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It’s easy for religious leaders to create new laws, but it’s harder to convince believers to follow them.
At least, that’s what the Benediction monk Gratian — a canon law pioneer — argued in the 12th century: “Laws are established when they are promulgated. … They are confirmed when they have been approved by the long term and reasoned acceptance of those who observe them.”
Anyone doubting this wisdom should study Catholic social media, noted Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, the 92- year-old former leader of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences. There has been a “hurricane” in the “blogger scene and other media” in response to Traditionis Custodes (“Guardians of the Tradition”), the effort by Pope Francis to bind those who celebrate the traditional Latin Mass.
When confusion surrounds a new “ecclesiastical law” — as opposed to scripture and “natural law” doctrines — it’s important to remember that its “validity … ultimately depends on the consent of those affected by it,” wrote Brandmuller, at Kath.net in Germany.
“The law must serve the good of the community, and not vice versa. … If a law is not observed, or is no longer observed, whether from the beginning or after a time, it loses its binding force and becomes obsolete.”
The pope’s declaration has unleased waves of grief among supporters of the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI and his apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum (“Of the Supreme Pontiffs”), which claimed the post-Vatican II Novus Ordo was the “ordinary form” for the modern Mass, but that the older Tridentine rite was an “extraordinary form” that could be encouraged.
This fight is “not really about rites at all,” wrote Father Raymond J. de Souza, in the journal First Things. “It’s about Catholic life in the age of the internet. The Mass is the message.”
The question is how Pope Francis will apply his ruling that the modern Mass is now the “unique expression” of the Catholic “lex orandi” (the law of what is prayed). Will this affect Byzantine liturgies used by Eastern Rite Catholics or rites approved for former Anglicans?
“Pope Francis could not be upset that rites — or even styles — divide. That’s normal Catholic life,” wrote de Souza. “As a Jesuit he would have experienced vast differences in liturgical celebration. …
Liberal practices can certainly be divisive, which is why some Catholics would never go to a Jesuit parish, while President Joe Biden does.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X — which has openly attacked Vatican II — stressed that this Pope Francis ruling proves that the peacemaking efforts of Benedict XVI have been “swept aside with a wave of a sleeve.”
Paraphrasing St. Augustine, Father Don Davide Pagliarani claimed: “One could say that the two Masses have built two cities: The Mass of All Times has built a Christian city; the New Mass seeks to build a humanist and secular city.”
Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan did- n’t go that far in an online blast, but said the Vatican cannot “suppress a heritage of the whole Church. … You can continue to celebrate the (Latin) Mass, formally in disobedience, but you will be in obedience to the Church of all times, to all the popes who have celebrated this Mass.” The result would be clandestine “catacomb Masses.”
Elsewhere in the conservative Catholic blogosphere, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts of the Netherlands said Traditionis Custodes resembled a “declaration of war.” He asked, deploying a German word Adolf Hitler used to describe “erasing” cities: “For God’s sake, why? What is this obsession of Francis to want to erase that small group of traditionalists? The pope should be the guardian of tradition, not the jailer of tradition.”
Heated worship wars rhetoric is merely one sign of tough times, noted Catholic conservative Ross Douthat, writing in his independent Substack newsletter, as opposed to his New York Times column. Mass attendance? It’s in decline. New priests? Numbers are down. COVID- era finances? Tight.
“A sense of crisis magnifies differences that in a time of optimism and plenty might be debated in an irenic and fraternal spirit,” he noted. “And this, of course, only makes the decline more likely to accelerate, because people outside the Church, and the marginally attached, look to whether the most fervent Catholics act like Christians, and instead see fratricide — or its Twitter equivalent.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.