The Young Pope (Image credit: HBO)

The outcry from Catholic conservatives and self-styled “Traditionalists” over Pope Francis’s decision to restore restrictions on the unreformed, pre-1970 Latin version of the Mass has been so angry and anguished that it has obscured several important realities about this controversy. 

Those realities are critical to understanding this drama of near-schismatic proportions, what is in fact at stake, and why Francis did what he did. Let me flag three of the main misconceptions.

First, the pope has not prohibited priests from saying Mass in Latin. In fact, the standard official version of the current missal is in … Latin. Various parts of the world use translations into the vernacular from this basic text, which can also be used to say Mass in Latin. What Pope Francis has restricted is the rite that was codified after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and promulgated by Pope Pius V in 1570. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) called for the liturgy to be updated and renewed, and in 1970 – four hundred years after the Tridentine missal – Pope Paul VI promulgated a new missal, the one nearly all Catholics around the world follow at Mass in their own language. Priests can still celebrate “the Latin Mass,” just with the new format and formulas which express a different ecclesiology and theology than the older version. “If you like the Latin Mass, you can keep the Latin Mass, because the Missal of Paul VI is the Latin Mass,” Adam Rasmussen, an adjunct professor of theology, wrote at the blog Where Peter Is

By the way, there is an interesting debate on what to call the older rite now. Because the unity of Latin-rite, Roman Catholicism church is expressed in celebrating Mass in the same manner, the late Pope John Paul II in 1988 had set restrictions on when clerics could celebrate the older, Tridentine Mass, as it was often called. When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI issued an apostolic letter, Summorum Pontificum, in 2007, he loosened those restrictions and called the old rite the “Extraordinary Form, or “EF” as you may see it used in the social media shorthand preferred by ecclesial geeks like me.

Now that Francis has returned to the status quo ante, and then some, there is a new debate on what to call the old Mass. (I prefer to call it the Tridentine Rite, but the Benedictine liturgist, Anthony Ruff, has a good blog post on the pros and cons of all these labels). 

The second misconception, which can be deduced from the brief history above, is that Francis’s decision was the precipitous and peremptory action of a strongman “Peronist” pope, as Crux’s Vaticanista John Allen has described Francis. 

This drama with the rightwing of the Catholic Church has been going on for more than fifty  years now, and for that entire time popes from Paul VI to John Paul II, and, most especially, to Benedict XVI, have bent over backwards and even twisted tradition and basic reasoning to make special carve-outs for the Trads. And at every turn, the rightwingers balked or rebelled.

On the contrary. This drama with the rightwing of the Catholic Church has been going on for more than fifty years now, and for that entire time popes from Paul VI to John Paul II, and, most especially, to Benedict XVI, have bent over backwards and even twisted tradition and basic reasoning to make special carve-outs for the Trads. And at every turn, the rightwingers balked or rebelled. I was in Rome working for Vatican Radio in 1988 when French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a leader of the Traditionalist rebellion, consecrated four bishops against John Paul’s orders and led his followers into a formal schism. John Paul, with the guidance of his doctrinal wingman, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – who after John Paul’s death in 2005 would be elected Pope Benedict XVI – created various avenues for the rightwingers to remain. Lefebvre’s Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) was eventually deemed not formally schismatic, sort of pseudo-schismatic. But what else do you call it when a group rejects the legitimate reforms of a duly called ecumenical council? For them, no amount of accommodation would be enough.  

Even those Trads who took advantage of the Vatican’s munificence to declare themselves formally in communion with Rome continued to cause trouble, maybe even more than those who went rogue. They claimed that “their rite” was superior to the reformed Mass of 1970, and they brought strife to parishes and dioceses almost everywhere they went. They have been such a locus of political and pastoral and theological tension that Francis was forced to undo what Benedict had launched as an effort to accommodate them. The rightwing was not interested in playing ball. Benedict “never intended to start a movement, still less an ideology!” as one of the retired pope’s closest collaborators told Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter. But that’s what happened, and it wound up hurting the entire church. “They are a small minority within the Church that grew in prominence during the last pontificate to the point that they became the tail wagging the dog,” wrote Robert Mickens of La Croix

In fact, despite the most indulgent possible treatment from Rome and the hierarchy, the Tridentine proponents never became a movement either, as they claimed they would.

And this is the third and perhaps biggest misconception – that Pope Francis is throttling some burgeoning traditionalist revival of a superior form of Catholicism that will reinvigorate church. “The truth will triumph, because the traditional Latin liturgy of the Mass expresses the truth of the faith in a more complete and beautiful way, and that is a work of God and God will also triumph over some of the ecclesiastics who today are powerful in the church,” as Bishop Athanasius Schneider, a Traditionalist bishop in Kazakhstan, said in early June.

The idea that Catholics are pining for the Tridentine Rite is the trend story that never dies. It is the line that Trads have been feeding everyone for decades, and it was amplified by church leaders like Pope Benedict XVI, who in broadening the use of the old rite in 2007 said that his move was prompted by ongoing requests from around the world and that “even young people” were drawn to it. First Things editor and Latin Mass loyalist Matthew Schmitz echoed that view in a 2017 article in the Catholic Herald: “Wherever one looks, the kids are old rite.” 

This idea was repeated so insistently and so authoritatively that it was too good to check out, and secular outlets could hardly resist features on “young fogeys” drawn to an ancient High Mass with all manner of lace and finery and smells and bells. It was so appealing, dramatically and visually, that it became the entire premise of the The Young Pope, the 2016 HBO series. “It’s trendy to be a traditionalist in the Catholic church,” The Economist wrote in 2012. “Modern life is ugly, brutal and barren. Maybe you should try a Latin Mass,” went a 2020 New York Times piece that claimed such practices are “likely to reflect Christianity’s only viable future in a secular age.”

The problem is that none of these anecdotes are supported by data. In fact, the numbers show a tiny number of Tridentine faithful whose ranks are not growing, and certainly not globally. 

The Latin Mass Directory website provides the best available metric for gauging the availability of the old Tridentine Mass, and it shows a total of 1,684 “sites” around the world that offer the 1962 Mass, a liturgical rounding error in a worldwide church of more than 1.2 billion Catholics. Moreover, many of those sites only offer the Old Mass sporadically. 

Image credit: Latin Mass Directory

Above all, the list clearly demonstrates how geographically skewed even this tiny minority is: the United States, which is home to just six percent of the world’s Catholics, is home to nearly forty percent of all Tridentines Masses, with 658 sites. France, Great Britain, and Italy are the next most popular, with 199, 157, and 91 sites (which can be a parish or other chapel or designated spot) respectively. Indeed, Europe and the Anglosphere account for more than eighty-six percent of all Tridentine sites, and if you removed the fifty-seven sites in Brazil – the world’s most populous Catholic country – there would be hardly any in Latin America, Africa, or Asia, the continents where the Catholic population is largest and fastest-growing. 

Still, the New York Times ran a long 2017 feature by Matthew Schmitz about how the old Latin Mass was “thriving” in Nigeria, even though it has precisely one church offering a Latin Mass every Sunday, in a country of 24 million Catholics. 

Even the overall statistics don’t tell the whole story. In recent years, a number of commentators, including conservative Catholics who support the Tridentine rite, have been warning about the weaknesses of the growth narrative being told about the Old Rite. 

“It seems that a ceiling has been hit. The Traditional Latin Mass appeals to a certain niche group of Catholics, but the number in that group appears to have reached its maximum,” Msgr. Charles Pope, a traditionalist priest in Washington, DC, wrote in a 2016 column for the conservative National Catholic Register. 

“It seems that a ceiling has been hit. The Traditional Latin Mass appeals to a certain niche group of Catholics, but the number in that group appears to have reached its maximum,” Msgr. Charles Pope, a traditionalist priest in Washington, DC.

When Benedict XVI first authorized a wider use of the Tridentine Mass in 2007 – the policy that Francis just revoked – there was a spike in attendance, according to Pope, just as he and others promised it would. But that enthusiasm waned, something they did not expect.

“In my own archdiocese, although we offer the Traditional Latin Mass in five different locations, we’ve never been able to attract more than a total of about a thousand people. That’s only one-half of one percent of the total number of Catholics who attend Mass in this archdiocese each Sunday,” he wrote. “One of our parishes generously offers a Solemn High Mass once a month on Sunday afternoon, a Mass that I myself have celebrated for over 25 years. But we have gone from seeing the church almost full, to two-thirds full, to now only about one-third full.”

Pope cited other examples of Tridentine parishes drawing very small numbers of adherents, not enough to sustain itself, and others have reported the same phenomenon. 

“I support the TLM [Traditional Latin Mass] but reject the whole ‘TLM masses filled with young people’ thing as inaccurate,” tweeted a priest from Michigan during the intense online debate over Francis’s move. “Our diocese gives tremendous $ to keep our TLM parishes open precisely because they don’t tend to grow. It all depends on lots of things, but not the type of Mass.”

In 2019, one effort by fans of the Tridentine Mass to provide research bolstering the claim that the rite was “quickly growing” and its followers more devout and orthodox than other American Catholics only served to show how hollow such claims are. In an article for First Things, a conservative magazine, sociologist Audra Dugandzic revealed how flawed the so-called study was, the chief problem being that it was a survey of self-selected Tridentine Mass attenders. 

The tendency of the Latin Mass fans to self-select, to gather intentionally and often with greater effort than many parishioners, is a natural function of their passion and that’s a chief reason why they can project an image of a growing cohort. They are visible and they are often outspoken about their beliefs. 

If they are small, that does not mean they are without influence. To call them liturgical One Percenters would be vastly overstating their size. But not their reach. The popularity of the Latin Mass almost perfectly tracks the opposition to Pope Francis, an opposition fueled by a conservative political agenda, lots of money, and a platform in industrialized Western countries. “The Anglo-traditionalists have targeted the Francis pontificate from day one, conducting a guerrilla warfare against this papacy,” tweeted Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent for The Tablet of London and author of The Outsider, a book about the conservative opposition to Francis. “The Pope is saying you can’t use the liturgy in this war anymore.”

The visibility and influence – in politics and, until Pope Francis came along, at the highest levels of the Catholic Church – of this uber-elite Tridentine cohort is a principal reason why you are seeing so much coverage of this controversy. Many champions of the Tridentine Rite remain, and many of them have vowed to resist the pontiff’s new law, and some may openly break with Rome. 

But it’s important to remember that their departure would be as much a splinter as a schism. The real future of Catholicism lies elsewhere, and always has. 

David Gibson is a journalist, author, filmmaker, and Director of the Center on Religion and Culture.