Is Traditionis Custodes an Abuse of Papal Authority? – Michael Lofton

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski recently offered a lecture at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Littleton, Colorado.[1]  The title of the lecture is “The Pope’s Boundenness [sic] to Tradition as a Legislative Limit: Replying to Ultramontanist Apologetics.” In this lecture, he notes the group he desired to engage, namely, “self-styled apologists who have rushed to make podcasts defending the pope’s supposed right to create, abolish, and modify liturgy nearly any way he pleases.” Since the lecture was delivered on July 31, 2021, and very few have engaged this topic in the manner described by that time, it appears Kwasniewski has myself, and potentially Timothy Gordon, in mind, and for this reason, I would like to offer a response.

Kwasniewski begins his lecture by addressing what he perceives to be an inconsistency among apologists who defend the Pope’s authority over the liturgy, in particular, the restrictions to the Missal of John XXIII by the recent motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. He says, “The fundamental flaw of these apologists is that, like their doppelgänger Protestant opponents, they have fallen for the technique of proof-texting.” What are the proof-texts in question? Below are two passages Kwasniewski references, which his opponents propose for their position:

Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power…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.[2]

And:

The Sovereign Pontiff alone enjoys the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification.[3]

Concerning the charge of proof-texting, it should be noted that at no point does Kwasniewski substantiate this claim, as he does not directly engage the immediate context of Pastor Aeternus or Mediator Dei in any way that would show his opponents have misused these texts in support of their position. Moreover, I might add that Kwasniewski’s dissent of the Magisterium concerning its liturgical reforms, which is manifest when he calls the liturgical reforms of Pope Paul VI “illegal”, is, ironically, an expression of Protestant-like dissent towards lawful authority in the church.[4]

One of the sources Kwasniewski appeals to, in order claim that the pope cannot alter the liturgy to the extent Traditionis Custodes has done, is the “Papal Oath” from the Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, which he claims, based on the works of multiple figures, including Francis Dvornik, was used from the time of St. Gregory the Great to the 11th century. This is an odd argument, as it was St. Gregory the Great, according to the scholar Adrian Fortescue, who significantly truncated the Roman Rite.[5] Moreover, one wonders how this accounts for the insertion of the filioque into the Roman Rite, which Catholics must admit was legitimate, since its insertion rested on the authority of the pope over the liturgy. It should also be noted, this insertion was made in the 11th century, so from the time of St. Gregory the Great through the 11th century, there are multiple instances where the pope demonstrated his authority over the liturgy of the Roman Rite.

Continuing with the Papal Oath, Dr. Kwasniewski asserts that the oath limits the pope’s authority over the liturgy in the following words:

I shall keep inviolate the discipline and ritual of the Church just as I found and received it handed down by my predecessors and I shall preserve the Church’s property undiminished and take care it is kept undiminished

It should be noted, Pope Francis, and by extension, Pope Paul VI, who reformed the Roman Rite, have not altered the “discipline and ritual of the Church,” or admitted any novelties, in the sense meant by the oath. What is this sense? The historical context in which this was situated, as noted above, admitted quite a few changes to the liturgy, some of which were novelties. Thus, the context can’t be changes to accidental features of the liturgy, but substantial changes. Interestingly, Pope Pius XII spoke about the possibility of the church changing the matter of the sacrament of ordination to the priesthood, in cases where the matter of the sacrament was not determined by Christ.[6] In other words, the Pope’s duty to preserve the “discipline and ritual of the Church” does not exclude the omission or addition of prayers, or even alterations to the matter of the sacraments, in cases where the Church herself established its matter. Thus, one can see how the Papal Oath does not exclude the kind of liturgical restrictions Pope Francis has made in Traditionis Custodes. Consequently, Kwasniewski’s appeal to the oath, which was never solemnly defined by the church, or even authoritatively proposed, does not negate Traditionis Custodes, or the words of Pastor Aeternus and Mediator Dei.

Next, Kwasniewski appeals to another oath from the Council of Constance in order to refute defenders of the pope’s authority over the liturgy. In particular, he quotes from its 39th session. Aside from the fact that this session is also known as the decree Frequens, the authority of which is highly disputed,[7] and which Kwasniewski seems to take for granted, Kwasniewski’s appeal to this decree is inconsistent. For example, Kwasniewski appeals to an oath outlined by the council, which the council attempted to exercise over the pope, but does not believe the pope is bound to the same council, in the very same session, that demanded the pope obey its demand to call periodic ecumenical councils. The council says:

Each of those claiming to be the Roman pontiff is bound to announce and proclaim the council as taking place at the end of the year…he is bound to do this…and this is under pain of eternal damnation, of the automatic loss of any rights that he had acquired in the papacy, and of being disqualified both actively and passively from all dignities.

Does Kwasniewski believe the pope is subject to obey a council of bishops, who demand that he frequently call councils upon pain of loss of office? Since Kwasniewski denies conciliarism, in the 13th footnote of his lecture, it would seem he is using unequal weights. On the one hand, Kwasniewski believes the pope is bound to an oath delivered by a council in a session that believed it had authority over a pope (i.e. conciliarism) but rejects the very same session that demands the pope’s obedience in calling future Ecumenical Councils. The inconsistency is obvious. Moreover, one can interpret the text from the 39th session in the same way the previous Papal Oath was interpreted. Thus, even if the oath in the decree Frequens was authentically approved, promulgated, and applicable today, it would not negate the authority exercised by Pope Francis in Traditionis Custodes.

Moving forward, Kwasniewski merely asserts, by the authority of his own ipse dixit, that the decisions of Pope Francis, and perhaps Pope Paul VI, are “inauthentic” and constitute an “assault on the integrity of doctrine.” In fact, it has yet to be proven that Pope Francis, or any other pope, have overstepped their bounds and made “inauthentic” changes that “assault” doctrine. On what basis does Kwasniewski assert this? As a liturgical or theological expert? He is neither, since he lacks degrees in both. Is the reader then to take these assertions by sola fide? The unwarranted contempt Kwasniewski shows here towards lawful authority is appropriately rebuked by Pope Paul VI, who stated concerning similar objectors:

Does it belong to this group, and not the Pope, not the Episcopal College, not an Ecumenical Council, to establish which of the countless traditions must be regarded as the norm of faith![8]

Next, Kwasniewski quotes Joseph Ratzinger, from The Spirit of the Liturgy, to substantiate his position:

After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council…The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.

It is noteworthy that these words exercise no Magisterial authority, and thereby, require no assent. However, I am in agreement with what Cardinal Ratzinger said, in the quote above. A pope ought not to flippantly make changes to the liturgy, and I maintain Pope Francis, and Pope Paul VI, have not done so, even if I disagree with some of their prudential decisions concerning the liturgy. I also agree that the pope’s authority is bound to the “Tradition of faith,” but I have already demonstrated above how several significant liturgical changes in church history have not violated this standard. Thus, I would ask what Pope Francis or Pope Paul VI have done that would violate the “Tradition of faith.” Once again, Kwasniewski does not offer any concrete answers, but merely assumes his position and reads it into his source. Additionally, I agree with Ratzinger when he says, “The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.” This is true, as the pope cannot alter the liturgy to the extent that it would violate Sacred Tradition. However, which popes have ever done such a thing? What aspect of Sacred Tradition has been violated with Traditionis Custodes? What changes from the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council have violated Sacred Tradition? There have been no such changes. Rather, figures like Kwasniewski confuse certain liturgical traditions, many of which were themselves novel at one point, with Sacred Tradition itself, which is understood as the deposit of faith handed down to us by the Apostles. Have the popes changed anything handed down in the deposit of faith? To answer in the affirmative would automatically put oneself outside the bounds of orthodoxy, so I suspect Kwasniewski would answer in the negative. Yet, it is what Kwasniewski would have to assume to make his citation of Cardinal Ratzinger relevant.

Kwasniewski also continues with quotes from Pope Benedict VXI from a letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum, which says, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”[9] Does this quote support the notion that the recent Motu Proprio of Pope Francis is an abuse of papal power, as Kwasniewski maintains? It is true that which was once considered sacred cannot be forbidden – on grounds that it is “harmful,” or no longer sacred. However, some practices, though sacred objectively considered, have been discontinued for other reasons. For example, the church has discontinued, in the Roman Rite, the communing of infants. Does this mean the church now considers profane that which was once sacred? No, but it has discontinued this practice, in the Roman Rite, for reasons unrelated to a position that would say the act of communing an infant, objectively considered, is profane. Likewise, Pope Francis can limit the use of the Missal of 62 for reasons other than the claim that it is no longer sacred. In other words, it can be restricted, not on the grounds that it is no longer sacred, which is what Pope Benedict XVI is addressing, but on grounds that it is being used by some Traditionalists, as a means of dissent. This does not mean the Missal of 62 is objectively harmful, but it does mean some have used it in a way that is harmful to the body of Christ. For this reason, I would argue the words of Pope Benedict XVI, as quoted above, are not applicable here.

In what follows, Kwasniewski woefully misrepresents his opponents, when he describes their position as maintaining that the liturgy is “merely disciplinary.” This would seem to be a strawman. Who are these apologists? Surely, they wouldn’t be myself, or Timothy Gordon, who were the only two online apologists, to my knowledge, that seem to be described in the beginning of the lecture. No respectable apologist would claim the liturgy is “merely disciplinary,” and to my knowledge, none have. Rather, the liturgy involves aspects of faith, morals and discipline, and it is the accidental disciplinary aspects that could be changed by a pope, as long as they do not change the faith and morals of the church.[10] Yet, Dr. Kwasniewski has not shown that the liturgical reforms of Paul VI, objectively considered, or Traditionis Custodes, have changed the faith and morals of the church. Rather, he assumes they have, and it is an assumption I would wholeheartedly challenge.

Kwasniewski proceeds to criticize the unknown apologists in question, claiming they present proof-texts divorced from the “living tradition” of the church. Yet, Kwasniewski has not shown anything from the “living tradition” that necessarily lends itself to his position. Ironically, Kwasniewski, as a private Catholic philosopher, has publicly accused Pope Francis of being a “formal heretic,” which is a very novel position, divorced from the “living tradition,” if there ever were one.[11] Which Church Father, which Saint, or which revered Theologian ever conceived that a pope could be publicly judged as a “formal heretic” by a lay philosopher?  In fact, one could appeal to numerous sources that would suggest such a judgment would be gravely rash. Consider the following question, if the Fourth Council of Constantinople (869-870 A.D.), in its 21st canon forbids even an Ecumenical Council from pronouncing a sentence “rashly” against the pope, then how much more should Dr. Kwasniewski be reserved in his judgment of Pope Francis?[12]

Next, Kwasniewski presents four rhetorical and irrelevant scenarios as a poor attempt at a reductio ad absurdum argument against his opponents. Though it is tempting to engage each one, as it would demonstrate how poorly Kwasniewski’s argumentation is, it is entirely irrelevant to the fact that he has the burden of proof in demonstrating that Traditionis Custodes is illegal and has exceeded the authority of the pope. In other words, even if each scenario he presents were absurd, it would not logically follow that any pope has ever exceeded his authority in liturgical reforms. Suffice it to say, Kwasniewski needs to brush up on logic, the history of the mass in the first three centuries, and consider the following from the Council of Trent:

It furthermore declares, that this power has ever been in the Church, that, in the dispensation of the sacraments, their substance being untouched, it may ordain, or change, what things soever it may judge most expedient, for the profit of those who receive, or for the veneration of the said sacraments, according to the difference of circumstances, times, and places.[13]

Towards the end of the lecture, Kwasniewski becomes downright disrespectful towards the Holy Father, as he begins to address Traditionis Custodes, calling it an “error-ridden and canonically slipshod motu proprio” and “a tyrannical use of power.” Upon what basis does Kwasniewski, again, not a formally trained theologian, canonist or liturgical scholar, make such brash claims? It may be true that there are some deficiencies, or even concerns in prudence, especially in the manner in which the Motu Proprio was released, but to say it is “error-ridden” and “canonically slipshod,” as stridently as Kwasniewski does, without anything meaningful to substantiate such claims, is extremely audacious and irresponsible.

Sadly, the mask slips off next when Kwasniewski reveals the motives behind the position he has adopted, as he asks the audience the following question:

How did we reach this point, where instead of a pope who receives, guards, promotes, and hands on tradition, we have a pope who has attempted to unleash a global war against Catholics…

With such vehement contempt for the pope, whom Kwasniewski thinks is at war with Catholics, it is no wonder Kwasniewski adopts such a rash and inflammatory position against Traditionis Custodes, without any real substantiation. I submit, this distorted and biased opinion of Pope Francis is, at least in part, behind how Kwasniewski perceives Traditionis Custodes.

In conclusion, Peter Kwasniewski assumes Traditionis Custodes is an abuse of papal power, but offers no evidence. He presents a litany of non-Magisterial sources, without much context, in an attempt to overturn several Ecumenical Councils and an Encyclical. Moreover, it has been noted that the historical changes to the Roman Rite are, at the very least, comparable to any changes Pope Francis or Paul VI have made, as they all remain in the realm of accidental features. Thus, there is precedent for the extent of changes that have been made in the post-conciliar era, contra Kwasniewski’s position. Finally, Kwasniewski does not adequately engage the texts his opponents present to support the claim that Traditionis Custodes does not exceed the bounds of papal authority, and thus, does not offer a cogent response.


[1]              This lecture was also published as an article on the following website: https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2021/08/the-popes-boundenness-to-tradition-as.html#_edn13  For this reason, I will frequently refer to the lecture as an article, aware that the original form of delivery was a lecture.

[2]              First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus, ch. 3, n. 2. Available online: https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/teachings/vatican-is-dogmatic-constitution-pastor-aeternus-on-the-church-of-christ-243 Accessed 08/12/2021.

[3]              Pius XII, Mediator Dei, n.58. Available online: https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_20111947_mediator-dei.html Accessed 08/12/2021.

 [4]              Consider the following article, where Dr. Kwasniewski speaks about the liturgical reforms being “illegal.” https://onepeterfive.com/does-it-really-matter-if-bugnini-was-a-you-know-what/.

[5]              Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2003), 172.

[6]              Pope Pius XII, Sacramentum Ordinis, 3. Available online: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius12/p12sacrao.htm Accessed 08/11/2021.

[7]              See Francis Oakley, The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[8]              Pope Paul VI, Consistory of the Holy Father Paul VI for the Appointment of Twenty Cardinals, on May 24th, 1976. Available online: https://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/it/speeches/1976/documents/hf_p-vi_spe_19760524_concistoro.html Accessed 08/11/2021. Translation available from Dr. Jeff Mirus, Pope Paul VI on Vatican II. Available online: https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/pope-paul-vi-on-vatican-ii/. Accessed 08/11/2021.

[9]              Pope Benedict XVI, Letter of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” Summorum Pontificum on the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970. Available Online: https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/letters/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20070707_lettera-vescovi.html Accessed 08/11/2021.

[10]             See Francisco Suarez S.J., Defense of the Catholic and Apostolic Faith Against the Errors of Anglicanism, Tr. Peter L.P. Simpson p. 188. Available online: https://www.aristotelophile.com/Books/Translations/Suarez%20Defense%20Whole.pdf. Accessed 08/11/2021.

 [11]             See the fourth screenshot in the following article: https://reasonandtheology.com/2021/06/05/my-response-to-dr-peter-kwasniewski-on-pope-benedict-xiv/

[12]             This canon referenced is available online: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum08.htm Accessed 08/12/2021.

[13] The Council of Trent, Session 21, Chapter 2. Available Online: http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch21.htm Accessed 08/11/2021.


 

View this paper on Academia.edu, here.

7 thoughts on “Is Traditionis Custodes an Abuse of Papal Authority? – Michael Lofton

  1. Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    I certainly hope Mr. Kwasniewski does not waste him time answering this silly, shallow article. My opinion of Christendom College has just plummeted. I thought they were supposed to be, um… more “authentic” than we at Franciscan University. I see that empty papolatry is spreading among the “conservative” Catholic universities.

    1. Michael Lofton

      I am in shocked you are professor somewhere, let alone a Catholic one, since you sound like the average unstable rad trad
      commenter on Twitter.

    2. Michael Lofton

      No wonder. After further investigation, you are just a French professor and have no training in theology, liturgy or philosophy and should be ignored.

  2. henry

    Good article. I think that you should also mention the distinction between abuse of power (in the sense of ultra vires) and an immoral use of power. One can have the legitimate authority to issue an order, while still being morally guilty of issuing it in some partular circumstances. So one could maintain that pope Francis had the legitimate authority and power to issue Traditionis Custodes, while at the same time maintaining that it was immoral for him to do it (at least in the present circumstances). This is a distinction that trads like Kwasniewski don’t seem to consider.

    1. john

      Actually, I would agree that issuing Traditionis Custodes is within Francis’ powers, and it is legitimate for him to issue it. I am not sure what “immoral” means in this context. But I would question whether Francis was wise to issue it.

      1. henry

        Having authority to issue an order simply means that your subordinate has the obligation to obey this order. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t guilty of sin for having given this order.
        For example, if I give the order to my son to sell his favorite toy just because I find sadistic pleasure in seeing him sad, then giving this order was sinful on my part. But that doesn’t mean my son doesn’t have the obligation to obey this order.
        Catholic morality always emphasized that we have to obey orders from superiors that are unjust against us, as long as the content of those orders isn’t sinful in itself (like selling a toy). This is why obedience can become a heroic virtue sometimes.
        So I totally agree with you that Francis had the legitimate authority and power to do what he did (which implies we have the duty to obey). But that that doesn’t mean that he acted morally by doing that.

  3. jamesthe1st

    Let’s a say a pope God forbid decided to ban all of the liturgies of the Eastern Churches and ordered them to use Paul VI’s liturgy, would they be wrong to disobey? I say no, because to do such a thing is against the natural law as it attacks the basic cultural identity of a people. Grace builds on nature, which means the faith requires culture to build on. Completely uprooting centuries out liturgical traditions is an attack on culture and thus destroys the natural foundation for faith to flourish.

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