Matthew Schmitz’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, entitled “The Latin Mass, Thriving in Southeastern Nigeria,” raises a number of questions. It begins as a report on a phenomenon in Nigeria—a specific and possibly interesting story. But it quickly morphs into a wholesale glorification of the Extraordinary Form (EF), complete with tendentious claims about growth, and an unsustainable suggestion that the Ordinary Form has robbed the poor.
The article begins by telling us about an EF liturgy in which an elderly Nigerian bishop is fainting with happiness. This liturgy is an ordination, well-attended. There is no indication here about what sort of community this is, leaving the reader with the impression that this ordination is a mainstream diocesan event. But according to the Vatican guidelines for implementing Summorum Pontificum, “Only in Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life which are under the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, and in those which use the liturgical books of the forma extraordinaria, is the use of the Pontificale Romanum of 1962 for the conferral of minor and major orders permitted.” Therefore I question what this event actually was, and whether it conformed to the guidelines of the Vatican. Holy Orders is the most tightly circumscribed sacrament in Summorum Pontificum.
Looking further using internet sources, I discovered Fr. Evaristus Eshionwu, cited in the article, was the only FSSP priest in Africa as of 2015, and Bishop Gregory Ochiagha is a retired bishop. As far as I can tell, the ordination which took place in August was of one ordinand. Now, there are more than four thousand priests in Nigeria. Can the ordination of one FSSP priest really be described as the sign of a “thriving” movement? Not that each individual isn’t precious, but usually there is a bit more evidence to merit the term than we see here.
After reading the article I checked with a priest friend of mine who served in Nigeria for many years, and he pointed out to me that in certain crucial assertions, Schmitz’s essay also gets historical facts wrong. For example, the vernacular liturgy started in February 1965, two and a half years before the civil war began. (Schmidt’s article claims it occurred in “that fraught moment” after the war, 1970, making everything worse.)
The article contains gaps as well. When Schmitz claims that traditionalist “numbers are growing” he links to his own article in the Catholic Herald (UK) sharing anecdotal impressions of “young people” (not particularly Nigerians; he has no information about them in the article). Perhaps objective data exists, but he does not cite it to support his claim.
Perhaps the most misleading assertion in the essay however comes up when he asserts that “Liturgical change was a kind of class war” that has disadvantaged the poor. He says this can be proved. But the study he links to in support of this claim simply doesn’t demonstrate what Schmidt says it does. First of all, the study he cites is of white Catholics in the United States. The researchers note that Latino Catholics were underrepresented in the sample, and they did not survey black Catholics (for whom churchgoing remains high). The scope of the study is bounded by this: “Because the effect of income is negligible for Latino/non-white Catholics with control variables in the model, we only test this proposition here among white Catholics.”
Even among whites, the conclusions the researchers offer support none of Schmidt’s speculation about the liturgical reform playing a role in the social isolation and lower church attendance among poor white people. The possible Church influences on low attendance could be many, according to the study. The researchers ask questions such as these:
Are we seeing lagged effects of Vatican II and Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical on birth control? Are the abuse scandals involving priests that gained national media attention beginning in the 1990s now affecting low-income, white Catholics’ church attendance? Perhaps, as previous research suggests about some younger Catholics (Hoge et al. 2001), low-income Catholics who matured after Vatican II are alienated by the hierarchical and authoritative nature of the Catholic Church and no longer view the Church as essential. We cannot adjudicate these interpretations with the evidence at hand.
The researchers also ask “How is the Catholic Church positioning itself in the religious marketplace?” How does the Church recruit and encourage involvement, and so on. Has the rise of a strong white middle class and professional class in the American Catholic population at large led to changing priorities in parish life? These are all good questions. But they are not about liturgical change as “class war.” In the article to which Schmitz links, he writes that “the Church has become uniquely unable to attract low income people.” His assertion that Vatican II “closed the Church’s doors to the poor” is hyperbolic and unfair. To scapegoat the liturgical reform for what the researchers speculate may be caused by Humanae Vitae, the sex abuse scandals, the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church, and changing patterns of income distribution, distorts the research he purports to use.
The talking points of Schmitz’s essay in the Times are, of course, familiar ones: The tragedy of the long suppression of the pre-reformed rites, the liberation wrought by Summorum Pontificum, the amazing growth of the Extraordinary Form, the looming destruction of Christian society due to the trajectory of Vatican II. These points are believed passionately by some Catholics and will not surprise anyone. But the essay is based on so many unreliable claims that it hardly advances the author’s cause.