By Tom Piatak
As everyone knows, the Roman Catholic Church has gone through a period of greatly diminished growth, and worse, in the last few decades in the lands it once dominated, defined, and even brought into being, in Western Europe, North America, and even Latin America. And no quick end to this crisis is in sight. To take just one statistic: In the mid-1960s, roughly one third of all babies born in the United States were baptized Catholic. Now the number is closer to 15 percent. Remarkably, the powers that be in Rome don’t seem to think this datum is a problem. Rather, as we learned yesterday, the real problem in the Church is the “Traditional Latin Mass” and the faithful who attend it. Rome has moved to suppress that Mass, and brutally so.
Before getting to those details, it’s worth recalling a short history of the multifaceted crisis the Church faces.
One facet of that crisis is disunity: Beginning with Humanae Vitae, Catholic theologians and institutions have dissented from teaching that the Pope insisted was binding. Papal attempts to remedy this have largely been ignored or rebuffed. A handful of theologians were censured during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but John Paul’s Ex Corde Ecclessiae did not result in most Catholic theologians’ becoming faithful transmitters of Church teaching. Instead, most theology departments at most Catholic universities contain professors who openly deny Church teaching in any number of areas.
A second facet is the “synodal” process in Germany that is openly intended to challenge and change Church teaching on the morality of contraception and sex outside of marriage, the permissibility of homosexual unions, the ability of the Church to ordain women to the priesthood, and on whether Protestants should take Holy Communion at Mass as a matter of course.
More dramatically, dozens of German priests openly defied the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent reaffirmation that the Church may not bless homosexual relationships by openly doing just that, in Catholic churches throughout Germany. The Vatican has restricted neither the promoters of the synod nor the defiant priests.
And third, of course, Pope Francis has signaled that challenges to Catholic teaching from the left are understandable, even welcome, although he has generally failed to endorse them. More generally, he has indicated that the Church should “listen” to those who disagree with its teaching, “accompany” those who fail to live up to it, have an intense focus on “the marginalized,” and avoid imposing its views even on its own members, with the Church’s besetting problem at this time being “clericalism,” the tendency of priests and others in authority in the Church to try to dictate to others how they should live and what they should believe.
There is, however, a glaring exception to this: Catholics who are attached, again, to the TLM, the Mass as it was said for centuries before Vatican II. In Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis indicated his intention to eventually suppress the Traditional Latin Mass. Yesterday, the Vatican outlined more precisely how this was going to be done:
- No parish church will be allowed to host a TLM.
- Parishes with a TLM may be permitted to continue for a time, but only if they are actively seeking a new venue and only if they do nothing to advertise its existence or even include it in the list of Masses in the parish bulletin.
- No priest is allowed to say the TLM more than once per day.
- Nor may any priest say the Mass of Vatican II and the TLM on the same day.
In other words, the TLM will largely be restricted to venues where ordinary Catholics will never encounter it, said by priests who are outside of the mainstream of diocesan life, and tolerated for a brief time longer only for the purpose of convincing the Catholics who prefer to worship that way that they are wrong to do so and must stop.
Incredibly, the author of these instructions, Archbishop Arthur Roche, blandly states that “in these provisions there is no intention to marginalize the faithful who are rooted in the preceding celebratory form.”
As a practical matter, these instructions mean the death of inner city parishes that have survived because of people coming to attend the TLM, and the immediate end of the Latin Mass for those who have relied on either diocesan priests who ordinarily also say the Mass of Vatican II or priests who travel throughout the diocese to say the traditional Latin Mass. There are many such dioceses in the United States including, arguably, the one in which I live.
These draconian measures are justified on the basis of promoting unity in the Church, but the justification is difficult to accept given Rome’s inaction, even indulgence, in so many areas where Church teaching is openly questioned.
Indeed, Francis’ edict is directed only at people who have already demonstrated the importance they attach to Church teaching, even apart from the large families many of them have and the vocations to the priesthood or religious life many of them have fostered. If the TLM were all its attendees wanted, many such Masses are offered by priests outside of visible communion with the Bishop of Rome. People who attend diocesan Latin Masses are there precisely because they want to be in visible communion with the Bishop of Rome.
As do I. I will give up my occasional attendance at TLM if no such Mass is available under diocesan auspices.
But I will not pretend that what Pope Francis is doing is just, or wise, or good, even if it may be lawful. I have been moved by the transparent devotion and reverence at the diocesan Latin Masses I have attended. I have been gratified that beautiful inner city churches were saved from closure by the devout who attend the TLM. I have benefited from the sermons given by TLM priests who faithfully serve their bishop by saying both forms of the Mass, teaching in inner city schools, visiting the sick and dying, and doing all the sundry other things Catholic priests are regularly expected to do.
I have never heard any attack on the Pope or the Church or Vatican II from the pulpit at any of those Masses, or even in the vestibule.
Yes, some of those promoting the TLM online have said foolish and even offensive things. I certainly do not think the Mass I attend the vast majority of the time is an inferior form of worship. But the internet brayers no more represent the typical attendee at a TLM than the priests who offer clown Masses represent the typical parish priest.
Not one of the many problems facing the Church today will be solved or even ameliorated in the slightest by suppressing diocesan Latin Masses. No converts will be won, no vocations will be fostered, and no church or school will be saved from closure if the parishes and priests that used to offer the TLM no longer do. Quite the contrary.
I guess the Catholic liberals so upset by Joseph Ratzinger’s long ago prediction that the Church of the future would be smaller but purer weren’t bothered by the smaller part of that prediction at all.