New Missal Survey Shows Most Priests Dissatisfied

The closer you get, the worse it looks.That seems to be the takeaway from a collection of surveys over the past year intended to gauge the response of Catholics to the new English translation of the Roman Missal. The controversial new English translation of the Roman Missal had its debut at the end of 2011, amid doubts of its ability to gain wide appeal. Give it a chance its advocates advised, youll get used to it.

A year later, when a CARA survey reported that 70% of lay Catholics in America agreed with the statement that The new translation is a good thing, it seemed these predictions were justified. To say that the translation is a good thing might seem to be a rather lukewarm endorsement, but these results were positive enough to be encouraging. Online polls conducted around the same time however revealed a more troubling picture, showing considerably more negative opinion, especially among priests, who arguably have the greatest investment in the new translation because of their role in the daily celebration of the liturgy. They use the Missal every day, and know its pluses and minuses better than anyone.

  • The Tablet found that clergy gave the new translation very negative marks. Of the 1189 clergy who participated, 70% were unhappy with the translation and wished to see it revised. In a strange twist, considerable numbers of respondents who preferred the Extraordinary Form (which is in Latin) took the survey. 94% of them approved of the new translation. But 57% of those who preferred the Ordinary Form disliked it.
  • US Catholic polled more than 1200 priests in a reader survey, and found that 58% agreed with the statement: I dislike the new translations and still cant believe Ill have to use them for the foreseeable future. 49% of Catholics in the pews also registered unhappiness with the translation whereas only 17% said they enjoy them as much as or more than the old translation.

Observers have taken the more critical Tablet and US Catholic results with a grain of salt. Yes, they indicate dissatisfaction, and especially strong dissatisfaction among clergy, but how reliable are these polls?

The results of a new study, released today, sets our knowledge of the opinions of priests on a firmer footing.

The survey is narrowly focused on the opinion of priests in the United States. It shows that priests are sharply divided, with a clear majority disliking the new translation and calling for its revision.

The specific findings are striking. 59% of priests do not like the new translation, compared with 39% who do. An overwhelming 80% agree that some of the language is awkward and distracting. 61% think the translation needs urgently to be revised. In what is perhaps the most timely element, 61% of priests do not want the rest of the liturgical books to be translated in the same manner. The process of retranslating the Liturgy of the Hours and the rites of the Sacraments is currently underway.

Jeffrey Tucker of Chant Caf, who likes the new texts and was initially surprised by the results, speculated that a generational split might account for the negative opinions: "They came to terms with one way, received vast amounts of catechesis along these lines, and developed a more casual liturgical style to go along with it, and now they are told to do it another way. This creates a real tension: am I supposed to speak in the language of the people or not?"

Other commenters, however, felt that the negative evaluation was not so much fueled by resistance to change as by resistance to making the prayers of the Mass more awkward. Fr. Michael Ryan of Seattle, founder of the website What if we just said wait? noted that the proportion of discontent revealed in the Diekmann survey contrasts sharply with reactions to the introduction of English into the Mass following Vatican II. "These results are a far cry from the way priests and people reacted when the Mass in English was first introduced in the late 1960s," Ryan said, A survey taken at that time indicated that 85-87% of Catholics (and especially parish priests) preferred the new Mass to the old (Mark Massa, SJ, Worship 81 (2007), p. 122).

A preconceived bias against the texts also would not account for another interesting finding: 15% of those who had looked forward to the new Missal ended up disliking it. By comparison, only 10% grew to like it through the process of using it.All 178 Latin Rite dioceses in the US were invited to participate in the survey and, of these, 32 from all geographical regions of the country chose to take part. A total of 1,536 priests (diocesan and religious) responded, a response rate of 42.5%.

The survey was conducted under the auspices of the Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, Center for Patristics and Liturgical Studies at St. Johns University School of Theology-Seminary, in Collegeville MN. The project manager was Chase Becker, assisted by Audrey Seah and Christine Condyles, and advised by Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB, with the aid of Dr. Pamela Bacon, a professional consultant.

More than half of the respondents submitted written comments, a total of 799 comments. These covered a wide variety of subjects, including aesthetics, grammar and syntax, reception by their people, translation principles, ecclesiastical process, vocabulary, theological content, book format, and music. In these comments, critique of the Missal outweighed affirmation by a four to one margin. The full text of the comments can be found here.

Two questions about process, unique to this survey, also showed sobering results. More than half (55%) of the respondents are not confident that priests views of the translation will be taken seriously. Nearly half (49%) do not approve of the role of the Holy See in bringing the new translation about, compared with 39% who do.

Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin, professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said, "The most disappointing result of this survey for me is that most priests doubt that their views about the translation will be seriously addressed; on the other hand, this too is not surprising since they were never consulted in the first place." Peter Jeffery, professor of medieval studies and theology at Notre Dame, asked: "Why did 82.1% of dioceses decide not to forward this survey to their priests? Do they think it is better not to know what priests think?" Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth, executive director of ICEL questioned the representative value of the responses, pointing out that the respondents constitute less than 3.7% of priests in the US. Without some indication of selection bias, however, the sample size would not seem to indicate that the survey is weak. The CARA survey concerning the Missal, for example, had 1,239 participants, a much smaller fraction of the total Catholic population which the survey is presumed to represent.

For those priests who are well satisfied with the new translation, its daily use has been rewarding. For the majority, however, it has been a burden and a source of discouragement. On an even deeper level, the conflict they experience has serious ramifications. As Fr. Anthony Cutcher, president of the National Federation of Priests Councils observed: "The Eucharistic liturgy and the ability to celebrate it well is at the core of a priest's identity. With the promulgation of the Third Roman Missal, we priests have been placed in an untenable position, forced to choose between fidelity to the magisterium and feeding our people."

When a majority of priests are unhappy about something as important as the Missal, the situation calls for creative leadership and constructive responses. It is not clear, however, whether those in positions of authority are either ready or willing to respond. Msgr. Rick Hilgartner, director of the office of the BCDW at the USCCB, declined to comment for this story, as did Bishop Gregory Aymond, chair of the BCDW, and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, incoming chair of the BCDW. Not replying to a request for comment were: Bishop Arthur Seratelli, former chair of the BCDW and current chair of ICEL; Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB; Cardinal Francis George, former USCCB president under whom the implementation date was set; Cardinal George Pell, chair of Vox Clara; Msgr. Jim Moroney, executive secretary of Vox Clara; and Fr. Dennis McManus, advisor to Vox Clara. Reactions to the survey were provided by Bishop Robert Brom of San Diego, Father Anthony Cutcher of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Peter Jeffery of Notre Dame, Fr. Michael Ryan of Seattle, Jeffery Tucker of Chant Cafe, Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth of ICEL, Fr. Mark Wedig OP of Barry University, And Bishop Donald Trautman, retired bishop of Erie. The full text of their comments is available here.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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