Pope Francis has placed very significant restrictions on the saying of the old Mass, abrogating the much more permissive or generous policy of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI. It is the pope’s call to make. I hope people will accept it or work within proper channels to modify the restrictions.
Pope Francis himself could reverse it, or a future pope could. Nothing is written in stone. My worry is that the attempt to protect unity will become a trigger for greater division. That’s the last thing we need just at the moment.The Effect on the Faithful
There is no question that there have been many abuses of the “new Mass.” I’ve witnessed some myself, and they are appalling. At the same time, while lacking the grandeur of the old mass, it is beautiful when reverently said. I myself generally prefer it, but what matters is that the Mass, old or new, be said and experienced reverently and that the priest and people avoid freelancing by adding, subtracting, or revising on no authority apart from their own.
While I will scarcely be affected by the restrictions, I feel sorry for those who will be. Many Catholics are strongly attached to the traditional Latin Mass and find it especially spiritually nourishing. They are faithful Catholics — people who believe what the Church believes and respect and honor its norms and disciplines.
A minority — probably quite small, but certainly vocal — believe that the new (“ordinary”) form of the Mass is invalid, or that the Second Vatican Council and its teachings and reforms are illegitimate, or that Pope Francis is not truly pope, or that the seat of Peter has been vacant since the death of Pope John XXIII. They are the ones who may be said to threaten the Church’s unity.
Of course, the pope’s ruling is not a doctrinal decision. Although it is fully within his authority to make it, as all faithful Catholics acknowledge, that does not mean that it was a correct (wise, prudent, good) decision.
In a way, that makes it harder on the people I have in mind. They are aware that the Pope did not have to do what he did. They know he might well be making a mistake — doing something that does not serve the common good of the Church — in doing it. Indeed, they are confident that he is making a mistake, and that whatever legitimate concerns there may be about the use of the old form of the mass did not warrant so strong and sweeping a set of restrictions.Fallibility and Authority
At the same time, faithful Catholics need to acknowledge their own fallibility as well as the pope’s. It is possible that he is right — that action as strong as the action he took was necessary. On the basis of the publicly available information (at least the information I’ve seen) I suspect that the action taken was stronger than necessary and therefore, to that extent, regrettable.
But I could be wrong about that. Any of us could be wrong on the question.
The key thing is to recognize that Pope Francis was legitimately exercising his authority in making this call. Just as his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, legitimately exercised his authority to make a different decision. And just as a future pope would be legitimately exercising his authority in modifying this decision.
Please, let no one leave the Church (or claim that the Church left him) over this matter. Feel free to think what you like, and to speak your mind. Feel free to respectfully criticize the pope’s decision and call on him or a future pope to revise it.
But please also recognize what the late Michael Dummett (a brilliant Oxford analytic philosopher and a devout Catholic) called “the paramountcy of unity.” Do not break unity. No matter how much you feel hurt or harmed by the Pope’s decision, no matter how misguided you may think it to be, cling to the Rock.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His most recent articles were How to Welcome the Muslim and What Protestants Can Learn From Catholics, and Vice-Versa.
Photo credit: St Peter’s Basilica (Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images).
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