A couple of weeks ago, Pope Francis again made headlines. Shortly after leaving hospital for colon surgery, he restricted the use of the so-called Latin Mass, creating a furore in Catholic circles – not just amongst bloggers but bishops.

The widely-read conservative blog Rorate Caeli declared: “Francis HATES all that is good and beautiful. Francis HATES the Catholicism practiced by his mother and grandmother.” An auxiliary bishop in the Netherlands, Rob Mutsaerts, posted a long denunciation of the Pope on his blog. “How dictatorial, how unpastoral, how unmerciful do you want to be!” he wrote.

Several elderly cardinals were horrified. Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, a former high-ranking member of the Vatican Curia, wrote: “Instead of appreciating the smell of the sheep, the shepherd here hits them hard with his crook.”

Closer to home, historian George Weigel, whose views probably carry more weight in the American media and amongst Catholic intellectuals than those of the bishops, wrote in  First Things that the Pope’s document “was theologically incoherent, pastorally divisive, unnecessary, cruel—and a sorry example of the liberal bullying that has become all too familiar in Rome recently.”

For non-Catholics, fights over the Mass may seem like a liturgical Lilliput — where disputes between Big-Endians and Small-Endians over which end of a boiled egg to break first ended in war. However, for Catholics, the Mass is transcendentally important. For two centuries, for example, priests could be could be hanged, drawn and quartered if they were caught saying a Mass in England – but they never stopped risking their lives. A legacy that precious is worth saving.

To explain the current controversy adequately would take a small book; what follows is just a quick precis.

After the Second Vatican Council

Up until the Second Vatican Council, Catholics of the Roman rite – most of the world’s Catholics – worshipped with the traditional Latin Mass. With some small changes, it had been the principal liturgy worship for about 400 years. Priests always said it in Latin, they faced the altar, not the people, and many of their prayers were silent. (“Latin Mass” is really a misnomer, as Latin is the official language of the Church, and any Mass can be celebrated in Latin, although few are.)

The Council bequeathed to Roman Catholics a new version of the Latin Mass, substantially the same, but for the first time in history translated into the vernacular, with much more participation by the congregation and with “streamlined” prayers. This has been in force for more than 50 years.

However, a good number of Catholics desperately missed the older version. Some, the followers of French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, went into schism over the changes (and other disagreements). Others stayed under the authority of Rome but requested permission to say and participate in the older liturgy. This was granted by John Paul II. Benedict XVI expanded the permission. In his mind the two liturgies could co-exist: the ordinary form (the one used by most Catholics) and the Extraordinary Form (EF, or the so-called “Latin Mass”).  

It’s hard to say how many priests and lay Catholics participate in the EF – as a percentage, it is very small, but they are devout and very attached to it. By one estimate, there are about 660 venues in the US where it is said – out of 17,000 parishes.

Unfortunately, the EF has attracted political conservatives, dissenters from Vatican II, and critics of Pope Francis. Some of its fans regard him as a borderline heretic. There are prominent websites which are fever swamps of Franciscophobia.  

It must be hard for non-Catholics to appreciate the outrage and distress which the dispute over the Mass has caused. Francis believes that it is dividing the Church – and in Catholicism, division is anathema. The Church, like all institutions in the modern era, is struggling to maintain its relevance and mission. Every house divided against itself shall not stand, says the Bible – and Francis believes that the Catholic Church cannot fulfil its mission if the faithful are at sixes and sevens.

So he acted.

On July 16, he published a document, Traditionis Custodes (Papal documents normally have Latin names). In it he decreed that the post-Vatican II liturgy was the only acceptable form of the Mass. The EF can still be said, but under far more restrictive conditions. He appears to be intent on phasing it out.

And all hell broke loose.

Quiet! Negativity at work

Normally MercatorNet steers clear of religious squabbles – its brief is “navigating modern complexities”, not theological controversies, even though the editor (that’s me) is a Catholic and takes his faith seriously. But this particular fracas has been widely reported and commented upon, even in the New York Times, a citadel of secularism.

To my surprise, nearly all of the commentary online has been hostile, with some rare exceptions. John Allen’s comments on Crux have been very balanced. But overall, after surfing past bubbling cauldrons of outrage, I found very little support for Pope Francis. That’s almost certainly not representative of what the world’s Catholics think. But American make up about 6 percent of the global Catholic population and are probably responsible for 96 percent of media coverage about Catholic affairs. Furthermore, as I said before, the supporters of the EF have a disproportionate influence in the Catholic blogosphere.

Non-Catholics might find it surprising that so few are defending his decision. The Pope is the head of the Catholic Church, isn’t he? He is regarded as the Vicar of Christ himself, isn’t he? It’s weird, I agree. Perhaps the dynamics of cancel culture are at work within Catholicism stifling calmer voices. We’ll have to leave that one for the historians.

Seven pointers

But with this passionate row in mind, here are a few pointers to redress the balance.

1. The dominant ethos in our culture is expressive individualism. The Nike slogan, “If it feels good, do it”, captures it perfectly. However, this is not the ethos of the Catholic Church. The liturgy is not a personal accessory, like Nike sneakers; it is not an expression of my tastes and my identity. It is a mystery (in the theological sense), which is not a personal possession, but something we enter into. The Mass should be reverent–  but “a good Mass” is not necessarily one which suits one’s personal preferences.

2. This is not about revolution and counter-revolution, as Ross Douthat argued in the New York Times. The Pope said in his letter that he is acting “In defence of the unity of the Body of Christ”. For him, as for his predecessors, the Church is a communion of persons. This has become a foreign concept in our culture, which speaks only the language of entitlement and rights. Most observers, including clerics, have framed this as a clash between injured personal rights and callous authoritarianism – or between progressives and conservatives. Such a dialectic simply does not capture what is at work here.

3. Is anyone listening to the Pope? I fear not. The words of liturgical scholar Dom Alcuin Reid are worth pondering. He is an English Benedictine who has founded an abbey in France whose liturgical life is focused on the EF. In a homily after the publication of Traditionis Custodes he revealed how painful it was for him. But, he said, “The service of the unity of the Church is one of the particular duties of the Petrine ministry for which each pope must answer before Almighty God on the day of judgement. It is beholden to us, therefore, as faithful Catholics, to take his concerns very seriously indeed.” How many of the Pope’s critics have made a sincere effort to stand in his shoes and look at the issues from his point of view?  

4. Most of the world’s bishops support the Pope, despite what one reads on the internet. He consulted them about the situation before the decision crystallised in his mind. They confirmed his impression that the existence of parallel ways of celebrating the Mass had been “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.” Portraying the Traditionis Custodes as an arbitrary and despotic decision is just plain wrong.

5. The EF is ancient, sacred, beautiful (if said properly) and loved by many. Pope Francis has not denied that. His view is, to be simplistic, that unity is even more precious. Furthermore, he has not abolished the EF. True, he has restricted its use, but it will still be possible to attend a traditional Latin Mass.

6. The Pope is not a liturgical vandal. Like Benedict XVI, whom he cites in his letter, he says:“I deplore the fact that “in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions”. It should be borne in mind that the 1970 Mass can be said in Latin and facing the altar. When said properly, it, too, is beautiful and reverent.

7. The key to understanding his thinking is evangelisation. I sometimes wonder if the Pope’s critics — bishops, priests, journalists included — have read any of his astonishingly rich and inspiring documents. Most of them riff upon Christ’s mandate to “preach the Gospel”. The world is in a mess because it has lost sight of God; Catholics should be apostles. And what are we? Big-Endians and Small-Endians.

Shortly before the conclave in which he was elected, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio gave a speech to the cardinals which expressed what became one of the dominant themes of his pontificate:

“When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then she gets sick. The evils that over the course of time happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in a self-referentiality and a sort of theological narcissism.”

In his first apostolic exhortation in 2013, Evangelii Gaudium, he stuck to the same message. “No to warring among ourselves” is the heading over one particularly prescient section. The liturgy, he wrote there, is meant to serve evangelisation. And if it doesn’t result in bringing people to God, there must be something amiss.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that the clock was already ticking on the EF. “In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige,” Francis wrote, “but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few.”

He was not imagining things. A well-known journalist and blogger, Rod Dreher, has proposed what he calls “The Benedict Option” as a necessary response to a rapidly secularising society. Christians need to form communities of like-minded people who circle the wagons in the hope of weathering the storm. Its model is the monasteries founded by St Benedict in the 6th century to survive the barbarian invasions. This has great cachet in some Catholic circles. But The Benedict Option is not The Francis Option – nothing could be more different.


The Pope has a special gift from God, a charism, to guide the Catholic Church through the reefs and storms of history. That is a Pope’s shtick. His decisions touch the lives of many people and echo down the centuries. He is the servus servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God, in the words of his 6th century predecessor, but from time to time he has to make judgement calls for the whole Church. And that’s what he did on July 16.

Pope Francis can make mistakes but (so we believe) Catholics can’t make a mistake in obeying his directives. What they should do now is what they should do always in a crisis: chill, ponder, and pray.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.