Unreliable Claims

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.



  1. View from the Pew
    Regarding: ” 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.”
    – This post is a good article.
    – Schmitz’s article in the NYT falls into the category of ‘Carthage must burn!’. That is, no matter what you say or write, if you say / write it often enough it will become a matter of fact. Today, there are many politicians that do this. For instance the phrase: ‘the healthcare bill is a disaster.’
    – Oft repeated facts and challenging questions about sources are good ways to counteract this ‘Carthage’ strategy,

  2. Re: the ordination issue. I went and reread the article. There is absolutely nothing in the first paragraph that merits the attack here. It doesn’t (falsely) claim it was a diocesan ordination. It states the simple facts of what happened.
    Criticism of that first paragraph does little, I fear, beyond make it seem that for being so allegedly small and insignificant an issue, the EF can really stir progressive liturgical angst and ire more than any other issue.

    Reading closely, the article also does not say the vernacular started in 1970. It says the Biafran civil war ended in 1970. That is correct. It did. The Biafran War started in 1967; a coup preceding the war took place in January of 1966.

    This article may deserve criticism or praise on any number of grounds, but at least on these two points, the attacks hold no water.

  3. “On August 15, 2017, the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, a new priest joined the ranks of the FSSP. Fr. Charles Ike’s ordination at the FSSP’s apstolate in Umuaka, Nigeria…” from https://fssp.com/ordination-nigeria/
    Includes some pictures of the ceremony.

    FSSP is the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, a community of priests dedicated to the Extraordinary form and is in communion with the Pope. (Apologies if that is not a careful enough description) The ordination was for thr North American District, which means i dont know what. One place on their website says they are in N America, elsewhere they list parishes in England and missions in Nigeria and Peru.

  4. Rita Ferrone might be interested in Innocent Dim’s book “Reception of Vatican II in Nigeria/Igbo Church with Reference to Awka Diocese.” Dim records that though there were limited experimentations with the vernacular liturgy before the Biafran War, its actual implementation occurred after the war ended. At this time it encountered substantial resistance, particularly from lay women:

    “In Onitsha, the metropolitan seat, the women of St. Mary’s parish took the lead to resist the vernacular Mass. Added to them, till 1971, some members of the parish council and some educated elite were not keen at Igbo Mass. They preferred Latin Mass instead. They were convinced that Latin is the traditional, mystical language of the Church.”

    Ferrone does not like my reading of a study on why poor Catholics have stopped going to mass. Here is what Philip Schwadel, one of its authors, wrote to me after the publication of my article “A Beautiful Church for the Poor”:

    “I believe you fairly represented our research. We, of course, do not speak to the goals of the Church or to the changes in the Church’s physical and social structures that you allude to, but I didn’t see anything that I felt was an incorrect statement about our research.”


    1. Dear Mr. Schmitz,
      I am glad you came to Pray Tell to help clarify some of the questions I raised in my post. Thank you for doing so. I haven’t had a chance to look at the book you reference (and I am grateful for the reference), so let me set that aside for the present.

      As to your second point, it is surely interesting that one of the three authors of the study had no objection to you universalizing the study’s subject matter (from poor whites to poor people generally), nor to your hyperbolic language (“closed the doors” “class war”), nor to the narrowing of the authors’ broad speculation as to multiple causes of low church attendance among poor whites and instead directing our attention to one the study never mentions: liturgical reform. But this does not make such moves unobjectionable. That you have generalized beyond the limits of the study, and used the study to support a claim it never makes about the liturgical reform, is manifest. I call this unfair.

      If I were to take a study of Nigerians and apply its results to bolster a claim about the white citizens of Nebraska, surely you would object, no? The same objection applies if one takes a study of white American Catholics and universalizes it to support a general claim about what Vatican II did or did not do for “the poor.” And that is true even after subtracting incendiary rhetoric about barred gates, and the like.

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