Traditiones Custodes and canon law

In the immediate aftermath of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes, which places heavy restrictions on the public celebration and promotion of the traditional Mass according to the 1962 Missal, there have been pleasant surprises as well as predictable disappointments from the bishops who are tasked with implementing the motu proprio. It is too early, of course, to predict with certainty the full impact of the new restrictions but in the weeks and months ahead, bishops, priests, and lay Catholics who love the traditional Mass will strive to see precisely what force this Apostolic Letter will have. With this in mind, the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales has produced Some Notes on the Application on Traditionis Custodes. Drawing on consultations with canon lawyers, this guidance points to the passages which are helpful for those seeking to ensure their continued spiritual nourishment through the Mass of the traditional Roman Rite.

Among those are numerous Catholic families. In last week’s Digest, we shared with you the reflections of Dr Joseph Shaw, the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, on the likely impacts of the Apostolic Letter for families. Whether or not one adheres to the traditional form of liturgical worship, it is hard to deny that throughout the world the traditional Mass attracts many large families and young parents whose primary concern is to raise their children in the faith in a culture that is increasingly hostile to Catholicism. As Dr Shaw pointed out, this is because the rite itself instructs children through its emphasis on the sacred, recollection and rich symbolism and also because, generally speaking, there is greater adherence to the Church’s doctrinal and moral teaching within traditional communities. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2019 survey, only one-third of American Catholics believe in transubstantiation. No respective surveys are available but it appears to be extremely rare that this fundamental truth of Catholic doctrine is challenged by those who attend the traditional Mass. The Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, contraception, abortion, homosexual acts etc, are also much more readily accepted among traditional communities. For example, the recent Traditional Latin Mass National Survey found that a vast majority of Catholics who attend the traditional Mass reject contraception, abortion, and gay “marriage” and attend Mass weekly, while it highlighted data that showed that the opposite is largely true of Catholics who attend the Novus Ordo Mass. All these are important indications for parents who wish to bring up their children in the faith. 

It is the spiritual good and wellbeing of Catholic families, as well as individuals, that should be the primary concern of those required to implement the motu proprio. The guidance of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales indeed reminds us that “[a]ll ecclesiastical legislation aims at the good of souls” and cites the concluding words of the Code of Canon Law:

“…the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.” (Canon 1752)

The guidance further emphasises that the authority of the Holy See and of bishops and priests is given, not for their own benefit but for the good of souls. In fact, Canon Law allows bishops “to dispense the faithful from universal and particular disciplinary laws issued for his territory or his subjects by the supreme authority of the Church” should he judge that it would contribute to the spiritual good of the faithful under his care. (Canon 87.1)

The Latin Mass Society’s guidance, drawing on these points of Canon Law, reminds us that “it is in the context of the good of souls that [the] Church’s legal provisions must be interpreted and applied” as well as that “[w]ithin the Church’s tradition, to apply a regulation in such a way as manifestly to harm the good of souls, is not just a pastoral or practical problem, but a failure to evaluate its legal force correctly.”

The guidance concludes that this is, therefore, “the crucial consideration in applying the Apostolic Letter according to the means of the legislator”:

“Bishops are to make arrangements and to give, or withhold, permissions, according to whether they believe it will be of spiritual benefit to the faithful attached to the older Mass, and to the priests who wish to celebrate it.”

It is also for the good of their souls and the good of the souls of their children that Canon Law instructs the lay faithful to make their concerns known to their sacred pastors, especially in matters that affect the good of the Church:

“According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, [the faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.” (Canon 212.3)

In all of this, we are encouraged to recognise the honour and privilege of being authentic custodians of tradition in our time. It is, therefore, appropriate to make use of the legal provisions that the Church in her motherly wisdom has given us for the protection of the treasures we have inherited and must pass on to future generations. We continue to pray that God will raise up brave, wise and holy bishops who will assume careful custody of the tradition of His Church. You will find a suitable prayer for this intention by St John Fisher at the end of this post.

The key points from the Latin Mass Society’s Guidance are:

  • Traditionis Custodes does not abrogate the 1962 Missal (otherwise it could not allow it to be said in certain circumstances).
  • It follows that it is not the right of priests to celebrate it that is at issue – this remains intact – but the public exercise of this right, which is a matter of regulation by the local bishop.
  • The right of priests to celebrate privately, to say the older Office, to celebrate the other sacraments, to use the older Rituale: all these are unrestricted by Traditionis Custodes.
  • The restrictions mentioned in Article 3, notably on the use of parish churches, only apply in the case of “authorised groups”, such as those that came into existence in the course of the formal application of Summorum Pontificum, or are served by a “personal parish”.
  • Although priests need permission from the bishop to celebrate the 1962 Missal, with this permission, and outside the context of a formalised “group”, he may do so without the restrictions of Art 3: for example, in a parish church.
  • It would also follow that there need be no difficulty allowing the 1962 Missal to be used for special occasions such as pilgrimages.

The full text of the Latin Mass Society’s canonical guidance on Traditionis Custodes may be read here.

Prayer of St John Fisher (martyred 1535) for good bishops:

Lord, according to Thy promise that the Gospel should be preached throughout the whole world, raise up men fit for such work. The Apostles were but soft and yielding clay till they were baked hard by the fire of the Holy Ghost. So, good Lord, do now in like manner again with Thy Church militant; change and make the soft and slippery earth into hard stone; set in Thy Church strong and mighty pillars that may suffer and endure great labours, watching, poverty, thirst, hunger, cold and heat; which also shall not fear the threatening of princes, persecution, neither death but always persuade and think with themselves to suffer with a good will, slanders, shame, and all kinds of torments, for the glory and laud of Thy Holy Name. By this manner, good Lord, the truth of Thy Gospel shall be preached throughout all the world. Therefore, merciful Lord, exercise Thy mercy, show it indeed upon Thy Church. Amen.