Why Traditionalist Catholics Are Upset About Pope Francis’ Decree on the Latin Mass

Let’s go back to the Second Vatican Council.

Last week, Pope Francis upset traditionalist Catholics when he reinstated limits on where, and by whom, the Tridentine Mass—colloquially called the traditional Latin Mass (TLM)—can be celebrated. This decision was a direct reversal of Benedict XVI’s 2007 expansion of the rite. To those unfamiliar with the TLM, the resulting public frustration was confusing. What exactly does this decree do, and why are some Catholics angry?

Part of the answer dates back to Vatican II, the familiar name for the Second Vatican Council, which Pope John XXIII called to usher the Catholic Church into the modern era. In his opening speech at the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII announced: “it is absolutely vital that the Church shall never for an instant lose sight of that sacred patrimony of truth inherited from the Fathers. But it is equally necessary for her to keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world.”

Reaction from Catholics ranged from welcome embrace to outright rejection. Those who rejected the council believed it left behind too much of the tradition the Catholic Church has maintained for millenia. While there were other aspects of the council rejected by traditionalists, the dramatic change of the Mass—from Latin to vernacular—became the lodestar for anti-council Catholics.

Benedict’s 2007 decree meant that priests could celebrate a TLM without the previously necessary approval from their bishop, if it was requested by members of the congregation. At the time, Benedict wrote: “It is true that there have been exaggerations and at times social aspects unduly linked to the attitude of the faithful attached to the ancient Latin liturgical tradition.” What he meant was there were labels placed on those who celebrated the TLM, suggesting they rejected decisions made during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). 

The TLM is more than just a usual Sunday Mass said in Latin—it relies on the 1962 Roman Missal, which was written pre-Vatican II. The Roman Missal is the standard practice of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church, the script of prayers and readings used by the universal church; it was significantly updated in 1969 following Vatican II and has been periodically updated since. The official text of the Ordinary Form—the typical vernacular Sunday Mass—is written in Latin, but the TLM relies on the Missal of 1962 (and occasionally those prior). This means there are reforms enacted during Vatican II that are not reflected in the TLM. 

In a TLM, participants receive the Holy Eucharist while kneeling, and the host is placed directly on the tongue; Vatican II allows for people to stand and receive it in their hand (though they are allowed to receive it directly on the tongue depending on the preference of the priest). While in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, there is a standard form for Sundays, which includes a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a reading from the New Testament, and a Gospel. Pre-Vatican II, the Roman Missal held numerous formulas for Sunday Mass, rarely including a reading from the Old Testament.

While not all—or even most—attendees of a Latin Mass do so to deny the reforms of Vatican II, those that do highlight cleavages within the Catholic Church that Francis seeks to address. Francis asserted that those who seek the TLM out of opposition to Vatican II doubt it is “the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.” 

In the United States, the TLM has grown in popularity among young families and converts. 

The recent decree from Pope Francis, Traditionis Custodes was issued “motu proprio,” meaning under Francis’ own authority. Francis did not ban the celebration of the Latin Mass, but he did place  limits on when, and by whom it can be celebrated. The motu propriogoes into effect immediately, though some bishops are taking additional time to understand the decree before issuing decisions within their own diocese. 

Under the new guidance, local bishops are granted more agency in regulating the celebration. Priests are required to seek authorization from their bishop; for priests who are already celebrating the TLM, the bishop makes the decision, for newly ordained priests seeking permission, the bishop must consult the Holy See for approval. Before a priest can celebrate the TLM, the celebration must be determined to be beneficial to the spiritual growth of participants, rather than a denial of the legitimacy of Vatican II reforms. 

For established congregations that celebrate the Tridentine Mass, Francis’ order requests bishops confirm the efficacy of the TLM in cultivating the  spiritual growth of congregants, and “to determine whether or not to retain them.” Agency rests with the bishops, the decree does not predetermine their decision. 

The decree does restrict where the TLM can be celebrated, specifically excluding practice in  parochial churches—parish churches—and in churches newly established for the purpose of celebrating the Tridentine Mass. Particularly in the United States, where most diocesesan churches are parish churches, clarification of this piece is expected. Otherwise, the TLM will likely be restricted to cathedrals, basilicas, and shrines. If permission is granted to celebrate the TLM using the 1962 Roman Missal, the readings during the Liturgy of the Word must still be done in the vernacular. 

TLM was the standard for Catholic Mass from 1570 to about 1970, when the vernacular version of the Mass was established after the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II was called by Pope John XXIII in 1959, mere months after he was elected into the office. From 1962-1965, the world’s Catholic bishops, as well as scores of observers from inside and outside the Catholic Church for a series of four sessions. 

Prior to 1570, the Mass was celebrated in various rites and vernaculars, including the Latin, or Roman, Rite, but not exclusively. Latin was eventually the most popular language, but the early church celebrated the Mass in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek long before Latin gained supremacy. In 1570, after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Pope Pius V issued the papal Bull Quo Primum to restore “the Missal itself to the original form and rite of the holy Fathers.” Thus came the Roman Rite, the traditional Latin Mass used for nearly 400 years by most Catholic churches around the world, until Vatican II circulated the vernacular Mass as the standard. 

In 1988, in a slight relaxation of Vatican II reforms, Pope John Paul II urged bishops to be generous when offering special dispensation to celebrate the TLM. This still required priests to seek permission from their bishop. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI relaxed restrictions further, allowing priests to celebrate the TLM without permission from their bishop if congregants request the rite. 

When Benedict expanded access to the TLM in 2007, he faced backlash from even outside the Catholic Church. The liturgical calendar in the 1962 Roman Missal is slightly different than widely practiced today, and there are particular prayers within liturgical holidays that are considered controversial. Prior to Vatican II, the Good Friday rite held language that caused tension between Catholics and Jews, particularly prayers for the “conversion of the Jews,” so they may be “delivered from their darkness.” When Benedict expanded access to the TLM in 2007, some Jewish groups called it a “cause for concern” for expanding the use of such prayers. 

In 2007, alongside the expansion, Benedict also requested regular review on its efficacy for the spiritual welfare of the Catholic Church from his bishops. In 2020, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), sent the nine-point survey to bishops, seeking responses to Benedict’s 2007 Summorum Pontificum. Questions included: “In your opinion, are there positive or negative aspects of the use of the extraordinary form?” and “How has the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum had an influence on the life of seminaries (the seminary of the diocese) and other formation houses?”

This recent decree from Pope Francis is in response to the results of the CDF survey. He explained the responses “reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me.” He continued that “an opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was 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.”

“I am nonetheless saddened that the instrumental use of the Roman Missal of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church,’” Francis said. 

Since Francis’ announcement, responses from diocean bishops in the United States have been mixed. 

Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington announced: “In prayer and obedience, I am reflecting on the motu proprio issued by Pope Francis and discerning how best to implement the changes… As permitted by the motu proprio, I intend to allow Masses in the Extraordinary Form to continue in the Diocese of Arlington.”

In Oklahoma City, Archbishop Paul Coakley tweeted: "I have informed our clergy that I am granting temporary permission for those priests competent in offering Mass in the Extraordinary Form to continue to do so in churches that already have an Extraordinary Form Mass on their schedule or in a private setting until further study and clarification can inform an appropriate implementation of this document."