A new Vatican move against the Latin Mass — with or without canonical authority
By Phil Lawler ( bio – articles – email ) | Feb 10, 2023
Since Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes, restricting the use of the traditional Latin Mass, some bishops have issued dispensations, allowing their priests to continue using the Tridentine liturgy. Now Cardinal Arthur Roche, the prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship, has ruled that bishops do not have the authority to grant those dispensations. But now a new question arises: Does Cardinal Roche have the authority to make that ruling?
In January, Cardinal Roche wrote to an American bishop, telling him that he must ask for permission from the Vatican before granting a dispensation for his priests to celebrate the traditional liturgy. (I have obtained a copy of the cardinal’s letter, and of the American bishop’s letter informing his priests of the Vatican judgment. But the letters are redacted so that I do not know the bishop’s name or his diocese; I am told it is in California.)
J.D. Flynn of The Pillar, who holds a doctorate in canon law, has written a fine piece on this matter, which I commend to your attention. Although he does not offer a clear-cut conclusion, he does note: “Canon law says that laws which restrict the rights of bishops must be delineated explicitly, and the papal motu proprio does not address the prospect of dispensations at all.”
A bishop is responsible for the liturgical practices in his own diocese. In a January letter to an American bishop, Cardinal Roche underlines that point, claiming that in Traditionis Custodes the Pope “restored to the diocesan Bishops their competency as the guardians and promoters of the liturgical life of that part of the Church entrusted to their care.”
Of course a diocesan bishop cannot ignore the liturgical rules of the universal Church. But he can offer dispensations from Church law, when he judges that by doing so he will serve the welfare of the Church in his diocese. A number of American bishops have made that judgment regarding the use of the traditional liturgy.
The letter of the law
In the Code of Canon Law, #87 affirms the diocesan bishop’s authority to give dispensations—and also sets the limit for that authority. So Canon 87 is the key text here.
“Whenever he judges that it contributes to the spiritual welfare, the diocesan Bishop can dispense the faithful from disciplinary laws, both universal laws and the particular laws made by the supreme ecclesiastical authority for his territory or his subjects. He cannot dispense from procedural laws or from penal laws, nor from those whose dispensation is specially reserved to the Apostolic See or to some other authority.”
Cardinal Roche argues that in Traditionis Custodes, the right to grant dispensations is reserved to the Holy See. Thus the bishop cannot grant dispensations without Vatican permission. There’s just one problem with that argument: Nowhere does the motu proprio say that the Holy See reserves the sole authority to grant dispensations. In fact, in his letter to the American bishop, Cardinal Roche acknowledges that “it is for the Bishops to regulate the use of the antecedent Liturgy within their dioceses.”
So how does the cardinal reach the conclusion that the bishop cannot issue dispensations? He cites another passage of Traditionis Custodes, which gives his dicastery the right to “exercise the authority of the Holy See with respect to the observance of these provisions.”
Well, yes; the Dicastery for Divine Worship is authorize to exercise the authority of the Holy See. But that begs the crucial question: What is the authority of the Holy See, as it relates to the diocesan bishops? Cardinal Roche is claiming more authority than the written law affords him. In the most insightful passage of his analysis in The Pillar, Flynn writes:
In the years since Traditionis Custodes was promulgated, Roche has seemed to some Vatican-watchers to gamble, one roll of the dice at a time, on the notion that as long as the Dicastery for Divine Worship is aiming for a robust interpretation of the pope’s liturgical reform, it can also centralize liturgical authority to itself, far beyond the dictates of canon law, and with very little resistance or correction.
Legislating without law
Exactly. The American bishop who received that letter from Cardinal Roche, instructing him to seek permission for the dispensations he has already issued, could make a strong claim that the cardinal has exceeded his canonical authority.
But ultimately that claim would be settled by the Pope, or by someone anticipating the Pope’s wishes.
So as long as the cardinal has the Pope’s support, his bid for greater control will succeed.
Certainly the cardinal is confident of the Pope’s support. He reminds the American bishop that Pope Francis not only issued the motu proprio but also approved the very strict guidelines for its implementation, issued by his (Roche’s) dicastery. So “there can be no doubt about his wishes in this regard.”
The bishop, too, recognizes the reality of the situation. He has written to his priests, telling them that he will need detailed reasons for granted dispensations, to be forwarded to Rome for approval. Moreover, he anticipates that Cardinal Roche and his dicastery will continue to tighten the screws.
While I am convinced that the dispensation will be granted, I am equally convinced that it will be granted only for a limited period of time and that it very probably will not be renewable.
In this latest Vatican move to suppress the traditional Latin Mass, we see a repetition of a pattern that has characterized this pontificate:
- Pope Francis issues a statement (in this case, a canonical ruling) that leaves key questions unanswered;
- The Pope’s subordinates answer those questions, in ways that go beyond what the Pontiff actually said—always to the benefit of liberal interpreters;
- By his silent acquiescence, the Pope effectively ratifies the more liberal interpretations, without ever quite taking those stands himself.
Particularly in recent months, Pope Francis has spoken frequently about the need to decentralize Church authority, to listen to the voices of the faithful, to empower diocesan bishops, to develop a “synodal” style of governance.
But there is no decentralization, no listening, no synodal style—and now certainly no desire to empower diocesan bishops—in his campaign to suppress the traditional Mass.
Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.
Roche’s gamble — and the Vatican law of power (link)
In the implementation of ‘Traditionis custodes,’ Cardinal Arthur Roche has been criticized for an approach that seemed to arrogate authority to his office, beyond the motu proprio’s text.
By J.D. Flynn for The Pillar
February 10, 2023
In the years since Pope Francis promulgated Traditionis custodes, it has fallen to Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Vatican’s liturgy office, to interpret the pope’s policy, and to engage with the diocesan bishops tasked with implementing the policy in their local churches.
As the Dicastery for Divine Worship oversees that process, Roche has been criticized for an approach that seemed to arrogate authority to his office, in excess of what was actually given to it in Traditionis custodes, or in the 2022 reorganization of the Roman Curia, for that matter.
In the Church’s canon law, governing authority ordinarily stems from ecclesiastical office — from a specifically delineated set of prerogatives and obligations which come by official appointment to a particular function.
But while Roche has faced criticism in recent months, he’s also demonstrated a keen insight for the way things sometimes work in the Church; whatever the canon law says, governing authority — or at least real practical power — is sometimes gained by those who act like they have it, and convince others of the same. Decrees are important, to be sure, but in the administrative life of the Church, perception is sometimes more powerful than a decree.
“Power resides,” quoth George RR Martin, “where men believe it resides.”
In the years since Traditionis custodes was promulgated, Roche has seemed to some Vatican-watchers to gamble, one roll of the dice at a time, on the notion that as long as the Dicastery for Divine Worship is aiming for a robust interpretation of the pope’s liturgical reform, it can also centralize liturgical authority to itself, far beyond the dictates of canon law, and with very little resistance or correction.
The cardinal took a big gamble in December 2021, when his office asserted a set of apparently normative interpretations of the pope’s liturgical policies, and reserved to itself some powers which had seemed in the actual text of Traditionis custodes to belong to diocesan bishops.
And in recent months, Roche has made another gamble — telling at least some U.S. bishops that they do not have the authority to dispense from certain provisions of Traditionis custodes, even while — to the mind of many canonists — the papal text itself does not support that claim.
Sources confirmed to The Pillar this week that one California diocese had been recently informed that diocesan bishops are not allowed to dispense from Traditionis custodes’ prohibition against permitting the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in parish churches.
In a letter to at least a few U.S. bishops, the Dicastery for Divine Worship noted that while diocesan bishops are generally permitted to dispense from universal disciplinary laws, they can not dispense from such norms if their dispensation is reserved to the Holy See. That, of course, is the policy established in canon 87 of the Code of Canon Law.
But the dicastery then made a claim which has canon lawyers scratching their heads — namely that all provisions of Traditionis custodes are reserved to the Holy See, and that diocesan bishops, therefore, have no dispensing power over its norms.
The problem is that, on its face, Traditionis custodes does not actually claim that dispensations from its norms are reserved to the Holy See. Canon law says that laws which restrict the rights of bishops must be delineated explicitly, and the papal motu proprio does not address the prospect of dispensations at all.
Roche’s letter on the subject cited a provision of the motu proprio which designated the dicastery to exercise oversight over Traditionis — but that provision made no mention of reserved dispensations.
And since Traditionis custodes did explicitly mention required consultation with the Vatican on some issues, many canonists argue, it might well have mentioned reserved dispensations just as easily. But since it didn’t, the dicastery has now made a retroactive claim to a kind of implicit reservation – an unusual canonical situation, to say the least.
For many canonists, again, the issue seems clear — the law itself requires that Vatican restrictions on a bishop’s governing authority be stated explicitly, and Traditionis does not contain the restrictions that Roche has claimed.
On the one hand, this might suggest simply that the cardinal is out over his skis — that the motu proprio was formulated hastily, and that Roche’s dicastery is trying to implement the pope’s vision despite the actual wording of the text.
And complaints about the dicastery’s approach to legal interpretation might well seem like the persnickety whining of “doctors of the law” — the pontiff obviously wants his motu proprio implemented, and Roche is obviously aiming to curtail bishops looking for ways to soften the policy’s impact.
But many canonists have suggested the issue is much more significant than a quarrel over dispensations.
Some argue that it is a violation of natural justice for the Holy See to promulgate laws, and then interpret them in ways that defy their plain meaning.
And unchecked violations of natural justice, some canonists say, inevitably lead to social breakdown.
But however much canonists fulminate, Roche’s gamble seems to be paying off in the short term. The Pillar has confirmed that bishops who received Roche’s correction on dispensations — however much outside the law it is — are mostly complying with it, albeit perhaps begrudgingly.
While a recourse to the Church’s Apostolic Signatura is possible, no bishop has yet said he intends to make one.
And thus power presumed became power assumed.
For the Church, of course, the consequence of that kind of approach to legal authority is to degrade the rule of law across the whole ecclesial society – to undermine confidence that, when push comes to shove, canon law will be anything more than a set of suggestions, or worse, a set of norms manipulated to say what they plainly don’t, for the sake of those who understand how to use them.
When the rule of law gives way to the law of power, in any society, social dysfunction follows, as local leaders lose the confidence to act on their own authority — lest they be told they don’t actually have it.
But whatever the consequences, will Roche succeed in assuming more authority for his dicastery than it actually has?
To date, he’s already been successful – whether with the tacit consent of the pope, or without his knowledge.
If he wanted to, Francis, could, of course, modify the law to allow Roche the kind of authority he seems to be claiming — or the pontiff could have actually structured his motu proprio in the way Roche reads it.
But the pope, while an inveterate legislator, has not shown much interest in questions about legal theory in the life of the Church, or their impact on social function — and thus it is not clear whether he has explicitly supported the Dicastery for Divine Worship’s approach to implementing Traditionis custodes.
Still, eventually Roche may reach the end of the road — if diocesan bishops raise to the pontiff the problems they experience with the dicastery’s approach to legal interpretation, the pope may decide he’s sympathetic to them, as he sometimes does after personal audiences.
Or the pontiff may decide he’s had enough, and that clipping Roche’s wings is a good enough way to keep the peace.
In the meantime, though, Roche’s continuing approach indicates that while Francis has urged that curial reform be rooted in a respect for just procedures and policies, some of his prefects seem more concerned for the outcome of their work than for the way it is conducted.
How long will diocesan bishops find that situation tenable?
That, of course, remains to be seen.
[End, J.D. Flynn article from The Pillar (link)]