by Massimo Faggioli
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From the moment Pope Francis was elected on March 13, 2013 it was clear that a huge gap separated him from the so-called Catholic traditionalists – on liturgy, ecclesiology, ecumenism, moral theology and the Church’s social doctrine.
Despite their constant attacks against him, the pope showed a remarkable restraint towards the traditionalists – and not just because this is good Church politics, but because he does not like conflict.
“I don’t chop off heads,” he said a couple of weeks ago in interview with the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion.
“That was never my style. I’ve never liked doing that,” he insisted.
Indeed, we had become almost accustomed to the idea that Francis and the traditionalists were pretty much traveling on two separate and parallel paths in a “live and let live” sort of silent agreement. But two recent developments indicate something important about the pope and the various forms of Catholic traditionalism.
The first took place on June 29 when the schismatic Priestly Society of St Pius X (SSPX) issued a communiqué that slammed the brakes on any hoped-for reconciliation with Rome. In a carefully worded text, Bishop Bernard Fellay – leader of the anti-Vatican II movement founded by the late-Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (195-1991) – did not close the door completely on future developments in the SSPX’s relationship with Rome. But he acknowledged that there was a great distance between the so-called Lefebvrists and the Church of Francis, while indirectly admitting there were also divisions inside their society.
End-of-June communiqués have become almost a tradition with the SSPX. After courting Benedict XVI for years, the three bishops of the SSPX (Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais and Alfonso de Gallareta) released a statement a several weeks after the former pope resigned pointing out the flaws in a famous speech he gave on the “two hermeneutics” of Vatican II.
The second development took place on July 5th when Cardinal Robert Sarah (Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, appointed by Francis in November 2014), during a talk in London, invited all priests to start celebrating Mass ad orientem (the characteristic pre-Vatican II style with the priest’s back to the people), starting next Advent.
This caused a reaction from many Catholics – including theologians, bishops and even cardinals – all around the world. But the most visible reaction came from Pope Francis who, in an unprecedented statement released on July 11 through the Holy See Press Office, disavowed Cardinal Sarah’s appeal and his support for a “reform of the liturgical reform” (an expression that the Holy See statement says “may at times give rise to error”).
These two incidents could be seen just as a brief series of small events. But I believe they play some bigger role in the chronology of Francis’ pontificate.
First of all, the press office’s July 11th communiqué is the pope’s most direct and unequivocal statement to date – for those who did not get the message from everything he does, including his liturgical style – concerning the post-Vatican II liturgical reform and the many attempts to question the theology and ecclesiology of the Council’s constitution on the liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium.
So far, Francis has not focused on the liturgy, at least not in his documents. For example, in his foundational document, the 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he quotes from many Vatican II documents, but not from the liturgical constitution. However, Cardinal Sarah’s initiative forced him to react forcefully.
The statement makes clear that Francis can live with liturgical traditionalism, but “the ‘extraordinary’ form, which was permitted by Pope Benedict XVI for the purposes and in the ways explained in his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, must not take the place of the ‘ordinary’ one”.
The African cardinal’s overreach provoked the reaction of Francis, producing a clear setback in the agenda of the advocates of the pre-Vatican II Mass – both those who see as possible a peaceful coexistence of the reformed liturgy and Old Mass on the same level, and those who work actively to see the post-conciliar liturgical reform abrogated.
(Note that this was actually the second time Cardinal Sarah defied Francis. It took thirteen months – from December 2014 to January 2016 – for his office to implement the pope’s request that the official liturgical rubrics be changed so women could be included in the Holy Thursday foot washing ritual).
As Italian liturgist and theologian Andrea Grillo wrote, “The conciliar journey can resume.”
This is a significant moment for more than just the liturgy (and that is why any comparison between Catholic liturgical traditionalism on one side and the liturgical traditionalism of the Eastern Catholic Churches and of the Eastern Orthodox Churches on the other side does not explain anything of what is happening).
In reality, the recent incidents show once again how Catholic traditionalists continue to underestimate Pope Francis. Many of them really thought they could twist his arm. Unfortunately for them, they have not paid close enough attention to how the pope deals with politicians who have tried this same tactic.
And their continuing inability to read the mind of such a Vatican II pope speaks volumes about the relationship between Francis and all those who are trying to “bridge” (let’s put it that way) the Catholic Church of Vatican II and Catholic ultra-traditionalism (above all the Vatican commission “Ecclesia Dei”). Paradoxically, the extreme schismatics of the SSPX are the traditionalists that understand Francis better.
Most importantly, these last few weeks make clear that the position of the traditionalist cause has shifted significantly. During the end of the pontificate of John Paul II and all during that of Benedict XVI, issues close to the heart of traditionalists had become central in the agenda of some officials the Roman Curia and in the European and English-speaking Catholic intelligentsia – as Italian Catholic historian Giovanni Miccoli noted several years ago.
The simple fact is that for Francis the traditionalists’ agenda is no longer a central concern. “It is central only for the biographies of their advocates”, but not for the future of the Church.
These recent events do not mean that traditionalists and their agenda will be wiped off or disappear from the Roman Catholic horizon. The pope has no interest in doing that. It just means that, for Francis, the Church is a big tent. And the liturgical reform from Vatican II (use of the vernacular, inculturation, adaptation, etc.) is one of the safeguards that allows it to be a big tent and a missionary Church in the global world. This is something that got lost in the “altar wars” of these last many years.
It is worth remembering that during the last decade the Roman Curia and some Catholic circles (not only the blogosphere, but also universities, journals and magazines) showed a particular sympathy and irenic attitude towards the issues of traditionalists (in liturgy and not only).
That irenicism, at least in the minds of those with the best intentions, was supposed to make clear that the Catholic Church was remaining a big tent. But instead, the result of ten years (at least) of that irenicism towards traditionalism was that the exclusivist agenda of traditionalists had become the theological manifesto for a smaller, purer Church.
And in the long run it was supposed to replace the Catholic Church of Vatican II. In this sense, the pontificate of Pope Francis, especially in these last few weeks, has been a moment of truth.
Massimo Faggioli is a Church historian, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University