Liberal Authoritarianism and the Traditional Latin Mass


Published on July 21, 2021

George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference

Let me begin by defining my location in the Liturgy Wars.

I am a Novus Ordo man.

I don’t agree that the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Pius V in 1570 entombed the Roman Rite in ecclesiastical amber, such that it forever remains (as one traditionalist friend recently put it) “the most authentic expression of the Roman Church’s lex orandi [rule of worship].” If that were the case, then the 1962 Missal of John XXIII, which is used in 21st-century celebrations of what is typically called the “Traditional Latin Mass,” is less than fully authentic, as it incorporates changes in the liturgy promulgated by Popes Pius XII and John XXIII.

I believe that the restoration of the Easter Vigil and the renewal of the Paschal Triduum by Pius XII were impressive developments of the Roman Rite, as I think the richer menu of biblical readings available at Mass today was another important achievement of the mid-20th century liturgical movement.

I do not regard Latin as a “sacred” liturgical language and I believe it entirely possible to conduct dignified and reverent worship in English.

I believe that the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy taught important truths, especially about the eschatological character of the Church’s worship as an anticipation of life in the Kingdom of God, and I agree with its teaching that the Church’s worship should be conducted with a “noble simplicity.”

I think the suggestion from some liturgical traditionalists that the survival of Catholicism demands the restoration of the old Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, the old Offertory prayers, and the old Last Gospel is ridiculous: which is also how I view the claims that the Council’s liturgical constitution and its immediate implementation were the result of a cabal of Freemasons, communists, and homosexual clerics.

I prefer gothic chasubles to fiddleback chasubles and I dislike lace surplices.

That being said, I also think that the recent apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes [Custodians of the Tradition], which attempts to repeal Pope Benedict XVI’s generous permission for easier use of the Traditional Latin Mass in the 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, was theologically incoherent, pastorally divisive, unnecessary, cruel—and a sorry example of the liberal bullying that has become all too familiar in Rome recently.

Summorum Pontificum was an act of pastoral solicitude for those Catholics who find it more efficacious to worship according to the 1962 Missal, in what Benedict XVI described as the “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite. It was also hoped that the Church’s broader experience of that Extraordinary Form would lead to a re-sacralizing and ennobling of the Church’s worship according to the “Ordinary Form” of the liturgy, the post-Vatican II missal of Pope Paul VI as revised by Pope John Paul II. In my experience, that hope was being vindicated, as the silly season in liturgy was mercifully drawing to an end.

I lived that vindication for three weeks in Cracow this summer, as the seminar I led there—a multinational gathering of Catholics from six countries and cultures—celebrated the Novus Ordo reverently and prayerfully, using Gregorian chant for the ordinary parts of the Mass and traditional Latin chants and contemporary Taizé chants (in both Latin and English) as the entrance, offertory, and communion antiphons. Our seminar congregation’s participation in the liturgy was, as Vatican II hoped, “full, active, and conscious”; it was also dignified, reverent, and attuned to the sacred.

In many American parishes where the Extraordinary Form has been offered as well as the more common Ordinary Form, the unity of the Church has not been impaired. That some proponents of the Extraordinary Form think themselves the sole faithful remnant of a decaying Church is certainly true, and their presence online is depressingly familiar. But it is an empirically unsustainable slander to suggest, as Traditionis Custodes does, that that divisive superiority complex (coupled with an ideologically-driven rejection of Vatican II) is the new normal for those who wish to worship at Masses celebrated with the Missal of 1962. Roman judgments should not be based on the hysteria and antics of the Catholic blogosphere.

Progressive Catholicism has typically been characterized by an authoritarian streak—a tendency to bullying and intimidation that certainly bespeaks impatience and may suggest a lack of confidence in its proposals and arguments. In the present pontificate, that has led to an extreme notion of papal authority that might make Pope Pius IX blush. This has not gone over well throughout the world Church, and that fact will have a marked effect on the next papal election.

George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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