ROME -- Pope Francis cracked down Friday on the spread of the old Latin Mass, reversing one of Pope Benedict XVI’s signature decisions in a major challenge to traditionalist Catholics who immediately decried it as an attack on them and the ancient liturgy.
Francis reimposed restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass that Benedict relaxed in 2007, and went further to limit its use. The pontiff said he was taking action because Benedict’s reform had become a source of division in the church and been exploited by Catholics opposed to the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s meetings that modernized the church and its liturgy.
Critics said they had never before witnessed a pope so thoroughly reversing his predecessor. That the reversal concerned something so fundamental as the liturgy, while Benedict is still alive and living in the Vatican as a retired pope, only amplified the extraordinary nature of Francis' move, which will surely result in more right-wing hostility directed at him.
Francis, 84, issued a new law requiring individual bishops to approve celebrations of the old Mass, also called the Tridentine Mass, and requiring newly ordained priests to receive explicit permission to celebrate it from their bishops, in consultation with the Vatican.
Under the new law, bishops must also determine if the current groups of faithful attached to the old Mass accept Vatican II, which allowed for Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular rather than Latin. These groups cannot use regular churches; instead, bishops must find alternate locations for them without creating new parishes.
In addition, Francis said bishops are no longer allowed to authorize the formation of any new pro-Latin Mass groups in their dioceses.
Francis said he was taking action to promote unity and heal divisions within the church that had grown since Benedict’s 2007 document, Summorum Pontificum. He said he based his decision on a 2020 Vatican survey of all the world's bishops, whose “responses reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene."
The pope's rollback immediately created an uproar among traditionalists already opposed to Francis’ more progressive bent and nostalgic for Benedict’s doctrinaire papacy.
“This is an extremely disappointing document which entirely undoes the legal provisions,” of Benedict’s 2007 document, said Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales.
While Latin celebrations can continue, “the presumption is consistently against them: bishops are being invited to close them down,” Shaw said, adding that the requirement for Latin Masses to be held outside a parish was “unworkable."
“This is an extraordinary rejection of the hard work for the church and the loyalty to the hierarchy which has characterized the movement for the Traditional Mass for many years, which I fear will foster a sense of alienation among those attached to the church’s ancient liturgy,” he said.
Benedict had issued his document in 2007 to reach out to a breakaway, schismatic group that celebrates the Latin Mass, the Society of St. Pius X, and which had split from Rome over the modernizing reforms of Vatican II.
But Francis said Benedict’s effort to foster unity had essentially backfired.
The opportunity offered by Benedict, the pope said in a letter to bishops accompanying the new law, was instead “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.”
Francis said he was “saddened" that the use of the old Mass was accompanied by a rejection of Vatican II itself “with unfounded and unsustainable assertions that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’”
Christopher Bellitto, professor of church history at Kean University, said Francis was right to intervene, noting that Benedict's original decision had had a slew of unintended consequences that not only created internal divisions but temporarily roiled relations with Jews.
“Francis hits it right on the head with his observation that Benedict’s 2007 loosening of regulations against the Latin rite allowed others to use it for division," he said. “The blowback proves his point."
The blowback was indeed fierce, though it's also likely that many will simply ignore Francis' decree and continue on as before with sympathetic bishops. Some of these traditionalists and Catholics already were among Francis' fiercest critics, with some accusing him of heresy for having opened the door to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion.
Rorate Caeli, a popular traditionalist blog run out of the U.S., said Francis’ “attack” was the strongest rebuke of a pope against his predecessors in living memory.
“Francis HATES US. Francis HATES Tradition. Francis HATES all that is good and beautiful,” the group tweeted. But it concluded: “FRANCIS WILL DIE, THE LATIN MASS WILL LIVE FOREVER."
Messa in Latino, an Italian traditionalist blog, was also blistering in its criticism.
“Mercy always and only for sinners (who are not asked to repent) but no mercy for those few traditional Catholics," the blog said Friday.
For years, though, Francis has made known his distaste of the old liturgy, privately labeling its adherents self-referential naval-gazers who are out of touch with the needs of the church. He has cracked down on religious orders that celebrated the old Mass exclusively and frequently decried the “rigidity" of tradition-minded priests who prioritize rules over pastoral accompaniment.
Traditionalists have insisted that the old liturgy was never abrogated and that Benedict’s 2007 reform had allowed it to flourish.
They point to the growth of traditionalist parishes, often frequented by young, large families, as well as new religious orders that celebrate the old liturgy. The Latin Mass Society claims the number of traditional Masses celebrated each Sunday in England and Wales had more than doubled since 2007, from 20 to 46.
But for many, the writing was on the wall as soon as Francis stepped out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica after his 2013 election without the ermine-trimmed red velvet cape that was preferred by Benedict and is a symbol of the pre-Vatican II church.
The restrictions went into immediate effect with its publication in Friday's official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.