In his 1972 book Bare Ruined Choirs, Garry Wills famously argued that the Second Vatican Council brought into the open the “dirty little secret” that the church changes. That “secret” had been the subject of controversy going back to the beginning of the 20th century and illuminated various movements that inspired the Council. Understanding the complexity of the tradition, thinkers of these movements suggested, could help the church to move forward and respond to contemporary needs. They invited the church to live in reality: that of its own history, and that of the human community of today, rather than a timeless fantasy.
After two pontificates concerned with calming the storms of the post-Vatican II period by emphasizing the Council’s continuity with the tradition, Pope Francis has been more comfortable emphasizing that things did and needed to change at Vatican II and that wholesale acceptance of the Council is part and parcel of being Catholic. It is within this context that we can best understand what Francis did with his recent motu proprio entitled Traditionis Custodes, restricting the celebration of the Missal of 1962, the so-called “Latin Mass” (though its differences of wording and action are more relevant than its Latin).
The continued celebration of the Missal of 1962 after it was superseded twice–by the 1965 “transitional” Missal and the 1970 Missal known in modified form by most Catholics today–was a result precisely of the shock to the system (felt by large number of Catholics but only expressed in this way by a small minority) resulting from the revelation of the “dirty little secret.” With the exception of Pope Paul VI’s “Agatha Christie Indult” to English intellectuals in 1971, most celebrations were illicit and the result of disobedience by the likes of Fr. Gommar DePauw on Long Island or (most consequentially) Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. For traditionalists, disobedience to church authority–whether in action or spirit–was justified by the rightness of their cause, namely, standing for the immutable tradition over and against the reforms of Vatican II. Changes to the Mass was only one of their objections to Vatican II, with other issues such as religious freedom and changed attitudes toward Jews also looming large. Anti-Semitism and far-right political views ran rampant, owing to traditionalism’s roots in conservative French Catholicism.
Over time, as John Paul II allowed more celebrations of the older Missal in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off schism from Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X, more people became attracted to these celebrations as an alternative to celebrations of the newer Missal that they regarded as lacking in reverence. While there are valid criticisms of the way the liturgical reform was carried out in certain places, recourse to the older Missal was not the solution. Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio liberalizing the use of the 1962 Missal made matters worse in that traditionalists took it as license to continue building a parallel church (with many priests refusing to celebrate according to the 1970 Missal) that they viewed as more in keeping with tradition than that of the other 99% of Catholics. Of particular concern in this post-2007 period was increasing use of the Holy Week rituals from before Pius XII’s 1955 reforms–indication that the driving force of the “Latin Mass” movement was not reverence but ideological rollback of Vatican II and its predecessor reforms.
Some have argued that the action by Francis was an authoritarian move to crush a grassroots movement in the church to which he had never been sympathetic, or that liturgical diversity has always existed in the church as evinced by various Eastern Catholic and other movements that have their own ritual books separate from the Roman Missal. These criticisms ignore that the older Missal was, fairly or unfairly to those attracted to it for other reasons, the leading edge of an ideological movement that opposed an ecumenical council on multiple key points and whose leaders were determined to undermine Francis’ pontificate. Furthermore, bishops, even here in the United States where celebrations of the older Missal were most widespread, had had enough of the attitudes shown by this community and sympathetic priests toward their own authority.
Unity of worship does not have to mean uniformity–indeed, this was one of the great insights of Vatican II’s liturgical reform–but it cannot be achieved with the sectarian rhetoric and ideology of traditionalists who seek to inoculate against change and keep it a “dirty little secret” rather than embrace it as inevitable and life-giving. Traditionis Custodes invites the church to seek unity and nourishment in Vatican II–including areas where it made changes to teachings and practices of the church–and makes clear that any attempt to “walk back” or dilute it is a dead letter. Like Vatican II itself, Francis invites us to live in and respond to reality.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.