‘Traditionis Custodes’: Practical Implications

COMMENTARY: We have the Holy Father’s direction. What might happen now in practice?

Pontifical Mass in the ‘vetus ordo’ (extraordinary form) for pilgrims on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of 
‘Summorum Pontificum’ at St. Peter's Basilica, Sept. 16, 2017.
Pontifical Mass in the ‘vetus ordo’ (extraordinary form) for pilgrims on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of ‘Summorum Pontificum’ at St. Peter's Basilica, Sept. 16, 2017. (photo: Edward Pentin)

There was an enormous amount of commentary in the fortnight following the publication of Traditionis Custodes (TC), the motu proprio restricting the use of the “extraordinary form” (EF) of the Roman Rite, often called the traditional Latin Mass. The consensus has been that the measures Pope Francis adopted were severe and in response to a problem that may vary in its prevalence from place to place. 

Many practical implications have yet to be sorted through, and some elements seem to depend on further guidance from the Vatican. What, then, is it?


Clarifications Needed

Article 1 of TC states that “the liturgical books promulgated by St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi [law of prayer] of the Roman Rite.” The Italian-language original is even stronger; “unica” means “only.” 

That is a direct contradiction of what Benedict XVI wrote in 2007 in Summorum Pontificum, in which he said that the books of Paul VI and John Paul II were the “ordinary” expression of the lex orandi, and the Roman Missal of John XXIII was an “extraordinary” expression of the same lex orandi. When two documents directly contradict each other, a supplementary clarification is in order from the relevant authorities.

TC provides for the ongoing celebration of the EF, albeit with more permissions needed. What is happening when the EF is being offered? Is it an expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite? If not, what is it expressing? TC does not answer that question.

In 2015, Pope Francis himself promulgated a liturgical book, Divine Worship: The Missal, for the personal ordinariates erected for former Anglicans. That was very emphatically understood as not being a new rite, but a different expression or “form” of the Roman Rite. Read plainly, TC would suggest that Divine Worship is not an expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite. The question follows: Then, what is it?


Parish Churches

Pope Francis’ prohibition of the older form of the Mass in “parochial churches” is the provision that may have the most practical effect. If the EF cannot be celebrated in a parish church, where might it be celebrated?

In some places, like Washington, D.C., there are many religious houses and shrines that could be designated. Indeed, the chapel at the apostolic nunciature may be a suitable place. But in most dioceses in the United States, there are not readily available alternatives to parish churches. 

If the curious situation of the EF being relegated to the Knights of Columbus hall down the street from the parish church is to be avoided, a clarification will be required. 

In parishes where both “forms” of the Mass are being offered, is the parish priest supposed to leave the church proper to celebrate the extraordinary form in the basement? That might foster more division within the parish.



Traditionis Custodes will prevent the establishment of new EF parishes, but otherwise it may have little effect. That is nothing particular to TC; aside from major changes like the publication of new liturgical books, most liturgical instructions are practically ignored.

Indeed, TC makes reference to Redemptionis Sacramentum, the 2004 detailed instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on the proper celebration of the Holy Mass. That followed other instructions from Rome on liturgical abuses. The missal itself is governed by a “general instruction,” which is printed in the very same book. 

Nevertheless, Pope Francis can write in the letter accompanying TC that he is “saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy … [and] deplore[s] the fact that in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.”

Those “unbearable distortions” are evidence that liturgical directives from Rome are not met with perfect compliance.

Many bishops, therefore, not desiring conflict with their EF communities, may simply tell them to continue on as before, perhaps more discreetly. That is hardly new in matters of liturgical discipline. Most liberal parishes have been operating that way for decades.

Other bishops may note that the problem which Pope Francis aims to correct is not any defect with the extraordinary form, but, rather, in the people who attend it. They have, Pope Francis writes, a “comportment that contradicts communion and nurtures the divisive tendency.” A bishop may well judge that such comportment, however much it may be a problem elsewhere, is not a problem in his diocese and choose to give Traditionis Custodes a light, if practically nonexistent, implementation.


Comportment That Contradicts Communion

Even if an individual bishop may not find the problematic comportment in his own diocese, it does exist. 

“What we have got now is a movement within the Church herself, seemingly endorsed by her leaders, that sows division by undermining the reforms of the Second Vatican Council through the rejection of the most important of them: the reform of the Roman Rite,” said Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop DiNoia, an American, is a sober voice of long experience in questions of the traditional liturgy and related communities. Yet he is a careful man who does not speak of what he does not know. And he sounds the alarm.

“The thing has gotten totally out of control and become a movement, especially in the U.S., France and England — a movement that aggressively promotes the traditional Latin Mass among young people and others as if this ‘extraordinary form’ were the true liturgy for the true Church,” Archbishop DiNoia told Catholic News Service.

Archbishop DiNoia highlighted a pastoral problem, which Pope Francis has evidently deemed urgent. The remedy has been a rather heavy-handed decree, which is unlikely, by itself, to effect the desired change in “comportment.”

Traditionis Custodes leaves the pastoral care of the traditionalist community to the local bishops, asking that a priest be delegated for their care. That will not be an easy task, as traditional-minded Catholics currently feel terribly maligned by TC, as even its most ardent defenders will concede. After all, the reason for TC was the behavior of those who frequent the extraordinary form. No one likes to be told that their comportment is threatening the communion of the Church.

It will not be an easy task. Pastoral accompaniment — as often stressed by Pope Francis himself in relation to moral questions — is often more difficult if pointing out the defects in those being cared for is the starting point. Thus, after TC, Catholics attached to the EF will have to accept that while the form of the Mass itself is not defective, it is not what Benedict XVI told them it was, and they must gradually reduce their attachment to it because of their divisive comportment. That will be an extremely difficult pastoral needle to thread, especially if it seems that other Catholics, such as those responsible for the “unbearable distortions” the Holy Father decries, do not qualify for such careful scrutiny about their comportment. 

Indeed, no particular guidance was given from any Roman office about how this pastoral care should be offered, quite in contrast to other pastoral matters that have been dealt with, for example, the worthy reception of Holy Communion by those living in invalid marriages.

That pastoral difficulty may be another factor why TC may not find a particularly vigorous implementation.