Layman David Gordon: Is It Time For The TLM To Go Away?

Mike Lewis

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COMMENTARY Is it Time for the TLM to Go Away? 

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COMMENTARY Is it Time for the TLM to Go Away? 


Pope Francis is right: it is necessary to return to a single, unified Roman Rite and leave the “Traditional Latin Mass” in the past. And our personal liturgical preferences have absolutely no bearing on the matter. As conservatives have grown fond of saying, truth doesn’t care about your feelings.

We have it on the highest authority — that of Pope John XXIII — that the Church desired substantial reforms to ameliorate the “grave state of spiritual poverty” that plagued the 20th-century world, courtesy of a marauding secularism (see Humanae Salutis, §6). Answering the holy pontiff’s call to arms, the fathers of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council made it clear in Sacrosanctum Concilium (by no accident the first document produced by the council) that the liturgy is to be adapted “more suitably to the needs of our own times” because it is “the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (§§1–2). To borrow the recent words of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, “The Council Fathers perceived the urgent need for a reform so that the truth of the Faith as celebrated might appear ever more in all its beauty” (Responsa ad Dubia on Certain Provisions of the Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes).

Reform of the Liturgy was Mandated by an Ecumenical Council Ultimately, the princes of the Church, cum Petro et sub Petro, fashioned a mandate for carrying out the reform of the liturgy at Vatican II: (1) Revise liturgical texts and rites so that they express more clearly the holy things they signify; (2) revise and simplify the rite of Mass so that the nature and purpose of its parts are clear and so that devout and active participation is fostered; (3) nix elements that, through the years, were added with little advantage to the liturgy or that are redundant; (4) restore elements that “suffered injury through the accidents of history”; (5) open the “treasures of the Bible” more lavishly to edify the faithful; and (6) draw up a new rite for concelebration and incorporate it into the Pontifical and into the Roman Missal (Missale Romanum, §§3, 7–8, citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, §§21, 50–53, 58). And this mandate was approved by a crushing majority of the assembled bishops, with 2,147 voting in favor of it (including Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II after committing a schismatic act in 1988) and a mere 4 voting against it.

Contrary to the oft-repeated claims of certain traditionalist Catholic internet entertainers, the catalyst for such liturgical reforms was emphatically not sympathy for modernism, novelty, Freemasonry, or communism. Au contraire: The reforms ushered in by Vatican II were spurred on by a confluence of genuine pastoral need and legitimate and salutary progress in the liturgical sciences in the decades leading up to the council. To quote Pope Paul VI himself, “Ancient liturgical sources [were] discovered and published and at the same time liturgical formulas of the Oriental Church [became] better known” (Missale Romanum, §4). Accordingly, the Church desired that the doctrinal and spiritual riches of antiquity be “brought into the light to illumine and nourish the spirits and souls of Christians” instead of remaining “hidden in the darkness of the libraries” (ibid.). As the Sacred Congregation of Rites noted in Inter Oecumenici, “The Constitution on the Liturgy has as its objective not simply to change liturgical forms and texts but rather to bring to life the kind of formation of the faithful and ministry of pastors that will have their summit and source in the liturgy” (§5). The faithful were to be liberated from unduly passive roles as “strangers and silent spectators in the mystery of faith” and immersed in the sacred action “consciously” and “piously” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §48). This, of course, corresponds to the Church’s understanding that liturgy is “the privileged place for catechizing the People of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1074). It’s clear then that the real impetus for the reforms was the Church’s desire to better sustain her children with the sumptuous fare of newly rediscovered liturgical praxis as antidote for the poison of a worldly and materialistic age.

Note well — contra the recycled arguments and deficient scholarship of Vetus Ordo propagandists like Peter Kwasniewski — that the Church, in union with the pope, enjoys the prerogative of altering discipline, including amending and refreshing the liturgy, to tailor it to the needs of the day. The First Vatican Council made this most explicit in its dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, which stated:

The Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful … are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world (chapter 3, §2; emphasis added.)

Centuries before, the Council of Trent also recognized the Church’s broad authority over the liturgy and sacraments:

In the dispensation of the sacraments, the Church may, according to circumstances, times and places, determine or change whatever she may judge most expedient for the benefit of those receiving them or for the veneration of the sacraments; and this power has always been hers. The Apostle seems to have clearly intimated this when he said: Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God (chapter 2, 21st session; emphasis added).

In a subsequent session, Trent reaffirmed the Church’s dominion over the rites, doxologies, and customs of the liturgy, and elaborated on the reasons the Barque of Peter has been entrusted with such a lofty mandate:

And whereas such is the nature of man, that, without external helps, he cannot easily be raised to the meditation of divine things; therefore has holy Mother Church instituted certain rites, to wit that certain things be pronounced in the mass in a low, and others in a louder, tone. She has likewise employed ceremonies, such as mystic benedictions, lights, incense, vestments, and many other things of this kind, derived from an apostolical discipline and tradition, whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be recommended, and the minds of the faithful be excited, by those visible signs of religion and piety, to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice (chapter 5, 22nd session, emphasis added).

It is therefore clear that the liturgical rites are governed by the Church herself, according to the circumstances, times, and needs of the faithful. Contrary to theories posited by radical traditionalists, this process is governed by Church authority; liturgical reforms are not unconsciously brought about by “natural” developments, nor are they slave to the insensate diktats of a linear process.

The proclamations of the foregoing ecumenical councils are reaffirmed by — and integrate seamlessly with — individual popes’ teachings on liturgical authority. Pope Pius IX, for instance, exhorted in Non Sine Gravissimo, “Those who glory in the title of Catholic must not only be united [to the pope] in matters of faith and dogmatic truth, but also be submissive to him in matters of liturgy and discipline.” Pope Pius X, in Pascendi Dominici Gregis, similarly hailed the Church as “legislator in the province of sacred liturgy or discipline” (§8). And in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei — in which he set forth the Church’s liturgical doctrine with previously unparalleled detail and sophistication — Pius XII echoed the understanding of his predecessors, teaching that the “organization, regulation and details” of the liturgy “cannot but be subject to Church authority” since “it is the priest chiefly who performs the sacred liturgy in the name of the Church” (§44). The pontiff would go on to expound,

From time immemorial the ecclesiastical hierarchy has exercised this right in matters liturgical. It has organized and regulated divine worship, enriching it constantly with new splendor and beauty, to the glory of God and the spiritual profit of Christians. What is more, it has not been slow — keeping the substance of the Mass and sacraments carefully intact — to modify what it deemed not altogether fitting, and to add what appeared more likely to increase the honor paid to Jesus Christ and the august Trinity, and to instruct and stimulate the Christian people to greater advantage (ibid., §49).

Pius XII also explained that changes can and should be made to liturgy to suit the exigencies of the times:

As circumstances and the needs of Christians warrant, public worship is organized, developed and enriched by new rites, ceremonies and regulations, always with the single end in view, that we may use these external signs to keep us alert, learn from them what distance we have come along the road, and by them be heartened to go on further with more eager step; for the effect will be more precious the warmer the affection which precedes it (ibid., §22; internal quotation marks omitted).

He continued, articulating the key principles involved in the legitimate development of Catholic liturgy: “The Church is without question a living organism, and as an organism, in respect of the sacred liturgy also, she grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances, provided only that the integrity of her doctrine be safeguarded” (ibid., §59). Finally, Pius XII clarified who in the Church wields the power to amend the liturgy: “It follows from this that the Sovereign Pontiff alone enjoys the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification” (ibid., §58, emphasis added).

These authoritative conciliar and papal teachings make it abundantly clear that the Church has the power to revise the Roman Missal, especially in light of the mandate devised at Vatican II. Pope Paul VI was well within his authority to promulgate and mandate the adoption of the Novus Ordo. There is simply no support in the Magisterium of the Church for Kwasniewski’s thesis that “ecclesiastical traditions, especially in regard to the ‘externals’ of the liturgy in its development over time, must be honored and preserved because they are intimately connected with the content and right practice of religion” (The Once and Future Roman Rite [Gastonia, North Carolina: TAN Books, 2022], 3). He’s essentially just making things up. Not only that, but Pius X flatly contradicted this thesis in Abhinc Duos Annos, when he called for the liturgical edifice to “appear purified of the imperfections brought by time, newly resplendent with dignity and fitting order” (emphasis added).

The Will of God

Some — even those who would admit that the Church does have authority to bind and loose in matters pertaining to the liturgy — may nevertheless question whether the liturgical reforms of Vatican II corresponded to the will of God. This too we must answer in the affirmative. The Church teaches that God himself guides and protects the workings of ecumenical councils, which exercise in a solemn way “the supreme power in the universal Church” (Lumen Gentium, §22). To this point, Pope Pius IX declared in his March 12, 1870 letter Dolendum Profecto that the “Ecumenical Council is governed by the Holy Spirit,” and reasoned that matters “which could be harmful to the Church” cannot be “imposed upon [Catholics’] faith” thereby. The First Vatican Council, in Dei Filius, likewise proclaimed that Christ stands by his beloved Bride, the Church, “assisting her when she teaches, blessing her in her labors and bringing her help when she is in danger,” and that this divine aid is palpable “most especially” in the fruits of ecumenical councils.

Perhaps Cardinal Joseph Hoeffner, when he was archbishop of Cologne, best captured the idea in a pastoral letter he penned in 1975: “Decisions [of general councils] concerning disciplinary and liturgical questions are also under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the Apostles held their so-called apostolic council, they promulgated their disciplinary decisions with the solemn words: ‘The Holy Spirit and we have decided’” (quoted in James Likoudis and Kenneth D. Whitehead, The Pope, the Council, and the Mass [W. Hanover, MA: The Christopher Publishing House, 1982], 41). Because of this pneumatic patronage, it’s fair to say that the ecumenical council is “the most solemn expression of the … disciplinary life of the infallible Church of Christ on earth, ‘the pillar and mainstay of truth’” (John L. Murphy, The General Councils [Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1960], 3).

In fact, during a General Audience address delivered just days before the implementation of the reformed Missal, Pope Paul VI specifically reassured the faithful that God himself willed the liturgical reforms commended by Sacrosanctum: “It is Christ’s will, it is the breath of the Holy Spirit which calls the Church to make this change. A prophetic moment is occurring in the mystical body of Christ. … This moment is shaking the Church, arousing it, obliging it to renew the mysterious art of its prayer” (Changes in Mass for Greater Apostolate, §6). It is for this very reason that Pope Francis wrote in his Letter Accompanying Traditionis Custodes, “To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner … in an ecumenical council, and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.”

Faithful Catholics must therefore accept with a meek and docile spirit the liturgical medicine that the Church, through recourse to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, has prescribed for them. And it’s clear what that medicine is — the New Order of the Mass. For this reason, on Oct. 28, 1974, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued Conferentiarum Episcopalium, mandating the exclusive celebration of the Novus Ordo, as follows:

With regard to the Roman Missal: when an episcopal conference has determined that a vernacular version of the Roman Missal — or a part of it, such as the Order of Mass — must be used in its territory, from then on Mass may not be celebrated, whether in Latin or in the vernacular, save according to the rite of the Roman Missal promulgated by the authority of Paul VI on 7 April, 1969. [Emphasis added.]

Those false prophets and evangelical entrepreneurs who would thumb their noses at the conciliar reforms, who would impudently hold themselves out as the guardians of the “true Church,” who would, through runaway temerity, denigrate the Novus Ordo liturgy as some kind of innovation or imposter, ought to take to heart the words of Pius XII: “Private individuals … may not be left to decide for themselves in these holy and venerable matters [of liturgy], involving as they do the religious life of Christian society along with the exercise of the priesthood of Jesus Christ and worship of God … and with the salvation of souls” (Mediator Dei, §58). As Pope John Paul II noted, “Fidelity … implies the observance of the liturgical norms laid down by ecclesiastical Authority and therefore has nothing to do with … obstinately refusing to carry out what has been lawfully laid down and introduced into the sacred rites.”

Papal Accompaniment

I can hear the standard counterarguments now: What about Quattuor Abhinc Annos, Ecclesia Dei, and Summorum Pontificum (papal documents that sanctioned the celebration of the antecedent form)? What about the other steps John Paul II and Benedict XVI took to reverse course and make possible the continued celebration of the Tridentine Mass? Aren’t these indications that the Vetus Ordo is a perpetually viable liturgical option, even in the postconciliar era? Don’t these interventions definitively prove that the TLM should not go the way of the dodo? No — and here’s why not.

Quattuor Abhinc Annos, Ecclesia Dei, and Summorum Pontificum were essentially stopgap measures designed to extend an olive branch to Lefebvrists (along with the many poor souls they have hoodwinked or led astray) and those who were disenchanted with or jarred by the (admittedly abrupt) changes to Catholic worship that took place after Vatican II. All of these documents — which are highly regarded and frequently cited by traditionalists as papal validation of their movement — are really examples of papal “accompaniment,” a pastoral strategy that de-emphasizes bright-line rules in favor of meeting people where they are in the spiritual life to journey with them to truth. (The irony, of course, is that the notion of accompaniment is frequently the object of trad ire.) It would be incorrect to interpret these documents as reflections of a substantive shift in the disciplinary trajectory of the Church.

The indult Quattuor Abhinc Annos, issued by John Paul II’s Congregation of Divine Worship, made eminently clear that accompaniment was its raison d’etre. So while it’s a fact that the CDW supplied limited permission to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal for the benefit of Catholics attached to a liturgy that had shaped their culture and spirit, the congregation went on to stipulate that such permission was but a “concession” that reflects “the common Father’s solicitude for all his children.” And the CDW hastened to add that the concession “must be used in such a way as not to prejudice the faithful observance of the liturgical reform.” The CDW also made two very instructive demands: (1) It must be made “publicly clear beyond all ambiguity that such priests and their respective faithful in no way share the positions of those who call in question the legitimacy and doctrinal exactitude of the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970”; and (2) “such celebration must be made only for the benefit of those groups that request it” and only “in churches and oratories indicated by the bishop.” In other words, the indult was emphatically not to be received as a rollback of Vatican II, and it was not to be used as a tool to lure the faithful away from the Novus Ordo liturgy.

And while it’s true that four years later, in Ecclesia Dei, John Paul II wrote, “Respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See [in Quattuor Abhinc Annos],” in the very same section, he articulated the targeted reasoning behind his missive — to facilitate “full ecclesial communion of priests, seminarians, religious communities or individuals until now linked in various ways to the [Society of St. Pius X], who may wish to remain united to the Successor of Peter in the Catholic Church” (§6). So again, the pontiff was in no way engaging in broad-spectrum TLM advocacy; he was instead attempting to heal a schism in the Church. (Pope Francis later confirmed this in his Letter Accompanying Traditionis Custodes, wherein he specified, “The faculty — granted by the indult of the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1984 and confirmed by St. John Paul II in the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei in 1988 — was above all motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the schism with the movement of Mons. Lefebvre.”)

Benedict XVI, spurred on by a burgeoning pro-TLM movement, ventured further into the trenches of the liturgy wars. He clarified that his predecessor’s Latin Mass concessions were made with an eye to those who “clearly accepted” the Vatican II reforms but who “desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them,” in large part due to Novus Ordo “celebrations [that] were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal” (Letter to the Bishops of the World on Summorum Pontificum). And Benedict, seeing the noble intentions of the faithful seeking refuge in the Old Rite, desired to pick up where John Paul II left off and meet the disaffected sons and daughters of the Church with paternal clemency. As such, he issued Summorum Pontificum, permitting the celebration of the TLM as the “extraordinary form of the Church’s liturgy,” and replacing the conditions that formerly governed its use with a vastly liberalized framework.

Benedict predicated Summorum on two fundamental assumptions, and if these proved to be erroneous, the pastoral calculus at the motu proprio’s heart would be refuted. First, the pontiff believed that those who would avail themselves of the usus antiquior would be few and far between because “use of the old Missal presupposes a certain degree of liturgical formation and some knowledge of the Latin language” and “neither of these is found very often” (Letter on Summorum). Second, he believed that allowing the TLM to coexist with the Novus Ordo would in no wise lead to a division in the Church’s rule of faith (ibid.). These expectations, it turns out, had little basis in reality — and Benedict understood this was a distinct possibility from the outset. This is precisely why he himself declared that if “serious difficulties come to light” and remain three years after Summorum, “ways to remedy them can be sought” (ibid.).

In the years following the promulgation of Summorum, it became readily apparent that far greater numbers of Catholics would opt to attend the TLM than Benedict had anticipated. In fact, the Vetus Ordo experienced what The New York Times characterized as a veritable “revival” and “resurgence.” USA Today likewise reported in 2015 that lay involvement with the Latin Mass was mushrooming “in all parts of the world.” One outlet observed that there is a “quickly growing number of TLM-only parishes” in America. And what’s particularly interesting is that young people have driven much of the growth in TLM attendance, with budding families and fresh converts to the Faith at the vanguard. “Wherever one looks,” First Things editor Matthew Schmitz once mused, “the kids are old rite.”

Catholic Factionalism

It also became increasingly clear that, contra the predictions of Benedict, allowing Catholics a “taster’s choice” between the TLM and Novus Ordo has abetted the ascendance of an unhealthy and spiritually hazardous factionalism. With the benefit of hindsight, I dare say that we should have seen this coming.

The liturgical reform was, according to John Paul II, the Second Vatican Council’s “first fruit,” which had been “prepared for by a great liturgical and pastoral movement (Vicesimus Quintus Annus, §1). As such, it was “a source of hope for the life and the renewal of the Church” and, essentially, the embodiment of the council’s “fundamental aim” of imparting increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful (ibid.). Hence, a practical rejection of Sacrosanctum Concilium is not only perilous in its own right; it also sets a septic precedent for calling into question the council’s substantive teachings, and indeed for applying to the council a generalized hermeneutic of suspicion.

This is not mere conjecture. Any moderately informed Catholic who has eyes and ears and a whisper of intellectual honesty has to admit that even within “mainstream” traditionalist Catholic communities, one will find a significant (but not overwhelming) bloc of churchgoers that is insolent towards and contemptuous of the doctrine and praxis put forth at Vatican II. The choreographed outrage and the “that’s not the case at my parish” gaslighting are not convincing anyone. In my own experience running in traditionalist circles and attending the Tridentine Mass in various parishes in several parts of the country, I’ve seen the hostility towards Vatican II and the Novus Ordo firsthand, and it appears to be far from an isolated phenomenon. I can either believe the gainsayers, or my own lying eyes and ears.

But don’t take my word for it. Go on a field trip to a traditionalist community and take in the conversations for yourself. You’ll almost invariably hear claims that Vatican II erred in teaching on, inter alia, religious liberty, on the Church of Christ “subsisting” in the Catholic Church, on ecumenism, on “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.” And many in attendance will sneer at the mere mention of the Novus Ordo. More and more commonly, one is even confronted with the ill-conceived boast that “if the Church clamps down on the TLM, I’ll simply turn to the Society of St. Pius X.” This spirit of defiance is a lurking menace in many of the haunts of the old guard and their new recruits.

It is difficult to take traditionalists seriously when they feign incredulity about such assertions, especially when blokes like Taylor Marshall (408,000 YouTube subscribers), Michael Matt (259,000 YouTube subscribers), and Kennedy Hall (24,000 YouTube subscribers) promote such views daily and malign Vatican II on their widely consumed podcasts. Where do people think the audience members of these theological provocateurs go to church — the local Jesuit spiritualism center? Only about 100,000 U.S. Catholics attend Latin Mass on a given Sunday. So it makes sense that if you tour any church with a strong TLM contingent, you’ll find non-negligible pockets of appreciation for the many pundits who promote open dissent against a valid ecumenical council of the Church.

Something had to be done

Given this state of affairs, which is a clear indication that the factual assumptions underlying Summorum were incorrect, of course Pope Francis saw fit to pen his motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, rolling back Benedict’s TLM allowances. In fact, Pope Francis expressly connected the issuance of Traditionis to Benedict’s invitation to the bishops to assess the impact of Summorum three years after its publication, noting that “the results [of Summorum] have been carefully considered in the light of experience that has matured during these years” (¶3).

Specifically, Francis noted that his assessment of the state of the Church revealed how the concessions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were “exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division” (Letter of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops of the Whole World That Accompanies the Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes). The pontiff astutely gleaned — in keeping with the theological axiom that the law of prayer is the law of belief — that “ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church’” (ibid.). Elsewhere, Francis has pinpointed that the liturgy wars are a mere symptom of a greater “ecclesiological” problem, with which many of the faithful are presently grappling (Desiderio Desideravi, §31). And he’s cautioned that

It would be trivial to read the tensions, unfortunately present around the celebration, as a simple divergence between different tastes concerning a particular ritual form. … I do not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the Council … and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacrosanctum Concilium (ibid.).

In order to “press on ever more in the constant search for ecclesial communion,” Francis decreed the liturgical texts of the Novus Ordo “are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite” and that “previous norms, instructions, permissions, and customs that do not conform to the provisions of the present Motu Proprio are abrogated” (Traditionis, ¶4; Art. 1, 8).

In other words, Francis has made known his will as supreme pontiff that the Church “return to a unitary form of celebration” of the liturgy, to a “single and identical prayer,” as a tangible expression of her immanent unity (Letter Accompanying Traditionis Custodes). And this mindset is no papal novelty. Instead, it very much accords with the desires of Francis’ predecessors, namely Pius V, who, in the much-abused Quo Primum, wrote, “It is most becoming that there be in the Church … only one rite for the celebration of Mass.”

There’s no contending with a sitting pope’s express will regarding matters of liturgy or discipline; Pius XII made that point emphatically. So after the next steps that Rome takes to limit TLM attendance — and there will be further steps, if we take the Vatican council and reigning pope seriously, because the TLM is the “once and past Roman Rite” — spare us the canned umbrage and online polemics full of irresponsible claims that Francis hates Trads or tradition or Benedict or the TLM. He’s told us exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and his actions perfectly align with the mandates of Vatican II and the broader Petrine charge to maintain cohesion in the Church.

All there is left to do is say, “I submit, Holy Father.” If we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t say that, liturgy is the least of our problems.