Pope stokes flames of Catholic worship wars


The message to Catholic traditionalists in Southwest England was blunt, yet pointed.

Because of the new “Traditionis Custodes” (“Guardians of the Tradition”) document from Pope Francis, and the wishes of Bishop Declan Lang of the Diocese of Clifton, the upcoming “Latin Mass at Glastonbury will be the final Latin Mass here.”

The message delivered to another circle of believers there was quite different. As a “Clifton Diocese Initiative,” the “LGBT+ Mass” series at a Bristol church would continue because the bishop “wishes to express pastoral care and concern for our Catholic LGBT+ community.”

Thus, the Catholic worship wars rage on.

This bolt of liturgical lightning from Pope Francis struck one of his predecessor’s signature achievements. In his 2007 apostolic letter “Summorum Pontificum” (“Of the Supreme Pontiffs”), the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI declared that the post-Vatican II rite was the “ordinary form” for the church, but that the older Latin Mass was an “extraordinary form” and could be encouraged when requested by the faithful.

While Benedict said these rites could coexist, Pope Francis argued – in a letter accompanying “Traditionis Custodes” – that the old Latin Mass has become too divisive.

Benedict was “comforted” by his belief that the “two forms of the ... Roman Rite would enrich one another,” wrote Pope Francis, but some bishops now believe the Latin Mass has been “exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences and encourage disagreements that injure the Church.”

Thus, Francis declared, bishops must guarantee that any priests and laity they allow to celebrate the old rite have accepted the validity of Vatican II and its “Novus Ordo” Mass. Bishops may “designate one or more locations where the faithful adherents of these groups may gather” for approved Latin Masses, but these services may not be held in “parochial churches” and there should be no new parishes created for the extraordinary rite.

One group that encourages use of the Latin Mass – the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, created by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988 – has more than 300 priests and 150 seminarians, serving in 130 dioceses worldwide, including 112 priests in 39 U.S. dioceses. The older Society of St. Pius X, founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, pushed open rebellion against Vatican II, and its relationship with the Vatican remains a painful puzzle.

This new Pope Francis document will please progressive Catholics who associate the Latin Mass with all efforts to oppose the modernizing of worship and doctrine. At the same time, some “traditionalist” Catholics who do reject Vatican II will see this crackdown as evidence that they continue to be persecuted.

Caught in the middle are many bishops who accepted Pope Benedict’s vision welcoming both the ordinary and extraordinary rites. At the start of this week, the Catholic News Agency reported that a dozen or more American bishops have already announced they will allow traditional Latin Masses to continue, for now.

Among those statements, conservative Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone stressed: “Unity under Christ is what matters. Therefore, the Traditional Latin Mass will continue to be available here in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and provided in response to the legitimate needs and desires of the faithful.”

In another typical public statement, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila said he would study the Francis statements carefully for three weeks, with the help of canon lawyers and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “I do not want to act precipitously ... since the limitations are great,” he said. “Until then things may proceed as they have.”

A crucial conservative voice, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Africa, released a symbolic 2007 quote by Benedict XVI: “What earlier generations held as sacred remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

The former leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller of Germany, stressed that he sees no need to enforce a “sterile uniformity” of liturgical forms, as if the Catholic Church was “one of the international hotel chains with their homogeneous design.” 

“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.”

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