Traditionis Custodes: an act of weakness

By Cristiana de Magistris

After a calm and careful reading of the recent motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, with none of the acrimony and indignation that a biased and draconian document like this one almost inevitably arouses, the text seems not an act of strength but of weakness, a song of the swan that, nearing his end, does not sing with a more beautiful voice but with a louder one.

The document presents a number of canonical anomalies that jurists will have to examine carefully. The priority for us is to dwell on a single point, the liturgical, whose scope seems absolutely revolutionary and untenable. Article 1 of the document, as if to set the tone for everything that follows, states: “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”.

There is much that could be said about that “in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II”, seeing that the missal of Paul VI – as has been amply demonstrated – went far beyond the conciliar dictate, coining a liturgy from scratch, in complete discontinuity not only with the tradition epitomised in the missal of St Pius V but also with the will of the council fathers themselves.

In any case, this liturgy made “at the drafting table” (Cardinal Ratzinger) can no longer be considered part of the Roman Rite. No less a personality than Monsignor Gamber affirmed this vigorously after the new missal went into effect. The new liturgy is a “Ritus modernus”, he said, no longer a “Ritus Romanus”. Fr Louis Bouyer, a member of the Liturgical Movement, who on the whole was in favour of the conciliar innovations, was forced to affirm: “We must speak clearly: today there is in the Catholic Church practically no liturgy worthy of this name”. “Today,” Monsignor Gamber stressed, referring to the reformed liturgy, “we find ourselves before the ruins of an almost bimillennial Tradition”. Fr Joseph Gelineau, one of the supporters of the renewal, was able to say: “Let those who, like me, have known and sung a solemn Gregorian Mass in Latin remember it, if they can. Let them compare it with the Mass we have now. It is not only the words, the melodies, and some of the gestures that are different. To tell the truth, it is a different liturgy of the Mass. This must be said without ambiguity: the Roman Rite as we knew it no longer exists (le rite romain tel que nous avons connu n’existe plus). It has been destroyed (il est détruit).”

That the Roman Rite no longer survives in the reformed missal of Paul VI is affirmed by liturgist friends and enemies of Tradition. Therefore, the reformed missal, as Klaus Gamber states, deserves the title of missal modernus but not romanus.

In the light of these elementary liturgical considerations, how is Article 1 of the motu proprio to be understood? To which is added the surprising and tendentious statement in the letter to the bishops: “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”. And it concludes: “in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements”. Now it must be made quite clear that in the missal of Paul VI the Roman Canon is not – even in its editio typica – the Roman Canon of the missal of Saint Pius V. It is the one that most resembles it, but is by no means the same thing. Fr R. T. Calmel OP wrote a good four articles between 1968 and 1975, later grouped under the evocative title “Public reparation to the outraged Roman Canon” (in the new missal) to explain its beauty and immutability, as well as the antinomies existing between the Roman Canon of the missal of St Pius V and that of Paul VI. We are saddened – yes, we too are saddened – to find in a pontifical document (moreover addressed to the bishops) such incompetence. But such it is. And it is not alone. It also remains to be explained what the missal of St Pius V is now, since it is no longer an expression of the Roman Rite, the missal of Paul VI being the only expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite. After more than 400 years of life, has it perhaps ceased to be the Roman Rite?

The other serious problem that arises is the legitimacy of such an act. Again Klaus Gamber, in his study “The reform of the Roman liturgy”, wonders if a supreme pontiff can modify a rite. And he answers in the negative, since the pope is the custodian and guarantor of the liturgy (as well as of dogma), not its master. “No document of the Church,” Gamber writes, “not even the Code of Canon Law, expressly says that the pope, as Supreme Pastor of the Church, has the right to abolish the traditional rite. The pope’s plena et suprema potestas falls under clear limitations […]. More than one author (Gaetano, Suarez) expresses the opinion that the pope’s powers do not include the abolition of the traditional rite. […] It is certainly not the task of the Apostolic See to destroy a rite of Apostolic Tradition, but its duty is to maintain it and pass it on.” It follows that the Roman Rite presented in the missal of St Pius V has not been abrogated or repealed, and all priests retain the right to celebrate the Mass and the faithful to attend it.

Finally, it is astonishing and painful to read in the Letter to the Bishops that the intent of this motu proprio is none other than that of St Pius V after the Council of Trent: “I take comfort in this decision from the fact that, after the Council of Trent, St Pius V also abrogated all the rites that could not claim a proven antiquity, establishing for the whole Latin Church a single Missale Romanum”. But Saint Pius V did the exact opposite of what Pope Francis has done with this motu proprio. It is true that Saint Pius V established a single Missale Romanum for the whole Latin Church, but this missal – unlike that of Paul VI imposed by Francis – was only restored, in compliance with the Tridentine decrees, to be an instrument of unity for all Catholics because it was older, not because it was newer. How can the missal of Paul VI be an instrument of unity if (in addition to a myriad of other problems) it has reached a creativity, that is, a diversity, “almost unbearable”, as the pontiff himself recognizes? Furthermore, the “proven antiquity” of the rites desired by the pope of Lepanto required an uninterrupted continuity of at least 200 years. This means that the modern rite of Paul VI, under the Grand Inquisitor, would have been elegantly crossed out, without any hope, not even a remote one, of being able to triumph as the sole rite of all Christendom. Not to mention that with the bull Quo primum, St Pius V armoured his Missal in perpetuum, making it irrevocable. The motu proprio, therefore, invokes the authority of one who condemns it. Here too it is surprising to note such historical ineptitude in a pontifical document.

In conclusion, the motu proprio, if one wishes to read it in depth, is the recognition of a defeat. It is an apparent act of strength that covers a basic weakness and incompetence. The reformed missal has been a catastrophe on every level: liturgical, dogmatic, moral. The result, plain for all to see, is that it has emptied churches, convents, and seminaries. Not being able to impose it by virtue of tradition, which it does not convey, one wishes to impose it by dint of law. But this is an underhanded operation, founded on deception, and therefore destined to fail. It is not a fatal stroke dealt against the Roman Rite, but the euthanasia of the modern rite. It is not a death blow, but a life-giving pruning of the missal of St Pius V, which – by the hatred it arouses among the modernist fringes of the hierarchy – confirms that it is “the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven”, handed down to us by our fathers for us to pass on to our children, even if we should have to crimson it with our blood.