Skip to content

Cardinal Gregory, and ‘dealing with’ priests

Cardinal Wilton Gregory on Wednesday said that priests have caused problems in the U.S. Church by imposing their liturgical preferences on parishes, and that both he and Pope Francis are committed to addressing that problem through restrictions on the extraordinary form of the Mass.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory during a Dec. 6 panel discussion at the Catholic University of America. Credit: CUA/YouTube.

While the cardinal’s remark may have been borne out of his own experience overseeing liturgy, they were no doubt evocative for some priests of the dwindling levels of trust between priests and their bishops, and the discontentment expressed by Pope Francis about his perceptions of younger clerics. 

The remarks, therefore, could seem to exemplify the split between a cadre of bishops in the U.S. and their priests.   


Gregory’s remarks on liturgy came during a question-and-answer period he offered during a Dec. 6 appearance the cardinal made at The Catholic University of America. 

Slated to speak about diversity in the Church, Gregory was asked after his speech about liturgical diversity — a student leader at CUA asked the cardinal how he should respond to the large number of students who have asked him why Mass is not available on campus using the liturgical rubrics which precede the Second Vatican Council.

Gregory gave a rather lengthy answer, in which he offered his sense of the intended purpose of Traditionis custodes, and offered his take on liturgical history since the Second Vatican Council. The cardinal indicated that he believed that he has accommodated the desire for the Traditional Latin Mass by providing one venue for it north of Washington, D.C., one in the city — close to CUA — and one in the southern part of his diocese.

But he also emphasized his belief that liturgical uniformity is an important goal, and his support for Pope Francis’ efforts on that front.

After he concluded his first answer on the question, and when a moderator was planning to take another question, Gregory went back to the topic. 

“I also want to add something,” the cardinal said. 

“In many of the places where it grew — the Tridentine rite — it grew because priests promoted it. And not because people — in other words, if you had a guy that came into the parish, and said, ‘Well, I like this rite, I’m gonna do it,’ and he gathered people together, and now all the sudden he created the need, in places where there wasn’t a need there.”

“So I think that the Holy Father is right to say: ‘Deal with the priests.’”

It is possible that Gregory’s observation about the growth of the more ancient liturgy resonates with his own experience as a bishop in Illinois, Georgia, and the Archdiocese of Washington — though some in the DC area have challenged that assertion

And soon after his remarks began circulating online, priests who celebrate the older liturgy began pushing back, with many of them indicating that they learned the “Old Mass” because parishioners had asked for it — especially among the growing number of young people across the U.S. who say they want to experience the pre-conciliar liturgy.

There is very little reliable data about the spread of the older liturgical form during the period when it was broadly permitted in the Church, under the provisions of Benedict XVI’s Summorum pontificum. It is therefore impossible to tell how frequently it was introduced in parishes mostly by priests, and how frequently it cropped up where laity asked for it. 

Of course, some Catholics would say that to the extent that priests did introduce the older liturgy to their people, they were drawing from their formation, their studies, and their experience to offer people a way of worship that might resonate with them — and that doing so was perfectly legitimate under the aegis of the Church’s law at the time.

Some Catholics would also suggest that the spread of the older rite among young people — the demand for it at Catholic University, for example — indicates that those priests were right in their judgment, and that it is remarkable to see young people enthusiastic about the question of how they worship, in a period of widespread and accelerating institutional disaffiliation.

In other words, some Catholics would wonder if Gregory wouldn’t want to capture the enthusiasm of young people for liturgy, rather than to quell it.

Give a gift subscription

But regardless of how the older rubrics spread in the U.S., some priests expressed surprise Friday at Gregory’s concluding sentiment, which seemed to say that their pastoral initiative and judgment meant they were in some way causing a problem, and therefore needed to be “dealt with.” 

The cardinal’s rhetoric seemed to suggest to some priests that they were not believed when they said that young people wanted the older liturgy, or that their efforts to reach young people using an option that had been legally available to them until 2021 made them suspect, or a problem. 

But the remarkable candor of Gregory’s remarks pointed to an issue worth noting in the Church — the obstacles to restoring trust among priests for their diocesan bishops. 

In his remarks Wednesday, Gregory emphasized that he agreed with Pope Francis about the need for priests celebrating the older liturgy to be “dealt with.” That emphasis was evocative of the pope’s recent admonition against the “scandal of young priests trying on cassocks and hats, or albs and lace robes.”

Gregory’s words, and Francis’, revealed a gap — probably a broad generational gap — in the way that liturgical matters are perceived among clerics. Where older liturgies and attention to vestments are apparently regarded by Gregory and Francis as evidence of “clericalism,” they are, for younger clerics, often seen as a way of both serving their people, and serving God. 

Generational gaps happen, of course. They are to be expected. But a set of data analytics published earlier this year suggests the particular gap into which Gregory stepped — differing perceptions over liturgy — is part of a specific set of problems that makes difficult establishing trust between bishops and their priests.

upgrade your subscription

In October, the Catholic Project at CUA released a new set of data from its national study of Catholic priests, conducted by a team of researchers and analysts at the university.

That data identified that while priests of Gregory’s generation largely identify themselves as theologically “progressive” or “very progressive,” younger priests are most likely to identify themselves as theologically “conservative,” with almost none identifying as “very liberal.” Presumably, those theological orientations extend to perspectives on liturgy.

In the long-term that CUA data indicates that eventually the Church will likely shift away from Francis’ approach to liturgical questions. Almost no priests of recent ordination cohorts identify themselves theologically as “very progressive,” and the number of priests ordained even in the last two decades of a “progressive” orientation has been declining. 

That data means that discontentment with the Francis approach to liturgy is likely to become more pronounced in years to come, even among newly appointed bishops, drawn from the less theologically “progressive” cohorts of priests.

That could mean eventually that a larger cadre of bishops will take up the “reform of the reform” liturgical approach, or even that they will eventually call for a new Roman missal to be developed, or at least for a new version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which governs its practical interpretation.

In short, the data indicates that simply pushing for a particular style of uniformity within the ordinary form — while bishops across the country restrict even things like the ad orientem posture — will probably backfire for many bishops, and could actually hasten a more significant discussion about post-conciliar liturgy in the decades to come.

Leave a comment

Credit: The Catholic Project/CUA.

With regard to Gregory’s remarks, the most immediately relevant data is that which identified that while priests overall say they have diminishing trust in their bishops, priests who say they are theologically aligned with their bishops are most likely to say they trust their diocesan bishops. 

Credit: The Catholic Project/CUA.

For bishops, that data might be instructive. The numbers say that the cohorts of priests from which older bishops were selected are most likely not theologically aligned with younger priests — which could suggest, at least, that it would be the same for those bishops themselves. 

To the extent that that’s true, it means they’ve got a particularly difficult trust gap to overcome — bishops who want the trust of their priests have got to overcome the gap of theological differences when trying to earn it. 

Can that gap be overcome? Probably.

And the data could be read to suggest that it will be overcome when priests feel their bishops know them — that’s a likely reason why bishops in smaller dioceses enjoy higher rates of trust among their clergy. 

But to know their priests, bishops likely have to demonstrate that they’re willing to listen, and to do that without prejudging the men who are meant to be their “closest collaborators” in serving the Gospel.

And demonstrating that likely means avoiding the impression that priestly pastoral initiatives were really about self-fulfillment, or that their priests themselves are problems they must “deal with.”

Subscribe now

Comments 201