Monday, 16 August 2021

Papal Pretensions

Recently, a statement was issued by an Archbishop in the United States in which he commented how grieved he was about the disrespect that has been shewn and slanders that have been made about Pope Francis in response to the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. Certainly we regret that the Archbishop is aggrieved and hope his grief may be short-lived. It certainly will be more short-lived, however, than those who love the more ancient use of the Roman Mass and who have been grievously affected by the strict regulations of the above-mentioned motu proprio. The Archbishop refers to “slanders”. Not pretending to have read anything near the totality of the outpouring of dismay about this motu proprio, I cannot comment on the accuracy of the Archbishop's claim that some remarks have slandered the Pope. Nevertheless, might what the Archbishop calls “slander” be described by others as parrheisia? EN 1  It is the present Bishop of Rome who has called on several occasions for this forthright speech. But when it is given, it isn't so welcome. 

In his statement, the Archbishop remarks : 

As the visible head of the Church, the Pope has a global vision of Church life and can perceive things that we cannot from our more local perspective.  EN 2 

The Archbishop's assertion, of course, presupposes that the Pope informs himself fully, and that he listens with openness to those who have differing opinions on weighty matters. Does the Archbishop’s claim about the Pope’s wider perspective also presume that the Faithful are unable to understand the needs of the Church more widely than their own Diocese? If something is amiss with the Church in Germany, might those not living in Germany yet understand that what is occurring is harmful to the Unity of the Church? Did the Bishop of Rome understand how deeply scandalised many Catholics (and Protestants) were when he took part in a rite in the Vatican venerating the South American pagan goddess Pachamama? We need not extend this list. 

In an article such as this, it is not possible to give a paragraph-by-paragraph review of Pope Francis’ letter to the worldwide episcopate, which elucidated the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. There are two essential claims made by the Pope, however, which demand some examination. The first is that the Missale Romanum of 1970 is the “highest expression” of the wishes of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.  EN 3  The second claim is that having two distinct uses of the Roman Rite is damaging the Unity of the Church and the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council. Because of the second claim he has felt compelled to take action. 


In his letter to the worldwide episcopate, accompanying the motu proprio, Pope Francis makes the following statement :

From the vota submitted by the Bishops there emerged a great insistence on the full, conscious and active participation of the whole People of God in the liturgy, along lines already indicated by Pius XII in the encyclical Mediator Dei on the renewal of the liturgy. The constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium confirmed this appeal, by seeking “the renewal and advancement of the liturgy” and by indicating the principles that should guide the reform. In particular, it established that these principles concerned the Roman Rite, and other legitimate rites where applicable, and asked that “the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigour to meet present-day circumstances and needs”. On the basis of these principles a reform of the liturgy was undertaken, with its highest expression in the Roman Missal, published in editio typica by St. Paul VI and revised by St. John Paul II. EN 4

Articles in the motu proprio itself put these arguments into legislation: 

Art. 1. The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite. 

Art. 3. The bishop of the diocese in which until now there exist one or more groups that celebrate according to the Missal antecedent to the reform of 1970: § 1. is to determine that these groups do not deny the validity and the legitimacy of the liturgical reform, dictated by Vatican Council II and the Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiffs.  EN 5

This may be the crux of the Pope’s argumentation in the motu proprio, namely, that the Council Fathers called for the renewal of the Church’s Liturgy. That is undoubtedly and unassailably true. But the Pope then goes on to claim that the New Order of Mass promulgated in 1969 is the "highest expression" of what the Council Fathers asked for. Exactly what does that mean? Does it mean that the Missale Romanum (and in particular the Order of Mass) promulgated by Pope Paul in 1969 is the "unique expression" of the mandate of the Council Fathers? Was the liturgical reform – as realised in the New Missal of Pope Paul “dictated by Vatican Council II” ? It is on this particular and most important point that the Pope is mistaken. It is not a new claim, but it is untrue. 

Over the last 52 years, since Pope Paul promulgated this new Missal, that claim has been made again and again. I do not wish to question in any way the legitimacy of Pope Paul’s new Missal. Others have discussed the degree to which it may be described as “traditional”. I do not wish to enter into those debates in this article. I simply add my voice to many liturgical commentators and historians who have rejected the following claim :

What the Fathers of the Council considered, agreed and voted upon, and which was elucidated in the document Sacrosanctum Concilium, was realised in the Missal (and subsequent liturgical books) published in 1969 /70 by Pope Paul VI. 

Such a claim has been rejected because it is contrary to reason and evidence. Consider this : how could the Fathers of the Council have expressed a desire for an Order of Mass that they not only had no conception of, but also had no experience of? 

It was quite clear from Sacrosanctum Concilium what the Fathers wanted. They wished for adjustments, requested modernisations, so that the Rite of Mass might be more accessible. That is what the Fathers voted on. They did not call for the abolition of a Missal which was the only experience of the Western Rite of Mass most of them had. 

Their wishes found expression in those Missals which were published in the year 1965 for various language groups. There was no typical edition in Latin of those liturgical books, which subsequently came to be called missals of The Interim Rite. They were published in Italian, French, German, Spanish, English, Portugese, etc. These were missals in part in Latin, in part in various vernacular languages and the basis of them was an adjustment of the Missale Romanum of 1962 : that Order of Mass codified in 1570 after the Council of Trent, but which extended back in a completely recognisable form centuries to the time of Saint Gregory the Great and earlier in its essence and its shape. This development of the Mass and its antiquity is obviously misunderstood by those who prepared this letter to the worldwide episcopate. They seem to believe that Pope Pius V developed a new Missal following the Council of Trent.  In this inaccurate interpretation of liturgical history, Pope Francis is claiming that his own actions (and those of Pope Paul VI) are legitimised by a precedent set by Pope Pius V. This is a most important point. 

When in 1970 Pope Paul VI promulgated the New Missal, he claimed that it was fully in accordance with Tradition, even though it was demonstrably not. Let us be very clear. The Missale Romanum published in 1970 was not issued on the Authority of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, it was issued solely on the authority of Pope Paul VI. To suggest otherwise is – at best – disingenuous. What occurred with the promulgation of that New Missal was not an adaptation, but a replacement of one rite with a newly-devised one. At least with some honesty, it has always been referred to as The New Order of Mass and never was passed-of as The Restored Order of Mass.

Pope Francis is claiming what his predecessors and most of the bishops of the World have accepted, but that does not make it true. An attempt by Pope Benedict to bring balance and honesty back into this liturgical sleight-of-hand has now been dramatically rejected by his Successor. 

Cardinal Sarah has written: 

What is at stake is therefore much more serious than a simple question of discipline. If she [the Church] were to claim a reversal of her faith or of her liturgy, in what name would the Church dare address the world? Her only legitimacy is her consistency in her continuity. EN 6

In the letter to the bishops, the Pope further writes : 

It must therefore be maintained that the Roman Rite, adapted many times over the course of the centuries according to the needs of the day, not only be preserved but renewed “in faithful observance of the Tradition”. Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements. 

The Roman Rite was indeed adapted many times over the course of centuries, but rites were not abolished, not even by Pius V (as is claimed). Furthermore, if the New Missal is so “traditional” – as is asserted - why is it that so many have expressed a preference in their manner of worship for the Old Mass instead? Why would there be any dissatisfaction if the New Missal were "fully traditional"? 

In another passage of his letter, Pope Francis writes (entirely giving the game away): 

St. Paul VI, recalling that the work of adaptation of the Roman Missal had already been initiated by Pius XII, declared that the revision of the Roman Missal, carried out in the light of ancient liturgical sources, had the goal of permitting the Church to raise up, in the variety of languages, “a single and identical prayer,” that expressed her unity. This unity I intend to re-establish throughout the Church of the Roman Rite. 

These words : “a single and identical prayer” are not from the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, which espoused no such imposed uniformity, but are the words of Paul VI in his Constitution on the Roman Missal (1969). This was an imposed unity, determined by a considered and deliberate decision of Paul VI, and not the wishes of the Council Fathers. It is by similar imposition that Pope Francis has developed this motu proprio with the undisguised intention of extinguishing the Old Mass.

It is a point that has been, and continues to be debated : whether a Pope ought to impose something by his own authority which differs from the decisions of an Ecumenical Council. This point is beyond the scope of this article and the competence of its author. It is nevertheless, also, a most important point.

The Church, indeed, is not a democracy, but most Catholics in the world live in nations which have democratic government. It allows government to consult the people on policies it intends to implement and not just pass laws based on partisan politics and the ideas of think tanks. Such processes allow the people to judge the credibility and performance of its governments and vote accordingly. It would be safe to comment that the Pope has forgotten just what democracy is (if he ever knew it). Unity is not demanded or imposed, it is built. And whilst doctrine is not and cannot be determined by plebiscite, the good government of the Church requires more than the enactment of wide-sweeping legislation, based on unsubstantiated claims and particular prejudices.


It seems quite clear from the Pope’s letter that he regards diversity in liturgical rites as contradicting and destructive of the intentions of the Second Vatican Council. Yet in the document Unitatis Redintegratio (published in 1964) we find :

All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials. But let all, according to the gifts they have received enjoy a proper freedom, in their various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in their different liturgical rites, and even in their theological elaborations of revealed truth. In all things let charity prevail. If they are true to this course of action, they will be giving ever better expression to the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the Church. EN 7

Is not this statement of the Fathers of the Council directly contradicted in Pope Francis’ letter to the worldwide episcopate? And yet he writes : 

The path of the Church must be seen within the dynamic of Tradition “which originates from the Apostles and progresses in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit” ( DV 8). A recent stage of this dynamic was constituted by Vatican Council II where the Catholic episcopate came together to listen and to discern the path for the Church indicated by the Holy Spirit. To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner cum Petro et sub Petro in an ecumenical council, and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church. EN 8

Pope Francis has done what he is accusing adherents of the Traditional liturgy of doing : doubting the Council. 

Furthermore, in his desire to eliminate the Old Mass, the Pope even seeks to make little of the fact that the Roman Rite never was the only rite permitted in the Latin Church; he seems to treat liturgical diversity itself as a threat to the integral unity of the Church. There is something totalitarian about this approach. In reality, both the Latin and Eastern Churches have enjoyed a rich variety of liturgical practices from the beginnings of the Church. Until the statement by Pope Paul VI in his constitution on the Roman Missal (1969) there never has been an insistence within the Church wherein the unity of the Church was expressed by all worshipping according to the same Rite. The Fathers of the Council certainly never called for such a uniformity. This is not tradition, nor is it in accordance with the Second Vatican Council.

The Bishop of Rome writes in his letter to the bishops [my emphases] : 

With the passage of thirteen years [namely in the year 2020] I instructed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to circulate a questionnaire to the Bishops regarding the implementation of the Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. The responses reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene … An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division. Responding to your requests, I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present Motu proprio, and declare that the liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite. 

The Pope goes on to claim, in an overtly judgemental way, that the establishment of Personal Parishes has been based on “the desires and wishes of individual priests [rather] than the real need of the holy People of God. ” 

With such wide-ranging assertions, reading the Pope’s letter to the Bishops causes great discomfort. Claims are made, but there is no transparency. We are left wondering why Pope Francis instigated this questionnaire, and about the tenor of its questions. We may be puzzled why the Faithful or priests who offer the Old Mass were not consulted, but only bishops. Perhaps we are hesitant about how representative the responses were when some commentators have reported that not all the bishops received a questionnaire, whilst others responded positively to the celebration of the Old Mass in their Dioceses. Did those bishops who responded unfavourably to the questionnaire indicate that there was a rejection of the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council in Old Mass communities in their Dioceses? But perhaps it might also be that other factors were causing discontent amongst Old Mass communities during 2020, for example, the COVID pandemic and the mistrust generated by the Church’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis. We would hope that any Bishop who had such concerns about a parish would enter into a dialogue with that community and take advantage of an opportunity for teaching and pastoral accompaniment. We would also hope that the Holy See was equally interested in reading positive responses from Bishops, in addition to complaints. Would we be found too cynical if we doubted that occurred?

At the moment, we do not have answers to any of this. In response to the harsh terms of this motu proprio, we have been asked to be “open” and “docile.” But we also entitled to rely on our own intellect and experience in assessing claims that have been made as the basis for this decision. We may sincerely and emphatically disagree with Pope Francis. Disagreement is not equivalent to disrespect – although it appears far too many people in this post-modern age interpret anything other than 100% agreement as intolerance and disrespect. When the Bishop of Rome makes formal claims in issuing legislation, we are not being disrespectful, nor unfaithful Catholics, nor are we contradicting the Pope if we ask for credible information that what is being claimed is actually the case. If the Bishop of Rome contradicts himself, or the Second Vatican Council, we are entitled to doubt the force of a legislative act. For, surely after all the scandals of recent years within the Church it has been learned that anytime there is a fudging of the truth, deception or manipulation or a clumsy attempt to control people, the result will be a loss of trust and confidence? Does such a heavy-handed approach square-up with the concept that the post-Vatican II Church is an “adult church”?


The upheavals over the last eight years of the present pontificate raise a question much more serious than an attempt to suppress the availability of a Rite of Mass. Truthfully, this motu proprio directly affects only a small percentage of the world’s Catholics. But it indirectly affects the entire Church, because this motu proprio is but the latest example of the problem, which may be summarised in one sentence : What does the Church do when it discovers that it is being governed by a delinquent Pope?

The time has arrived again in the history of the Church, when the topic of the charism of the Roman Pontiff needs to be discussed and better understood. We know about Papal Infallibility, but not so often do we hear about the limits of the Authority of the Pope. The role of the Pope in the modern world seems now to have expanded far beyond anything experienced by the Church in past centuries. It is not disrespectful or un-Catholic to point out that the Fathers of the Church ought to discuss this crucial matter, theoretically and practically, so that the Church is not put through again the turmoil it presently suffers. 

With my limited scholarship, I cannot present any arguments here on an issue so central to the Church and so profound. I can only suggest that such a discussion should take place and that it be based on the Church’s traditions respecting the Office of the Bishop of Rome. This extract from the Constitution on Papal Infallibility of the First Vatican Council might be a good starting point [my emphases]: 

6. For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." EN 9

Let us not, however, hold our breath waiting for the present Bishop of Rome to open a debate on the limits of the Papal Office. 


In concluding this article, I wish to consider the tone of the Pope’s documents. So many commentators have written about the harshness and mean-spiritedness of this motu proprio and its accompanying letter; its failure to be merciful, its closure to dialogue, its lack of provision to allow bishops the time to consider it and judge whether what is claimed applies to the Faithful of their Dioceses. There is something authoritarian, severe and exaggerated in the tone of this motu proprio that has caused people to react strongly. It has engendered not reverence, but a mistrust of the person of Pope Francis, who has overstepped the mark under the veil of the “ministry of unity.”

It is but truthful to observe that in Pope Francis there is an incapacity – or refusal - to acknowledge that some of his behaviours and policies are divisive – the opposite of unifying – and that they give rise to distrust in the hearts and minds of the Faithful. He seems incapable of accepting any disagreement with his ideas and policies and reacts resentfully when he is opposed. How sad to find these characteristics in the Vicar of Christ. 

In a magnificent article, published 13th August, Cardinal Sarah has expressed this with the great charity:

A father cannot introduce mistrust and division among his faithful children. He cannot humiliate some by setting them against others. He cannot ostracize some of his priests. The peace and unity that the Church claims to offer to the world must first be lived within the Church.  EN 10 

The Pope begins the motu proprio by stating that bishops in their dioceses are the "Guardians of Tradition" (Traditionis custodes): an orthodox and reasonable proposition. Except, that is not what Pope Francis actually wants from this motu proprio. He instructs the bishops and their own authority in the matter is limited to his instructions. He lays down these instructions in the finest detail. But the world’s bishops are not branch managers of a corporation with the Pope as Chief Executive Officer; they are the Successors of the Apostles. Reading the instructions to the bishops in the motu proprio, these words of Christ in Saint Matthew’s Gospel spring to mind : 

Do what they tell you, then, continue to observe what they tell you, but do not imitate their actions. They fasten up burdens too heavy to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not stir a finger to lift them. (Saint Matthew's Gospel 23:3-4)

It seems to this writer that the decisions of the Pope, as outlined in the motu proprio and its accompanying letter, are not based on widespread concerns expressed to him by questionnaire-responses from the Bishops of the world. I suggest that that is a disingenuous cover-story, even an intended distraction. Much more credible, in my view, are these two factors : firstly the Pope’s own personal and undisguised antipathy towards the Old Liturgy and secondly, the concealed politicking and elitism of the Roman Curia. If the above suppositions are true, neither of them reveals the Vatican in a very honourable or pastoral light. It would seem much more likely that “widespread concern” about (perceived) divisions caused by adherents of the Old Mass, arises not primarily from the Bishops of the world, but a group of the Pope’s circle who are extremely unhappy with the tone of countless articles on the Internet, calling into question the Pope, the Vatican and many things which they would prefer not to have discussed. Are decisions about the governance of the Church now being based on what curial officials and friends read on the Internet? If so, what an abyss we have fallen into. Sadly, if there ever was proof needed of how out of touch Pope Francis is with the spiritual needs, aspirations and outlook of the Faithful worldwide, the publication of Traditionis custodes is it.

Let us fervently turn to Mary, Mother of the Church, the Help of Christians in this unsettling hour asking her intercession to restore unity, right-teaching, harmony and charity to the Church.


The blog of the Saint Bede Studio is a place which is deliberately kept free of polemic. It is intended to advertise the work of the Studio - primarily the manufacture of vestments – but it also has always commented on various aspects of the sacred liturgy and its history. I describe myself as a liturgiologist - even if no one has ever heard of the term. I am not a journalist nor an ecclesiastical commentator. The flagrancy of this motu proprio, however, has motivated me to break my rule on not criticising in public the present Bishop of Rome. So much has been suffered over the last eight years. The Pope's undisciplined, ill-informed teaching is not above respectful reproach and charitable correction. It offends me deeply that the present Vicar of Christ, who has become such a profound source of division in the Church, should arrogate to himself Unity by imposition, rather than by charity and dialogue. For this reason, I can remain silent no longer. My views are of no particular consequence; I simply wish to add them to those who are also scandalised by this Papal act. To any reader offender by my considered and sincerely held views, I ask your indulgence.

This article is under the copyright of the Saint Bede Studio.


I urge anyone interested in these matters to read two online articles, one by H.E. Robert Cardinal Sarah and the other by Dom Alcuin Reid OSB:

On the credibility of the Catholic Church

Does "Traditionis Custodes" pass Liturgical History 101 ?

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EN 1  Parrheisia  the Greek word for speaking freely, in particular, speaking the truth openly.

EN 2 Statement published by Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco 

EN 3 Although the Constitution on the Roman Missal was promulgated in 1969, the new Missale Romanum was not published until 1970.

EN 4:

EN 5 

EN 6

EN 7

EN 8

EN 9  The Constitution of the First Vatican Council Pastor Aeternus

EN 10