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Debate over language lingers; lectionary vote is inconclusive

NCR Staff
Kansas City, Mo.

Bishops Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., and Richard J. Sklba, auxiliary of Milwaukee, led a fight against a proposed new lectionary, urging U.S. Catholic bishops at their annual spring meeting to reject the sharp limits imposed by the Vatican on inclusive language.

After prolonged debate, bishops voted inconclusively on a compromise -- to temporarily accept the Vatican limits and revisit the lectionary issue in five years, when the revised Old Testament version of the New American Bible is expected to be complete.

The lectionary contains translations of biblical readings approved for use at weekday and Sunday Mass.

So far, the bishops' unsuccessful negotiations with the Vatican over gender-inclusive biblical language have centered on revised translations of New Testament readings and responsorial psalms.

The decision on the compromise will be determined after absent bishops are polled by mail.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee said in an interview that a "no" vote would mean that bishops find the present lectionary better than changes based on the Vatican's strict norms.

Trautman pointed out that even biblical translations sponsored by conservative and fundamentalist Christians in the United States -- groups that are particularly concerned with accurate renderings of biblical texts, he said -- go further in using gender-inclusive language than the Vatican will allow in New Testament and psalm translations for the proposed new lectionary. Meanwhile, translation work on the Old Testament of the revised New American Bible -- the text preferred by U.S. bishops, who own the copyright -- is underway. It, too, will need Vatican approval before it can be used in Catholic worship.

"If even fundamentalist traditions can use inclusive language and we cannot, what does that say about our biblical scholarship?" Trautman asked. "We are not dealing with an inclusive language translation as understood in biblical circles."

The vigorous June 20 debate, the culmination of five years of negotiations with the Vatican, centered on how to deal with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's refusal to accept much of the gender-inclusive language agreed on by U.S. bishops in 1991. Ratzinger heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Sacramentary changes

Bishops also considered changes in the sacramentary, the book of prayers used by the priest at Mass. Like the lectionary, it is being updated for the first time in a generation. Bishops approved 159 of 160 prayers, the final step in their deliberations on the 3,000-prayer book. The prayers have been worked out among bishops in concert with the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, ICEL, which is composed of bishops from the major English-speaking countries around the world.

Two prayers were considered separately. One will remain unchanged in the new sacramentary, as a result of the bishops' rejection of proposed changes. It is the response known as the Suscipiat in Latin, which reads, "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good, and the good of all his church."

U.S. bishops voted 188-20 to reject ICEL's proposal to replace his with God's in its first appearance and with the in the second, arguing that the wording made it appear as if "Lord" and "God" were two different persons.

Bishops then rejected 121-68 a gender-inclusive version written by their own liturgy committee. It read, "Lord accept our sacrifice at the hands of your priest, for the praise and glory of your name, for our good and for the good of all the church."

A decision on the second prayer the bishops considered separately was inconclusive and awaits polling of absent bishops. The prayer now reads, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to his supper." ICEL has proposed that the prayer be changed to read, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the banquet of the Lamb."

Archbishop Jerome G. Hanus of Dubuque, Iowa, chairman of the bishops' committee on liturgy, said the committee approved the new wording, except for changing sins to sin, thereby diminishing, Hanus said, the sense of personal sinfulness.

About 50 of the 260 bishops eligible to vote were absent from the June 19-21 meeting.

Liturgical changes require first a two-thirds majority of all voting members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and then Vatican approval. Bishops noted that approval from the Vatican of decisions made at the meeting here should not be regarded as certain.

Many bishops feel translation norms imposed by the Vatican only recently, several years into the revision process, fall far short of what is acceptable to meet scholarly standards and pastoral needs. Yet bishops speaking at the meeting here expressed distaste for the alternatives.

Dismay at new norms

Rejecting the Vatican's terms would mean making no changes in the lectionary at all, or entering what some said would be a counterproductive face-off with the Vatican.

Many bishops have expressed dismay at the Vatican's recent imposition of new translation norms. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith handed the norms to three U.S. archbishops during their visit to Rome this spring. The norms have not been made public but were distributed to bishops before the meeting here as part of a confidential packet of information.

Although the packet was not distributed to the press, NCR obtained a copy. Besides the norms, it contained correspondence with Vatican officials about translation conflicts, including 12 pages of "observations" on the lectionary changes bishops were considering here. The observations were prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996.

Trautman and Sklba, both biblical scholars, jump-started the June 20 debate over the lectionary, initiating what many bishops and bishop-watchers here described as the liveliest exchange in years over any issue.

Trautman said, "I know bishops are tired of these translation issues ... [but] if this comes out ... it solves nothing," referring to the proposed lectionary the bishops are considering whether to adopt temporarily. "We are not resolving the pastoral problem of inclusivity," he said.

Sklba said, "I regret I have to recommend that this body not accept the proposed text as ready for our approval." To approve them, he said, "is sure to consign us to yet another generation of pencil marked texts."

He referred to the current practice of some priests and lectors who write in ad hoc changes to wording of the biblical texts and liturgical prayers to make the language more inclusive. Such a situation is "not good for the church," said Bishop Victor H. Balke of Crookston, Minn.

Sklba said the Vatican's intervention to override lectionary translations developed by U.S. Catholic scripture scholars and adopted by U.S. bishops in 1991 represented "a serious affront to our Catholic scholarly community" and "a human relations problem ... of major proportions. Criteria were approved by this body, and suddenly the rules changed," he said.

Prior to the meeting, 53 bishops had been sent a letter from Benedictine Fr. Joseph Jensen, executive secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association, expressing deep concern over the Vatican's secrecy in lectionary negotiations.

Feeling angst

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, one of seven U.S. cardinals who went to Rome in December to plead with the Vatican for moving forward with a gender-inclusive lectionary, was among speakers who appeared testy over the Vatican's new secret norms. The norms supersede those established by U.S. bishops themselves in 1990, which called for greater use of inclusive language in the United States.

"I'm very sympathetic to those who have spoken of feeling angst, given where we find ourselves," he said. Law, who has close ties to the Vatican, said that accepting the lectionary, even provisionally, would put U.S. bishops "in a better position" with the Vatican in future negotiations.

Weakland -- among bishops who said he felt the proposed lectionary isn't inclusive enough -- first proposed the compromise that was ultimately voted on, with minor amendments. He suggested that bishops accept the proposed lectionary as an interim text and authorize a full review in five years with a view to its possible updating.

Weakland said he thought total acceptance of the proposed text using the Vatican norms would be serious mistake. "We'll be stuck for 25 years with everybody writing in their own translations," he said.

Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., supported the compromise while expressing "disappointment" that the proposed translation did not go further in use of inclusive language. Still, he said, to reject it would "set up a dynamic of confrontation" with the Vatican unlikely to lead "to success."

Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco took issue with points of biblical scholarship raised by Trautman and Sklba but, like most bishops who spoke, supported making the lectionary provisional. However, Levada expressed concern about a five-year limit. "I'm afraid that will come back to haunt us," he said.

Hanus said his committee would be satisfied with the compromise. "We've been struggling with this for seven years in a very painful way for many of us," he said.

Archbishop Justin F. Rigali of St. Louis said he found the idea of updating the lectionary after a number of years to be a "splendid idea." Provisional acceptance would "alert people to the possibility of a study later on," he said.

Rigali added that he wasn't sure the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would agree to a provisional text.

Some improvement

By rejecting outright the proposed text, the U.S. church would be left using the old non-inclusive lectionary, said Bishop Elden E. Curtiss of Omaha. At least the proposed text represented "some attempt at inclusive language ... some improvement," he said. He added, "In five years, there will be at least a chance to try to improve the text."

Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, N.J., said the compromise represented a way around the present problem and would serve as a "bridge to the future."

As bishops prepared to fill in their written ballots, Archbishop John R. Roach, retired from St. Paul and Minneapolis, offered a final challenge. "There are serious questions here," he said. He urged Archbishop Anthony M. Pilla, president of the bishops' conference, to convey to the Vatican a "genuine pastoral nervousness" about the proposed text.

Pilla said he intended to give a full report of the debate to Vatican officials.

Bishop Raymond A. Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., told NCR the debate -- and particularly the interventions by Bishops Trautman and Sklba "saying we need to stand up to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" -- represented a "proud moment" in the history of the U.S. bishops' conference.

In his letter to 53 bishops, Jensen of the Catholic Biblical Association wrote, "We are concerned over the secrecy which has shrouded almost every aspect of the negotiations over the lectionary. There apparently have been norms established which, until very recently, were not available even to the bishops.

"We are especially concerned over the ecclesial aspects of the matter, compared to which the matter of inclusive language pales into insignificance on the claim of higher doctrinal competence," Jensen wrote. "The [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] refuses to allow the U.S. hierarchy to determine what is appropriate for their own people. In the process it seems to question the competence of our bishops. This is a trial to us, and perhaps a greater trial is that the U.S. bishops do not appear to mind."

Note: For its Web page, the Catholic Biblical Association has produced a history of events leading up to the current impasse over the new U.S. lectionary. See "Lectionary Watch" at http://studentorg.cua.edu/cbib/nab.cfm.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 1997