Latin Mass Society: ‘Traditionis Custodes’ Regulates Not Abrogrates Older Liturgy

Chairman Joseph Shaw says he hopes the society’s canonical guidance will lead to calm and reasoned discussion of Pope Francis’ apostolic letter.

Pontifical Mass in the Vetus Ordo (Extraordinary Form) for pilgrims on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of 'Summorum Pontificum' inside St. Peter's Basilica, Sept. 16, 2017
Pontifical Mass in the Vetus Ordo (Extraordinary Form) for pilgrims on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of 'Summorum Pontificum' inside St. Peter's Basilica, Sept. 16, 2017 (photo: Edward Pentin)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ new decree restricting the traditional Latin Mass can be interpreted in such a way that it is “perfectly reasonable” for bishops to allow existing arrangements for celebration of the older form of the Roman rite to continue in their dioceses, and for lay faithful to continue attending such Masses. 

This is according to a canonical assessment issued this week by the Latin Mass Society (LMS) of England and Wales, which aims to give indications on what the decree — an apostolic letter issued motu proprio called Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of Tradition) — means in terms of the canonical obligations on bishops and priests. 

The LMS paper, written in consultation with expert canonists, further asserts that the apostolic letter does not abrogate the 1962 Roman Missal, and thus leaves the right of priests to celebrate it intact even though it does regulate the way this right can be exercised. 

“Our hope is that this document will contribute to a calm and reasoned discussion of the practical implications of the apostolic letter and help to prevent rash or over-hasty attempts to implement it,” said LMS Chairman Joseph Shaw.

Traditionis Custodes, which Pope Francis published and came into immediate effect on July 16, has been criticized by prelates such as Cardinals Raymond Burke, Gerhard Müller and Joseph Zen, as well as many lay faithful who attend the traditional Latin Mass, also called Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The most general criticism is that the restrictions are unnecessary, needlessly harsh, and implemented in an unjustifiably swift fashion. 

In his apostolic letter, Francis abrogated “previous norms, instructions, permissions, and customs that do not conform to the provisions” of Traditionis Custodes, stating that according to the results of a recent Vatican questionnaire for bishops, those norms have been exploited by some who attend these Masses to sow dissent from the Second Vatican Council. 

The principal feature of Francis’ apostolic letter is to reassign to bishops the power to restrict celebration of the older Mass, giving an ordinary “the exclusive competence to authorize the use of the 1962 Roman Missal in his diocese.” 

But in its guidance, the Latin Mass Society notes that in insisting on the role of the bishop as the “moderator of the liturgy” in his diocese, the decree “is not making any innovation or investing bishops with special authority” but merely reiterating “the existing legal situation.” 

The society’s document contends that this principle is “already well-established in the discipline of the Church” and is also consistent with Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which liberalized the Mass that Traditionis Custodes seeks to reverse. In that document, Benedict XVI stressed that those norms did not “in any way” lessen a bishop’s authority and responsibility. Francis’ apostolic letter “wishes to emphasize the authority of the bishop to regulate where, when, and by whom, their Masses are celebrated,” the canonical assessment read.

The authors note that Traditionis Custodes “says nothing about the right of the faithful to attend the 1962 Missal” or about priests to celebrate the other sacraments according to the older Roman Ritual in public or in private and so “accordingly, all of these things remain permitted.” To back up its point, the paper cites Canon 18, which states all laws which “restrict the free exercise of rights” are “subject to strict interpretation.” 

The assesment continues in the same vein when it examines the central norm of the apostolic letter, Article 3, which concerns the bishops’ authority over “one of more groups” that celebrate according to the older Missal. The Latin Mass Society’s document notes the use of the ambiguous term “groups” in the apostolic letter but adds that the “way the term is used” indicates that Traditionis Custodes “has a formal association in mind.”

Article 3, which has six subclauses, states that the bishop is to determine that these groups “do not deny” the liturgical reforms of Vatican II; that he designate one or more locations where these groups may gather for the Eucharistic celebration (not however in the parochial churches and without the erection of new personal parishes); that the readings be proclaimed in the vernacular language; that he appoint a qualified priest who has the pastoral and spiritual care of the faithful at heart; that he verify these parishes are effective for their spiritual growth, and determine whether or not to retain them; and that he “take care not to authorize the establishment of new groups.”

“What these provisions do is to emphasise the authority of the bishop in regulating arrangements which may have been made under Summorum Pontificum,” the paper observes. “It does not instruct bishops to close these arrangements down: on the contrary, it tells him to make provision for the faithful concerned. On the other hand, the rights of such groups to form and to request celebrations is rescinded, and it follows that no new groups of this kind will come into existence (or be recognised as such).”

Contrary to many interpretations of the apostolic letter, however, the Latin Mass Society’s guidance claims that these restrictions will not apply to the use of the 1962 Missal where there is no formal “group.” This means in practice that any priest, who has permission from his bishop to celebrate the older Mass, can continue or begin to celebrate it in his parish church (or anywhere else) for Catholics who simply choose to attend. 

The society believes this interpretation has the potential to radically change the results of Traditionis Custodes: not only need the older liturgy not be closed down, or moved away from parishes, they argue, but in most cases it could not only remain there but be established in new venues, as far as the rules of the apostolic letter are concerned.

Regarding those parts of Traditionis Custodes ruling that priests must be authorized by their bishop to celebrate Masses according to the 1962 Missal, the canonical assessment states this only applies to public celebrations and not private ones. It also states that priests who have their bishop’s permission to celebrate publicly may do so “in their parishes or anywhere else, and the faithful will be able to attend it.” Furthermore, “if these faithful do not constitute a recognized ‘group’” but rather an assembly of lay faithful who might never have met before, the provisions of Article 3 “do not apply.” 

Noting that bishops will most likely continue the “general oversight” they had already been exercising in this regard, the paper affirmed that the “blanket permissions” bishops have already made for “existing arrangements to continue is a perfectly reasonable exercise of their prerogatives under the Apostolic Letter.”

Turning to parish churches, it notes that the “most surprising thing” about Article 3 is its second clause ruling that groups wishing to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass cannot use parish churches. But here the society asserts that a bishop need not apply the restriction if he cannot find an alternative venue for the group and could cite Canon 87.1 in such instances. That canon states that a bishop can dispense with particular disciplinary laws if he “judges that it contributes to their spiritual good” to do so.  

According to Michael Dunnigan, a canonist who lives and works in Indiana, this issue has become “a lively discussion among canonists.” He told the Register that “opinions vary, but the Latin Mass Society is far from alone in suggesting the possible use of dispensations here. Indeed, some bishops already seem to have issued just such measures so as to allow celebrations to continue in their current locations.” 

One of them is Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who in a July 19 decree invoked Canon 87.1 to dispense two parishes in his diocese from Article 3 §2 and permitting them to continue to celebrate Masses according to the 1962 Roman Missal “on any or all days of the year.” On July 21, Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, also cited the same Canon to dispense parishes in his diocese that celebrate the traditional Mass as “no readily available alternatives” exist for them. 

On the decree’s insistence that scriptural readings be proclaimed in the vernacular during older rite Masses, the Latin Mass Society assessment says the decree does not exclude these readings being read first in Latin, which is generally required under the rules of the 1962 Missal, and adds that in any case, this new rule only applies to formally constituted groups. 

The assessment closes by examining the decree in the context of the “good of souls.” It again cites Canon 87.1 but also 383 §1 that instructs a bishop to show pastoral care for all the faithful in his diocese. In light of these canons, it states that “to apply a regulation in such a way as manifestly to harm the good of souls, is not just a pastoral or practical problem, but a failure to evaluate its legal force correctly.” 

Traditionis Custodes, the paper says, “concerns itself directly with the good of souls” and adds that “the reason why the former Missal is not simply banned outright is that Pope Francis is mindful of the pastoral harm this would do.” The decree states two principles: “To provide for the good of those who are rooted in the previous form of celebration and who need time to return to the Roman Rite promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II, and, on the other hand, 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.’”

“This is therefore the crucial consideration in applying the Apostolic Letter according to the mens [mind] of the legislator,” the paper concludes. “Bishops are to make arrangements and to give, or withhold, permissions, according to whether they believe it will be of spiritual benefit to the faithful attached to the older Mass, and to the priests who wish to celebrate it.”

A canonist, who is close to the Vatican but asked not to be named, affirmed the Latin Mass Society’s evaluation and underlined the canonical rights of the faithful in the context of Traditionis Custodes. 

He cited in particular Canon 214 which states that the faithful “have the right to worship God according to the prescripts of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors of the Church and to follow their own form of spiritual life so long as it is consonant with the doctrine of the Church.” 

Reflecting on the Latin Mass Society’s document, Dunnigan said its authors are “evidently motivated by a number of factors in issuing their interpretation,” namely that the apostolic letter “simply is unclear in some places,” particularly on how the term ‘parish church’ is to be understood. Other reasons for such clarification are that the “the provisions of the document went into effect immediately,” and that “like many of the bishops who already have issued letters, the society and other associations are concerned with the provision of pastoral care for their members and for other members of the faithful.”