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Where Is Peter?

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The Loggia of the Blessings behind the statue of Saint Peter in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013. (Max Rossi/Reuters) Critics of the traditional Mass lift up authority for its own sake.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of Liverpool, the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon, made a very curious intervention into the debate about the church’s traditional Latin liturgy, which Pope Francis has recently tried to suppress in a document titled “Guardians of Tradition.”

In a very brief letter to his diocese, Archbishop McMahon wrote something on the matter worth pondering at length:

One thing that annoyed many Catholics is that those devoted to the old ways of worship often describe themselves as “traditional.” I think they have hijacked the word for their own use. Pope Francis has reclaimed the world “tradition” by clearly stating that the bishops are the guardians of the tradition. Tradition has a particular meaning in theology, it refers to St. Paul when he says that he passes on to us what he has received. In other words, tradition is a living concept not something stuck in the past. The Mass which I celebrate daily is the one which I received from Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II and is therefore the “traditional” Mass. The point I am making is more than simple semantics; it is about the very life of the Church itself.

In fact, I think the archbishop has unwittingly demonstrated a subtle truth about the modern Catholic Church, that the church’s self-conception is now a snake swallowing its own tail. Old catechisms used to say that there were three sources of religious authority in Catholicism: the scriptures, tradition, and the magisterium of the church. And together, these preserve for us the deposit of faith given to the apostles by our Lord. But in the archbishop’s telling, the church exists not for the Gospel, but for itself. Its authority is to teach that it has authority to teach. I propose that this error could only have crept into the church because of the liturgical reform.

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