Traditionis Custodes and a Hermeneutic of Love

The motives of St. John Paul II, in granting the indult, and Benedict XVI, in issuing Summorum Pontificum, was, in part, to heal the schism with the Fraternal Society of St. Pius X. Francis’ motive: the olive branch that his predecessors had extended is being taken advantage of and used in such a manner as to counteract the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent liturgical reforms. And he isn’t speaking of prudential matters, as if one thinks this or that implementation was wrong or that this or that text from Vatican II needs to be clarified. What Francis is concerned about—what we all should be concerned about!—is the outright (a) rejection of the Second Vatican Council or accusing it of deviating from the Faith and (b) using the 1962 Roman Missal to create a movement that accomplishes just that. It is this point that must be taken seriously and those who don’t, won’t find Francis’ case all that compelling.

What exactly is Francis’ reason for the regulation of the 1962 Missal? Not what do we think it is; but what is it, precisely and really? In short, it is that the unity of the Church is being threatened by a movement. What kind of movement? A movement that looks and smells and thinks a lot like the Society of St. Pius X, the same group through which the olive branch was initially extended by John Paul, and further extended by Benedict himself (not to mention Francis!). The question for us, then, is this: is there really this kind of movement going on in non-SSPX traditional communities? Has SSPX’s ideas, whatever they might be, infiltrated into the ranks of well-meaning and faithful traditional communities? And if so, what are these ideas, and do they pose a threat to the unity of the Church?

Most of our faithful and traditional Catholic commentators in the last few weeks have all agreed: there is not this kind of movement. At least, none worth busying about. “Right now,” says Christopher Altieri in a recent CWR piece, “there is no schismatic Traditionalist movement to speak of – none that really threatens the unity of the Church.”

I beg to differ. Some of us on the ground, as it were, have been sniffing this kind of stuff out for some time now, and with very little success. But before I begin begging, let me say this. Assume for a moment that there is such a group out there, somewhere, somehow gaining traction among our traditional, extraordinary form parishes that, in the name of fidelity to what they interpret as and call the ‘Tradition’, the idea is being passed along that the Second Vatican Council taught heresy or ought to be thrown out altogether. This is of serious concern, is it not? If it is, then we are pressed on all sides to deal with it sharply. If it is not, then Francis is living in fantasy land and, assuming the best, he is going out of his way to hold the bond of unity be returning to the regulation of the form of the mass as it was in the years following Paul VI’s issuing of the 1969 Roman Missal.

The Holy Father says that “the instrumental use of Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church’.” Where is Francis getting this from? According to the adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P., Francis “fearlessly hits the nail on the head: the TLM (Traditional Latin Mass) movement has hijacked the initiatives of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI to its own ends.” Where is Archbishop Di Noia getting this from?

Better yet, let’s return to Summorum Pontificum. In the accompanying letter to Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI made the bishops of the world aware of something important: a grave concern among those very same bishops. What was that concern, exactly? Those same bishops feared that “the document detracts from the authority of the Second Vatican Council, one of whose essential decisions—the liturgical reform—is being called into question.” Benedict responded: nonsense; “this fear is unfounded,” he says. There are not two rites, but rather, one Roman rite and two forms of it. Fair enough, the bishops thought.

But Benedict went on, saying—as if there was a massive elephant in the ecclesiastical room— “we all know that, in the movement led by Archbishop Lefebvre, fidelity to the old Missal became an external mark of identity; the reasons for the break which arose over this, however, were at a deeper level.” What was this identity? Presumably the 1962 Roman Missal was the external mark of identity for a society of priests and bishops who broke with the Church at a “deeper level”. But what exactly was that deeper level? And what would happen if, with the widespread use of the 1962 Missal, those “deeper level” issues began to infiltrate these new existing traditional communities? That was what worried the bishops, and, no doubt, was in the back of Benedict’s mind as well. Benedict hoped for the best, said his prayers, and issued Summorum Pontificum.

But let’s go back further still. The Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei was John Paul II’s attempt, as Benedict says in his very same letter to bishops, “to assist the Society of Saint Pius X to recover full unity with the Successor of Peter, and sought to heal a wound experienced ever more painfully.” How can we help the SSPX come back into full communion? That was John Paul’s concern. John Paul II, too, hoped for the best, said his prayers, and issued Ecclesia Dei.

Fast forward nineteen years. “Unfortunately,” says Benedict, “this reconciliation has not yet come about.” It seemed that SSPX would only sell themselves into full communion if the Church would sell them the Second Vatican Council. More widespread use of the external markers of identity (the 1962 Missal) was not all that the Lefebvrites wanted. There remained the “deeper level” issues that concerned the Council itself.

But why is Benedict telling us all this? Because John Paul II’s own Motu Proprio was made use of by non-schismatic groups, allowing for the extraordinary form to grow among faithful Catholics in union with Rome. And yet bishops around the world were afraid to pull the trigger to make widespread use of Ecclesia Dei, precisely because, as Benedict says above, John Paul’s Ecclesia Dei didn’t work, and thus the bishops feared that the use of the 1962 Missal would only be used to undermine the Second Vatican Council instead. In Benedict’s own words, “difficulties remain concerning the use of the 1962 Missal outside of these groups, because of the lack of precise juridical norms, particularly because Bishops, in such cases, frequently feared that the authority of the Council would be called into question.” But what if it didn’t work precisely because the bishops were not generous enough, as St. John Paul had asked them to be? So, to help the bishops overcome their fear, Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum to make “for a clearer juridical regulation which,” hindsight’s twenty-twenty, “had not been foreseen at the time of the 1988 Motu Proprio.”

The point of recounting all this is the following. What if Benedict XVI had known that (say) a few popular laymen would arise in the future, amount a massive following of (say) about three to four hundred thousand followers, become the social media faces and voices of the Traditional Latin Mass, and begin, with the full force of their marketing skills, to produce content that accused Vatican II of heresy? And what if these several videos were published which all amounted to (say) one million views? And what if Benedict had been privy to yet another parallel future event: that one of the most popular archbishops in the world, more popular even than Archbishop Lefebvre, would call for the complete abrogation of the Second Vatican Council (thus making the situation potentially far worse than the initial SSPX schism)? And what if, surrounding all these events and many, many more like them, these same men, forming a bond of unity themselves, made use of the 1962 Missal to mark out their movement’s identity? Not merely an external identity, but what if their ideas, the “deeper level” stuff he was referring to before, began spreading far and wide, like a cancer, among those who share the same “external” identity? I’m not a betting man, but if I were, my bet would be that Benedict would not have issued Summorum Pontificum, precisely because he issued it assuming that this hadn’t been and wouldn’t become the case.

But what if it is the case today? Many commentators, from laymen to prelates, are strongly suggesting that it is not. They too are assuming that never in these communities would there be, nor is there today, ideas spreading that Vatican II taught error or deviated from the Faith or ought to be thrown out altogether.

Maybe all our Catholic commentators are right. Or maybe, just maybe, Benedict still held onto the chance, the still small chance, that what the bishops were concerned about all those years ago might have been a real concern indeed, maybe a concern even of the Holy Spirit! Which is why, in his great humility and service to Our Lord, he invited his brother Bishops “to send to the Holy See an account of [their] experiences” and that “[i]f truly serious difficulties come to light, ways to remedy them can be sought.”

What kinds of difficulties? one might ask. Difficulties that Benedict outlined in the letter: rejection of the Second Vatican Council—you know, the “deeper level” stuff that caused the break with Lefebvre (and his followers).

One’s imagination is left to wonder what remedy Benedict had in mind. And given that he had issued Summorum Pontificum on the assumption that these fears were “unfounded”, it would indeed be interesting, had the situation been what it is today, to compare it with Francis’ recent motu proprio. Especially that, in the face of these fears and doubts, Benedict reminded his brother bishops of the following:

“I very much wish to stress that these new norms do not in any way lesson your authority and responsibility, either for the liturgy or for the pastoral care of your faithful. Each Bishop, in fact, is the moderator of the liturgy in his own Diocese (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 22): ‘Sacrae Liturgiae moderatio ab Ecclesiae auctoritate unice pendet quae quidem est apud Apostolicam Sedem et, ad normam iuris, apud Episcopum’).” [emphasis added]

And again:

“Nothing is taken away, then, from the authority of the Bishop, whose role remains that of being watchful that all is done in peace and serenity. Should some problem arise which the parish priest cannot resolve, the local Ordinary will always be able to intervene, in full harmony, however, with all that has been laid down by the new norms of the Motu Proprio.”

Why is Benedict reminding the bishops again and again and again, that they have the authority? Why remind them of this if he were not expressing what could be at least a probable solution to a possible problem? “We all know that…” the situation with the SSPX could threaten this whole thing, but “we also know that…” you are the bishop, so use your authority to handle it. Sounds strangely familiar to what we find in the recent motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, even if the accompanying letter goes beyond. Did Pope Francis borrow Benedict’s own solution to the problem? One is left to wonder still more if Francis had consulted with Benedict prior to issuing his recent motu proprio? Do what I [Benedict] called for: demand that the bishop be a bishop. Give him the authority that (get this) he already has.

We might suggest that Francis provide us with a different solution altogether. Fine; that’s fine. But if we want Francis to hear us, it begins with hearing him. I don’t think most of us are doing that, judging from the Catholic commentariat. There really is no problem with saying that Traditionis Custodes is heavy handed. But one must confess that the premise behind that assertion is the denial of any schismatic movement of the kind outlined above and/or the idea that the denial of an ecumenical and dogmatic Council of the Church or accusing it of heresy really isn’t that big of a deal. Most Catholic commentators would not dream of denying the latter, but many, I fear, are doing everything they can to deny the former. But, then again, maybe we all have different experiences of things. And that’s fine, too.

My experience is both that we have women in the Church who wish to be ordained as priests of God and people within traditional communities that sharply reject the Second Vatican Council as valid or accuse it of heresy. That’s simply my experience. It seems that this too is Archbishop Di Noia’s experience as well. Both the excommunication of these women and their accomplices (which goes into effect on December 8th 2021), as well as the regulation of the 1962 Missal seem heavy handed by Francis. But both positions and their subsequent actions come with a heavy (and eternal) price. At the very least, in these last few months, Pope Francis has communicated that much.

Given all this, a strong case can be made that Anne Hendershott recent piece, “Traditionis Custodes as a Hermeneutic of Envy,” misses wide the mark. As I have argued above, the resonances of Benedict’s letter ought to indicate well enough that by issuing Traditionis Custodes Francis has in mind what Benedict and the bishops had in mind all those years ago. So that, when Hendershott, following Massimo Viglione, speaks of the envy of bishops as the reason behind Traditionis Custodes, or even the hatred for Summorum, we find one of the clearest statements of a hermeneutic of distrust and lack of historical insight. This is opposed, of course, to a hermeneutic of love, which tries its best to understand the concerns of both Benedict and Francis, of the bishops then and the bishops now.

Hendershott can get away with this, no doubt, because she puts forth a story. And stories are powerful tools of persuasion. And she uses story from scripture, no less! It is the story of Cain and Abel, in which Cain is envious of his brother and kills him. According to Hendershott, “That is exactly what is happening with Traditionis Custodes.” The supposed progressive bishops (she is not speaking Archbishop Di Noia, is she?) are Cain. These bishops are not defending the Second Vatican Council, rather they are really and "exactly" expressing their Cain-like envy. We are now to believe our bishops (whichever ones they are, we aren't told) are both envious and deceptive.

But, once again, once one has defined the script and assigned each person their role—bishops bad, traditional Catholics good—then virtually anything can be said about anyone. Once there is a story in everyone’s mind and the actors have been given their assigned parts to play on stage, it becomes very difficult to get behind the thick layer of narrative to the real issues at hand to find out what actually might be going on.

The point is that nothing is stopping anyone else from coming along and reassigning the roles. The bishops and pope Francis could just as easily play the part of Abel: they are being persecuted and killed for protecting the Second Vatican Council. This is why this sort of thing is entirely unhelpful.

One could come along and suggest yet another story altogether, this time from the New Testament itself, in which, after healing the man with the withered hand (Mt. 11:9-14) and then a blind and mute demoniac (v. 22), the Pharisees accuse Jesus of doing the work of Satan (read here Cain). Might Hendershott be playing the role of the Pharisees— namely, exchanging good for evil?

Maybe; maybe not. The point is really Paul’s point: “Stop thinking like little children” (1 Cor. 14:20). Rather than artificially forcing a scriptural narrative onto an otherwise complex situation, we are called to think deeply about the texts themselves, about the historical situation we find ourselves in, about what might be the reasons for why Francis did what he did, and to assume—again, with a hermeneutic of love—that the Holy Father and the bishops are not acting out of envy, but out of concern for the unity of the Church.

What, if at all, does any of this have to do with the Church in Los Angeles? Paul leaves his readers in no doubt that, if the Spirit of the living God dwells within his people, the principle effect it has is that of producing a renewed mind. This has nothing really to do with the philosophical thinking of which he and his fellow Catholics were culturally immersed; but, instead, with a way of looking at the world as it exists in light of the story of Israel. Paul goes on and on and on to make this point in each of his letters: the division "out there" is not what is happening "in here", and to live in that narrative, that is, the narrative in which God made promises to Abraham to unite Adam's family in and through the family of Israel, means, among other things, that the Church's unity is not a duty that one is bound to uphold, but a reality which is really only understood when the Spirit is living within you and you are having your mind renewed.

If that sounds like a mouthful, it was no less so for Paul's first-century audience. But the point is nevertheless important: the story we are living in—about the new age that has dawned, about the Abrahamic promises having now been fulfilled in our midst, about the one worldwide family that God has united in Himself in the New Adam in anticipation of the New Creation—makes a huge difference in how Catholics now relate to one another. And one must, Paul would go on to say, think about that story and the reality of that story in your local communities. You are the new family of Abraham, the true Israel, the family of God, which is marked out by—and this is important for Paul for several other reasons—by love.

And love—this is the sharpest point we've all been waiting for—means something: it is not a fancy way of saying how I feel about you, but it's what the story is all about, beginning with Genesis 12, through Daniel 7, into Zechariah and Malachi, and finally up into our own day. It's about God entering into our world so as to become one of us. Love is the story of God taking on our shortcomings and our context and redeeming it. It is not a story of God assuming the worst in us, labeling humanity the true and ulimate enemy (which was reserved for the forces of darkness) and then accusing us from on top the cross. It's about God entering into our brokenness, and all that that entails, and forgiving us (and Peter) from on top the cross.

What difference does this story, and telling this story in this way, really make when it comes to reading Francis' recent Motu Proprio (or any Motu Proprio for that matter)?

One must take account of the way the story actually works. Taking brothers to court is not what "we" do, says Paul. Why? because of the story. And assuming (say) that Paul exited the Jewish synagogues because he was envious that the other rabbis were getting all the attention, makes little sense of what was actually going on. The story might oftentimes be more complex than we are willing to admit, but speeding things up so as to explain it all away with simple assumptions and, therefore, even simpler solutions, is like leaving most of the puzzle pieces in the box because one can only deal with so many at once. The pieces you do have become only that much more complicated without all the other pieces on the table, flipped over, and sorted by color.

Assuming the best (not the worst) in Archbishop Gomez and the auxiliary bishops here in Los Angeles, and, finally, doing away with this other way of thinking, is the best way to proclaim the Gospel that, in Christ, the one worldwide family of God has resisted the powers that would have us grope in the dark for all kinds of accusations. The Church, then, would remain only another instance of the fragmented human family left us by the Old Adam.

But we are in the New Adam—that's Paul's point!

The Church in Los Angeles ought to mark itself out by this renewal of the mind that Paul was so fixed on communicating. As a result, we must not let ourselves be squeezed in on both sides, reacting in either direction. "Be transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Gal 1:4), means what it means within a community that has exercised a hermeneutic of love at every turn. Those Angelenos who find themselves asking such questions as, What time is it? will inevitably be asking themselves this question: What should I do if it is [that] time? Paul's answer is this: the time is now for the fragmented human family under Adam to be restored to its true unity in the New Adam, Jesus Christ Our Lord (this is what Paul called the "gospel").

That's what time it is. And that meant, for Paul (as well as for us today), to live in a age in which Catholics relate to one another, especially the laity to the bishops, from within a hermeneutic of love.

Everything else is playing with shadows to the tune of the serpent's whispers.

Jesus and Mary, be with us on the way

Christopher Plance

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