and not dogmatic and so can be “modified again by any future pope,” further contrasts the Pope’s forceful treatment of those who prefer the Traditional Latin Mass to the “relatively modest response” to the Church in Germany and its “massive attacks on the unity of the Church” through its Synodal Path. 

“The image of the misguided fire brigade comes to mind, which — instead of saving the blazing house — instead first saves the small barn next to it,” Cardinal Müller writes.

“Without the slightest empathy,” he continues, “one ignores the religious feelings of the (often young) participants in the Masses according to the Missal John XXIII (1962). Instead of appreciating the smell of the sheep, the shepherd here hits them hard with his crook. It also seems simply unjust to abolish celebrations of the ‘old’ rite just because it attracts some problematic people: abusus non tollit usum [misuse of something is no argument against its proper use].” 

Cardinal Müller says the Pope rightly emphasizes the “centrality” of the Roman Canon in the new Missal, but the cardinal also stresses the need for adherents of both forms of the liturgy to respect each other's qualities, and argues that “more knowledge of Catholic dogmatics and the history of the liturgy” could counteract conflicts and save bishops from “an authoritarian, loveless, and narrow-minded manner against the supporters of the ‘old’ Mass.” 

The German theologian, who was CDF prefect from 2012 to 2017, also argues against bishops’ conferences being given “responsibility for unity in cult.” 

He hopes the Congregations for Religious and Divine Worship, which will now have authority over individuals and groups attached to the old Roman Missal, will not become “inebriated on power” and wage a “campaign of destruction” against such communities in the “foolish belief that by doing so they are rendering a service to the Church and promoting Vatican II.” 

“If Traditionis Custodes is to serve the unity of the Church,” Cardinal Müller concludes, “that can only mean a unity in faith, which enables us to ‘come to the perfect knowledge of the Son of God,’ which is to say unity in truth and love.”

Read the full text on The Catholic Thing.

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