On “Traditionis custodes”

The Apostolic Letter “Traditionis custodes” issued by Pope Francis recently has caused considerable concern to those who have a devotion to the Tridentine Rite. It has been necessary before responding to analyse carefully the detail of the Apostolic Letter itself, its accompanying documentation, its context, and then the responses of others to its contents. In our response, it is also necessary to set out certain priorities, so that we are seen both to uphold our brethren in full communion with the Holy See and also to state in truth the position from where we ourselves stand.

The latitude in interpretation in the language of the Apostolic Letter itself would permit an intelligent and literal interpretation that would, perhaps surprisingly, allow it to be interpreted as supportive of the status quo within the obedience of the Holy See, with the addition of some key caveats. Having examined a wide range of responses, including from the bishops of the Roman obedience, we find that some bishops are indeed minded to take this approach. Others have more regard to the modernist context that surrounds the Apostolic Letter, and have interpreted it in such a way as to lead them to prohibit the celebration of the Tridentine Rite either partially or fully within their dioceses, or to require of their traditionalist parishioners that they give explicit written assent to the provisions of the Apostolic Letter and the Second Vatican Council as a condition of continuing their chosen form of worship.

It is difficult not to have sympathy for some of the issues that the Holy Father raises. He says truthfully that the Church is divided and that the basis for at least some of this division is adherence to the Tridentine Rite and an opposition to the modernist reforms of Vatican II. Again, we are aware that it is possible to interpret the decisions of Vatican II in a traditionalist rather than a modernist light, but this is a minority viewpoint and not one that seems to be in evidence in the context of the current Apostolic Letter. Rather, it seems to us that the Holy Father is making explicit a dilemma for those of the Roman obedience. Firstly, he appears to want unanimity in both the full acceptance of Vatican II and on the modernist interpretation of Vatican II that he himself holds along with the majority of Catholics. Secondly, for those who are unable in conscience to accept this, what he is taking away is the prospect of forming a distinct traditionalist community within the Church that has the capacity for growth and ultimately for influence. The spirit of the Apostolic Letter is that the Tridentine Rite, where not extinguished altogether, is to be driven to the margins. This comes at a time when the traditionalist expressions of the Church have been those that have been growing in the most visible way, particularly among the young, and where there have inevitably been other questions that have arisen as a result of the cognitive dissonance between the expression of traditionalist worship and teaching, and the modernist emphasis of the Papacy.

As Christians, our aim should be to bring healing where there is division, and wherever possible not to be the cause of further division. It would not be possible to be involved in the work of ecumenism without having as an aspiration that such work would result in new ways of working together and of emphasising the fact that, however disparate our churchmanship, much more still unites us than divides. A starting-point for such work is a respect for those who differ from us. These differences ultimately reflect the fact that mankind is diverse, not uniform, and if we are to have the proper regard for the fact that each one of us is made in God’s image, we should avoid crude or sweeping attempts at collectivisation or centralization.

The history of the Church is not one of papocentralism nor of the Church as a centrally governed direct hierarchy. The government of the Church has historically been entrusted to its bishops, who have differed widely in their theology and polity while preserving the deposit of faith. The place of the Pope in such a structure is certainly not entirely without an obvious overarching power, but it is much more in line with the Orthodox view of the Papacy as a primacy of honour rather than one of jurisdiction. Had the present Apostolic Letter been issued some centuries ago, the view that might have been taken then would have been much more equivocal than in the modern Church. It could well have been said, and it would not have been without significant scholarly support, that if a Pope were to err in his teaching or polity, it was largely permissible to ignore any such aberration without significant spiritual or practical consequences accruing.

Our first priority in considering a response to Traditionis custodes is that of the salvation of souls. This is the supreme law of the Church. The Declaration of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith Dominus Iesus (2000) states,

“Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church. (IV:17)

We are then given the conditions for a church to be a “true particular church”, viz. Apostolic Succession and a valid Eucharist. In practice, the second condition is only possible if the first is present.

Moreover, such separated churches are not separate in that they do not belong to the Catholic Church, “The Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection — divided, yet in some way one — of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach”. In fact, “the elements of this already-given Church exist, joined together in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other communities”.

Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”.

It follows that the separated churches draw upon the same divine essence as the (Roman) Catholic Church. They are elements of a single church, not a sign of a church that consists of many disparate parts. It follows that they are as much partakers of the Holy Roman Church as is the Holy See. It is then for them to define the nature of their relationship with Rome.

Our concern in writing is not that those traditionalists under Papal obedience should now consider attending the Traditional Latin Mass in separated churches and communities, although that may in certain cases be an option for them to consider. They do not need to leave the Roman Catholic Church in order to do so; Canon 844(2) of the current Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law states, “Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.” 

Rather we would wish that those who find themselves in spiritual crisis due to the Apostolic Letter should have a clear understanding of their priorities. The first priority must be to ensure that the sacraments they and others receive are unambiguously valid. We do not say at all that the text of the Mass of Paul VI is not valid, but we do say that where the Mass of Paul VI is accompanied by an overtly modernist interpretation it may give rise to doubts in the mind of the faithful who are aware of the opposition of modernism and Marxist so-called “liberation theology” to the inspired and settled teaching of the Church through the ages. Likewise, assent to both Vatican Councils requires the faithful to profess beliefs about the Church that are not in accordance with the tradition of the Church but instead speak of modernism and the desire for a centralised, “managed” church that is at odds with its history before the past two centuries. Lastly, we should remember that obedience to the teachings of the Pope is not a sine qua non for the faithful, particularly if those teachings are perceived to be partisan or at variance with the unambiguously valid tradition of the Church. Tradition is not the preserve of the Pope to change or abrogate; it is the preserve and treasure of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit. The title of the Apostolic Letter is accurate in that tradition has guardians; a guardian values and nurtures his charge rather than destroying it.

We should also approach these problems from another perspective; if a person feels that the Tridentine Rite and traditionalist theology draw them closer to Jesus and offer them the spiritual nourishment necessary for their journey in faith, who should stand in their way? Should such people be force-fed modernism, or alternatively forced out of full communion with the Pope altogether? The Pope speaks of division in his writings, and yet it seems that (presumably inadvertently) his response to that division will act to proliferate that division still further, and intensify the polarisation between traditionalists and modernists that he says he wishes to heal. We find that the response of a number of Roman Catholic bishops in supporting the continued celebration of the Tridentine Rite within their dioceses is encouraging and to be commended. Where bishops are minded to prohibit its celebration, they are presumably aware that they are forcing a set of difficult and heart-rending choices upon the faithful. At their most extreme, these questions may lead some traditional Catholics to embrace the beliefs known as sedevacantism or sedeprivationism which we do not endorse.

We note that some papocentrist Catholics who belong to groups and societies who have seen fit to attack us in the past have seen the Apostolic Letter as an opportunity to be seized to promote their modernist views. One such writer says of Vatican II and the replacement of the Tridentine Rite with the Mass of Paul VI that “in the opinion of the most recent Popes, many of these things that were antiquated and no longer had any place in today’s modern society just had to go so as not to continue to shock or offend in the modern age.” Such ideas, whether held by the recent Popes or not, are both shameful and heretical. The Church is not concerned with “shocking” or “offending” others. Indeed, the precepts of the Christian faith, for which many of the saints embraced martyrdom, should rightly shock and offend any who oppose them, be they modernists or Marxists. Of course such opponents of tradition are also opposed to the ideas of traditional monarchy and of the nobiliary traditions within the Church.

Let us remember that we are not called to be of this world (John 15:19); and indeed many of the problems which the early Christians encountered in ancient Rome have unfortunately returned amid the crisis of faith of our world during the past century. Jesus has the answers to these problems, and any who find answers that are inconsistent with His teachings are to be regarded as false shepherds.

We note that there is reference in the Pope’s writings to the Society of St Pius X, which continues the expression of the Roman Catholic Church as the church was constituted before Vatican II. We find the position of the SSPX unsatisfactory because its insistence on upholding Vatican I creates a tautology. The SSPX at once upholds the incorrect proposition that the Pope is infallible, and yet refuses to accede to Vatican II despite its blessing and active promulgation by the “infallible” Pope Paul VI and all his successors, together with the college of bishops. The truth is that the Pope is not and never has been infallible; infallibility is attributed solely to the college of bishops not merely of the Roman Catholic Church but instead of the entire undivided Church speaking through an Ecumenical Council under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Within a profoundly divided Church as we see today, there can be no valid Council.

It follows logically that the only consistent and accurate voice representing Tradition within the Roman heritage is that of the Old Catholic understanding, accepting the pre-1870 position of the Church and adhering to neither Vatican Council. The Old Catholic position incidentally has been on numerous occasions affirmed as theologically consistent with the position both of the Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion. Moreover, Roman Catholic canonists of the past century have repeatedly stated that the sacraments of the various branches of the Old Catholics are valid notwithstanding their partial or impaired communion with the Holy See.

The Tridentine Rite remains the normative liturgical form within our communion and is understood in the context of a traditional liturgical interpretation. Not being in full communion with the Holy See, we are not bound by the Apostolic Letter as a matter of discipline, though as always we should consider the views of the Pope with the respect that they are due. We continue to hold Pope Francis in prayer and also pray for the healing of the Church so that Jesus’ own prayer may be fulfilled, “that all may be as one” (John 17:21).