Answering questions on Latin Mass, Vatican decries ‘sterile polemics’

The Catholic Church's department for worship laid out the rationale for a July decree reversing Pope Benedict XVI's rules for the pre-Vatican II rite.

A celebrating priest leads traditional Latin vespers at Rome's ancient Pantheon basilica, in Rome, Italy, Oct. 29, 2021. Pope Francis doubled down Saturday, Dec. 18 on his efforts to quash the old Latin Mass, forbidding the celebration of some sacraments according to the ancient rite in his latest salvo against conservatives and traditionalists. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, file)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A new document issued Saturday (Dec. 18) by the Vatican department overseeing worship clarified restrictions on the Old Latin Mass that Pope Francis issued in July, while lamenting the “sterile polemics” based on ideology that have sowed division in the Catholic Church.

The new document, issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, is a response to questions, or “dubia,” that “have been raised from several quarters and with greater frequency” about Pope Francis’ decree limiting the use of the old Mass.

“It is sad to see how the deepest bond of unity … becomes a cause for division,” the document reads, referring to the sacrament of the Eucharist and Mass.

“As pastors we must not lend ourselves to sterile polemics, capable only of creating division, in which the ritual itself is often exploited by ideological viewpoints,” the Vatican said. “Rather, we are all called to rediscover the value of the liturgical reform by preserving the truth and beauty of the Rite that it has given us.”

Francis’ July decree, called Traditionis Custodes, reversed his predecessor’s concessions for the celebration of the old Mass in Latin, also called the Tridentine Rite. The decree was met with strong backlash and criticism by conservative Catholics who saw it as an attack on their faith life and worldview.

The pope explained that he decided to overturn the 2007 ruling on the old Mass by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI because it was being exploited by reactionaries who opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s, which sought to reconcile Catholic liturgy and practice with the modern era.

Traditionis Custodes required that bishops sign off on any celebrations of the old Mass in their dioceses after determining whether the communities that use it accept and welcome the reforms of Vatican II. It also requires newly ordained priests to get a dispensation from their bishops, with the approval of the Holy See, if they wish to celebrate the old rite.

Saturday’s document takes further steps to make sure that those celebrating the old Latin Mass are conforming to the Second Vatican Council’s reforms. Those priests who are allowed to celebrate the liturgy predating Vatican II must still recognize the value of liturgical reforms through conversations with the bishop, the document reads.

The document also states that it “is not only possible but also recommended” to grant permission to celebrate the old rite for only a limited period of time.

The goal of the decree, the pope explained, was to promote the transition from the old Mass to the liturgy of Vatican II and avoid continuing the parallel celebration of old and new rites in the church. But while the document makes clear that it has no room for dissent on the issue, it encourages understanding for those who champion the old Latin Mass.

“There is no intention in these provisions to marginalize the faithful who are rooted in the previous form of celebration,” the document states, but they serve as a reminder that this represents a concession and not an endorsement of the previous rite.

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And while those priests who refuse to celebrate the post-Vatican II Mass alongside other priests can be denied permission to use the old rite altogether, the document said that before revoking a priest’s permission to celebrate the old Mass, his bishop should give him the “necessary time for a sincere discussion on the deeper motivations that lead him not to recognize the value of concelebration.”

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