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Liturgical Dilemma for Diocesan Bishops
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A dispute about dispensations developed into a diktat from the dicastery that has put dioceses in a difficult dilemma.

Liturgical discipline is delicate. The request to Pope Francis, from the Dicastery for Divine Worship (DDW), to tighten the screws on the implementation of Traditionis Custodes — granted by the Holy Father on Feb. 20  — means that Rome has decided that it is a priority to get the “extraordinary form” or Tridentine Mass out of parish churches.

Hence the dilemma for diocesan bishops. 

In most dioceses, the number who frequent the older form of the Mass is very small, even tiny. In the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, which has one of the largest traditional Mass presences, Bishop Michael Burbidge estimated that 2.5% of Mass-goers attended the usus antiquior, or older form, of the Mass. In almost every other American diocese it would be a small fraction of that 2.5%, likely less than half of 1%.

Such Catholics are thus rarely of sufficient size to create problems in the diocese, even if they wished to do so, which they generally don’t. To the contrary, while small, such congregations often offer an inspiring witness of young families striving to live a vibrant sacramental life, building up Catholic culture. If the congregation has been stable or growing for some time, they would enjoy the support of a number of priests.

If the bishop wishes to be obedient to Rome, he now has to expel that congregation from a parish church, perhaps into school facilities nearby, as was done in some places in Arlington, or simply eliminate the usus antiquior altogether, as was also done in Arlington. Some parishioners, unsurprisingly, have found that “cruel and unjust,” even though Bishop Burbidge had no desire to do any of this before Rome ordered the crackdown.

Consider another diocese, where the bishop is closing parishes for lack of people. If at the same time he closes the doors of a church on a viable congregation, he risks not only looking cruel but foolish.

Hence, the vast majority of bishops gave Traditionis Custodes a discreet pass, permitting local congregations to continue as they were. That is hardly surprising. For several generations now most liturgical directives from Rome, on any subject and under any pope, are observed only in part, if at all. 

Now Rome has forced the issue, requiring DDW approval to permit such congregations to continue serenely. Thus a bishop, if he wishes to proceed as he has, might be tempted to disregard the law, never a happy situation.

On the other hand, should he enforce with zeal the desires of the DDW, he faces another difficulty. What is he doing about other liturgical abuses? Is the zeal commensurate?

“I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides,” Pope Francis wrote in a letter to bishops which accompanied Traditionis Custodes. “In common with Benedict XVI, 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.’”

If a bishop puts traditional congregations on the street while serenely tolerating liturgical abuses of a grave, even sacrilegious sort, then it would appear that he is quite happy to bear what the Holy Father considers “unbearable.” 

There would obedience to Rome in the letter of the law — expel the usus antiquior — while ignoring the broader context of “abuses on all sides.” Such a selective approach undermines the bishop’s credibility with his own priests and parishioners. Again, not a happy outcome. 

Consider Bishop Edward Scharfenberger’s dilemma in Albany, New York. Within days of the DDW document, the diocese canceled traditional Masses in all of its parishes that offered them. There were two of them. Their few traditional Masses were offered mostly on weekdays. 

How does that look to Catholics in Albany? Albany, in perpetual crisis for years, is now drowning in sex abuse settlements. It is currently suffering the astonishment of its longtime ordinary, Bishop Howard Hubbard, retired in 2014, petitioning to be laicized at the grand old age of 84. Some speculate that he wants to get out ahead of investigations for sexual abuse himself, having already conceded that he mishandled cases over many years. Others speculate that he wishes to marry. It is an appalling spectacle.

Does it enhance reverence for the current bishop of Albany to select, amid the cataract of horrors besieging him, as a pressing priority whether the parish in Little Falls has a traditional Mass on Wednesday morning? He will distinguish himself for quick obedience in Rome; parishioners closer to home are likely less enthusiastic. Hence the diocesan bishop’s dilemma. 

Consider Chicago. Cardinal Blase Cupich implemented the restrictions of Traditionis Custodes in 2021, signing his decree on Christmas Day! Yet it wasn’t until Advent 2022 that he lifted the pandemic dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation. 

Cardinal Cupich earns praise in Rome, but is it possible that Chicago priests and faithful might wonder about pastoral priorities that consider it more important to prevent Catholics from going to a traditional Sunday Mass, than it is to get other Catholics to go to Mass at all? Again, not a happy situation.

In forcing the hand of local bishops, Pope Francis has even undermined his own repeated calls for collegial and synodal administration, including what he wrote in Article 2 of Traditionis Custodes:

“It belongs to the diocesan bishop, as moderator, promoter, and guardian of the whole liturgical life of the particular Church entrusted to him, to regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese. Therefore, it is his exclusive competence to authorize the use of the 1962 Roman Missal in his diocese, according to the guidelines of the Apostolic See.” 

In the vast majority of dioceses worldwide the usus antiquior is a complete non-issue, while other liturgical abuses are present. If Roman action is taken on the former, affecting a miniscule portion of the Lord’s flock, and Rome remains inactive on the latter, it harms the credibility of the DDW. 

In Desiderio Desideravi, his apostolic letter for the first anniversary of Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis decried “a heightened personalism of the celebrating style which at times expresses a poorly concealed mania to be the center of attention … [these] are not the most widespread behaviors, but still, not infrequently assemblies suffer from being thus abused” (#54).

“Not infrequently” is vast orders of magnitude more common than the offering of the usus antiquior. What is the local bishop doing to prevent his parishioners from the abuses the Holy Father laments? 

The pressing question is not what the local bishop is doing about the less than a tenth of 1% of local Masses in the usus antiquior. It’s about the rest of them, which is which why the Roman decree creates a local dilemma.

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Father Raymond J. de Souza is the founding editor of Convivium magazine.

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