Traditionis custodes: Serpents over Fish

The bomb has been dropped. Today Pope Francis issued his motu proprio Traditionis custodes severely restricting the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. In effect, it wipes out Pope Benedict’s 14-year-old motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which was issued in order to help those faithful who “continued to be attached with such love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms which had deeply shaped their culture and spirit.” Apparently Pope Francis doesn’t think that’s necessary anymore.

I’m not going to analyze the details of the new motu proprio here—you can find that elsewhere. Instead I’d like to share my initial reaction and address the practical impact on pew-sitting Catholics.

One of my first thoughts when reading the Pope’s decree was our Lord’s words, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” (Luke 11:11) A growing number of Catholics have been asking to be fed by the “fish” of the TLM; now the Holy Father has given them instead a serpent. 

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These divine words come to mind because I think of all the people I’ve met in recent years who have discovered the traditional Latin Mass and found it to be a source of strength and comfort in their spiritual pilgrimage here on earth. They don’t reject Vatican II; they don’t think they are better than Novus Ordo Catholics; they don’t hate the pope. By and large, they don’t concern themselves with Church politics. They simply love the beauty and reverence and richness of the traditional Latin Mass—a beauty, reverence, and richness they could not find at their local parish.

I also think of my Anglo-Catholic friend, who is considering conversion. He told me that the motu proprio is like “a door slammed in his face.” He has been off-and-on attending the Latin Mass at my parish, and he recognizes its timeless value. But now he hears the leader of the Catholic Church talk about it as if it’s a bad thing, something dangerous that needs to be hidden and locked up in the closet. He knows this isn’t true, and it makes him hesitant to swim the Tiber.

I think of those Catholics who have attended the traditional Latin Mass for years, even decades. They have been formed by its piety and spirituality. It’s not a “preference” for them to attend the TLM; it’s a core part of the practice of the Faith. And lest we be too quick to negatively judge them for this fact, let’s remember the words of Pope Benedict, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” How is Pope Francis showing fatherly care to these faithful Catholics? He has made them second-class sons, unworthy to sit at the father’s table.

I think also of those Catholics who are tired of being vilified by the pope and will now be tempted to leave the Church, to go to Eastern Orthodoxy, or fall into sedevacantism (the belief that there is no reigning pope), or look to some other “independent” Catholic chapel. It’s easy to tell them to shut up and obey, but what loving father would treat his children like that? A loving father would be accommodating as much as possible, particularly when the only “sin” is a love for what millions of Catholics have loved for centuries.

And I think of my own embrace of the traditional Latin Mass. I am a reluctant devotee of the TLM. I only started regularly attending the Latin Mass a decade ago because we moved and couldn’t find a reverent Novus Ordo parish within driving distance. But there was an FSSP parish about 25 minutes away. We didn’t go there for the Latin, or the prayers, or the ad orientem. We went there just because we wanted our kids to know it was important to reverently worship God. Since then we’ve found in the TLM a home where our Catholic faith is nourished and enriched. How is this a bad thing, Holy Father? Why should this path be closed off to Catholics?

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” Indeed. Holy Father, countless Catholics are asking to be fed by the traditional Latin Mass—to be able to worship God as previous generations of Catholics worshiped Him. Why are you giving us a serpent instead?

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media/CNA]

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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