The old Mass, and being stricter than the law

by Joseph Shaw

Since 2004, with a break in 2020 for COVID, the Archdiocese of Westminster has supplied an auxiliary bishop to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation according to the 1962 liturgical books. In the 16 services which have taken place over 17 years, 593 candidates have been confirmed using this rite. These services were open to Catholics from all over England and Wales, and indeed beyond: occasionally we had candidates from Scotland and France. As time has gone on several other bishops have plucked up the courage to hold confirmation services in their own dioceses. One such was due to take place in just a couple of weeks, 6th February, in the Oratory at Birmingham.

These have now all been cancelled. It seems the bishops of England and Wales had a meeting, online, and decided that they must not be allowed, under the terms of the Responsa ad dubia, which the Congregation for Divine Worship published before Christmas. The Responsa ruled out the use of the older Pontifical, the liturgical book which contains the Rite of Confirmation, and also the Roman Ritual. Neither of these books was mentioned in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter, Traditionis Custodes. It is not clear how or why a Roman Congregation, supposedly interpreting Pope Francis’ document, is adding entirely new regulations not found in the original. They are, we might say, being stricter than the law.

Bishops in England and Wales, and around the world, have in any case the authority to abrogate from the universal law of the Church for the good of souls, under Canon 87.1. They referred to this Canon in addressing the problem thrown up by Traditionis Custodes, which appeared to say that parish churches should not be used for the traditional Mass, when the overwhelming majority of such masses are being celebrated in parish churches, with no practical alternatives available. This Canon has not been changed. If bishops, who can see the harm done to the good of souls by a strict implementation of the Responsa which itself does not have the force of law, want to implement it anyway, they themselves are being stricter than the law.

I repeat this phrase because it was once used in another context. A former Archbishop of Birmingham, who is now the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, was talking to one of his priests about a possible new parish for the priest. The parish had a liberal reputation, and the priest said that he would not be comfortable with the routine use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion: to give just one example.

Archbishop Nichols replied with this phrase: You can’t be stricter than the law.

In this case, of course, to stop the routine use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion would not be “stricter than the law” because this is ruled out by the Instruction Redeptionis Sacramentum (article 88), which does have the force of law. A bishop might derogate from this, but a parish priest could not.

I remember another conversation, which I myself had with a bishop, about another provision of the Church’s law: this time, not liturgical but Canon Law. Under Canon 246 seminarians must be taught Latin, and to a high standard: they must be wellused to it (bene calleant). Bishops can derogate from obligations affecting the faithful for the good of souls, but they can’t derogate from their own obligations — that would be a bit too easy. So I pointed out that, at that time, one of the seminaries of England and Wales, St John’s Seminary Wonersh (now being closed down, coincidentally), offered its students no Latin at all: not a single lesson in all their years of study. My episcopal interlocutor did not respond to this. He had nothing to say. It was clear that this consideration was not something which motivated him or his fellow bishops. The take-home message was this: just because something is in Canon law, doesn’t mean you have to do it.

I reflect on these incidents in an attempt to understand why bishops are implementing provisions in the Responsa ad dubia in a way which goes beyond what they are actually obliged to do. Among the candidates expecting to be confirmed in a couple of weeks in Birmingham is a young woman dying of leukaemia. Others had been travelling to classes of preparation many miles away. Could Archbishop Longley not have delayed his 180-degree reversal of policy for just a couple of weeks, for the good of souls? It seems not. But why? What possible harm could come to the souls in the bishops’ care from doing so? Or, indeed, what possible harm could come to the bishops themselves?

It is not that the majority of the bishops concerned are ideologically opposed to the existence of the traditional liturgy in their dioceses. Archbishop Longley has personally administered the traditional Sacrament of Confirmation on previous occasions, and has also celebrated the traditional Mass. Cardinal Nichols has appointed his auxiliary bishops to confer Confirmation every year since his installation in Westminster in 2009, except for the plague year of 2020. The bishops of England and Wales may not see the traditional sacraments as the solution to all the Church’s problems, but they have been broadly and consistently tolerant of them for many years now.

Nevertheless, there is clearly an ideological tinge to their selection of the Church’s laws which they are concerned to implement and the ones they are happy to ignore. If one were to list the rules they don’t bother with, with the ones they actually go beyond, it would be clear that the wind is blowing in a particular direction. This is not so much the direction of their personal preferences, but a kind of collective, institutional tilt. This tilt has taken on a particularly severe angle since the two Roman documents came out.

This phenomenon is not limited to bishops. The Police and courts can be very hot on the enforcement of some laws, while others get forgotten about completely. The presumption that the old law against blasphemy in the UK was not actually something which should be enforced was such that, when someone tried to force a prosecution under it, steps were taken to remove it from the statute book. The law against the possession of cannabis seems to be going in the same direction. Heaven help you, however, if you refer to a “trans” person by the name on their birth-certificate. And that’s not even against the law.

Who sets the tone? Who determines the tilt in the law? It is a matter of institutional culture, the expectations of colleagues and superiors. In the old-fashioned language, amusingly caricatured in Asterix in Britain, it is knowing “what’s what”. “Don’t you know what’s what?” “Let me show you what’s what.” “It’s all right, he knows what’s what.”

In our own lives, we all have to be on our guard against this: the replacement of the authoritative rules which should govern our behaviour, with a set of expectations set by our peers, which seems to make some disappear, and others to appear in a distorted and exaggerated manner. When we face the Just Judge, He is going to want to know how we have behaved to the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned. He won’t be very interested in our knowledge of what’s what.