Why Pope Francis Is Cracking Down on the Latin Mass and Angering Traditionalists

A celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass in Rome in 2007. Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis has done a lot of things to offend so-called “traditionalist” Catholics since he assumed the Chair of St. Peter in 2013. There’s his outspoken activism on climate change and global inequality; his relative tolerance of gay and divorced Catholics formally left outside the gates of the church; and in this country particularly, his interference with efforts by conservative bishops to “discipline” President Biden for being pro-choice.

But in revoking his predecessor’s permissive rules on some Catholics’ use of the Traditional Latin Mass, which the broader church discarded in the 1960s, Francis seems to have hit a particularly sensitive nerve, spurring seditious mutterings like those of Michael Brendan Dougherty in the New York Times:

Pope Benedict allowed devotees of this Mass to flourish in the mainstream of Catholic life, a gesture that began to drain away the traditional movement’s radicalism and reconcile us with our bishops. Today, it is celebrated in thriving parishes, full of young families.

Yet this Mass and the modestly growing contingent of Catholics who attend it are seen by Pope Francis as a grave problem. He recently released a document, Traditionis Custodes, accusing Catholics like us of being subversives. To protect the “unity” of the church, he abolished the permissions Pope Benedict XVI gave us in 2007 to celebrate a liturgy, the heart of which remains unchanged since the seventh century. …

I don’t know if bishops will adopt Francis’ zeal to crush the Latin Mass. I don’t know how painful they are willing to make our religious life. If they do, they will create — or reveal — more division in the church. The old slogan of the traditional Latin Mass movement comes to mind: We resist you to the face.

So what’s going on here? Are Dougherty and the “traditionalists” he speaks for simply a reactionary elite faction wedded to medieval ritual habits? As explained below, it’s not as simple as that.

What is the Traditional Latin Mass?

The mass that Catholic traditionalists like Dougherty have been using mostly continues rites dating from the seventh century. Its form was all but fixed at the 16th-century Council of Trent, that great Counter-Reformation conclave that did much to provide the church with uniformity in dogma and practice. Thus the term “Tridentine mass” is used interchangeably with “Traditional Latin mass.” It was overhauled — traditionalists would say abolished — during the Second Vatican Council (a.k.a. Vatican II) of the early 1960s, and replaced with a mass in vernacular languages.

Is it all about the Latin language?

Many traditionalists do tout the use of Latin as a unifying force in an ostensibly universal church (Evelyn Waugh once boasted that “St. Augustine, St. Thomas à Becket, St. Thomas More, Challoner, and Newman would have been perfectly at their ease among us”), but it’s about far more than language. As Dougherty and both opponents and proponents of the traditional mass agree, Vatican II changed many fundamental things about the basic Sunday ritual of the Catholic Church.

Instead of a priest facing a raised altar muttering prayers, usually accompanied by a choir, as the congregation at its leisure watched or prayed or meditated until called to attention by a bell to witness the elevation of the Host (the consecrated bread of communion), the new rite focused on congregational participation, with the priest facing worshipers across a simple table and everyone engaged (in theory at least) in prayers and music. It was, in many respects, a Copernican Revolution in how the mass was structured and executed.

And it was a revolution “traditionalists” could never quite accept, as Dougherty makes clear:

For Catholics, how we pray shapes what we believe. The old ritual physically aims us toward an altar and tabernacle. In that way it points us to the cross and to heaven as the ultimate horizon of man’s existence …

The new ritual points us toward a bare table, and it consistently posits the unity of humankind as the ultimate horizon of our existence. In the new Mass, God owes man salvation, because of the innate dignity of humanity. Where there was faith, now presumption. Where there was love, now mere affirmation, which is indistinguishable from indifference. It inspires weightless ditties like “Gather Us In.” Let’s sing about us!

Are there other things about the vernacular mass that traditionalists dislike?

Oh yes. Even defenders of the post-Vatican II mass will admit that the implementation was not always well-handled. The absence of vernacular Catholic sacred music for use in a service now focused on maximum participation was an immediate problem. Whole books have been written mocking the widespread use of folk and pop music, badly arranged Protestant hymns, and deafening sound systems designed to disguise how few people sang. Vernacular translations of mass texts were often lacking in the kind of beauty associated with, for example, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Dougherty’s predecessor at National Review, its founder William F. Buckley, described his first exposure to the vernacular mass as an aesthetic horror, inspiring “the same sense of outrage one would feel on entering the Cathedral of Chartres and finding that the windows had been replaced with pop-art figures of Christ sitting-in against the slumlords of Milwaukee.”

While the struggle to make the post-Vatican II mass both aesthetically pleasing and spiritually deep is, I gather from Catholic friends, something of a hit or miss proposition, depending on where the believer happens to worship, there is no question that concerns about the “new mass” have driven many to the old one. Indeed, the number of Catholics brought up with the Tridentine Mass (which one of my baby boomer peers referred to as “awe-inspiring and yet somewhat boring”) is steadily dwindling. Seeking out and participating in a Latin Mass is increasingly a counter-revolutionary act rather than a matter of nostalgic comfort. Dougherty makes that clear in his most direct attack on Francis, in which he all but calls the pontiff a heretic:

I believe the practice of the new Mass forms people to a new faith: To become truly Christian, one must cease to be Christian at all …

I have faith that one day, even secular historians will look upon what was wrought after Vatican II and see it for what it was: the worst spasm of iconoclasm in the church’s history — dwarfing the Byzantine iconoclasm of the ninth century and the Protestant Reformation.

Pope Benedict had temporarily allowed us to begin repairing the damage. What Pope Francis proposes with his crackdown is a new cover-up.

This not-so-veiled allusion to the clerical sex-abuse scandal is provocative, all right.

Why is Pope Francis doing this? Can’t he just let the traditionalists go their own way?

Dougherty’s cry of rebellion, ironically, may explain best why the Vatican felt it had to reinforce unity in worship alongside unity in other aspects of the faith. Liberal Catholic writer Michael Sean Winters succinctly responded to the contradictory demands of the traditionalists in arguing that only their ritual was worthy of the Church:

Aficionados of the old rite like to talk about how that rite uniquely conveys the sense that each Mass is a part of the one eternal sacrifice of Christ, and the thanksgiving to which the Eucharist is our response, but then they insist on their right to have a private Mass.

A self-conscious faction of Catholics holding the majority of their co-religionists in contempt for accepting what Dougherty calls “a new faith” isn’t very Catholic at all, in the Vatican’s view.

What does this mean for Catholics generally, and for non-Catholics?

The agonized reaction to Francis’s “crackdown” on the Latin mass may indicate that traditionalist hostility to the Pope will reach a new and abrasive level. One problem for the traditionalists has been that they are by habit defenders of papal authority, making it difficult to criticize Francis too directly and rebelliously. But on the question of liturgy they can treat this latest pope as having defied the precedent set by his immediate predecessor, alongside the many centuries of pontiffs who celebrated and enforced the Tridentine rite.

This suggests stormy days ahead for international Catholic harmony, and perhaps more of the kind of resistance to Vatican leadership reflected in the U.S. Conference of Bishops’ move toward denying pro-choice Catholic politicians like President Joe Biden (and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) communion.

For non-Catholics, the rift reflects an intensification of the growing left-right gulf that has divided Protestantism far more than any of the old denominational disagreements, along with other religious traditions and American society itself. For years now there has been a tactical alliance between Evangelical conservatives and traditionalist Catholics on issues like abortion, LGBTQ rights, and so-called “religious liberty.” But this cross-denominational Christian right may now be growing in strength if not numbers. We could be approaching a time when conservatives from various religious traditions make common cause in a cultural movement against modernity that brooks no dissent in Washington — or in Rome.

Why Pope Francis Is Cracking Down on the Latin Mass