Faith-based

The Seemingly Minor Change the Pope Just Made That Is Freaking Out Conservative Catholics

Pope Francis waves from a window.
Pope Francis delivers a Sunday Angelus prayer from the window of his study overlooking St. Peter’s Square on July 4. Andreas Solaro/Getty Images

On Friday, the Vatican announced a new order that would barely affect most practicing Catholics: there are now strict rules for when and where the traditional Latin Mass can be conducted. Among other new regulations, priests can no longer decide to celebrate the Latin Mass; they must instead ask permission from their bishops, who should make sure that there is an organic demand from the actual faithful and that the priest is not seeking to celebrate the Latin Mass because he sees the normal, vernacular version of it as invalid.

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The response to this news among a certain group of Catholics was immediate outrage. “The lack of mercy shown here toward traditional Catholics, Benedict XVI, and the young laity and clergy drawn to the Latin Mass is stunning,” the Catholic journalist Raymond Arroyo said on Twitter. “This will create the division that Francis claims to cure through this ill advised and destructive new law.” Others warned that such a decision would drive away enthusiastic young Catholics, or talked about how the traditional Latin Mass had drawn them to Catholicism in the first place. Some vowed to continue to attend—or in the case of certain priests, conduct—the traditional mass. Others spoke openly of their belief that Francis was evil and wrong.

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To many Catholics, such an anguished response is hard to understand. The vast majority of Catholics have never attended a traditional Latin Mass, so Francis’ declaration will have virtually no effect on their lives. But for those who deal with church politics, the matter was extraordinarily serious: in a document that accompanied the order, Francis wrote that he was reversing the Vatican’s stance on the Latin Mass because it was being used as a tool to sow division in the church.

Why? It has to do with the history of the Latin Mass and how one set of rituals came to stand for an entire worldview.

Theologically, there is nothing different about the “extraordinary form” of the mass, known colloquially as the Latin Mass. The aesthetics are different—priests face the altar rather than the congregants, and they recite prayers in Latin rather than the common language—but Catholic experts are quick to point out that one form of worship is as valid as the other. The Latin Mass had been pretty much the only way of saying the mass until the 1960s, when Pope John XXIII and Vatican II modernized the church. In the 1970s, a traditionalist group angered by the recent reforms broke away from the Catholic church, and the Vatican slowly began to allow the Latin Mass in some circumstances in an attempt to bring the traditionalists back into the fold. In 2007, the more conservative Pope Benedict XVI officially lifted the restrictions on the Latin Mass, allowing priests to use the traditional mass in private or whenever “a group of the faithful attached to the previous liturgical tradition stably exists.”

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The traditionalist priests happily took Benedict up on the offer, and Latin Mass-focused parishes cropped up around the world. The issue, according to Timothy P. O’Malley, the academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, was that many of the clergy and faithful who were drawn to the traditional mass also believed that the Latin Mass was the only authentic and valid way to worship. “When Benedict allowed the Latin Mass, what ended up happening was there was a subculture of traditionalists given a mainstream space,” he said. Some bickering occurred at the local level, but according to several Catholic liturgical experts, the parish squabbles were not the source of the “division” Francis was targeting.

“The problem is these churches attracted very traditional Catholics who disagreed with Pope Francis on pretty much everything, and also tended to believe that they were the real church and everything else wasn’t,” said Gregory Hillis, a professor of theology at Bellarmine University. The Latin Mass became a point around which traditional Catholics could unite, and a symbol of what they thought the church should be.

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So by cracking down on the Latin Mass and undoing Benedict’s decisions, Francis appears to be trying to remove potential sources of friction—and more importantly, to send a clear message to the traditionalists who for years have agitated against him.

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There is a tendency among Catholic observers to warn about the specter of a “schism” during times of disunity. But many academics believe that, eight years into Francis’ pontificate, the Church is at one of the most divided points in its recent history. Francis has a highly organized and well-funded opposition within the church, with numerous high-ranking opponents in the Vatican. In the U.S., in particular, there are a number of conservative bishops and priests who seek to undermine the pope,

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“This problem has been festering,” said Steven Millies, a theology professor at the Catholic Theological Union. “We know there are people who have not said that they separated themselves from the pope and the church, but they have. We know it, we can see it. And it was inevitable that this problem was going to need to be confronted.”

He called the situation “something uncomfortably close to open revolt against Rome” and described Francis’ decision as “overdue.” O’Malley also attributed Francis’ actions to a realization that traditionalism had become “a crisis” and that the church was in danger of “fracturing.”

But it’s not only traditionalists who balked at Francis’ order. Even some who described themselves as more progressive expressed discomfort with the autocratic way he went about it. To those outside the church, Francis’ papacy is known for his views on divorce, homosexuality, climate change, and capitalism. But inside the church, the more hotly discussed topics have to do with bureaucracy, hierarchy, and leadership style. His legacy has been one of decentralization and simplification. His supporters may find the conservatives in the Vatican frustrating, but they also laud the pope for not squashing all dissent. So when Francis suddenly announced, after only relatively light consultation with some bishops, that he was making a unilateral decision, many observers were baffled by what they saw as a very different style from the pope they knew.

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“This appears to be sort of a nuclear option,” Hillis said. “It does seem to go against what he’s been about in so many ways.”

Hillis, along with many other experts, believes that instead of undercutting dissent, the order will fuel it. Traditionalists have already begun to describe themselves as a persecuted group, akin to practitioners in China. “I think it’s difficult to figure out what the end game is,” he said. “It’s the logic of suppression, which I don’t think is a very Christian approach to dealing with adversaries.”

O’Malley warned that traditionalists would perceive the order as an insult and expects conflicts to crop up when bishops do remove the Latin Mass. Millies warned that dissident clergy were already working to create a “parallel” church and that more American bishops are likely to reveal their opposition to Francis and the modern version of the church as they deal with the fallout. “This is a big deal,” Millies said. “These people feel the church abandoned its authority when it began addressing itself to a modern world that’s not built on the church as its foundation. There’s a 500-year-old argument underway here. The bigness of it will be lost on a lot of people who don’t understand what the real argument is.”

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