Francis is confounding those who presented him as an enemy of traditionalism. The movement is actually flourishing thanks to his ‘live and let live’ attitude

Those who expected Pope Francis to clamp down on the traditional liturgy, freed by Benedict XVI, have reason to be disappointed. Just last week Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool announced that the impressive Pugin church of St Mary in Warrington would become a centre for the Extraordinary Form run by the Fraternity of St Peter. This brings to five the number of English dioceses that have welcomed either the fraternity or the Institute of Christ the King, another priestly institute dedicated to the traditional liturgy.

Each of the traditionalist institutes has ordained a young man from the Church in England and Wales this summer. One, and occasionally two, such ordinations have been the pattern of recent years. This is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, an English diocese has formally set up a bi-ritual parish, where both forms of the Roman Rite, the Ordinary and the Extraordinary, will be celebrated side by side. In November, Cardinal Raymond Burke will be celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation for children and adults from around the country in London in the Extraordinary Form, at the request of the Latin Mass Society.

Even those who hadn’t prejudged Pope Francis’s papacy may be puzzled by these developments, which are not confined to England. Policy directly attributable to the Holy Father has smiled upon the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), a priestly institute dedicated to the traditional liturgy which was supposedly suppressed in 1975 and has been operating since then without Rome’s oversight.

Formal theological talks to re-establish the SSPX in good standing appeared to end in failure under Benedict XVI, but friendly gestures from the Vatican have continued.

In accordance with Pope Francis’s policy when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the SSPX has just been recognised as a Catholic group by the Argentine state for administrative purposes. SSPX members continue to be allowed to celebrate Masses in the basilicas of important pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes and Lisieux.

Many observers were recently astonished to hear that the SSPX leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay, had been appointed “judge of first instance” in canonical proceedings relating to an SSPX priest by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Bishop Fellay noted later that such practical arrangements have been routine for 10 years. People who have been saying that the SSPX is not just “irregular” but actually “schismatic” have had to swallow hard.

Despite these startling developments, many portray Pope Francis as an implacable enemy of the traditionalist movement. They have built this narrative around the difficulties of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, a vigorous young order that was increasingly friendly to the Extraordinary Form until an intervention by the Congregation for Religious put it under new management. To this case might be added the treatment of a number of tradition-friendly bishops and officials.


These incidents haven’t happened by accident, but the way they fit into a grand Franciscan plan is hard to determine. In each case there are complicating factors, such as Church politics and strong personalities. Even taken together, they don’t undo the other things that are happening. It may be that Pope Francis doesn’t need or want a more superficially consistent policy, if that would ignore important differences between cases. It also could be that these events are not all directly attributable to the Holy Father.

What we do know, because he has told us, is that Pope Francis wants to convey a live-and-let-live attitude towards the Extraordinary Form. It is clear that he does not have a liturgical vision he wishes to impose on the Church and is not overly concerned about legal niceties. His focus is elsewhere, on a series of pressing practical and pastoral issues. On the liturgy, he seems happy for events to take their course. On the legal status of the SSPX, he may be more open to some incomplete, practical accommodation as a step in the right direction than more outwardly conservative popes might be. He has created a space for a less heated debate, a chance for priests and laity to experience both old and new, and, with luck and the Holy Spirit, a process of better liturgical practice, in whatever Form, replacing the not-so-good.

Developments are being pushed along by something deeper, however, than the personal interests of popes. The inexorable turnover of the generations is having a transformative effect on attitudes within the Church. Only people now over 70 could have been caught up in the excitement of the liturgical reform as adults, and experienced what Benedict XVI called “all its hopes and its confusion”. They are being replaced by people with less emotional commitment, one way or the other: a generation that can take a step back and consider the matter dispassionately.

This generational change would have been more noticeable sooner if more priests had been ordained in the Eighties, Nineties, and Noughties; the methods of weeding out theological conservatives from seminaries in that era have become legend. But the process has biological inevitability: bishops now have a retirement age, and even parish priests don’t live forever.

It is common to see older Catholics struggle in vain to come to terms with the idea that “young people” might not share the assumptions and preferences they had when they themselves were young. An attitude of rebellious disdain for the old ways, conceived of as pomp, legalism and the rejection of modernity, was widespread in the better class of seminary not just in the 1970s but long before: in some cases, since the Modernist crisis of 1910.

To the partisans of liturgical and theological liberation it was apparent, by the time of the Second Vatican Council, that only the raw power of crusty old officials in Rome was holding back the tide; they had won the arguments years before, even if they had had to keep their heads down. The Council itself, almost regardless of what the texts said, simply because it “opened the windows”, was the signal for the new consensus to sweep all before it.

There is a supreme irony, however, in the fact that the moment of the new orthodoxy’s triumph, the 1960s, was also a watershed in many areas of intellectual and social life outside the Church. No sooner was the new consensus in place in the Church than many of its assumptions began to be questioned. Becoming the dominant view, it also naturally became the structure that intellectually ambitious young theologians would put to the test. The net result was that from the 1990s it was increasingly apparent that the old dynamic was being reversed. The books being excitedly read in secret by seminarians were now by Cardinal Ratzinger and others: not debunking the tradition, but debunking the debunkers.

One indication of the direction of the intellectual current has been the steady stream of scholarly books on the liturgy from a conservative or traditional viewpoint. It is hard to think of any new works from the other side of the debate in the last couple of decades, other than memoirs, sometimes posthumous, recording the events of 50 years ago. These can be very illuminating, but they don’t represent new thinking.

It is not just a matter of dry scholarship, either. The process can also be traced by asking a more flippant question: what do seminarians and the younger clergy regard as “naughty but nice”? Fifty years ago it might have been wearing a shirt and tie. Now it is more likely to be wearing a cassock or biretta. Half a century ago it might have been using a pottery chalice. Now it might be dusting off the grand gold one from the back of the safe.

The 1990s and the 2000s was also the era of Pope St John Paul II’s campaign against liturgical abuses. Although a comprehensive failure in its practical effects (except for the eventual arrival of a new English translation of the Missal), the repeated admonitions that a slew of widespread liturgical practices were abuses, contrary to a correct understanding of the liturgy, had the effect of demolishing the moral authority of those attempting to maintain a “progressive” liturgical status quo. It was impossible to avoid realising that the freewheeling liturgy of many Catholic parishes could be defended neither by the outdated scholarship of the 1960s, nor by the mind of the Church. It was the turn of diocesan liturgical directors and seminary rectors to try to hold back the tide by the exercise of raw power, like the Roman officials of liberal myth.

For all these reasons, each decade that has passed since 1970 has brought with it a cohort of clergy and laity with a little more critical distance towards what happened in the name of Vatican II than the previous one. The psychological aversion to admitting that “the changes” have brought problems, as well as benefits, can be amazingly strong among elderly Catholics, but it gets progressively weaker as you go down the age scale.

With the weakening of that aversion comes not an alternative ideology, but open-mindedness. Priests ordained since the turn of the century are much more prepared to try the Extraordinary Form. Bishops ordained as priests since 1980 are much more prepared to let them. The barriers to wider availability for traditional Mass today tend not to be
ideological but practical, such as the general shortage of priests.

Pope Francis is aware of the shifting attitudes and has refused to lead a crusade of the elderly against the young. Doing things the way the Church did them for 10 or more centuries might, in his view, be misguided and a “fad”, but it can’t be heretical. If it is a pastoral dead end, it will wither away of its own.

The resignation of Benedict XVI, and the election of a Pope with a very different personality, style and set of priorities, was traumatising for some in the Church and energising for others. After two years of the Franciscan papacy, those first reactions need to be reassessed, particularly in the sphere of the liturgy. There is no need for traditionally inclined priests to fear widespread renewed persecution. There is equally little justification for those hankering after the glory days of liturgical experimentation to think that the 1970s are coming back.

The case for the Extraordinary Form has never depended on the personal preferences of the reigning Pope. It rests on its fulfilment of the twin aims of the liturgy: the worthy worship of the Almighty and the good of souls. The Franciscan pontificate, on balance, is not impeding the rediscovery of tradition by Catholic clergy and laity. Well-meaning official tinkering, on the other hand, always carries the danger that the older Missal’s stability and coherence could be compromised. A few decades of benign neglect may be exactly what the movement in favour of the Extraordinary Form needs.

Joseph Shaw is chairman of the Latin Mass Society

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (10/7/15).

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