Survey showing US priests dislike new Missal: not what it seems

There has been some buzz in the Catholic media, both new and old, about the findings of a recent survey of priests in the United State showing that just under 60% are unhappy in some way with the new Missal. An example report can be read at a Canadian Catholic website. But the organisers of the survey, at the Benedictine St John School of Theology at Collegeville, have issued a press release which is worth closer examination; headlines do not tell enough, as we recently saw with the English bishops on royal marriage.

Don’t accept too quickly the spin this press release puts on the survey. It says that “U.S. Catholic priests are sharply divided”, and after presenting a highly selective and inadequate presentation of the alleged findings, the press release indulges in some Missal bashing. Thus, “The new translation theory has been sharply criticized by many liturgists and experts in translation”. It offers no examples, and we are supposed to accept that this assertion is an accurate representation of reality. In this negative atmosphere the statement is generating, it then asserts that “The new English Missal was a key initiative of the papacy of Benedict XVI”. So that awful Benedict XVI was resposnible: typical! – we are meant to cry. Of course, the translation is of the 2002 Roman Missal, an initiative of Bl John Paul II. You would think, from the Collegeville statement, that the mere fact of an English translation was Benedict’s initiative, rather than an inevitable development in the light of the current obsession with vernacular liturgy.

But the press release ends with a blatant plug for the blog run by the monk heavily involved in the survey, Dom Anthony Ruff OSB, a monk of Collegeville. Dom Anthony and his Pray, Tell blog (no link from here) have been fomenting opposition to the Missal for years. Of course this is not because he was not included in the translation committee.

Let’s look more closely at the details of the survey. 32 dioceses participated, though all 178 US dioceses were invited. There is the first alarm bell – the diocesan participation rate is a mere 18%. Is this survey going to be representative? The press release also states “A total of 1,536 priests participated in the survey, with a response rate of 42.5 percent.” Yet if we read the survey’s full report we find that the number of respondents varies from question to question, down to 1527 for one question. Even more importantly, the highly manipulable section for comments on various issues never has more than 372 respondents for a single section, and sometimes as few as 20 (for Chant in the Missal), 22 (for Missal format) or 64 (for theological content of the Missal – this is a bizarre category!).

Most of the survey report draws wind for its sails from this comments’ section. Taking the highest number of respondents, 372 for Aesthetic Expression, we see that at best these comments represent 2.7% of the 14000 priests in the US. Yes, this supposedly damning report is really based on, at best, 2.7% of priests in the US, and of them up to 40% are favourable to the Missal on various issues, leaving less than 2% who are clearly vehement in opposing the new Missal. Given that the vast majority of priests who are content with the Missal would have been unlikely to respond to this survey, especially given its nuanced questions and notoriously dissenting organisers, then probably only those who militantly oppose the Missal would have bothered to reply, so that they can be “heard”, no doubt. Barely 2%. Piddling.

The survey seems to have been a waste of time and money, not only because of the poor rate of response, nor only because the Church does not change anything on the basis of political lobbying by tiny minority groups of dissenters, nor because it actually confirms what Catholics might rightly hope for – that the vast majority of their priests are happily getting on with their job using the Missal. It is not only wasteful but verging on scandalous in its attempts to foment discord and opposition to the new Missal.

The preamble to the main report of survey results has the temerity to end with “Ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus” (That in all things God may be glorified) This survey singularly fails in that regard. Let it be consigned to where it belongs.

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15 thoughts on “Survey showing US priests dislike new Missal: not what it seems

  1. Fidelis Cygnus says:

    Very interesting indeed. A senior, and now thankfully, former lay member of the diocesan ‘management’ (for definite want of a better word!) in Portsmouth used seriously skewed survey figures to apparently prove that the majority of the Priests in our Diocese were seriously anti the new translation of the Missal, a fact that was a complete fallacy. Guess what blog this individual was and is a frequent contributor to!! Thank the Good Lord for our strong Bishop returning us to true fidelity. Jesu Domine

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      Now who could you mean!? Must be a Bitter PIll reader. ;-)

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      • Speaking of the Bitter Pill, note that on pg. 2 of the full report of the survey, it says that “[t]his survey instrument is based in part upon a nonscientific survey completed by The Tablet”.

        I also note that, in the comments on the PrayTell blog page about the survey (comment #28 for reference), the aformentioned former lay employee of Portsmouth is, rather delusionally, still adamant that his own dodgy survey is actually meaningful!

        How much can one flog a dead horse…?! :-)

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  2. Fr Hugh says:

    Hi Matthew!

    Yes, I too noticed this survey’s homage to the Tablet’s own flawed attempt to fan the flickering flame of revolt. I hadn’t the energy to refer to it. To be honest, after a few minutes of reading either survey my eyes began to glaze over and I almost entered a catatonic state.

    As for the former lay employee of Portsmouth (or FLEOP for short), he can flog the dead horse as long as he wants, but it is dead, and no one (except maybe his fellow ideologues) is looking anymore.

    Surely he will give up and retire gracefully. On that day we can indeed cry Alleluia – cha cha!

    Pax.

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  3. The fact that priests might be unhappy in some way with the new translation does not mean that they necessarily oppose it. I am unhappy with some of the new translation; there are some sentences that turned out awkward, confusing, and convoluted. But I much prefer it, on the whole, to the old translation! And I hope that, in time, there will be another version that will iron out the kinks. And contrary to the dire apocalyptic predictions of the naysayers, the laypeople have not been abandoning the church in droves because of the new translation. I have heard complaints about a few very specific things, but more from clergy than from laity…

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      Salve Fr Matthew!

      Like you, there are several points in the new Missal at which I feel a weaker option was chosen, or fidelity to the original Latin was too slavish to be beautiful. This, of course, is the inherent problem of translation by committees. And, to be honest, it would have been nice to see a translation process less subject to ideological agenda. Given that ideological translation began with the first post-conciliar Roman Missal, we were always going to find it hard to shake off.

      So yes, I suspect there are many priests who find a point here or there not to their liking. Compare that to the scores of infidelities and inaccuracies that I, at least, found in the previous edition of the Missal, and I am happy to prefer accurate translation and theology over more complete felicity in translation, every time.

      It is how a priest deals with those points he does not like – this is the crucial point. In the previous Missal we just had to get on with it (unless one was a priest who saw the Missal only as a guide for their own personal liturgical creativity). Surely, that is the principle the vast majority of priests follow with the new Missal: to just got on with using it, happy that it is such an improvement, working to become more familiar with its texts, and fostering in their parishes a spirit of concord and communion with the whole Church. You are obviously one of them, so thank you! Needless to say, such priests will have little time for mischievous and futile surveys.

      It would be marvellous if such troublesome priests remember that it is not the people we must please above all, but God.

      The problems of the modern liturgy lie deeper than translation of course. Its anthropocentricity, reflected in such things as celebrating facing the people even when talking to God or the promiscuous mutual affirmation session that all too often is the modern sign of peace, will always be its achilles heel. It has been tamed in the texts; now we must move on to the postures and gestures.

      Peace on you!

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  4. Thank you, Father, for not giving a link to the Pray Tell blog.

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  5. Paul says:

    It is worth reading “A Commentary on the Order of Mass of the Roman Missal”. You may not like some of its conclusions, but it is not an act of rebellion. Articles are written by those who have a history of careful scholarship and who are dedicated to the Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy. Their integrity is a matter of public record – both as academics and as worshippers.

    Since God has not made it clear which worship texts are preferred in the courts of heaven, I imagine that making sure that the faithful are enabled in the liturgy to worship in spirit and in truth is somewhat important. Full, active and conscious participation seems a good starting point.

    Some of the new texts enable these things to happen very well; others are less satisfactory because of the decision to adopt verbal rather than dynamic equivalence as a translation strategy.

    I knew personally several of the Fathers and periti at Vatican II. I do not think that they were entirely satisfied with the Paul VI missal; they saw it as a work in progress. Those I spoke to after Liturgiam Authenticam abandoned Comme le prevoit were less than thrilled.

    Cursing the man who points out that he is still in the dark is not a good way of lighting his path. The new Missal is what is given; it could have been better. Why is it wrong to make that judgement?

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      Ultimately liturgy is not a matter of academic construction. In fact liturgical turmoil and chaos have never been so prevalent as when academics and experts have been playing with the liturgy. The last 50 years or more have proved that well enough.

      As to what God prefers in the court of heaven need not concern us for now. What does concern us is what He prefers on our terra firma. And that we do know: He speaks through His Church and its Tradition in the richest and most comprehensive sense of the word. So, for a Catholic, there is a right and a wrong way to worship. There can be more than one right way in the Tradition, and more than one wrong way in light of that same Tradition. But that there is right and wrong in a liturgical sense is clear in Catholic (and Orthodox) teaching and practice over the centuries.

      I am not sure whom I have cursed in his darkness. If it is the monk you have in mind, then I may indeed look askance at someone who is only adding to the darkness and confusion. His methods are appalling.

      The new Missal is not perfect; it is vastly superior to the previous Missal in every respect that matters. It is what we have, it is not going away any time soon. So the ecclesial professionals and those with pastoral responsibility would best serve the Church by helping those who struggle with it to understand its principles, and indeed to understand what worship is all about; which is to say, it is not about us.

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      • Paul says:

        Please read again what I wrote; I think that some of your reply is defensive where it does not need to be!

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      • Paul says:

        Several issues arise:
        The original posting was provocative – fine! However, its conclusion was akin to cursing the man who declares that he is in the dark: “Into the bin with you.”

        Ideological warfare did not begin fifty years ago; the decision, for example, of the Council of Trent to reduce Catholic liturgy to the Roman rites was nothing if not ideological. And the history predates Trent…

        I did not suggest that academy should be the final arbiter in liturgical formation. However, to ignore the benefits of scholarship seems unwise.

        Careful reading of the history suggests that liturgical practice has been far more varied from the beginning than we often imagine or assume. This suggests that appealing to tradition as though it were a unified and homogeneous entity is an uncertain way of proceeding.

        The fact is that there is disagreement about what “every respect that matters” might be. For you, it apparently means one thing. For others (equally passionate, equally learned, equally obedient to what they discern as the truth of things), it means something else.

        Not everybody agrees that it is “vastly superior”. Here is the rub.

        Worship is (at least in part) about us! It is we who do it. That is why Sacrosanctum Concilium argued for the full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful. The translation debate is not about whether we worship God or not; it is about how best we support the prayer of the faithful in the liturgy of the Church.

        There is currently a difference of opinion about the new rites; this is not (or ought not to be) a matter of angels versus demons, but of emerging discernment. For the time being, the faithful will use the present texts. That is the obedience that being Catholic requires. However, even an obedience does not stifle the longing for something better still.

        Pax et bonum.

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  6. Fr Tim Edgar says:

    Father, what does it matter whether priests like the new translation or not? It is not ours to like or dislike; it is given to us by the Church who says to us “This is what you must use”.
    As an aside, – I’ve been asked to learn the Usus Antiquior by the Diocese. I’m shocked by the poisonous comments I’ve received from some very senior clergy locally. Maybe they are also the ones who don’t like the new translation either. Don’t like the old, don’t like the new, don’t know anything about liturgy but I know what I like!

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      Well, Father, it is at least desirable that we like the words with which we worship. That said, we need to like them for the right reasons! But as you imply, it is hardly essential. In fact, much as many of the more progressive type might shudder to hear it, liturgy and prayer are ultimately matters of obedience. As the priest says at the beginning of the Communion Rite, “At our Saviour’s command, and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say…”.

      I suspect your analysis of the clerical whingers to whom you refer may well be right. Maybe at their funerals they will join the hordes who ask to have Sinatra played over the tannoy, singing “I did it my way”.

      Pax.

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  7. Over 90 percent of the surveyed priests who spoke of reception by the people expressed concerns that the language was “difficult to pray” and “difficult for people to understand.” Commentators said the prayers were distancing the faithful from the priest and God, did not engage them, “do not resonate with the ears/hearts of the faithful,” “made no attempt to include the people,” are “inaccessible,” do not allow true full and active participation, and are fueling a “return to passivity” in liturgy. Laity have voiced dissatisfaction and dislike for the Missal, but some seem to have “reluctantly accepted it” or are “enduring it remarkably well” (to which one priest calls “a tribute to their faith and desire to worship”). Many priests also claimed to have been approached by laity to explain certain prayers and words.

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