To pray for someone’s death is morally wrong, yet it will be difficult for many Roman Catholics to resist the temptation of wishing Pope Francis were off the scene just now.
Last Friday Francis crowned eight years of sniping at his Church’s more conservative or orthodox members, accusing them with monotonous regularity of being ‘rigid’ and ‘backward-looking’, by making it harder for them to attend the traditional Latin Mass, to which they are attached.
The limitations he has imposed on where and by whom the Mass can be celebrated are grossly insulting to his still living predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, whose decision it was, in 2007, to ‘liberate’ the traditional Mass from the restrictions which had surrounded it since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
It might seem like a storm in a teacup, of little interest to any but devout Catholics, but Francis’s move against the Latin Mass has a significance wider than that. The Tridentine Mass, as the Latin rite is correctly known, having been promulgated in more or less its present form at the Council of Trent (Latin Tridentum) in 1570, has its origins in the earliest days of Christianity. More than that, it has evolved as a cultural ‘artifact’ of the first order in the Western canon. Its celebration has inspired music by Mozart, Beethoven and Palestrina, Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. It is the Mass for which the finest architecture in the world was designed. Its preservation, when Catholic ‘progressives’ sought to engineer its total oblivion after Vatican II (as the 1960s Council is known for short), was the subject of a plea to the then Pope, Paul VI, by 57 eminent figures, among them the detective novelist Agatha Christie. Most of them were not Roman Catholics but they recognised the importance of the Mass within the development of Western civilisation. Their petition was partly successful, and Pope Paul (with the ‘Christie indult’) allowed for continued celebration of the old Latin Mass in prescribed circumstances.
So why, given its venerability and associations, should Pope Francis, like the 1960s progressives before him, wish to relegate it to the past and impede Catholics from attending it? Here we have to go back to the ecclesiastical and liturgical politics of Vatican II and its aftermath. The Council had recommended a mild reform of the Mass but radical liturgists, who wanted a new rite entirely, managed, as leftists always do in the secular world, to install themselves as the arbiters of change.
Amid much pseudo-archaeological talk about returning to the simple gatherings of the early Christians, and expressions of pastoral concern, real or affected, for twentieth-century congregations allegedly unable to ‘understand’ Latin (though every Catholic had a parallel vernacular rendering in his Missal) they persuaded an indecisive Pope to accept a vandalised version of the Mass much less like the traditional rite than the Council had intended.
Chiefly, it is now evident that the reformers were motivated in part by the loathing all progressives have for tradition and our inherited culture. In this sense the attack on the Mass – then and now – can be seen as part of the culture wars that plague the Western world.
Pope Francis’s excuse, or one of them, for hedging this Mass around with new restrictions is that its existence is encouraging those who attend it to be dismissive of Vatican II. Vatican II, for people like him, the first generation of clerics to be formed in its liberalising wake, was a watershed, a cleansing of a fusty old Church that was still in essence mediaeval, a ‘new Pentecost’. It is arguably as much the basis of their religion as the New Testament. It is sacrosanct. Most of them still manage to include some reference to ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ in everything they say. Unfortunately, though, the spirit has failed to deliver. Instead of the much-hyped ‘second spring’, progressive attempts to ‘modernise’ Catholicism ushered in a long winter of discontent, of shrinking congregations, of Catholic schools decatholicised and Catholic opposition to abortion and other social ills ignored, which has seen the Church reduced and marginalised. With the perspective of history Vatican II can be seen as a flop.
Its apologists refuse to acknowledge this. Like Marxists who argue that communism has never been properly tried, they complain that the reforms were inadequately implemented, or derailed by traditionalist opponents. Pope Francis is clearly of this opinion, and thinks the existence of flourishing congregations at Latin Masses represents a ‘rejection’ of the Council. There may be some truth in this, though it is more likely that because so many Latin Mass attenders are young, Vatican II for them is ancient and irrelevant history. Most wouldn’t have a clue what the fuss is about.
Francis, like all ‘liberals’ is really illiberal. His attitude to traditionalists is profoundly uncharitable. Because the post-conciliar Church he represents has been a failure in so many respects, he is punishing Latin Mass-goers as if the success of that Mass in attracting followers were responsible for that.
Nor has he acted with prudence. Around the world, Latin Mass congregations, full of the young families and millennials who are conspicuously absent in most churches, are the one point of growth in an ageing, numerically declining Church. It is irresponsible to alienate them. No CEO of a secular firm would shut down its most productive division.
Many Catholics, not only conservatives, are getting fed up with Francis. He has been a force for divisiveness ever since his election in 2013. He has been friendlier to Muslims than to orthodox Catholics. He has muddied the waters of previously clear Church teaching on marriage and divorce. He has climbed aboard the faddish secular bandwagons of climate politics and globalism (he supports ‘the Great Reset’, that blueprint for world rule by ‘experts’) and concluded a secret deal with China which ignores the oppression of minorities such as the Uighurs. And he has favoured liberals in not just ecclesiastical but secular politics, as his failure to criticise President Biden’s pro-abortion policies demonstrates.
He has been disastrous from the point of view of Church unity, which is supposed to be the raison d’être of his office. Unless he is succeeded by a Pope with the historical vision to see Vatican II in its context as but one of several such Councils in the last 2,000 years and not as the fount of a new Church, and the diplomatic ability to unite Catholics in this view so that intergenerational liturgy wars lose their point, the Roman Catholic Church cannot expect to renew its spiritual impact on a secularised world.
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