The recent motu proprio – decree issued on his own initiative – of Pope Francis, along with its prefatory letter, clearly express the intent to abolish, at least eventually, the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass. The decree causes great consternation and grief to those devoted to the old Latin Mass. The growing availability of the Traditional Latin Mass under the previous two popes has now been met with a determined effort to block and eventually end it.
The stated reason for the curtailment, and planned obsolescence, of the Traditional Latin Mass is that it has turned out to be divisive. Instead of drawing Traditional-leaning Catholics closer into the fold, the Mass is to blame for pitting them against both the Pope and the New Order of Mass promulgated in 1970. The Pope’s intention to do away with the Traditional Latin Mass is, he declares, for the sake of the unity of the Church.
Now the sin and crime of ecclesiastical disunity is called “schism.” “Heresy” involves actual doctrinal error, such as denying the divinity of Christ. Thus, the Pope is basically asserting that attachment to the Latin Mass is leading people into schism.
But let us look carefully at the proper definition of “schism” as stated in Canon Law 751:
Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
What we must note in these definitions is that heresy, apostasy, and schism are acts of an individual. True, one who attaches himself to a schismatic group does become schismatic by that fact. But in the present case of the motu proprio of July 17, no group dedicated to the Traditional Latin Mass is declared to be schismatic.
Because heresy, apostasy, and schism are fundamentally acts of an individual, guilt or innocence must be determined on an individual basis also, at least by default.
It would be unjust to punish the innocent along with the guilty. This point is made very clear in Gen. 18, and in verse 23 in particular. Abraham asks God, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” As the conversation—negotiation—proceeds, it becomes clear that God is so unwilling to condemn the innocent along with the guilty that He would have spared Sodom if there had been even 10 just souls there.
When a penalty or a remedy is to be applied, one must first ascertain whether it is really applicable, and in some questions the effectiveness of the penalty or remedy must also be considered. It is of Natural Law—which not even the Pope can change or disobey—that the accused has a right to self-defense. No such opportunity has yet been allowed to those whom he deems schismatic.
Now some will say that our obedience must be unquestioning and absolute. They might refer to dogma defined by the First Vatican Council, 1870, in the decree “Aeterni Patris”:
Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.
In this way, by unity with the Roman Pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith, the Church of Christ becomes one flock under one Supreme Shepherd.
This is the teaching of the Catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.
Well and good, but it is not entirely clear that the sacred rites of the Church fit neatly and squarely under the heading of “discipline and government of the Church.” For one thing, some matters relating to the sacred rites are matters of divine law and cannot be changed or undone even by the Pope (e.g., the indissolubility of a valid marriage).
It is not my competence, in more than one sense of this word, to discuss these last points, but I would like to close with a consideration that should be in everyone’s purview, the consideration of mercy and compassion. Since yesterday was the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, who experienced Christ’s tenderness in an extraordinary degree and had, in return, and extraordinary love for Him. Let us keep in mind the great words from Shakespeare:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
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