Pope Francis and the temptation of the traditionalists

by Roberto de Mattei

A dialectical relationship has been created between Pope Francis and the world of Tradition that threatens dangerous consequences.

The motu proprio Traditionis custodes of 16 July 2021, which dismantles the motu proprio of Benedict XVI Summorum pontificum, need fool no one. Pope Francis does not oppose the ancient Roman Rite in itself, but detests those who are faithful to this Rite, or rather the caricatured image that has been made of traditionalists over the years. The reference to “grandmothers’ lace” in the speech to the Sicilian clergy on 9 June1 is emblematic in this regard.

This “grandmothers’ lace” does not exist except in the imagination of some progressive ideologues. The reality of the Sicilian clergy is not that of lace and embroidery but composed, as it is everywhere, of priests who go around in shirts and sandals and celebrate the new Mass in a sloppy and irreverent manner. They justify themselves by affirming that form is not substance, but it is their aversion to the ancient forms that shows that, for many of them, the form prevails over the substance.

Pope Francis is not attuned to the subject of the liturgy, but more generally, he is not interested in doctrinal debate like the one that, during the Second Vatican Council and in the years just after it, put conservatives and progressives on opposing sides. “Reality is greater than ideas” is one of the postulates of the 2013 encyclical Evangelii gaudium (217–237). What really matters “are not ideas” but “discernment”, he reiterated on 19 May, speaking at the headquarters of La Civiltà Cattolica2 with the directors of the European cultural magazines of the Society of Jesus. “When one enters the world of ideas alone and moves away from reality,” he added, “one ends up in absurdity.” He ascribes this absurdity to the non-existent traditionalist “lace” and fails to recognise it in the ramshackle liturgies of the progressive clergy.

When discernment disregards ideas, it turns into personalism. Francis tends to personalise every question, setting aside the customs, ideas and institutions of the Church. In the exercise of governance, personalism leads to “exceptionalism”, but exceptional decisions, as vaticanista Andrea Gagliarducci observes,3 are only exceptional decisions; they do not create an objective and universal norm. His relations with the Sovereign Order of Malta confirm this. The pope is not afraid of breaking the rules or of changing canon law if necessary, precisely because his every action is a personal question, and therefore “exceptional”.

But the risk that is run by Francis’s “restorationist” adversaries, as he calls them, is that of personalising their opposition to his pontificate, forgetting that he, before being a man, is the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ.

For some traditionalists it seems inconceivable that Pope Francis could be a legitimate pontiff, and even if they pay lip service to this they deny it by their actions, putting practice before theory as he does, in the name of “personal discernment”. The habit of calling him Bergoglio and not Francis denotes this tendency towards personalisation which reaches extreme heights when he is disdainfully called “the man of Santa Marta” or “the Argentine”. None other than a lucid Argentine observer of Church matters has emphasised that “radicalisation quickly induces us to interpret the whole of reality sub specie bergoglii. And, paradoxically, our belonging to the Catholic faith is no longer based on assent to the faith of the apostles, but on opposing everything that Francis does.”4

The personalisation of problems leads not only to the primacy of practice but also of sentiments over ideas. Love and hatred are emancipated from the two Augustinian cities to which they should be anchored — the Civitas Dei and the Civitas diabuli and become personalised. This phenomenon was born within neo-modernism in the 1960s. One need only read the spite-filled pages of the Diary of Fr Yves (later Cardinal) Congar to taste the bitter hatred of the Tradition of the Church dripping from every line. But this hatred has unfortunately infected some traditionalists, who viscerally hate Pope Francis, without love for the papacy: they hate Catholics who do not think as they do, without love for the Church. In 2016, there appeared a respectful and balanced Correctio filialis of the errors of Pope Francis. Today the criticisms have lost substance and respect, and the language tends to become divisive and aggressive.

Yet the foundation of the Catholic religion is love. There is a bond of perfection, Saint Paul says, and this bond is charity (Col 3:14), by which we love God for His own sake, above all things, and ourselves and our neighbour for the love of God. Love of neighbour has nothing to do with philanthropy or sentimentality, but Christianity, without love, is not Christianity. Love of those far away conceals hatred of those who are near, but hatred of those who are near manifests the absence of the love of God. Considered separately, the love of God is in itself obviously higher than that of neighbour, but if the two loves — that of God and that of neighbour — are considered as united, love of neighbour for the sake of God, according to the theologians, is better than love of God alone, because the first includes both loves, which cannot necessarily be said about the second. Moreover, that love of God is more perfect which also extends to the neighbour, since He has commanded that those who love God should also love their neighbour.5

It is for the love of God, of the Church, and of our neighbour, starting with those who are spiritually closest to us, that we must fight our battle, in a firm and imperturbable manner, in defence of the truth. All fragmentation and division comes from the devil, the separator par excellence. Love unites and union creates true peace — social and individual, founded on the subordination of the mind and heart to the supreme designs of the divine will. 

  1. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/251503/pope-francis-urges-sicily-s-catholic-priests-to-be-moral-guides-but-to-drop-the-lace
  2. https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/pope-francis-in-conversation-european-jesuit-journals/
  3. www.mondayvatican.com/vatican/pope-francis-the-limits-of-personalism
  4. caminante-wanderer.blogspot.com/2022/06/radicalizaciones.html (Italian)
  5. Antonio Royo Marin OP,  Teologia della perfezione cristiana, It. tr. Edizioni Paoline, Roma 1965, p. 622