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Chapel of the Throne in it Peter's Basilica, Rome
Michael Warren Davis has, again, Catholics attached to the Church’s traditional Latin liturgy. His repeated, embittered criticisms of this particular group within the Church (see here and here) are invariably motivated by a deep fraternal charity—so he tells us, anyway. The headline writer at the American Conservative, trying perhaps to discern exactly what the point of Davis’ article might be, subtitles it ‘Do liturgical dissenters deserve whatever sanctions the Vatican is preparing? Do they need them?’ The confusion between the two questions permeates the article. How are we to understand possible restrictions on the celebration of the Traditional Mass as something which is going to help the situation Davis describes? The maxim ‘Beatings will continue until morale improves’ comes to mind.
Davis shows that many Traditional Catholics (he refers to Michael Matt, Jeffry Tucker and Bishop Fellay of the SSPX) extended to Pope Francis much good will when he was first elected—as was only right, one might think. Then, he says, Traditionalists turned on the Pope, citing George Neumayr, Henry Sire, and Archbishop Vigano. But are the members of this second trio ‘Traditional Catholics’? If ‘Traditional Catholics’ are those with some discernible long-term commitment to the Traditional Mass, the answer is ‘no’.
Davis could have come up with different names, perhaps, but this mistake illustrates a problem with his analysis. At one point he says ‘ “traditionalism” these days is defined as much by its hostility towards Pope Francis as it is by love of the Latin Mass’. The way Davis takes this is that Catholics who criticise Pope Francis must be Traditionalists for that very reason, not the other way round. The great thing about circular arguments is that once you are inside one, no evidence can convince you that you are wrong.
The truth is more interesting. The most significant resistance to Pope Francis has come not from people associated with the Traditional Mass, but ‘conservative’ Novus Ordo Catholics. To the names just mentioned one could add the late Prof Germain Grisez, the Franciscan theologian Fr Thomas Weinandy, and Cardinal George Pell. Archbishop Vigano would never have risen to the position of Nuncio to the United States, nor could Fr Weinandy conceivably have become theological advisor to the US bishops, if they had been traditionalists. Pell is friendly to the Traditional Mass, it is true, but hardly a proponent of it. Not only have their positions given these men standing in the debates which have flared up during the present pontificate, but like many establishment conservative Catholics they have felt particularly motivated to react to Pope Francis’ demolition of the legacy of Pope John Paul II, a legacy with which conservative, as opposed to traditional, Catholics, tend to identify very strongly.
In this context, were Pope Francis to react to criticisms by placing restrictions on the Traditional Mass, this would seem a bit beside the point. Certainly, Traditional Catholics have often supported such criticisms, and made their own, but they are by no means the root of the problem from Pope Francis’ point of view. Indeed, given the tiny numbers and utterly insignificant public profile of Catholics attached to the Traditional Mass, I would say that their contribution to public debates in any particular direction must be almost completely irrelevant to the balance of forces in the Curia.
It is not clear, indeed, what impression, if any, Pope Francis has of Catholics attached to the Traditional Mass. Davis quotes Pope Francis talking about
‘certain who “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style”—an obvious swipe at traditionalists’
Is this an ‘obvious swipe at traditionalists’? Perhaps Davis is unaware of Cardinal Ratzinger’s critique of the Novus Ordo collects as ‘Pelagian’, but he must realise that Pope Francis’ ‘rigid’ stereotype came with him from Argentina. It presumably derives from his experiences of hyper-conservative Catholic groups there, of which there are many; his main experience of Traditionalists before he became Pope was, after all, with the SSPX, with whom, as Davis himself says, he had surprisingly good relations. Certainly the ‘rigid’ stereotype would fit better the Novus Ordo-oriented Legionaires of Christ and some of the ‘New Movements’ than the Traditionalist Fraternity of St Peter, or the lay Una Voce movement.
Pope Francis, it is true, has applied the stereotype to traditionally-minded seminarians when prompted by interviewers, but it is clear on those occasions that he is looking for an explanation for the phenomenon, and reaches for one familiar to him. The idea that he has been influenced by English-language social media (‘bear in mind that Westerners’ experience of everything is mediated by the Almighty Screen’, Davis tells us solemnly) is simply ludicrous.
If Pope Francis is preparing some kind of slap-down for the Traditional Mass, it is not difficult to understand why this might be. He has been under consistent pressure to do something of the kind from influential bishops since becoming Pope, and has equally consistently resisted this pressure, even moving in the other direction as far as the SSPX is concerned. It may be that now, facing the crisis of his pontificate with the German bishops demanding concessions he knows he cannot make, he is tempted to give liberals something which he can give them. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict were in a similar position, torn between a pastoral concern for Traditional Catholics and the extraordinary hostility to it by many bishops, while trying to deal with an escalating crisis in which, in their view, the Traditional Mass was of no great significance.
We can still hope that Pope Francis will draw back from doing what the rumours suggest. We should pray that Traditional Catholics, who simply wish to worship as the Church has traditionally worshiped, in peace, are not victims of Church politics, which they can do so little to influence.
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