Pope in France: Traditionalists deserve 'a place in the church'

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Lourdes, France

Catholicism is legendarily keen on tradition, which means there’s a traditionalist wing of the church pretty much everywhere. Nowhere else, however, are traditionalists so visible, and, at times, so fractious, as in France, making it all but inevitable that Pope Benedict XVI would address their signature issue while here – the old Latin Mass.

Some commentators, in fact, say the two most dynamic religious movements in France today are Islam and traditionalist Catholicism.

Benedict XVI’s 2007 ruling permitting wider celebration of the old Mass, in a document titled Summorum Pontificium, was widely interpreted here as a victory for the traditionalist camp. It unleashed negative reactions among moderate-to-liberal Catholics, and complaints reached Rome that a handful of bishops were resisting implementation of the decree.

Aboard the papal plane, Benedict called fears that Summorum Pontificium represents a rollback on reforms associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) “absolutely unfounded.” Instead, Benedict argued, it was “an act of tolerance” toward Catholics attached to the old Mass.

Speaking today to the full body of French bishops in Lourdes, the pope offered more extended comments on Summorum Pontificium.

“Some fruits of these new arrangements have already been seen,” he said, “and I hope that, thanks be to God, the necessary pacification of spirits is already taking place.”

Some bishops have objected to the pope’s ruling not only on theological or ideological grounds, but also in terms of its impact on their authority. By allowing priests to choose when and where to celebrate the old Mass, some bishops argue, they have lost power to govern the liturgical life of their dioceses.

“I am aware of your difficulties,” the pope said this afternoon, “but I do not doubt that, within a reasonable time, you can find solutions satisfactory for all, lest the seamless garment of Christ be further torn.”

Most French observers heard in those words a clear expectation from the pope that the bishops will not erect new obstacles to celebration of the old Mass.

Without mentioning the traditionalists by name, Benedict offered a strong appeal to the bishops to make sure they have a place at the table.

“Everyone has a place in the church,” Benedict said. “Every person, without exception, should be able to feel at home, and never rejected … Let us therefore strive always to be servants of unity!”
Some French analysts predicted, however, that this papal charge may prove easier said than done. While the old Mass may be the most symbolically charged demand associated with the traditionalist movement, in many ways it’s merely the tip of the iceberg.

Many traditionalists, for example, are wary of both ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue as they’ve developed after Vatican II, fearing that they lead to compromise or confusion about the differences between Catholicism and other creeds. They also tend to be critical of Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty, worrying that it promotes relativism by treating all religions as equal, and on human dignity, suggesting that it can exalt the human person at the expense of God.

That worldview has long alarmed some church leaders in France.

“Under the cover of a campaign to defend a certain type of liturgy, there is a radical critique of the Vatican Council, even outright rejection of some of its declarations,” said then-Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois in 2006. Vingt-Trois is today the cardinal of Paris and the pope’s official host in France.

One key distinction in the traditionalist universe is between those so disgruntled with the post-Vatican II church that they have broken with Rome, such as the Society of St. Pius X, founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre; and those who remain within the fold, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King.

Both kinds of traditionalism have deep roots in France.

It was here that Lefebvre led what many consider the only formal schism to follow Vatican II, and it was here that Dom Gerard Calvet founded the post-Vatican II traditional movement within the Benedictine order. It’s also here that a vast network of monasteries, priestly societies, lay movements and media outlets keep alive a deeply traditional vision of Catholic faith and worship. Benedictine abbeys such as Fontgombault, Le Barroux, Randol and Trior foster a traditional liturgical style, and a large priestly society called Opus Sacerdotale gives voice to traditionalist views.

tAs he has during other recent trips, Benedict has offered a nod to traditionalist sensibilities while in France. Although he is celebrating the new, post-Vatican II Mass, Benedict is administering communion to people who kneel and receive on the tongue, rather than standing and taking the consecrated host in their hand. Some traditionalists believe that communion in the hand fosters a lack of respect for the Eucharist.

A traditionalist presence at this morning’s Mass in Lourdes was much in evidence. For example, there were several flags featuring the Sacred Heart with a Cross, a traditional symbol of French monarchists. There were also young people sporting the uniform of the Association Française de Scouts et Guides Catholiques, a branch of the scouting movement close to the traditionalist movement.

Critics sometimes charge that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have bent over backwards to accommodate traditionalists, without making similar efforts to reach out to other alienated groups in the church which are often substantially larger. Even in France, observers say that traditionalism, despite its high profile, remains a small minority.

La Vie, a French Catholic journal, recently reported that even after the pope’s ruling opening the door to wider celebration of the old Mass, only 181 of the country’s some 16,500 Catholic parishes actually offer it. One observer estimates that perhaps 50,000 French Catholics regularly attend the old Mass, out of a total Catholic population of around 40 million.

Yet in a country where less than ten percent of all Catholics attend Mass, and where only one in two baptized Catholics still identifies with the church, it doesn’t take huge numbers to make a stir.

The resurgence of traditionalism here has sometimes been a source of heartburn for the French bishops, who privately complain that traditionalists are cantankerous and resistant to authority. That may come as a surprise for Catholics in other parts of the world, who tend to associate conservatism in the church with a deep emphasis on obedience, especially to the pope.

In Europe, however, observers of the Catholic scene distinguish between two forms of traditionalism: the “Mediterranean” model, associated above all with Italy, where the guiding idea is the authority of Il papa re, the “pope-king”; and the “Gallic” model, rooted in France, which sees the pope as the guardian of a body of traditions which he cannot compromise without endangering the faith itself. As a result, the authority of the pope and the bishops is less central than the content of tradition itself.

Benedict’s bottom line, judging from his message today, is that he wants the traditionalists and the rest of the French church to figure out how to work and play well with another – leaving it to the bishops to figure out how to pull that off.

Other important points from this afternoon’s address to the bishops include:

•tA call for renewed commitment to religious education, reminding the bishops that “catechism is not first and foremost a question of method, but of content”;
•tAsking the bishops to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life;
•tA reminder that priests cannot delegate their “specific functions,” such as celebrating the sacraments, to lay people – a sensitive point in a country suffering a priest shortage in which laity are increasingly taking over roles once played by priests;
•tA strong defense of the family based on lifelong marriage between a man and a woman, against pressures to “adapt to the mores and demands of particular individuals or groups” rather than “to promote the common good of society.” Benedict also demanded respect for church teaching which bars divorce and remarriage without an annulment, saying that “initiatives aimed at blessing irregular unions cannot be admitted”;
•tCalling upon the bishops to promote “Frances’ Christian roots,” arguing that church and state should work together to build “a harmonious society”;
•tSupport for ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, which he described as a “noble and obligatory task for every believer,” but a reminder that dialogue must not mean fuzziness about the truth.

Later today, the pope will preside over the close of a Eucharistic procession. Before returning to Rome tomorrow, he will celebrate a morning Mass for sick and disabled pilgrims in Lourdes. As part of that Mass, the pope will administer the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to a handful of pilgrims.

John Allen is filing stories throughout the pope's visit to France and Lourdes. Read all the stories in his daily news column: John L Allen Jr Daily Column. Stories he has already filed include:

Sept 15
Pope in France: A lesson in 'Marian cool'

Sept 14
Pope offers prayerful meditation on Eucharist: Jesus 'past, present and future'
The Cross, Mary, and hope for 'new vigor' in the Church

Sept 13
Pope tells shrunken church, 'Don't be afraid'
Lourdes: Nothing says 'Catholic' like the Virgin Mary
Explaining Benedict's discretion on Islam

Sept 12
No reference to Muslims, but pope makes a call to resist 'disaster for humanity'
Benedict makes a case for 'healthy secularism'
Pope in France: Averting a secular Iron Curtain
Pope in France: Latin Mass an 'act of tolerance'

Earlier stories
Extracts from Sarkozy on church/state relations in France
Cardinal Tauran on the pope's trip to France
The Marian Papacy of Benedict XVI
Benedict hopes to tap the 'creative minority' of French Catholics

(Editor's Note: Some stories are double posted, on NCRonline.org and on NCRcafe.org.)

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