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Cops and Popes and Latin Mass

As Attorney General Merrick Garland targets pro-lifers, Pope Francis takes aim at trads.

(Andrewgardner1/Creative Commons)

Earlier this year, Catholic media outlets were abuzz over a leaked document from the Federal Bureau of Investigation warning of extremism among traditional Catholic groups. Publications were quick to point out that the FBI had in its crosshairs adherents of the traditional Latin Mass, a group that has been on the rise ever since Pope Benedict XVI issued a 2007 motu proprio reauthorizing its celebration, largely at the discretion of the celebrant, in lieu of the post-Vatican II “Novus Ordo” liturgy. 

Such coverage of the FBI crackdown on traditional Catholics has, however, been somewhat misleading. Despite the document’s shoddily sourced contents, the real government crackdown is not on those Catholics who attend the Latin Mass, but on those who still adhere to traditional Church teachings on bioethics and sexual morality. Of the groups mentioned in the FBI’s now-infamous document, only a handful actively promote the Latin Mass over the Novus Ordo—yet all are outspoken in their support of traditional Catholic reproductive ethics and rejection of contraception and abortion.


To make matters trickier for those targeted by the document, traditional Catholics will soon represent some of the only voices in American public life who still defend such values. One of the most compelling takeaways from Mary Eberstadt’s recently reissued book, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, is the stark reminder that mainline Protestantism in America, long a bastion of the religious right voting bloc, is in active free-fall. “Across the board,” she writes, “donations are down, attendance is down, attendance of the young is down especially, and missionaries—a relevant proxy for vibrancy of belief—are diminishing apace.”

Especially as the spark of mainline Protestantism fizzles, Catholics can expect more concentrated ire directed at those who are actively pro-life whenever the reigning federal administration holds opposing views. The January case of Mark Houck is just one example of what may be in store.

Arrested for what the Wall Street Journal suggested was an attempt “by Merrick Garland’s Justice Department to score political points,” Houck, an anti-abortion protestor with a habit of praying outside abortion clinics, was accused of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE Act) after an altercation involving his son and a pro-abortion volunteer. Houck was ultimately acquitted—but not until after a SWAT team of FBI agents burst into his home during an early-morning raid, traumatizing his wife and seven children.

Selective justice on behalf of Garland’s department doesn’t just extend to neighborhood pro-life activists but to household names, too. During a hearing in March, Alabama Republican Sen. Katie Britt testified that according to a whistleblower, the DOJ had discouraged U.S. Marshals from enforcing laws against protestors illegally targeting Supreme Court justices known to hold religious views against abortion.

Perhaps an even more controversial example of government punishment directed at pro-life Americans lies in the case of those who opposed Covid-19 vaccinations on anti-abortion grounds. Even as some Church leaders argued that the inoculations were morally sound, many among the faithful conscientiously objected, in some cases at the expense of public-sector jobs.


All of this is not to say that antipathy to the traditional Latin Mass doesn't exist and that all the public wrath is simply abortion-related. Latin Mass antipathy does exist. It’s just that it’s not coming from the government.

It is coming from within the Church’s own hierarchy. Even if they wanted to, federal officials could never stem the celebration of the Latin Mass as effectively as Pope Francis can.

The most prominent example of the Pope’s attempt at “strangulation of Latin Mass congregations,” as Ross Douthat put it in a March column, is the publication of Traditionis Custodes, a moto proprio that largely rolls back the permissiveness Pope Benedict had extended to the older liturgy. Since the document’s release, there’s been an ongoing slew of messaging from Vatican officials, most of which point towards a bureaucratic campaign to eventually do away with the old Mass altogether—all as high-ranking clergy of left-leaning ideological slants flout Church doctrine largely unopposed.

“There is the two-front war that Rome finds itself fighting on doctrine and liturgy, trying to squash the church’s Latin Mass traditionalists while more gently restraining the liberal German bishops from forcing a schism on Catholicism’s leftward flank,” as Douthat put it.

But in America, muted signs of hope for those Catholics who favor the centuries-old liturgy persist. Quietly, bishops across the U.S. are turning a blind eye to some of the restrictive demands of Traditionis Custodes, and in some cases, even celebrating the Latin Mass with local traditional parishes.

In South Bend, Indiana, Bishop Kevin Rhoades benevolently celebrated the Latin Mass in January at St. Stanislaus, where he had previously installed a monsignor from the Fraternity of St. Peter to fill a growing demand for the older liturgy. In Columbus, Ohio, Bishop Earl Fernandes, the first Indian-American bishop, cheerfully celebrated the Latin Mass at St. Leo’s Oratory, as parishioners packed the pews and stood along the walls. Even Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whose political sympathies seem to oscillate between the more traditional-minded and more liberal flanks of the Church, wrote bravely in a recent Wall Street Journal column of the need for inclusion for “Young people who are spiritually thirsty for a sense of awe, reverence and transcendence but who have difficulty finding a church to satisfy their needs.”

That it is the young who will suffer if the Vatican continues to squelch tradition is underscored by comments from actor Shia LaBoeuf, who made headlines when he told Bishop Barron in 2022 that “The Latin Mass affects me deeply.” Why, Barron asked? “Because it doesn’t feel like they’re trying to sell me a car.”

Bishops and cardinals like Rhoades, Fernandes, and Dolan are tapping into a reality that the late Cardinal Pell, supposedly the author of the “Demos Memo,” was also trying to articulate. In a viral, anonymous blog post, the author called the pontificate of Pope Francis “a disaster,” pointing out among other complaints that the Holy Father had fueled confusion by elevating voices that flout sexual morality, while engaging in “active persecution” against those who adhere to traditional teaching.

These Church leaders seem to understand a finding Eberstadt emphasizes in her book, namely that a “strict church is a strong church”—that social science proves unequivocally that churches that adhere to strict teachings and resist the urge to devolve into “Christianity Lite” are the only ones that survive in decadent ages. They may also understand that Latin Mass churches, and more reverent parishes in general, tend to be more racially diverse (Eberstadt has a convincing passage about the “trad” nature of African Catholicism), and that, anecdotally at least, they boast better seminary recruiting numbers.

In May, Pope Francis called these Catholics symptomatic of “a nostalgic disease.” But for those who hope for holy, orthodox, diverse priests who can offer spiritual guidance and inspiration as Garland tightens the screws on pro-life Americans, we can only hope the disease spreads.