Some Thoughts on the Recent Tridentine Mass Dustup

Traditional Catholics have been weeping and gnashing their teeth since the appearance of Msgr. Charles Pope’s National Catholic Register blog post, “An Urgent Warning About the Future of the Traditional Latin Mass.” I confess I don’t know why. Though Pope relies largely on anecdotal evidence and some odd comparisons to the tragic decline of Catholic schools, his main point about the need for traditionalists to engage in more evangelization is sound. Joseph Shaw, the former head of the Latin Mass Society, disagrees. Writing over at Rorate Caeli, Shaw takes umbrage with Pope’s analysis, pointing out that the numbers don’t lie: the number of traditional Masses around the world is growing; traditional Catholic communities foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life; and traditional Catholics can’t be blamed for the fact their non-traditional brethren of the past two generations or so have been grossly under-catechized and are thus not in a position to truly experience – or have “fruitful participation” in – the Tridentine Mass. I don’t disagree necessarily with Shaw’s first two observations; the last comes a bit too close to cheap blame-shifting for my tastes. I always thought one of the central “points” of the traditional Catholic movement was to correct the catechetical problems introduced by bishops and priests over the past 50 years and that promoting the Tridentine Mass came hand-in-hand with delivering orthodoxy Catholicism. Why does Shaw seem to be disavowing this element of the traditionalist apostolate?

Though clear numbers are hard to come by, no one should doubt for a moment that part of the reason why traditional Latin Mass communities have grown over the past decade is due to the banality of contemporary Roman liturgical life. There are many Catholics who attend the Tridentine Mass for primarily aesthetic reasons and I would not be the least surprised if the growth of “aesthetic traditionalists” has started to slow down in recent years, especially with more priests now offering more reverent forms of the Novus Ordo Missae. Also, it is far from clear that the presence of the Tridentine Mass in a parish means the presence of unsullied Catholic doctrine. In my own hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the sole diocesan parish which offers the Tridentine Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (a second parish offers it on Monday mornings) is run by two priests affiliated with the Acton Institute (which includes its founder, Fr. Robert Sirico) and houses a number of faithful who endorse Acton’s full-throated dissent from the Church’s social magisterium. That old-time religion of free markets may not be preached from the pulpit each Sunday, but no one who attends can deny the ethos of doctrinal exceptionalism which permeates the parish.

And that’s just one example. Many others can be called forth, which is no doubt one reason why the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) has been virulent in warning traditional Catholics against compromising the Faith in exchange for a pretty liturgical service. (For the record, I am far from being in perfect agreement with the SSPX on this matter, particularly as it concerns other traditionalist groups such as the Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King.) To the Society’s credit, it has never seen its mission as being about “the Mass only”; retaining the ancient Roman liturgy is just one part of a much larger project to keep Catholicism alive in the midst of one of the greatest trials to ever face the Church. Many Catholics who attend SSPX chapels do so not just out of fidelity to the old Mass, but because they know they will receive clear instruction in the Faith and proper spiritual direction in the Confessional. Even if some Catholics show up to Society chapels for the Mass alone, it is often not long before they find their eyes opened to a much larger doctrinal, spiritual, and theological reality which has been kept from them for their whole lives.

Returning to Msgr. Pope’s piece and some of the fallout from it, it strikes me as queer that any traditional Catholic should want to distance himself from evangelization as a means to growing and spreading the Tridentine Mass. While Shaw is right that traditional Catholics “didn’t start the fire,” they above all should be dedicated to putting out the blaze. “If you offer it, they will come” are not the words of the Holy Ghost; there is still the Christ-given imperative to “go forth and preach.” That’s not easy work, as Pope notes, but it is necessary work. Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI gave the flock of the Latin Church a wonderful gift when he promulgated Summorum Pontificum in 2007, but it is a gift that will only reveal its full value if the faithful take up to challenge to make it known to all around them. There should be nothing controversial about that.


  1. In my own experience in the affluent West Houston parish where I was received into the Church, and later in other contexts, including the law firm where I work, I have seen a lot of Catholics who have been convinced by the narrative of the “bad old days”, I.e. prior to the Council, and have bought into the notion of the Novus Ordo representing the necessary revolution that the Council wanted. Thus they are not in a position to appreciate the TLM, and in fact would think of it as the “banner” of Traditionalism that Cardinal Seper said it was for Archbishop Lefebvre. And they don’t want to return to Tradition. A further sign of this situation I think I see in the observed reluctance of conservatively formed priests to deviate in their liturgical practice from the Spirit of Vatican II style that they understand their parishioners, or target audience, want, presumably thinking that by jollying them along in the liturgy, the clergy could insinuate some conservative concepts in homiletics or conversations. I do not fault these priests’ good intentions, but I remain to be convinced that their approach is working.

  2. Regarding what I think is the thesis in Woody Jones’ comment, that the combination of the novus ordo mass with conservative doctrine doesn’t work: I agree, for this reason: the collects of the new mass teach very subtly, like poetry does, the concepts of modernism. Just compare them, day by day, or rather feast by feast, with the old mass. Just take ten minutes, find a website that gives the proper of the trad mass and one that gives the new, and you will see that the language in the new mass is exactly the language of both Vatican II and of the Synod. Perhaps you, reader, attend the new mass but have never really thought about what you are saying–this happens a lot in life, and love. You will see what is left out, what is pushed forward, the way advertising or poetry does. It’s so subtle, but it is what has formed these new Catholics in his law office and his church. I personally think of it as the poison bits hidden in the big glossy apple, the traditional skin they retained. The mass teaches us how to pray, and there’s where the virus festers in the Faith. That SSPX also insists on rejecting the other heresies of the Council (civic reign of Christ, ecumenism, collegiality), while the other trad groups (including Rorate Caeli) look the other way (until there’s a hot article, which they regard shrilly for a moment), is to SSPX’s credit, of course. It should be SSPX and Rome. The compromisers who celebrate the old mass and ignore the heretical practices in their own dioceses are so hard to carry.

    1. I should clarify that I am now a parishioner of the Ordinariate, where more traditional thinking applies in very large measure. The liturgy in our new missal could be considered a Great Leap Forward in reform of the reform, with optional prayers at the foot, the old offertory prayers, last Gospel, etc. in Elizabethan English.

  3. What troubles me in a lot of this discussion is the wariness about evangelism, particularly the stark traditional definition of it, the simple proclamation – repent and believe the Gospel. Evangelism is anything and everything but that: and a lot of the caricatures of evangelicals might just proceed from a need to stifle the unpleasant feeling that they have a real charism of the Spirit that is all but lost in the hierarchical Church.

  4. There’s a wariness of evangelism, for sure, you nailed it. But I wouldn’t lay it on the characteristic of hierarchy. I’d lay it on VII, which proclaimed all churches equal, and every single conscience his own church. A denial of hierarchy, actually. If you mean the hierarchy approved the madness, yes they did. They deconstructed themselves. Dignitatis humanae.

      1. It depends on what is meant by “all churches are equal.” If one means all Catholic churches are equal, then certainly Vatican II did affirm that in Orientalium ecclesiarium:

        “3. These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in rite (to use the current phrase), that is, in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church. They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world (cf. Mark 16, 15) under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff.”

        1. But that is not what Ms. Baker meant, as far as I can tell, at least. She seems to be saying that VCII equated Protestant denominations and even non-Christian religions with Catholicism. This is manifestly not the case.

  5. I have been to that late afternoon mass at Old St Mary’s that Msgr Pope celebrates. I think the low numbers at that Mass are more due to logistics. It is every second Sunday so you need to remember that. And to get there requires either a long Metro trip or negotiating DC by car (I get dinged by a traffic camera every time). It ends up seeming like a trip to a show rather than meeting God. The 9am mass is well attended and the people at coffee hour are friendly.

  6. I think many more of us would flock to the EF if some of its proponents were to refrain from writing utterly unhinged articles suggesting that female lectors (lay readers) are the spawn of Satan. And stuff like that. Just sayin’.

    1. And I’m sure you can readily point us to one of those unhinged articles? Or is this another one of your straw men, so beloved of neocons?

        1. What on earth are you talking about? Nowhere in that article (Should Women Be Lectors at Mass?( does it suggest women lectors are the spawn of Satan!! In what way is that specific article unhinged? It seems to me your reaction is pure emotion with no good reasons for it.

          1. The fact that you do not see the serious problems with that article only proves my point. And justifies those of us who steer clear of certain sectors of the Latin Mass Crowd. Believe me, my objections are shared by many Catholics — just ordinary practicing Catholics, the backbone of the Church, whom you derisively dismiss as neocons.

            Feel free to have the last word. Life is too short to argue about this.

            1. Umm, I’m not the same Paul Goings. He’s a different poster. I didn’t say neocons.

              And another thing: I don’t care about having the last word. I just see you are just having a hissy fit, to tell the truth; you haven’t proven your accusation. You just tell me read the article, as if that’s evidence enough. I don’t see it; all I see is a reasoned attack against the advisability of women lectors at Mass. Having women lectors hasn’t helped the Church at all; that’s all there is to it!

            2. BTW, what objections do you have to “these certain sectors of the Latin Mass crowd” as opposed to “ordinary practicing Catholics” as yourself? What deformities do they (and I) have, since you seem to easily judge these “certain sectors” as a bunch of hate-filled mysanthropes?

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