The matter concerns the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, a small but growing order of several hundred priests, seminarians and nuns that was founded in Italy in 1990 as an offshoot of the larger Franciscan order of the pope's namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.
Then-Pope Benedict XVI launched an investigation into the congregation after five of its priests complained that the order was taking on an overly traditionalist bent, with the old Latin Mass being celebrated more and more at the expense of the liturgy in the vernacular.
Benedict, a great admirer of the pre-Vatican II Mass, had relaxed restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass in 2007.
While the order was in turmoil over this liturgical issue, the dispute at its core comes down to differing interpretations of the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which include the use of local languages in Mass that some considered a break with the church's tradition.
The Vatican in July named the Rev. Fidenzio Volpi, a Franciscan Capuchin friar, as a special commissioner to run the order with a mandate to quell the dissent that had erupted over the liturgy, improve unity within its ranks and get a handle on its finances. In the same decree appointing Volpi, Francis forbade the friars from celebrating the old Latin Mass unless they got special permission, a clear rollback from Benedict's 2007 decision.
In the weeks that followed, traditionalists voiced outrage: four tradition-minded Italian intellectuals wrote to the Vatican accusing it of violating Benedict's 2007 edict by restricting the Latin Mass for the friars, saying the Holy See was imposing "unjust discrimination" against those who celebrate the ancient rite.
Volpi though was undeterred: He sent their founder, the Rev. Stefano Maria Manelli, to live in a religious home while he set about turning the order around.
And on Dec. 8, he took action, issuing a series of sanctions in the name of the pope that have stunned observers for their seeming severity: He closed the friars' seminary and sent its students to other religious universities in Rome. He suspended the activities of the friars' lay movement. He suspended ordinations of new priests for a year and required future priests to formally accept the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and its new liturgy or be kicked out. And he decreed that current priests must commit themselves in writing to following the existing mission of the order.
In a letter detailing the new measures, Volpi accused friars loyal to Manelli of seeking to undermine him and accused some of embezzlement. He denounced a cult of personality that had grown around Manelli, saying it "reveals a great spiritual poverty and psychological dependence that is incompatible with" the life in a religious community.
The sanctions seem harsh when compared to recent actions taken by the Vatican against other much larger religious orders or groups found to have doctrinal or other problems, such as the Holy See's crackdown on social justice-minded American nuns or the Vatican's reform efforts of the disgraced Legion of Christ. In both cases, a papal envoy was named to rewrite constitutions or statutes and oversee reforms, but Volpi's actions with the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate would appear to go much further.
Traditionalists have charged that a double standard is at play, with a conservative, tradition-minded order being targeted for particular sanction on ideological grounds by a pope with a progressive bent.
"I hope that I am not being intemperate in describing this as rather harsh," the Rev. Timothy Finigan, a British priest whose "The Hermeneutic of Continuity" blog is much-read in traditionalist circles, wrote last week of the sanctions.
Francis has called Benedict's 2007 decree allowing wider use of the Latin Mass "prudent," but has warned that it risks being exploited on ideological grounds by factions in the church; Francis has made clear his disdain for traditionalist Catholics, saying they are self-absorbed retrogrades who aren't helping the church's mission to evangelize.
For some, the issue is purely ideological. Christopher Ferrara, a columnist for The Remant, a traditionalist biweekly newspaper in the United States, said Volpi's aim was to make the order conform to the more progressive ideology of other religious orders like Volpi's own Capuchins, which he noted are dwindling in numbers while more conservative, tradition-minded orders like the Franciscan Friars are growing.
"Traditionalism isn't an ideology, it's holding fast to everything that has been handed down," Ferrara said in a telephone interview.
A group of tradition-minded lay Catholics has launched an online petition seeking Volpi's ouster, but it's not clear how many signatories have signed on; an email seeking figures wasn't returned Saturday.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, defended Volpi as a sage, esteemed and experienced administrator and dismissed calls for his removal.
"He knows religious life well, was for many years head of the Italian conference of religious superiors and I think his nomination was a wise choice," Lombardi said in an email to The Associated Press. "While the situation seems difficult and painful, it appears the letter is yet another demonstration that the naming of a commissioner was necessary and that he knows what to do with the powers he has.
"I don't have any reason to doubt it," Lombardi concluded.
The Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at the Opus Dei-run Pontifical Holy Cross University, said he was certain that the pope wasn't opposed to the old Latin Mass and was not aiming to combat it by restricting its celebration with the Friars. He said Francis appeared to be taking the measures to quell the internal conflicts that arose over its celebration, and then took other measures after financial irregularities occurred.
"Liturgy is always a surprisingly sensitive topic," he said. "It can be extremely controversial and can upset communities even when the substance of the disagreement is minuscule. So, I think Francis is pushing for community peace and unity which may entail a temporary reduction in some use" of the old Latin Mass.
"I'm certain that Francis wants unity in Christ and to put a stop to the back-biting between ideological groups in the church, also by those who ideologize the liturgy," he said.