There is much in the Catholic press these days about a revision of the translation of the Mass in English, which was recently approved by the American bishops over a protest by a minority of the bishops present. I am reminded of the idiom about “buying a pig in a poke.” The expression has been around in English since at least the 14th century and mention was made of it in the book “Five Hundredth Good Pointes of Husbandrie” by Thomas Tusser in 1580. As described there, one tried to put into a small bag a cat or small animal and try to pass it off as a small pig, saying to the buyer that if he opened the bag before he got it home, he’d surely lose the pig because it would run away, being frisky and all, and once out of the bag the buyer could lose the pig. It would not be safe to open until he got home when the buyer would discover there was no pig in the bag.
The revision is explained as having become necessary because the Latin text of the Roman Missal has been revised and therefore a revision of the English (especially the Eucharistic Prayers I-IV, which have been in use for the U.S. since 1973) was considered in order. The Eucharistic Prayers for Masses of Reconciliation were added in 1974, and since 1985 we have been praying the prayers we are currently using, based on the 2nd Typical Edition of the Roman Missal. In 2002 the 3rd Typical Edition of the Roman Missal was approved for use by Pope John Paul II. It is that 3rd Typical Edition that is now being translated into English.
However, the guidelines for translation have been radically changed because of the institution of a group known as Vox Clara (literally, “clear voice”), which was established by Rome to oversee all English translations of the Mass worldwide in 2002. Before this the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) had been responsible, with considerable input from local or regional bishops of a given language group. In the case of the U.S. the earlier translation adopted what was called “dynamic equivalency” in translating these Latin texts. The intention was that they not be slavishly literal, but would capture the meaning of the Latin in suitable English expression. Anyone who has ever translated anything from one language to another knows how difficult it can be to find suitable English for foreign expressions. Imagine then the difficulty of translating Latin, which very few speak people speak within the Church (let alone without) into modern English.
In fact the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a decree in 2001 called Liturgiam Authenticam which issued instructions for how Latin texts were to be translated into vernacular languages. This document took the authority away from the U.S. bishops and gave it to the Roman approved and staffed Vox Clara for final approval of all English language texts. The group responsible for these texts is headed by a bishop from Spain. It has some English language bishops and other members, but it remains under the firm and uncompromising hand of Rome. It’s a great mystery to me how a group of non-native English speakers passes final judgment on what our English version will be.
Liturgiam Authenticam insists upon fidelity to the Latin text: “Every word and concept presented in an original text must be fully accounted for within a translation, even when the language into which the text is being translated must be pushed beyond its normal limits of expression to do so.”
Specifically, it discourages “inclusive language” to avoid gender-specific terms as well as language considered less offensive to groups such as Jews, where such measures depart from the literal meaning of the text. Now this document was issued by Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is from Nigeria. He became a Christian at the age of nine and a bishop at the age of 32. He was appointed to his positions in Rome by Pope John Paul II.
Liturgiam Authenticam says further: “It is unnecessary and inappropriate to alter biblical or liturgical texts simply because some might take offense at their wording, as for example in some biblical passages that have sometimes incorrectly been criticized as depicting the Jewish people in an unfavorable light. Such misunderstandings are rightly dispelled by proper catechesis rather than by unwarranted interventions upon the text itself. If a given liturgical text is seen to require change in order to avoid misunderstandings of this nature, such a change lies within the competence of the supreme authority of the church and not of the translator.” (p. 60) That would be true if everyone praying these texts were in possession of theological degrees. But the plain and simple fact is that most people are not that well versed in what we believe and what we don’t. The thrust of this instruction is to say the hell with anybody who wants to prevent needless sexism or chauvinism in the texts we use at Mass. God is a male and that’s the end of that! Rome has spoken; case is closed (Roma locutus est; causa finita est).
Liturgiam Authenticam also discourages language that comes from Protestants or other non-Catholic groups: “Given the long history of the Roman Rite which developed in part around certain divisions in the practice of the faith, seen most acutely in liturgical and creedal language, translators must show great care in expressing the mysteries of the faith as understood in the Catholic tradition. As a result, traditional Catholic expression is not ordinarily rendered through language which belongs to other faith communities.” (p. 46)
The thrust of that statement sets back ecumenism at least 50 years, so no non-Catholic language may be used. Never mind that they may be more accurate. The New Testament itself uses the word poterion (“drinking cup”) at the Last Supper, not chalice. But the revised translation insist on using the “Catholic” word “chalice,” which is really a clouding of the Scriptures, not a clarification.
Moreover, “The translation of pro multis as “for many” after the words of consecration has been inserted in the proposed revision as a rendering of the original biblical text, even though the expression “for all” has been used in English since the late 70’s or early 1980’s. Note the translation of pro multis in the other European languages: Spanish (por todos los hombres), Italian (per tutti), German (für Alle), and Portuguese (por todos homens). In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the expression “for the many” signifies “for all.” Why the English revision approved by the bishops retains “for many” instead of “for all” is simply preposterous!
The sentence in question reads: “It (my blood) will be shed you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” In all of the other European languages including Italian (tutti) and German (fur Alle) the expression is “for all.” We have been praying “for all” since the papacy of Paul VI. With the approved text as approved by the bishops, we are going to have to pray that Jesus shed his blood for “many” implying not for all, in conflict with most modern European languages, which translate the expression as “for all.” It seems clear that the only ox being gored is the English speaking one. For all its outward appearances it is a double standard at best, and at worst, a slap in the face at English language scholarship.
Traditionalists are apparently rejoicing because we are returning to “for many” as a proper translation of “pro multis.” There is some suggestion that all vernacular translations will have to return to “for many.” In the process, they all seem to miss the point that Christ shed his blood for the salvation of all. For whom did he shed it?... For all?... Or for members only?... And here we return to the turf battles of the past and the Church triumphant and to hell with all non-Catholics and non-Christians and so on. This is madness. Make way for a return to the Crusades next! With one word, the theology that has guided us since the time of the New Testament itself disappears. Note 1 Tim.2:3-5: "This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth...there is one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
Bishop Arthur Serratelli, who was in Rome when I studied there in 1976, speaks in detail of the long, careful, scholarly, and … pastoral process of the English revision. He notes the production of the final liturgical text is a work of immense importance. It deserves and receives all the attention it is given. “It is not left to the competence or preference of a few, because it is the expression of the Faith of the whole Church.” He notes that “individuals will inevitably differ in their judgment on the quality of particular translations.” It is in that spirit that I am offering these cautionary notes and raising certain questions, probably more out of frustration, than out of any real hope that it will change anything.
Bishop Serratelli also notes that “liturgical language is important for the life of the Church. Lex orandi, lex credendi (i.e. the law of those praying is the law of those believing or we pray what we believe). In liturgy, the words addressed to God and the words spoken to the people voice the Faith of the Church. They are not simply the expressions of one individual in one particular place at one time in history. The words used in liturgy also pass on the faith of the Church from one generation to the next. For this reason, the bishops take seriously their responsibility to provide for the faithful the translations of liturgical texts that are accurate and inspiring. Hence, the sometimes passionate discussion of words, phrases and syntax.”
It is precisely this issue of “passionate discussion” of the approved translations which troubles me so much because I believe the bishops have ignored important voices of dissent within their ranks, especially the recommendations of the Catholic Biblical Association, an institution the bishops use to produce the New American Bible translation of the Scriptures, the basis for all our Lectionary readings up to now. Elsewhere in the English speaking world they use the New English Bible translation. If therefore the Church wants to insist on the uniformity one English translation for all of the English speaking world, the bishops ought to explain why they allow different Lectionary readings, which, of course, are an intimate and central part of every Mass, called the Liturgy of the Word!
Note that the first of Bishop Serratelli’s basic explanations for the revisions is: “First, the new texts will be used in many different English-speaking countries. Therefore, the language will not bear the cultural stamp or preference of one particular country. This calls for certain openness on the part of all of us.” If that’s true, the bishops are going to have to explain the different Lectionaries, which in fact do, to some extent, reflect the English spoken in a specific region. That’s why we are Americans, not Brits. We ended that relationship over 200 years ago when our ancestors fought and won a war against them. One of the enduring results is that we do not speak like them, and we do not want to. Winning that war for independence gave us that right. His full remarks can be read at www.usccb.org/roman missal/.
I must say the proposed translation revisions (many of them) are very troubling to me. Many of the issues are clear attempts to arrest the advanced efforts in this country to eliminate needless sexist language from the liturgy. The inconsistencies are sometimes glaring. In the Gloria, we will pray: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people (hominibus in Latin) of good will. But in the Creed, we will be required to pray “For us men (hominibus) and for our salvation….and became man (homo). Where is the consistency? “For us” and “became human” would be perfectly acceptable and would eliminate a needless sexist barrier. And the precedent for it is set by translating hominibus as people in the Gloria. Such inconsistency on the part of the bishops at such a critical moment in the life of the praying community is painful to watch.
One of the only voices among the bishops to garner any headlines against what they have done came from Bishop Donald Trautman, of Erie, Pa. I am proud to say he too, once studied at the University of Innsbruck as did I. Unfortunately his voice has been drowned out by the vote of the bishops in November. Bishop Trautman warned some time ago that we’ll have to grow comfortable with such unfamiliar and needless words such as “consubstantial,” “ignominy,” “oblation,” “ineffable,”(say what?)” “precursor,” “unvanquished,” and “incarnate of.” Other dandies in waiting include “suffused” “inviolate,” and “beseech.” Help!
In the end, I’m not sure what’s in the poke. But if I’m intending to buy a pig, I usually try to make sure it’s a pig and not a skunk. The poke needs to be opened before we buy. The laity need to be asked their opinion. The clergy need to be consulted too. And maybe we’ll eventually find a pig in the poke. Right now we’re all at the mercy of the bishops. We can only hope they remember what that word (mercy) means and grant us a reprieve until they get it right.
I actually asked some of my friends and respected colleagues what they thought and whether it should be shared with the parish. Below are some of their responses.
David Timbs teaches in Catholic schools in Australia and also studied with Fr. Hummer in Jerusalem. He is also a former Redemptorist priest. He had the following comments:
“Lawrence, I fully endorse your thoughts about publishing your views in the parish newsletter. You have spent years educating your folks theologically and biblically so I think you can take them through the concerns you have spelled out.
I share your alarm that the ICEL has been hijacked by Vox Clara. One of the principals of this group from the beginning is George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney. George has a DPhil in Church History but is theologically illiterate. He has little sense of consultation within the Catholic community. His former Auxiliary, Mark Coleridge, is now Archbishop of Canberra, the Federal Capital (like Washington DC). Mark holds a DSS from the PBC and for a number of years was the principal English speech writer in Rome for JPII. He is clever and well connected and I am convinced he is looking forward to seeing George off to the Curia soon and his accession to Sydney and the Red Hat that comes with it. These are two fellows to keep an eye on.
Mark is the Chairman of Vox Clara and a staunch defender of the new translation arguing that it is an authentic rendering of what VAT II intended for liturgical texts. In a recent interview on the Australian website Cathnews.com he vigorously attempted to hose down any criticism of the new translation.
The Hierarchy to a large extent has lost consciousness of the magisterial importance of the Sensus Fidelium. Because they have and are failing to listen to the internal challenges of faithful, concerned and educated Catholics I fear the drop off rate will escalate. We're down to attendance fractions in this country (Australia).”
“I think it is well-stated and very enlightening. I, like many of the brethren, can't imagine how we are supposed to educate the laity without suppressing our own repugnance of the whole matter. It's that tedious patronizing crunch of wanting them to be spared from knowing the background that can only intensify their repugnance for doing what they will be "required" to do.” – Fr. Ron Atwood, St. Francis of Assisi Church, Columbus.
“Besides the idiotic and unnecessary translation changes, what really gets me (and which you mention) is the total disregard for decentralization and collegiality. Both are major themes from Vatican II, and this is part of the effort to destroy the reform goals of the Council. As has been pointed out, the backward steps being foisted on the liturgy are all done completely divorced from expert study and the input of liturgists. Next thing you know they will be making a new translation of the Vulgate as the only official text for Catholics.” – Fr. Dave Foxen