Pope Francis’ Traditionis Custodes: 5 Consequences of the New Motu Proprio Curtailing the Latin Mass

The Pope hopes to foster the unity of the Church by his decision, but it’s unlikely to happen immediately in the wake of the Holy Father’s clampdown on celebration of the extraordinary form of the Mass.

A Catholic priest celebrates the traditional Latin Mass in the Church of St. Pancratius in Rome.
A Catholic priest celebrates the traditional Latin Mass in the Church of St. Pancratius in Rome. (photo: Thoom / Shutterstock)

Where there is incense, there is fire, at least when it comes to Catholics clashing over the liturgy. There was clashing aplenty today, with Pope Francis abolishing the chief liturgical initiative of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Pope Francis intends that there will be rather less incense, at least of the extraordinary type.

Pope Francis took “the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs” issued by St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI regarding the “extraordinary form of the Roman Rite,” often called the “traditional Latin Mass” using the Roman Missal of 1962 promulgated by St. John XXIII.

Pope Francis hopes to foster the unity of the Church by this decision. That is unlikely to happen immediately, as those who were grateful to Benedict XVI for allowing any priest to celebrate the extraordinary form in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in 2007 will be disappointed, likely gravely so, that Pope Francis has completely reversed Benedict’s liturgical legislation. 

The earthquake of the motu proprio today may explain, in retrospect, why the Vatican observations of the recent 70th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI were so muted, despite such an anniversary never having occurred before in the entire history of the Church. It cannot be that this decision is anything other than a bitter pill for Benedict to swallow.

There is no gainsaying the importance of the Holy Father’s decision, expressed in the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (Custodians of Tradition), dated July 16, 2021. 

Pope Francis judges that many of those who are attached to the extraordinary form express in “words and attitudes … [a] rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church.’ One is dealing here with comportment that contradicts communion and nurtures the divisive tendency.”

It is possible that those who are given to such tendencies may intensify their “rejection of the Church” now that their preferred liturgical expression has been curtailed. While Pope Francis is certainly aware of this, it is his view that such Catholics “need to return in due time to the Roman Rite promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II.” 

Beginning immediately, all celebrations of the extraordinary form require explicit permission of the diocesan bishop, who is instructed to “designate one or more locations” where it can be celebrated, but these are not to be “parochial churches” nor is the “the erection of new personal parishes” permitted.

There will be plenty of reaction to examine in the days ahead, but five initial issues emerge.


Benedict v. Francis?

Pope Francis has explicitly, deliberately and dramatically revoked the permissions and legislation given by his predecessors. He has unambiguously rejected Benedict’s argument that the two forms of the Roman Rite — extraordinary and ordinary — will not foster division. It is precisely because of the divisions he has identified — after a survey of the world’s bishops — that he judges that the extraordinary form needs to be curtailed.


Rome Increases Authority

While Summorum Pontificum gave priests the right to celebrate the extraordinary form without needing permission from their bishops, Pope Francis has decided to move in a centralizing direction. The bishop alone must “exclusively” regulate the extraordinary form in his diocese, but Rome will limit how he can regulate. More permissive regulations are forbidden; more restrictive ones are encouraged. 

Indeed, for all newly ordained priests, the bishop may not grant them permission to celebrate the extraordinary form without first consulting the Holy See. Traditionis Custodes strengthens the bishop’s authority over his priests and strengthens Pope Francis’ authority over the bishops.

This is an unexpected liturgical development, in that Pope Francis previously shifted authority for liturgical matters, particularly translations, to episcopal conferences, decrying too much Roman control. 

Sociological Survey

Traditionis Custodes does not call into question the “dignity and grandeur of the [Missal of St. Pius V].” The arguments for its curtailment are more sociological than theological; namely, it is predicated on a judgment regarding the types of people who tend to prefer the older tradition.

This is not entirely novel; Benedict XVI himself appealed to his own sociological impressions about the flourishing communities drawn to the older form. The motu proprio of Pope Francis puts a burden on the local bishop to determine whether extraordinary-form communities “expose [the Church] to the peril of division” and “reject the Church.” 

If they do, then Pope Francis clearly intends the bishop to suppress them, and sooner rather than later, more severely rather than less. But if the local community does not conform to that sociological impression, then ought the local bishop allow them to continue, even flourish?


Priests or Laity?

Pope Francis mandates the bishops “to discontinue the erection of new personal parishes tied more to the desire and wishes of individual priests than to the real need of the ‘holy People of God.’” The clear implication is that the extraordinary form is something desired by priests that the lay faithful are in turn subjected to — a type of liturgical clericalism.

Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum took the opposite approach, namely, that it was priests who were to respond generously to groups of the faithful who desired the older forms. 

What if the faithful are the initiators and the priests are responding? Might the new restrictions be another form of liturgical clericalism?


Society of St. Pius X

Pope Francis writes that the decisions taken by St. John Paul II and Benedict to make the 1962 Missal more accessible were “above all motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the schism with the movement of [Archbishop Marcel] Lefebvre,” who established the Priestly Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). The SSPX remains in an irregular canonical status.

Pope Francis has been generous with the SSPX, granting their priests faculties to hear confessions and witness marriages. Their Masses are valid. 

Might the restrictions on the extraordinary form, combined with the Holy Father’s more generous treatment of the SSPX, mean that Catholics who prefer the older form tend to frequent SSPX chapels as the extraordinary form become less available through their dioceses? It may be a possible unintended consequence.