Editorial Note: Recent news released today, February 21, 2023, involving the implementation and interpretation of Traditionis custodes expands upon the contents of this piece, which was published a day ago in French. Please be aware that some of the contents have been overtaken by events. There will be more commentary on the topic published on this website in due course.
For several months, the prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been accused of toughening the application of the motu proprio Traditionis custodes, a document that is supposed to limit the use of the traditional Missal. His adversaries accuse him of arrogating authority to his office, in excess of what was actually given to it in the document. The controversy has just rebounded with the recent publication of an epistolary exchange between the high prelate and a diocesan bishop
“I have just received a letter from the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments which stipulates that the dispensation I intended to grant [for the celebration of the traditional Mass in a parish church, ed.] was reserved to the Holy See. According to the Holy See, I did not have and do not have the authority to grant such a dispensation myself.”
This is the episcopal response – a bit disappointed, it seems – which arrived on January 31, 2023, on the table of an Anglo-Saxon priest responsible for a community attached to the Mass of all time.
Several Vaticanists and academics rely on this exchange of letters in order to highlight the “abuse of power,” of which they believe Cardinal Arthur Roche is guilty, in his interpretation of the motu proprio Traditionis custodes.
The bishop's response – whose name has been blacked out on the facsimile for the sake of anonymity – is preceded by the letter previously sent to him by the prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship.
It is in fact a clarification: the new “patron” of the liturgy cites the code of canon law’s canon 87 on dispensations, which stipulates that a diocesan bishop “cannot dispense laws the dispensation of which is specially reserved to the Apostolic See or another authority.” This is the main reasoning.
However, the high prelate rightly claims that, by virtue of the response to the dubia on Traditionis custodes, published at the end of 2021, it is clear that the ability of a parish church of a diocese to choose to celebrate the traditional Mass depends on the Holy See and not on the local ordinary.
But the devil is in the details: Cardinal Roche's argument is in fact a begging of the question where one takes for granted what exactly needs to be demonstrated. Because in fact, in no place does Traditionis custodes expressly reserve the right to authorize the celebration of the traditional Mass in a parish church.
Admittedly, the response to the dubia, published a few months later, clearly brings out this notion of a dispensation reserved for the Apostolic See, but this response is not, in the opinion of many canonists, vested with the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff.
Indeed, we note that the document in question was not approved “in forma specifica” by the successor of Peter, like the other acts emanating from the various dicasteries. It is only said that “the supreme pontiff was informed and has consented to its publication,” which is a far cry from the formal approval that is usually clearly notified.
It therefore seems a little more proven over the months – and this is the merit of the publication of this epistolary exchange – that Cardinal Roche arrogates to himself a double power: the first at the expense of the supreme authority, with or without the consent of the latter, claiming that his dicastery is competent, by itself, to give the normative interpretation of a pontifical document; the second at the expense of the diocesan bishops who see a clear limit placed on their competences.
This limit is all the more singular in that we find no trace of it in Traditionis custodes. It is a risky bet which is likely to stir up disputes, even protests, on the part of many bishops who believe that the motu proprio’s measures and the response to the dubia have disturbed the peace of their dioceses.