Pope Francis
Pope Francis celebrates Mass during the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on June 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)

August 14 was to have been a memorable occasion for Catholics in the Washington, D.C., area who are devoted to the Latin Mass as it was celebrated before liturgical reforms that grew out of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.  Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, an American prelate and retired Vatican diplomat, would celebrate a pontifical solemn Mass in the traditional Roman Rite at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the eve of the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The rite would have been televised by the EWTN network.

But according to the Paulus Institute, the group that organized the event, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, withdrew permission for the rite in light of a July 16 directive by Pope Francis placing limits on the old Mass. (The archdiocese’s communications staff didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Francis’ apostolic letter “Traditionis Custodes”  reversed a 2007 directive by Pope Benedict XVI that allowed priests to celebrate the pre-1970 Latin Mass even without the approval of a local bishop.  The document also said that priests ordained after its publication would have to seek permission to celebrate the old Mass from their bishops, who would then have to consult with Rome.

In a letter to the world’s Catholic bishops, Francis said that concessions by Benedict and Pope John Paul II to supporters of the old rite had been “exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path and expose her to the peril of division.” The pope said he acted on the basis of responses to a questionnaire sent to the world’s bishops.

The pope’s dramatic reversal of a ruling by a still-living predecessor has itself divided Catholics—including, inevitably, on Twitter (#TraditionisCustodes )—and it’s good copy even for secular journalists fascinated by conflict and power plays. But the controversy shouldn’t be framed as a debate about Latin (the post-1970 new Mass can be celebrated in that language), aesthetics or a Catholic generation gap. The important debate is about theology.

As John F. Baldovin, a Jesuit priest and professor of historical and liturgical theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry has written: “The reformed liturgy does represent a radical shift in Catholic piety and theology” (but not, he added, a departure from orthodox Catholic doctrine). Another leading expert on the liturgy, Thomas O’Loughlin, professor emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham in England, said that the old rite was defective in text, in practice, and in theology.

Resistance to the new Mass isn’t new; it began soon after Pope Paul VI approved new liturgical books in 1970. In 1972, as a cub reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I reported on a somewhat ragtag traditional Latin Mass celebrated in a downtown hotel without the approval of local Catholic authorities. The organizers of the Mass considered the new rite to be invalid and reflective of Protestant theology.

Not all critics of the new Mass go that far. But it’s notable that in his decree Francis emphasized that bishops must determine that groups that continue to celebrate the old Mass “do not deny the validity and the legitimacy of the liturgical reform, dictated by Vatican Council II and the Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiffs.” (In asking Gregory to reconsider the cancellation of the Mass planned for August 14, the Paulus Institute said: “None of the allegations of disunity and division presented in Traditionis Custodes and in the accompanying letter to bishops can rightfully be said to apply to this pontifical Mass.”)

Criticism of post-Vatican II changes often has focused on cringe-inducing folk Masses celebrated by priests who aspired to grooviness rather than gravitas, or who engaged in annoying improvisation. (In his letter Francis made it clear that he opposed “eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses.”)  Traditional Latin Masses, especially pontifical solemn Masses celebrated by a bishop, are indeed likelier to feature clergy in elaborate vestments, clouds of incense and the ringing of bells – “smells and bells” in liturgical slang.

Generational differences also have played a role in the controversy.  I can remember my grandmother’s consternation at the flurry of changes in the Mass after Vatican II.  Brian Moore’s 1972 novel Catholics (later made into a television film with Trevor Howard and Martin Sheen) depicts a poignant encounter between an Irish abbot who adheres to the old Mass and a young troubleshooter sent to enforce the dictates of a church shaped by “Vatican IV.” A more recent, real-life rupture exists between Baby Boom Catholics and some young believers who have gravitated to the traditional Latin Mass even though they’re too young to remember when it was the norm.

Yet if you listen to adherents of the old Mass – known as the Extraordinary Form as contrasted with the Ordinary Form of the post-Vatican II rite – it becomes clear that this controversy isn’t primarily about liturgical language, nostalgia, or sumptuous ceremonial.

“Some people will say to you that ‘I don’t have anything against Vatican II; I just like the old Latin liturgy because it’s more reverent and beautiful,’” Baldovin told me. “I can take them at their word, but that’s not what that movement is about. It’s a divisive movement. That’s what Pope Francis is concerned about.”  He said that “the same people [who advocate for the old Mass] don’t support ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and religious freedom and a whole vision of the church.”

Theologians like to cite this maxim: “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” Latin for “the law of prayer [is] the law of belief.”  Changes in the Mass after Vatican II can be described as a theological, not just a ceremonial, course correction.

Between the 16th century Council of Trent, convened in response to the Protestant Reformation, and Vatican II, much Roman Catholic teaching emphasized that the Mass was a sacrifice, perpetuating the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  Less attention was paid to other aspects of the sacrament – offering thanksgiving to God the Father (“eucharist” comes from a Greek word for “thanksgiving”) and bringing congregants together in a sacred meal, the “Lord’s Supper,” despite the close historical connection between the concepts of sacrifice and meal.  (Baldovin called the Mass “a sacrifice in the form of a meal.”)

Many Catholics attended Mass but didn’t receive Communion, partly because of a strict fasting requirement. Over time the Mass came to be seen as something performed by the priest for an audience, not a communal act of worship.

By contrast, the document on the liturgy approved by Vatican II declared that the primary goal of liturgical restoration was the “full and active participation by all the people.” That same document said that “a suitable place may be allotted to [the congregation’s] mother tongue” in celebrations of the Mass, though it didn’t mandate the pervasive use of local languages that later became the norm. (In fact, the document said that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”)

The changes in the Mass that followed Vatican II justify that journalistic cliché, “a dizzying array.” As a result, a Catholic Mass in the United States came to look and sound very much like what a worshipper would encounter in a Lutheran or Episcopal church: an English-language service with active participation by the laity and, in some cases, the reception of Communion under “both kinds” (bread and wine) with the consecrated wafer being placed in the communicant’s hand rather than on the tongue. Meanwhile, representatives from the Roman Catholic Church have joined with those from other communions in statements about the Eucharist aimed at transcending the theological disputes of the Reformation. Both beliefs about the Eucharist and practice seemed to be converging.

The traditional Latin Mass, however, dramatically marked out Catholics from other Christians. Catholics who cherish the old rite find comfort in its distinctiveness and long pedigree. Donna F. Bethell, a member of the board of directors of the Paulus Institute, told me that she loved the traditional Latin Mass “because it is authentic Catholic worship directed to God, clearly presenting the Sacrifice of Christ in offering His Body and Blood as He first instructed the Apostles, rooted in Apostolic Tradition and organically developed by the Church over almost two millennia.”

Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t like to admit that it has changed its collective mind. That has made it easier for conservative Catholics to argue that the bishops at Vatican II didn’t authorize the pervasive use of the vernacular and that subsequent changes in the liturgy were imposed on Catholics by church bureaucrats, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Donald Trump’s Deep State.

Baldovin scoffed at that notion. He agreed that some of the bishops who voted for the council’s document on the liturgy would have been surprised by what followed. But he added: “Would the majority be OK with it? Yes.”

In his letter to the bishops, Francis made it clear that he was willing to exercise his authority to enforce the idea that “the liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.”

The pope’s hard line on the old Latin Mass opens him to charges of inconsistency because he continues to accept the traditional liturgies of Eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome. O’Loughlin rejected that accusation, noting that the Roman Rite is “directly amenable” to the rule of the pope, the bishop of Rome. As for Eastern churches, O’Loughlin said that the pope must make allowances for the fact that those churches don’t want to diverge too much from the practices of churches with similar traditions that don’t recognize the pope.

Whether the pope’s decree will end the divisions he decried is unclear. Several bishops indicated that they would continue to permit the celebration of the old rite at least for the time being. The Tablet, a Catholic publication, reported that Gregory told priests in the Washington archdiocese who used the old liturgy that they could continue to do so while he reflected on the pope’s action. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Va., took a similar approach, saying he wanted to be both faithful to the pope’s direction and generous to Catholics who he said were spiritually nourished by the old rite and “are in no way a cause of concern for me as a source of division.” In an Aug. 11 podcast, Burbidge added that the pope’s edict is the subject of “ongoing discernment” and that the diocese will come out with information about how it is being implemented, but that “right now, nothing’s changed and everything continues.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster in England who was appointed to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis (as was Gregory).  Nichols said that he would require that priests celebrating the old Mass affirm that those in their care accept “the validity and legitimacy of the liturgical reforms dictated by the Second Vatican Council.” But Nichols also said that the pope’s concerns about divisiveness “do not reflect the overall liturgical life of this diocese.”  If too many bishops conclude that their local Latin Mass enthusiasts aren’t fostering division in the way the pope complained about, that could be embarrassing for Francis.

But if the pope does succeed in significantly curbing the old Mass and dampening criticism of the current rite, it will vindicate another Latin saying familiar to Catholics: “Roma locuta; causa finita est” – “Rome has spoken; the case is closed.” Or, to shift to American political parlance, elections (including papal elections) have consequences.

Michael McGough

Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3. Michael McGough is a former senior editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times and a journalist in Washington, D.C.