Since the promulgation of Pope Francis’ decree Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition) there has been wild speculation among conservative and traditional circles within the Catholic Church. The document itself is ambiguous in some areas, which has caused some to question its legitimacy. Whether legal or not, I am on record as calling the document draconian, as it severely restricts the lawful and reasonable celebrations of the 1962 Missal, otherwise known as the Traditional Latin Mass, completely nullifying Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 decree Summorum Pontificum (Of The Supreme Pontiffs), which liberalized usage of the 1962 Missal.
Shortly after Traditionis Custodes was decreed, it wasn’t long before I was told that Pope Francis will come after the liturgy of the ordinariates next, known as Divine Worship, and provided for under Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus (Groups of Anglicans). Even though I am firmly within the North American Ordinariate, I tend to float between the two traditional spheres of English and Latin patrimony, so I am well known in both camps. It didn’t take long for my fellow Catholics in the Latin patrimony to warn me to “look out,” because “Francis would soon do to the ordinariate what he’s doing to the Traditional Latin Mass.” Initially, however, these cryptic warnings were general and nonspecific. However, lately they started picking up more steam, and reached a culmination in this video podcast by Return to Tradition…
Naturally, this upset a number of people, and caused some newly converted Catholics (just over the last decade) to worry that Rome was about to pull the rug out from underneath them, break its promise to the Anglicans, and force them to fully assimilate (be absorbed) into the 1970 Missal of Pope Paul VI, along with all the trappings that go along with it. They feared that Rome was about to ask them to abandon their religious and cultural heritage, which brought them into the Catholic Church in the first place, and prepare for the annihilation of their English Patrimony.
I had my doubts.
Here’s the problem. The decree Pope Benedict XVI gave to the Anglicans was not just some apostolic letter or motu proprio (decree of his own accord). No. It was an Apostolic Constitution, the highest form of document a pope can issue. Here are the following decrees a pope can issue, each in descending order of importance and authority…
- Apostolic Constitutions are considered the most solemn papal documents the pope can issue. They concern doctrinal or disciplinary matters and are published as either universal or particular law of the Church.
- Encyclicals are papal letters of a pastoral nature. These letters offer counsel and shed light on existing doctrine as part of the Holy Father’s ordinary teaching authority.
- Motu proprio are legislative, apostolic letters written and signed by the pope on his own initiative. They handle legislative matters that are significant but do not merit a constitution. Motu proprio are generally brief, and handle specific issues relevant to the Church in a specific time in history.
- Apostolic Letters are written in response to a particular need, or addressed to a specific group of persons. These letters are pastoral in nature and primarily discuss social concerns. They are not considered legislative or doctrinal documents, but rather give counsel.
- Apostolic Exhortations are papal reflections on a particular topic addressed to all the clergy and faithful. Exhortations mostly encourage a particular virtue or mission, and are given on specific occasions. They do not contain dogmatic definitions or policies, and they are not considered legislative documents.
- Decretal Letters or Papal Bulls contain papal decisions related to questions of discipline and administration. They are not considered legislative documents.
- Allocutiones / Addresses are not tied to the Church or liturgy, but attempt to address specific issues or circumstances and are aimed at particular groups of people.
- Papal Rescripts are mostly answers to a petition placed before one of the Roman Curiae or the Holy Father himself.
- Apostolic Briefs, also called brevia, are a simple form of document dealing with matters of relatively minor importance.
As you can see, the Apostolic Constitution is the highest form of document a pope can decree, and always concerns matters of great importance and concern for the whole Church. They’re very hard to undo, and are often intended to be permanent. For example, Munificentissimus Deus (The Most Bountiful God) is the papal decree in 1950 that infallibly declared the Assumption of Mary at the end of her earthly life. This decree was issued in the form of an Apostolic Constitution. So from this, we can get a sense of the permanence of such a document.
Anglicanorum Coetibus (Groups of Anglicans), which provides for the creation of English Patrimony ordinariates and liturgical books, as well as allowing some married men into the Catholic priesthood, is an Apostolic Constitution. It is the highest form of document a pope can decree.
That doesn’t mean an Apostolic Constitution can’t later be amended, or expanded, or redone entirely, but it’s generally understood that such revisions do not in any way reverse or nullify the previous Apostolic Constitution. So for example, if some future pope wanted to redo Anglicanorum Coetibus, his decree would likely expand the scope and reach of the original document, not reverse it. One possible example might be elevating the Ordinariate Use into the “English Rite.” Another might be allowing more married men into the priesthood, provided they were baptized in the Ordinariate, in addition to the current practice of allowing some married Anglican priests into the Catholic priesthood. You get the idea. The general understanding is that revisions to an Apostolic Constitution expand, further define, and possibly magnify the topic the Apostolic Constitution addresses.
So, when I heard, from some of my Traditionalist friends, that the pope was gunning for the Ordinariate next, this quickly came to mind. It’s an Apostolic Constitution. That’s not to say the pope can’t change it. He can. But that would be extremely unlikely. If he did anything to it at all, the odds are it would be an expansion, not a reversal.
Furthermore, any move to reverse Anglicanorum Coetibus would not only be devastating to relatively new Catholic converts from Anglicanism, leaving them with a feeling of betrayal, but it would also have negative consequences in the Anglican world as well. The entire ecumenical paradigm of Vatican II would come into question. No longer would Rome be viewed as making every reasonable accommodation for Protestants who want to convert, but quite the opposite would become the perception. Rome would be sending out the message “our way or the highway,” and “if you don’t like it, you can go fly a kite!” Anglicans would never trust Rome again, and any future offer Rome makes, to any group of Protestants, would instantly become suspect. Rome would be seen as saying anything to make new converts, but as soon as the converts are made, all bets are off, all promises are broken, and converts must now assimilate or get out. Don’t even get me started on what the Evangelical Protestants would do with this information. They would just add it to their litany of condemnations against the Catholic Church for the crusades, inquisitions, wars against Protestant countries, sexual abuse of minors in recent decades, and so on. I think it’s safe to say Rome doesn’t want this, and Pope Francis himself would shutter at the thought of it.
Then, we would have the appearance of self-contradiction moreover. Though Pope Benedict XVI created the ordinariates, it was Pope Francis who actually approved the liturgical books for the ordinariates. Granted, work on these books began under Benedict XVI, but then he resigned the papacy, and the work was completed and approved under Francis. So, some of our Traditionalist brethren would have us believe that Pope Francis is going to cancel a liturgy that he approved? It doesn’t make sense.
I think I know what’s going on here. Traditionalists see themselves as under siege, and in many ways they are. They’ve been under siege within the Church since 1970. Among Traditionalists, there are two kinds. There are the Faithful-Trads. These are those who are simply attached to the 1962 Missal, but are obedient to the pope and bishops. Then there are the Radical-Trads. This latter group see the authority of the pope and bishops as illegitimate, for whatever reasons, and some of them are outright Sedevacantists (people who believe there is no pope anymore and the Chair of Peter is vacant, hence the name Sedevacantist meaning “vacant chair”). Pope Francis’ actions with Traditionis Custodes, as draconian as they seem to me, appear to be winnowing the Traditional Catholic community, separating the Faithful-Trads from the Radical-Trads. While the entire Traditional Catholic community is shaken by these acts from Francis (and who can blame them?), it’s causing many of them to panic, adopting radical conspiracies to help explain his actions, which otherwise seem unexplainable.
I don’t pretend to understand Pope Francis. He is an enigma to me. Everyone who reads my writings, both on this blog and on social media, knows I think he’s a bad pope. I think this because he appears to be creating divisions where none need to exist, while seemingly doing little to nothing to stop heresies that will inevitably lead to bigger divisions later on. I pray that I am just ignorant of the intentions of our pope, and that what he’s doing has some greater purpose that I cannot comprehend, but it will all make sense in the end. That would be nice. Sadly, I doubt that is the case.
This winnowing of Traditional Catholics is causing them to believe that Pope Francis has a grudge against all things traditional, holy and solemn in Catholic worship. Who knows? Maybe he does. Yet, I don’t think so. I think, rather, that he doesn’t have a problem with traditional worship per se, just so long as contemporary and charismatic worship can exist alongside it. That’s my theory anyway. Nevertheless, the unpredictable nature of Francis, along with draconian measures of the kind seen in Traditionis Custodes, has led many Trads (both Faithful and Radical) to embrace the notion that Pope Francis is a boogeyman, and he’s going to get everyone who embraces tradition, regardless of what that tradition is. Hence, we have the theory that the ordinariates are next on Francis’ hit list. To which I must ask if that’s true, what’s next? After he’s done with the ordinariates, is he going to go after the Eastern rites as well? I don’t think so.
I think it begs to be pointed out here that the siege mentality among Trads is warranted because you see, the only protection they ever had was nothing more than a motu proprio. From 1988 to 2007 they had Ecclesia Dei (Church of God), which was just a motu proprio. If we were to compare an Apostolic Constitution to an amendment of the United States Constitution, and a papal encyclical to congressional legislation of a new law, then a motu proprio could be likened to an executive order from the President of the United States. It carries the weight of law under a particular president, but the next president can come along and reverse it without notice. We see this constantly happen in the United States, so Traditional Catholics in America found the motu proprio situation of Ecclesia Dei a tenuous situation with no guarantees. Sure enough, Pope Saint John Paul II passed away, and Pope Benedict XVI replaced it in 2007 with his own motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Under this decree, the situation was radically improved for Traditionalists, liberalizing usage of the 1962 Missal, but again it was tenuous. Trads understood it could be reversed any time without a moment’s notice. Their worst fears were realized in the summer of 2021 with Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis’ draconian motu proprio that so restricted the 1962 Missal that it practically ensured its eventual extinction at the diocesan level. The Traditional Latin Mass never had the high-level of protection enjoyed by the ordinariates and the Divine Worship liturgy of the English Patrimony. Thus, the fears of Traditionalists were justified.
Now, just yesterday, we have a whole new revelation about Pope Francis. As it turns out, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) has released a statement, confirmed by a decree from Pope Francis himself, that his draconian decree of Traditionis Custodes does not, in any way, apply to traditionalist communities like the FSSP, which were founded on the 1962 Missal as their unique mission. What Pope Francis has done here is effectively issue a “hands off” decree to Traditionalist institutions. While Traditionis Custodes will severely curtail the number of Traditional Latin Mass celebrations on the diocesan level, it has now been defined that it doesn’t apply to Traditionalist institutions at all. This means that those attached to the 1962 Missal will gradually need to migrate over to FSSP parishes, or other parishes/oratories of similar Traditionalist institutions. This has many pros and cons. Chief among the cons is that it’s harder to find such parishes when the diocese has conveniently provided Latin masses in years past. Chief among the pros is that institutional parishes like these will now be better funded with more members as people gradually migrate over. And maybe, just maybe, this was part of Pope Francis’ plan all along. Perhaps he wants to compartmentalize the Catholic Church. Latin Trads get their fraternities and institutes. English Trads get their ordinariates. While everyone else gets the local diocese. Whether that was his intention or not, we may never know, but that does appear to be precisely what’s going to happen — effective immediately.
Under the Francis pontificate, it appears that the way forward for traditional Catholics (Latin or English) is now clear — or at least clearer than it’s been in years past. Latin Trads need to get to the the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), or the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICKSP), or something similar, and stay there. Forget about the local diocesan parishes. Your future there is nonexistent. Traditional institutions are the only way to insure protection under this pontificate. English Patrimony Catholics (basically English Trads) need to stick with the ordinariates. Eastern Catholics must stick with their eparchies and such. While the dioceses will be left to determine what they want to do with themselves. Some bishops may opt for more traditional celebrations of the 1970 Missal. Others may choose to stay the course with their contemporary and charismatic worship jams. To each kind, they will reap what they sow. Maybe that’s the way it should be.
If you’re a Latin Trad (particularly the Faithful kind, as Radicals will just go to schismatic sects anyway) you’ll probably want to lobby your local diocesan bishop to open a FSSP or ICKSP parish in your area. I recommend finding an older parish that isn’t doing so well, and is about to be shut down. Offer to buy it from your bishop at a good price, over time, if he calls for a FSSP or ICKSP priest to help you make it happen. You may find that some diocesan bishops will actually be willing to help, if you’re willing to work with them on some kind of mutually beneficial deal. I know that’s not true for all bishops, but it’s worth fishing around to find those willing to cooperate. If you are respectful and charitable in your dealings, you’ll probably get more traction.
If you’re an English Trad (meaning any English-speaking Catholic who loves a more reverent and traditional celebration of mass in English), then the Ordinariates are the best option for you. In North America the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (POCSP) is the one you’ll want to contact. You can donate to the Bishop’s Appeal for that here. These funds go toward planting new parishes and helping smaller ones grow. You can also work toward starting your own such parishes through the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society (ACS) here.