Back to Forum

Unifying the Liturgy, Decentralizing the Government in Pope Francis’ Reforms

Liturgical “styles” and the Church’s structures of government are not merely exterior or organizational aspects of the life of the Church. They have theological and ethical value. In Traditionis Custodes[1] (TC), Praedicate Evangelium[2] (PE), and Desiderio Desideravi[3] (DD), Pope Francis invites us to consider the ethical weight of liturgical practices and power structures in the Church. As ethicists and liturgical theologians[4] have recently started to remind us, government structures and liturgical practices are sensitive places where power is exercised in the Church, thus in constant need of discernment to correct distortions that over the centuries may compromise the mission of the Church to preach the good news of the Gospel. The Church cannot be reduced to any human institution, and its nature is absolutely singular; however, being carried out by human beings, the Church’s practices and structures must be the object of discernment so that they respond to the missionary vocation of the Church rather than to ambitions for power of its individuals. Church leaders must collaborate with the people of God to uncover liturgical practices and power structures that promote a worldview not conformed to the Gospel and that foster vices rather than virtues.

It would be enough to spend ten minutes on the web to realize that a “liturgical sensitivity” for older forms of the Eucharistic celebration is not simply an aesthetic question or a mere matter of taste. In DD no. 31, Pope Francis says, “It would be trivial to read the tensions, unfortunately present around the celebration, as a simple divergence between different tastes concerning a particular ritual form. The problematic is primarily ecclesiological.” Studying TC, Alexander Turpin[5] says that, since Trent, the Popes insisted on the universal use of the Missale Romanum, aiming at safeguarding the unity of the Latin Church. Spiritual practices may be instrumentalized to produce certain feelings in the congregation and consolidate a particular hierarchy of power in the Church and the world. How we pray, what we pray for, how the space is arranged, and the people with whom we are allowed to celebrate and share the Eucharist are all elements that shape a specific worldview. Some groups linked to the Traditional Latin Mass are also tied to a rejection of the Second Vatican Council, ideologies of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, anti-vax conspiracies, a far-right agenda, and white supremacy theories. For some “Traditional Catholics,” it is not even a tragedy that many Canadian children died in Catholic residential schools, as Declan Leary writes in The American Conservative, “Whatever sacrifices were exacted in pursuit of that grace—the suffocation of a noble pagan culture; an increase in disease and bodily death due to government negligence; even the sundering of natural families—is worth it.”[6] For some of these groups, TC amounts to an act of war conducted by Pope Francis.[7] Liturgy becomes a moment to promote a political agenda and a specific worldview. Through liturgical practices, a hierarchy is established, and those people that do not conform to the customs and norms of the community are excluded from full participation. However, in DD 5-6, the Pope says that it belongs to the missionary vocation of the Church to care that “all can be seated at the Supper of the sacrifice of the Lamb and live from Him.” The only requirement is the “garment of faith” that comes from listening to the Word of God. All people should know that they are invited.

To safeguard the unity of the Church, Pope Francis asks the bishops and all the faithful to discern how their communities celebrate the Eucharist. Francis suggests that synodality and a “healthy decentralization” of the power structures of the Church are two criteria to bear in mind as Church’s leaders regulate the liturgical life and the government of the Church.

First, the Pope not only asks the bishops to cultivate synodality, but he himself starts this process. Before writing TC, Francis instructed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to circulate a questionnaire on how Summorum Pontificum has been received and actuated. With this survey, he realizes that what started as a sincere attempt to heal the division created in the Church by mons. Lefebvre and reach out to Christians that felt more at home in liturgies celebrated according to the 1962 Missal has degenerated, widening the gap with the reform launched by Vatican II. In the introduction of TC, the Pope writes, “having considered the wishes expressed by the episcopate and having heard the opinion of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I now desire, with this Apostolic Letter, to press on ever more in the constant search for ecclesial communion.” The Pope asks the bishops to share the burden of this decision with him since they also share the solicitude for the whole Church. Although legally binding, TC has more the language of a plea than a list of norms. Addressing the bishops, in the letter accompanying TC, the Pope says, “It is up to you to authorize in your Churches, as local Ordinaries, the use of the Missale Romanum of 1962.” He concludes, “I pray for you. You pray for me.” In PE no. 10, Francis clarifies that all baptized are missionaries. Communion means that the people of God, the bishops and the Pope must walk together and listen to the Holy Spirit.

A second aspect highlighted by the Pope is the decentralization of the government structures of the Church. In TC (art. 2), Pope Francis acknowledges the responsibilities proper of Rome and Rome’s role in defining general guidelines while at the same time giving back to every bishop his right and duty to care for the liturgical life of his communities. In PE (chapter II), Francis promotes a “healthy decentralization” of the government of the Church. Bishops should be autonomous in solving all the issues pertinent to their role as teachers and pastors and all those issues that do not touch the unity of doctrine, discipline, and communion within the Church. Although autonomous in all these areas, every bishop will act with the unity and the communion of the Church in mind. However, unity is not uniformity. Francis is also careful to urge that Vatican officials be chosen among people coming from different countries and different backgrounds, so that the universality of the Church is reflected in its structures of government. The Pope is sensitive to cultural differences and values them as long as they are faithful to the Gospel.

John O’Malley says that with the changes suggested in PE, Pope Francis “implicitly empowers the periphery,”[8] seeking to reverse a “papalization process” that the Roman Curia and the Church underwent during recent history. Austen Ivereigh agrees that the reform inaugurated by Francis “[…] aimed at nothing less than a conversion of the way power is exercised in and from Rome, and by extension in the global Catholic Church.”[9] The Pope even gives concrete suggestions of how decentralization may be carried out (see PE art. 26 pr. 4). Through new technologies and means of communication, Vatican officials may live in different parts of the world and join the dialogue on issues presented to their dicastery. The Pope says that videocalls, if sufficiently safe, may facilitate collective work without always requiring physical presence in Rome.

Although many “Traditional Catholics” praise the sense of mystery aroused by the Tridentine Mass and argue that people “feel good” during these liturgies, we must remember that liturgies are not primarily spiritual spas; they should offer a counter-narrative to forms of unjust power in the Church and in society. The parish can become a provider of services with the goal of making the parishioners experience the beauty of a good liturgy and feel that they have accomplished their religious duty. However, the primary purpose of the liturgy is the edification of the Church. Communion with the living body of Christ, not ideologies and political agendas should be at the center of Catholic liturgies. Liturgies should promote a narrative that challenges the excesses of ecclesiastical and worldly power and suggest that the least powerful among us are particularly welcomed at the table of the Lord. An actual renovation is possible to the extent that individuals and communities engage in power-sharing practices and relationships for more inclusive solidarity. If during the early centuries of the Church, liturgy played a significant role in criticizing the unjust structures of power of the Roman Empire, today it should promote languages, rituals, symbols, and images that resist an unjust status quo in the Church and the world, especially on the face of so many people suffering and excluded from full and active participation in the liturgy and in the government of the Church. The liturgy and governing structures of the Church should show that power in the Church is a shared responsibility and not the particular charism of a selected group making decisions for the entire people of God.

Federico Cinocca is a Doctoral Candidate in Theological Ethics at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. After studying at the Theological Faculty of Milan, he took his STL at the Gregorian University in Rome. His main areas of interest concern the intersection between ethics and liturgy, power structures, vulnerability, and conscience.

[1] See Austen Ivereigh, “The Mass That Divides,” The Tablet, September 4, 2021, 4-5.

[2] See Austen Ivereigh, “Pope Francis’ Reforms Make the Heresy-hunting Vatican of John Paul II Barely Recognizable,” National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2022 accessed July 10, 2022, https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/pope-francis-reforms-make-heresy-hunting-vatican-john-paul-ii-barely-recognizable; Brian Davies OP, “Comment: Praedicate Evangelium,” New Blackfriars 103, no. 1105 (2022): 319-21.

[3] See Austen Ivereigh, “Wonder of the Mass,” The Tablet, July 9, 2022, 4-5.

[4] See Bruce T. Morrill, Practical Sacramental Theology: At the Intersection of Liturgy and Ethics (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021); Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 2000); Liturgy + Power, ed. Brian P. Flanagan and Johann M. Vento, The Annual Publication of the College Theology Society 2016, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2017); Practicing Catholic: Ritual, Body, and Contestation in Catholic Faith, ed. Bruce T. Morrill, Joanna E. Ziegler, and Susan Rodgers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

[5] Alexander Turpin, “The Tridentine Genius of Traditionis Custodes,” Ecclesia Orans 38, no. 2 (2021): 251.

[6] Declan Leary, “The Meaning of the Native Graves,” The American Conservative, July 8, 2021, accessed July 10, 2022, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/the-meaning-of-the-native-graves/

[7] See “LifeSite Journalists React to ‘Cruel,’ ‘Hateful’ New Motu Proprio Restricting Latin Mass,” LifeSiteNews, July 19, 2021, accessed July 15, 2022, https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/lifesite-journalists-react-to-new-motu-proprio-restricting-latin-mass/

[8] John W. O’Malley, “How Did Popes Become So Powerful–and Can Pope Francis Reverse the Trend?,” America, June 30, 2022, accessed July 10, 2022, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/06/30/papal-authority-omalley-pope-francis-243220

[9] Austen Ivereigh, “Pope Francis’ Reforms Make the Heresy-hunting Vatican of John Paul II Barely Recognizable.”