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Vatican insists on greater control over language agency


A long-running struggle over Roman Catholic worship in English took another turn in late October, with a Vatican letter indicating that a new set of statutes for the agency that translates liturgical texts is unacceptable because they fail to acknowledge key controls for Rome.

The major sticking point, sources tell NCR, is Rome’s desire for a nihil obstat, or veto power, over the appointment of key personnel.

The statutes had been revised by the governing episcopal board of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy at Vatican insistence. The letter indicates those changes did not go far enough, however, to pass muster in Rome.

The letter is considered significant because it carries the signature of Cardinal Francis Arinze, new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Arinze, a Nigerian, replaced Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez as the Vatican’s top liturgical officer Oct. 2. Given that the crackdown on the international commission -- called ICEL -- was to some extent identified with Medina, observers were curious as to whether the appointment of Arinze would signal a change in course. The late October letter would seem to indicate it does not.

Specifically, Arinze faulted the new statutes for failing to:

  • Recognize the Vatican’s right to a nihil obstat, in effect a veto power, over key commission personnel;
  • Impose term limits for staff;
  • Acknowledge that it is the Congregation for Divine Worship, not the member bishops’ conferences, that technically “erects” the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

Arinze also expresses regret that the commission bishops did not pursue more active consultation with the congregation that could have avoided the necessity of another Vatican intervention.

The U.S. delegate to the episcopal board is Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

Sources among the English-speaking bishops suggested to NCR some optimism that the Vatican might be willing to settle for a less formal system of notification about ICEL appointments than a nihil obstat. A source in Rome, however, said this may reflect “wishful thinking.”

A draft set of the new statutes has been circulated for comment among the various English-speaking bishops’ conferences. While in a technical sense Arinze’s letter merely offers another set of reactions, it is widely believed that his points represent an essential element without which, at least in some form, the Vatican is unlikely to relent.

The powers referred to by Arinze are enumerated in the May 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam, which promulgated a new set of principles to guide the translation of liturgical texts. It repealed a 1969 Vatican document, Comme le Prévoit, which had allowed translators wide latitude to find modes of expression appropriate to the various vernacular languages. That approach, called dynamic equivalency, quickly became dominant in the English-speaking Catholic world.

In recent years, Rome has signaled a shift away from Comme le Prévoit, rejecting or revising several translations that reflected its principles.

Medina first demanded revision of the statutes in a letter to the chair of the ICEL episcopal board dated Oct. 26, 1999. At that time, he asked that the statutes be prepared by Easter 2000.

A primary factor accounting for the delay, sources tell NCR, is that some members of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy oppose the demand for a nihil obstat, regarding it as suggesting a lack of faith in the bishops who govern the commission.

Some analysts see the struggle over the commission as part of a broader debate over the balance of power between Rome and the bishops’ conferences. When it was created at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), ICEL was conceived as a joint project of bishops’ conferences with no direct role for Rome. The assertion that it is the Vatican that erects the commission and must approve its personnel, therefore, strikes some ICEL members as excessively centralized.

ICEL is a federation of 25 bishops’ conferences where English is a major language. It is governed by a board of bishops from conferences in the United States, England and Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, South Africa and the Philippines.

In a related development, another Vatican-sponsored body overseeing translation of liturgical texts into English, called the Vox Clara commission, met in Rome in November. That body is working on a ratio translationis, or a guide to future translations based on Liturgiam Authenticam. It is also reviewing translations of the new Roman Missal, or the collection of prayers for the Mass.

A Nov. 19 news release said that Arinze spoke to Vox Clara and “emphasized the importance of an effective application of Liturgiam Authenticam to the structures and processes undertaken for the translation of the liturgical books of the Roman Rite.”

Members of Vox Clara from the United States include George, Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, and Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans.

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

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002