The Praedicate Evangelium, the apostolic constitution which regulates the functions and duties of the offices of the Curia, gives the Dicastery for Divine Worship the precise task of promoting “the sacred liturgy according to the renewal undertaken by the Second Vatican Council.” The mention of the Council could have been read as a clue of the measures that Pope Francis would have taken on the ancient rite of the Mass. And after the first crackdown with the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis further specified two particular norms with a rescript published on 21 February.
The further squeeze from Pope Francis follows a series of speculations from the traditionalist world, which even spoke of an apostolic constitution of the Pope or an apostolic letter to be published on Holy Monday, the anniversary of the promulgation of the new rite by Paul VI (it was promulgated on Apr. 3, 1969), so to be established once and for all that the only rite valid in the Church is that according to the Missal promulgated following the Second Vatican Council, and all the others are exceptions.
The publication of the rescript, however, does not exclude the publication of an apostolic letter on Holy Monday to mark an anniversary but also to re-establish a principle. Pope Francis has taken matters into his own hands and has decided to give a precise direction to the question, effectively repealing Benedict XVI’s openings on the subject.
The guideline is that of the Second Vatican Council. But, unfortunately, Pope Francis has not failed, more and more often, to complain of a “backwardism,” which leads to looking back to remaining in tradition without understanding that times have changed, thus giving the practice a rigid and harmful interpretation.
In this way, the Pope entered into a debate that was thought to be overcome. It is true that, after the Second Vatican Council, the interpretations of the Council as a break had brought attention to tradition in the Church. Traditional movements had always existed, after all. And yet, with the Second Vatican Council, the debate, somewhat heated by the media, immediately made them a sort of target.
There was a very tough media debate and then work behind the scenes of synthesis, carried out first by Paul VI and then by John Paul II. For example, the ex-communication of the Lefebvrist bishops came only when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre made a visible gesture of rupture, namely the ordination of four new bishops without the consent of Rome. But, until that moment, the work behind the scenes was to look for a solution, to create unity. So much so that the Holy See created the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, which welcomed Catholics who wanted to continue celebrating with the rite of Saint Pius V.
Benedict XVI’s line was to seek unity. Faced with a debate that was becoming increasingly heated and which had come to question the validity of the Second Vatican Council, Benedict XVI decided to liberalize the use of the ancient rite. And at the same time, he told the Lefevbrists that they could reunite with Rome, relieving the schism, if only they signed a doctrinal preamble that recognized the Second Vatican Council. After all, the bare minimum to being able to be in communion.
This preamble was never signed, and the dialogue stalled. But, at the same time, the groups of faithful who wanted to celebrate in the traditional rite found a home and a way to feel in communion. Nobody denies that, sometimes, there could be organizational problems at the local level. In general, however, the issue had been overcome by opting precisely for the unity of the Church.
And this is where the point lies: it had been overcome simply by following the Second Vatican Council. Number 4 of the Apostolic Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the liturgy was evident.
We read: “Lastly, in faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way. The Council also desires that, where necessary, the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigor to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times.”
All rites are valid, therefore, and should be reviewed only when necessary. Among other things, the Missal of Saint Pius V had already been reformed by John XXIII, and it is to the latter that we refer to most of the time.
If this is the approach of the Second Vatican Council, why did Pope Francis take a different path? The two clarifications of the motu proprio further reiterate that the Apostolic See is competent on everything and that the bishops must always report to it. Also, on the assignment of parishes, the legislation provided for a report to the Apostolic See, which now becomes mandatory.
In short, the bishop cannot decide without approval. It is striking that the role of the bishop thus becomes less and less central. His role is not central under the Praedicate Evangelium, where his power is no different from anyone else’s because power comes only from the mission. It is not central in this decision because he cannot decide for himself.
Paradoxically, the bishop has full responsibility only in the case of abuses, where he can be accused of negligence, or in the case of marriage annulments, where the Pope wants him to be the ultimate decision maker, as he has made clear several times.
But was this the direction Vatican Council II wanted? It is a legitimate question when we are faced with ever-greater tensions and a continuous power centralization of the Pope. Such a situation favors informers – one must imagine bishops denouncing confreres who have taken measures without asking for the opinion of the Apostolic See – and takes authority away from men of the Church and gives it back to the central body.
Once again, it is the Pope who decides. But this decision-making could lead to further divisions. And from the practical schism experienced on many occasions, one could arrive at a real split.