The Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) seems to be gaining popularity. From academia to the commentariat, both the Catholic press and the secular media have noticed that younger Catholics around the world are turning to tradition, and they, not people with living memories before 1970, dominate the pews. Some hope and others despair at this trend, and the debates over liturgy reveal deep cleavages in the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, little data exists on TLM attendees. Attempting to rectify this problem, Fr. Donald Kloster of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, recently released the results of a “national survey” of TLM attendees in the United States—first reported in a blog post and then in outlets such as Catholic Herald. Fr. Kloster concluded that the “fruit” of the TLM is Catholics who are far more devout and orthodox than those who attend the Novus Ordo Mass. However, this study suffers from several fatal flaws, and thus leaves us no closer to better understanding TLM attendees.
As the blog post explains, “the objective of this pilot study was to measure the fruit of the two Masses, by directly comparing the TLM and NOM [Novus Ordo Mass] attendees’ responses to the same questions.” Fr. Kloster and his team collected survey data from an impressive 1,773 participants across sixteen states, with 1,322 completed in the pew and 451 completed online. Participants were asked about Mass and confession attendance, what percentage of their income they donate, number of children, and whether they approve of contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. The team compared these figures with data on Novus Ordo attendees from other sources such as Pew Research Center and the Center for Applied Religion in the Apostolate (CARA), concluding that while “[m]odern society, by popular belief, is the cause of decreasing sacramental participation in the Catholic Church…the present survey, compared with other data, reveals a striking variance between Catholics attending the TLM versus those who attend the NOM.” Unfortunately, none of the conclusions drawn from the survey follow from the data. In fact this study, as designed, is unable to compare the fruits—or, in social scientific terms, the outcomes—of the TLM and NOM.
First, the study fails to engage in critical conceptual work: Who counts as a TLM attendee? I have found in my own research that some young adults interested in the TLM bounce around between the TLM and the NOM, even when the TLM is consistently available. Yet we also know that in some places, the TLM is offered only sporadically or at inconvenient times that impede people who would otherwise like to go from attending. Thus, it’s unclear what we’re even talking about when we’re examining “Latin Mass attendees.”
Second, the research question aims to understand the causal effect of attending the TLM or NOM on outcomes such as Mass attendance and adherence to Church teaching. But a cross-sectional survey such as this one—i.e., a survey that takes a “snapshot” of attitudes and behavior at one point in time—can only reveal correlations, not causality, and certainly not causal mechanisms. It’s impossible to say from a one-off survey whether attending the TLM makes one more likely to attend Mass weekly and believe abortion is wrong, or whether attending Mass weekly and opposing abortion makes one more likely to gravitate toward the TLM—or both. From the outset, this survey cannot accomplish its stated goal.
Third, while a cross-sectional survey cannot tell us about cause and effect, it can at least give us an interesting snapshot of a population’s characteristics—if done correctly. Unfortunately, the survey’s sampling strategy precludes us from learning this information. The sample in this study is not drawn randomly, i.e. ensuring that every member of the population of TLM attendees (again, whatever that means) has an equal probability of being selected for the study. A random sample is what allows us to learn about the characteristics of a population from a relatively small number of people. The present survey uses a convenience sample, i.e. a sample of people whom the researcher can easily reach. This means that we cannot infer anything about the population from the sample; the responses only tell us what these 1,773 respondents think, not what TLM attendees in the U.S. are generally like.
Fourth, the Mass attendance variable is especially problematic. Setting aside the fact that church attendance is overreported1,322 of the respondents were asked this question while they were at church—meaning the survey by design doesn’t capture people not in church. How many people who prefer the TLM don’t attend Mass at all if they cannot attend the TLM? Based on anecdotes, I’m confident that that number is not zero.
Following the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, I have no doubt that the differences between the TLM and NOM matter spiritually and sociologically. However, historically, the TLM by itself has prevented neither heresy nor nonattendance. Over a hundred years ago, regular church attendance at many U.S. parishes was less than 50 percent, and even lower for men. In our present context, I suspect that self-selection would explain most differences between TLM and NOM attendees.
Fr. Kloster and his colleagues are correct to recognize a gaping hole in knowledge that matters both for the Church and for scholars of religion. Even amid apparent growth, TLM attendees still comprise a small number and percentage of Catholics, which makes them a difficult (and therefore prohibitively expensive) group to study using quantitative methods. If it is feasible to map the characteristics of TLM attendees, doing so will cost a great deal and will require commissioning a qualified scholar or research institute to conduct the study. No study is perfect, but research must lead us closer to truth rather than creating noise and heat that obfuscate the truth. Bad research only hurts the cause of those who wish to promote the Traditional Latin Mass by damaging their credibility and obscuring information that could better help them work for the salvation of souls.
Audra Dugandzic is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Notre Dame.