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.