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German translations latest to face Vatican crackdown


While a Vatican-driven sea change in liturgical philosophy continues in the English-speaking world, moving away from a flexible approach based on living language toward greater conformity with Roman models, fresh evidence suggests a similar overhaul is underway in other languages.

Since 1997, the Vatican has pressed the agency responsible for liturgical translation into English, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, called ICEL, toward greater fidelity to the Latin originals of liturgical texts. Founded at Vatican II and sponsored by the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, ICEL had been known for an approach called “dynamic equivalence,” allowing translators some liberties in order to render Latin texts accessible in modern English.

Though the issues involved can be highly technical, observers say the reversals mark one of the most significant course changes under John Paul II from what had been a season of experimentation following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Some also see the increasingly direct role of the Vatican in liturgical translation as an example of re-centralization of power in this papacy.

Now the Vatican appears to be turning its attention to other language groups as well.

The agency responsible for liturgical translation into German, known as the Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Liturgischen Kommissionen im deutschen Sprachgebiet, called IAG, is slated for a major reorganization. News of the move followed a December meeting between Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, chair of the German bishops’ liturgy committee, and the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship.

IAG, like ICEL, known for a “dynamic equivalence” approach, is housed at the Deutsches Liturgisches Institut in Trier. Member countries include Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, along with a handful of other German-speaking dioceses.

Vatican officials are said to be concerned about German translations in part because some Eastern European conferences use them as base texts for their own translations.

At the annual meeting of IAG in Augsburg, Germany, in January, Meisner informed the group that it will have to be revamped in light of the May 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam, which promulgated translation principles reflecting the Roman approach. Meisner said that IAG must become a bishops’ committee for translation that can function as a platform for cooperation in the German-speaking world.

One Vatican complaint with the translation process has long been that it is dominated by staff and advisers, with bishops playing too passive a role.

Fr. Eberhard Amon, who heads the IAG staff, told NCR Feb. 6 that “IAG in its present form will not exist any longer.”

The news from Germany follows a Vatican letter sent last fall to French bishops and first reported in NCR. The letter asked the bishops to initiate re-translations in keeping with Liturgiam Authenticam. Sources also told NCR that in the past year the Vatican rejected the French translation of the marriage rite. Although the Latin edition permits a lay person to preside or witness a marriage in the absence of a priest or deacon, the Vatican instructed the bishops to remove that chapter on the grounds that there is no “pastoral necessity” for it in France.

Meanwhile, the new chief of staff for ICEL, Fr. Bruce Harbert, is in Rome this week for meetings with the Congregation for Divine Worship. The sessions are to prepare for a Feb.18 meeting with ICEL bishops and congregation officials, to discuss new statutes for the agency.

Those statutes are expected to enshrine a role for the Congregation for Divine Worship in some previously internal ICEL decisions, such as the appointment of staff.

Harbert, a former Anglican, was named executive secretary in summer 2002, replacing Dr. John Page, a lay man who had led the staff since 1980. At the same time, the coadjutor bishop of Leeds, Arthur Roche, was tapped by the ICEL bishops to replace Scottish Bishop Maurice Taylor as chair. Taylor and Page were seen as stalwarts of the old ICEL approach, while Harbert had been a critic.

Harbert’s Feb. 5 and 6 meetings with the Congregation for Divine Worship are seen as indicative of an improved climate, since the congregation had earlier refused to meet with Page, insisting that staff had no standing to take part in meetings.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003