Traditional Catholics Sound Alarm As Rome Suppresses Most Old Rite Sacraments

They contend the Oct. 7 pastoral instruction forbidding six of the seven sacraments celebrated according to the extraordinary form is a violation of canon law and will cause spiritual harm.

Basilica of St. John Lateran, home to the Vicariate of Rome
Basilica of St. John Lateran, home to the Vicariate of Rome (photo: Edward Pentin)

ROME — Canon lawyers and experts in the traditional liturgy have warned that a pastoral instruction issued by the Diocese of Rome that bans traditional communities and priests from celebrating all the sacraments with the exception of the Eucharist according to the traditional form of the Roman Rite is unlawful and will harm souls if allowed to continue.

The guidelines, issued in an Oct. 7 letter signed by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome, stated that in light of Pope Francis’ July 16 motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of Tradition), it is “no longer possible to use the Roman Ritual and other liturgical books of the ‘ancient rite’ for the celebration of sacraments and sacramentals (e.g. not even the Ritual for Reconciliation of Penitents according to the ancient form).” 

These sacraments, he continued, are “expressly forbidden and only the use of the Missale Romanum of 1962 [the form of the Mass celebrated before the Second Vatican Council] remains permitted.” Furthermore, he said those priests — diocesan or religious — who wished to celebrate the old Mass must have written authorization from a bishop of the diocese.

By way of the cardinal’s letter, the diocese has therefore prohibited all traditional sacramental forms of baptism, matrimony, ordination, penance, confirmation, and extreme unction (anointing of the sick) being celebrated in Rome, allowing only the Eucharist in the traditional form. The instruction also stated that the Easter Triduum could no longer be celebrated according to the Roman Missal of 1962 anywhere in the diocese. 

Cardinal De Donatis, who as the Pope’s vicar general runs the diocese on the Pope’s behalf, wrote that he was issuing the instruction in order to provide “precise guidelines” for implementing Traditionis Custodes and “for the spiritual good of the faithful.” 

Traditionis Custodes, an apostolic letter issued motu proprio (on the Pope’s own volition), aimed to place sweeping restrictions on the old Mass, also known as the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, the Tridentine Mass, or the Traditional Latin Mass, that was celebrated before Pope St. Paul VI’s liturgical reforms of 1970.

The motu proprio abrogated previous papal decrees of the past 35 years that had liberalized this old form of the Mass, most notably Benedict XVI’s 2007 landmark apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum which acknowledged the right of all priests to celebrate Mass using the Roman Missal of 1962. 

One of the main elements of Traditionis Custodes is the stipulation that all priests in a diocese wishing to celebrate the traditional rites must now seek authorization in writing from the diocesan bishop. It also ended the right for groups to have the Mass celebrated in parish churches among other changes. 

Francis said he wanted a “return in due time” to the liturgy instituted after the Second Vatican Council, and that he had imposed the decree because some traditional faithful reject Vatican II and claim the reformed liturgy betrays “Tradition and the ‘true Church.’” He therefore said he felt impelled to take such a drastic step “in defense of the unity of the Body of Christ” after previous liberalizations of the old rite had, he believed, been exploited to expose the Church “to the peril of division.” 


Exceeding Traditionis Custodes?

But critics say the Rome instruction goes far beyond the Pope’s decree, which did not mention prohibiting the old liturgical rites.  

Father Gerald Murray, canonist at Holy Family Church in New York, drew attention to Article 1 of Traditionis Custodes which states that the liturgical books of the new Roman Missal “are the unique expression of the lex orandi [law of prayer] of the Roman Rite,” phrasing that he contends “does not in itself canonically establish that every other sacramental rite in use at the time of the issuance of Traditionis Custodes is prohibited.”

As examples, he highlighted other parts of the Roman Rite (for example the Anglican Ordinariate and the Ambrosian, Gallican, Dominican rites) and yet these are “plainly distinct from the ‘unique expression of the lex orandi’ found in the revised Roman rites.” 

Said Father Murray, “Since the prohibition of the more ancient sacramental rites is not expressly stated in Traditionis Custodes, it should not be asserted that this supposed prohibition is, in fact, now in effect by virtue of an identification of what constitutes the ‘unique expression of the lex orandi.’” 

Peter Kwasniewski, an author and expert on the traditional liturgy, noted that this absence of a clear prohibition in Traditionis Custodes means that the Rome instruction violates Canon 18 which demands that any law, penalty or restriction of free exercise of rights must be subject to “strict interpretation.” 

“In other words, if a sacrament is to be canceled — clearly either a penalty, or a restriction of free exercise of rights — then it must have been expressly canceled. But Traditionis Custodes did no such thing,” Kwasniewski said.

He also said the instruction has other violations, notably Canon 17 which says that if a law’s meaning is “doubtful and obscure,” one should refer to the mind of the legislator. Kwasniewski recalled that in informal comments in September, the Pope has said the motu proprio did not suggest “abolish[ing] the old rites or the Triduum” but established “limits.” 

“So either the Vicariate is departing from the mind of the legislator, or there is no clarity we can have about what exactly that mind is, in which case Canon 14 comes fully into play,” Kwasniewski argued. Canon 14 stipulates that regulations “do not oblige when there is a doubt about the law.”

Father Murray agreed, saying that by prohibiting six of the seven sacraments in the old form, the vicariate of Rome has acted “beyond the words of Traditionis Custodes and the intent of the legislator. He added, “Thus a doubt of law exists and thus the prohibition of such celebrations lacks the force of law until such time that the doubt of law has been resolved.” He also agreed with Kwasniewski on the application of Canons 17 and 18 with respect to the Rome instruction exceeding Traditionis Custodes.

A further violation, traditional Catholics have observed, is that, as with Traditionis Custodes and its banning of creating new traditional rite parishes, the Rome prohibitions threaten to breach the Holy See-approved constitutions of traditional communities such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, and the Institute of the Good Shepherd — all of which have a presence in Rome. 

Father Murray stressed that those constitutions “remain in effect and cannot be overridden by a pastoral letter of the Vicariate of Rome which lacks specific approval by the Pope.” 


Priests Express Alarm

Three traditional priests contacted by the Register, but who did not wish to be named due to the current climate of suppression, expressed their alarm at the vicariate’s decision. 

Referring to the traditional rite of baptism as an example, they contended that the old rite conveys more clearly truths of the faith such as the reality of Satan, the need to be cleansed of original sin, and the call to holiness (it has stronger and more repeated exorcisms, they argued, and the use of exorcised salt). They also said it imparts additional graces as its extra prayers each call down graces from God and the entire rite is more sacred and solemn. 

Father Claude Barthe, an expert author on the traditional liturgy and priest of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon in France, said he believed the doctrinal message conveyed by the modern baptismal rite is “clearly weaker in at least one respect: the aspect of fighting the devil, which so strongly characterizes the traditional form of baptism, and is practically blurred.” 

As for the other sacraments in the old form, the traditional priests said the spiritual battle is clearly present in them as well, as is the reality of sin, and that they act as good catechetical tools. For these and other reasons, they believe a ban would be harmful for souls.

Msgr. Charles Pope, dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC and a Register contributor, agreed “to some degree” with the priests and Father Barthe on the baptismal rite. But he hesitated to describe the new baptismal rite as “weaker” as the Sacraments have power ex opere operato (“from the work performed”). He preferred to speak, as St. Thomas Aquinas did, of the “fruitfulness” of the rite. 

Msgr. Pope added that he favors speaking of a “mutual respect” between the older and newer forms and likes both for different reasons. The old ones, he said, are “more theologically precise and emphasize the mystery and glory of what is taking place and that we are worshipping and encountering God.” The newer rites, meanwhile, “emphasize an accessibility, are more inclusive of the faithful in the celebration of the rites and are rich in scripture.” 

But he supports “reinvigorating the new rite of baptism with a more vigorous exorcism,” saying the current rite is written “more as a suggestion” whereas demons “reply to the voice of command.” The exorcisms of the old form “surely did that,” he said.


Going Underground

As a consequence of the Diocese of Rome’s prohibitions, Kwasniewski believes that adherents to receiving the sacraments in the traditional form will travel to where they can receive them, possibly a parish run by the traditional Society of St. Pius X which is not in full communion with Rome (a move that bishops have cautioned against for a variety of reasons), or watch it on television or online or defy their bishop “surreptitiously.” 

Father Barthe said he believed the Rome instruction has “all the appearance of a trial balloon,” and that attempts “will be made to impose this elsewhere.” So far very few other dioceses have followed suit (Le Havre in France is one other), and no bishop is reported to have followed Cardinal De Donatis’ line in the United States. 

One major concern, noted Dec. 12 by the French traditional website Paix Liturgique, is that if the prohibitions are extended to traditional communities, it would have a “devastating effect on the vocations that these communities attract.” Father Barthe said if the Rome instruction is repeated elsewhere, “we will have to risk some kind of refusal.”

Msgr. Pope said he “deeply” regretted the vicariate’s decision and feared many bishops “may view it as a model to follow” despite the instruction departing from Traditionis Custodes. He believes both forms of the rite should live peacefully alongside one another, permitting the “diversity and inclusion so often hailed by many.” 

“Edging people to the margins does not seem to foster the unity Francis seeks,” Msgr. Pope said. “Holding people close to the heart of the Church who desire only what the Church has done for centuries seems far more unitive.”

The Vicariate of Rome did not respond by press time to these criticisms of the instruction, including the accusation that prohibiting the Triduum in the old rite exceeded Traditionis Custodes.  

The Register also contacted for comment Archbishop Arthur Roche, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Both are handling the application of Traditionis Custodes, in dioceses and in traditional communities respectively. 

Cardinal Braz de Aviz declined to comment, while Archbishop Roche directed us to a short Nov. 14 interview with an Italian-speaking Swiss television network, in which he said Traditionis Custodes was issued because the “experiment” to liberalize the traditional rites had “not been entirely successful” and so it was necessary to return to what the Second Vatican Council “required of the Church.” In the comments aired by the station, he did not discuss prohibiting the traditional sacraments.