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Lectionary’s intro, psalter vetoed; little resistance from U.S. bishops

In moves widely seen as rebuffs to the international group responsible for translating liturgical texts into English, as well as to the U.S. bishops who have approved its work, the Vatican has demanded more than 400 changes to the introduction of the long-awaited new lectionary and asked that the imprimatur be lifted from a 1995 translation of the psalter.

That edition of the psalter, a collection of Old Testament psalms, had come under fire for its use of inclusive language such as avoiding masculine pronouns for God. Like the lectionary, it was translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, though technically it had never been approved for liturgical use in the United States.

In both cases, the U.S. bishops appear poised to accept the Vatican’s demands, which were slated to be discussed during a closed-door session at the bishops’ June 18-20 meeting in Pittsburgh.

A set of confidential documents obtained by NCR, including back-and-forth correspondence between ICEL and the U.S. bishops, staff documents from both groups and minutes from a meeting of the advisory committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, reveal the profound tensions bubbling beneath the surface of these sometimes obscure debates. The tensions include those between Rome and ICEL, over differing philosophies about how to render Latin texts accessible in the vernacular; between the U.S. bishops and Rome, over the extent to which Rome should micro-manage the affairs of national bishops’ conferences; and among the U.S. bishops themselves. Some bishops welcome the suppression of translations they see as reflecting theological and social agendas, especially feminism, while others resent Vatican mandates, particularly when they appear to have been influenced by conservative American liturgical groups.

Observers also suggest that the Vatican actions may foreshadow similar trouble for the ICEL translation of the new sacramentary (the collection of prayers used in the Mass), now making its way to Rome.

According to the minutes of a March 24 and 25 meeting of the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is the steering committee for the conference, the U.S. bishops may impose a moratorium on imprimaturs for all translations until they receive clarification from Rome on how to avoid future conflicts. Immediately that decision would affect the second edition of the Contemporary English Version of scripture, produced by the American Bible Society, currently awaiting approval from the bishops.

Open to challenge

Rome’s demands have clearly irritated many prelates, who believe that they followed all of the Vatican’s norms in giving approval to these texts. One bishop in the March 24 and 25 meeting argued that such actions are “demoralizing” to both ICEL and the American bishops, and that they leave the “pastoral responsibility and authority of the NCCB and the Holy See ... open to challenge and ridicule.”

On the removal of the psalter’s imprimatur, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of the Cincinnati archdiocese said Rome’s demand “tends to weaken the principle of solidarity and may cause some to question why the conference should cooperate on any matter if following the process the Holy See has prescribed is not good enough.” Pilarczyk, a former liaison between ICEL and the bishops’ conference, said that he would “never serve as censor again” had he played that role in the initial stages.

Nevertheless, Bishop Anthony Pilla of the Cleveland diocese, president of the NCCB, is quoted as telling the administrative committee that a “direct challenge” to Rome is “not winnable.” The Vatican “clearly has the authority to act as it did,” he said. The consequences “would be grave if the conference gave the impression of being in opposition to, or even out of step with, the church’s legitimate authority,” the minutes record Pilla as saying.

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia is reported to have said that the bishops should not act as if Rome is forcing these decisions upon them. Just as there were good reasons for granting the imprimatur to the psalter, Bevilacqua said, there are now good reasons for withdrawing it. Pilla commented that the bishops were obviously acting at Rome’s behest.

In the end, the committee agreed to recommend accepting Rome’s position on both the introduction to the lectionary, called the praenotanda, and on the psalter, to the full body of bishops. The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy had earlier voted unanimously to recommend approval of the Vatican changes to the praenotanda. Most sources say the bishops are anxious to get the new lectionary (the collection of scripture texts for use at Mass) into print by Advent and are likely to follow the committee’s recommendations.

According to an analysis prepared for the June bishops’ meeting by staff of the U.S. Catholic Conference, most changes made to the praenotanda by Rome involve matters such as reinserting the word sacred where ICEL had chosen to leave it out for ease of reading; inserting definite articles such as an and the where ICEL had left them out; reverting to technical terms such as ambo where ICEL had preferred lectern; capitalizing words such as Blood and Passion where they refer to Jesus; and changes intended to make expressions more precise, where Rome believed ICEL had mistranslated the original Latin.

Though ICEL’s staff declined to comment for this story, NCR obtained a copy of a strongly worded letter protesting Rome’s action sent by Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland, chair of ICEL, to Bishop Pilla. In his letter of Jan. 20, Taylor argues that the alterations demanded by the Vatican represent an affront both to ICEL and to the various bishops’ conferences.

“That the congregation would simply send a document with changes incorporated without giving any accompanying reasons, either general or specific, seems to me to be not simply dismissive of ICEL’s role in service to the bishops but demeaning to the conference of bishops and the authority vested in it,” Taylor wrote.

“To accept wholesale changes unnecessarily would inevitably cause consternation in those conferences where the text has been long in use. The matter involves not only the authority of the bishops’ conferences but also has important implications for the pastoral life of our churches.”

A U.S. bishop present at the March 24 and 25 meeting but not identified in the minutes echoed Taylor’s point, arguing that the Roman action “does not further the pursuit of truth, improve the quality of translation or meet the pastoral needs of the church.”

“Who is competent to determine matters of taste for English spoken in the United States, the staff of Roman dicasteries or the U.S. bishops?” the prelate asked. “Doctrine is doctrine, but when the issue is the meaning of words, should the conference’s work be frustrated by people who have less competence in the English language than the bishops do, or no competence at all?”

The dispute over the introduction is the latest skirmish in a six-year battle between Rome and the U.S. bishops’ conference over the scriptural translations in the lectionary itself, centering mostly on the desire of some U.S. prelates to use inclusive language where possible.

The conflict had seemingly been resolved after a working group composed of American prelates and Vatican officials developed a compromise that won provisional approval from the U.S. bishops last June (NCR, July 4, 1997). When the formal decree of approval was transmitted from Rome to Pilla in December, however, it contained an attachment with substantial changes to the praenotanda.

This is not the first instance in which Rome has voiced doubts about ICEL. In September 1997, the Vatican nixed the ICEL translation of the new rite of ordination of bishops, priests and deacons, going so far as to suggest in a letter from Archbishop Jorge Medina Estévez of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to Pilla that “this congregation considers it may be helpful to recommend that there be a complete change of translators on this project and that a new, independent and definitive English version be made afresh from the Latin texts.”

In that case, Rome charged the ICEL text contained a variety of “doctrinal problems,” including insufficient emphasis on the unique role of the bishop and confusion over the fact that a bishop is chosen not from “the mass of the people as a sociological group” but “to serve mankind being a man himself.”

At one level, sources say, Roman antipathy to ICEL’s work is a matter of differing approaches to the art of translation, with ICEL preferring a freer style aimed at rendering Latin expressions into contemporary English idiom, a method known as “dynamic equivalency.” Rome advocates a more literal, word-for-word rendering of the Latin, stressing the use of cognates (words descending from the same ancestral root) where possible. This approach, the Vatican believes, ensures a more faithful and doctrinally correct result.

Pilla called at the March 24 and 25 meeting for the drafting of an “authoritative protocol on the principles for preparing translations and the processes for approving them.” In another place, he suggested drafting a “white paper” from the American bishops to the Roman dicasteries, outlining concerns both about substantive issues of translation and also about the process of approval.

Separately, Fr. James Moroney, head of the Secretariat for Liturgy, told NCR that his office is drafting a document for the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy to help that group in discussing translation principles.

The frosty attitude of some curial officials toward ICEL, however, has deeper roots, according to many observers. Sources told NCR that some in Rome believe the commission’s work has been compromised by pressure from feminists and other “special interest groups.” This bias, they argue, shows in ICEL’s preference for gender-neutral language.

This view has been advanced by conservative liturgical watchdog groups such as Adoremus, Credo and Mother Angelica’s EWTN. “There’s no question such groups were involved” in the Vatican action on both the praenotanda and the psalter, one source told NCR. “Their fingerprints are all over it.”

Archbishop Francis T. Hurley of the Anchorage, Ala., diocese appears to make indirect reference to this possibility during the March 24 and 25 meeting, where he is quoted as saying, “It appears ... that people in the United States were involved in changes to the praenotanda.” In connection to the removal of the psalter’s imprimatur, Hurley said it was “unclear” where the pressure was coming from. “It does not seem to be a simple matter of scholars changing their minds,” he is reported to have said.

A commendable task

Pilla himself seemed to refer to the activities of pressure groups in another place. “The U.S. bishops must be careful to avoid creating even the appearance of tension or disagreement between themselves and the Holy See, since some thrive on the idea that Rome will call the bishops to task for accepting flawed translations,” he said.

Some close to the dispute believe that the recurring conflicts between ICEL and the Holy See leave the former’s fate in doubt. Archbishop Justin Rigali of the St. Louis archdiocese suggested in the March administrative committee meeting that “The body of bishops should consider whether the NCCB, after many years of experience, should remain an ICEL member or create a new agency to produce American translations.”

ICEL was created in 1963 as a joint project of the bishops’ conferences in countries where English is an important language. The commission enjoys strong support from some bishops who have worked closely with the organization.

“ICEL has performed a commendable task for the English-speaking world by rendering Latin texts into contemporary language in a reverent and prayerful way,” said Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., former head of the bishops’ liturgy committee, in a June 1 interview with NCR.

“We owe a debt of great gratitude to the ICEL translators for the work they’ve done since Vatican II, helping the church carry out the wishes of the council fathers. They’ve done it with skill, accuracy and beauty,” Trautman told NCR.

The bishops’ key aide on liturgical matters deflected speculation about a rupture between ICEL and the U.S. bishops. “It is my absolutely firm expectation that ICEL will continue to be the translating body for the bishops of the United States,” Moroney said. “I’m not aware of anyone who’s suggesting otherwise.”

ICEL’s status would not be taken up at the bishops’ meeting, according to remarks by Pilla in the administrative committee minutes. If a member were to raise the issue from the floor, Pilla is reported as saying, he will respond that the conference is “taking this matter up in a separate conversation.”

Taylor argued in his letter to Pilla that if the American bishops don’t resist Rome on the praenotanda, the future of the sacramentary would be in doubt. “The implications for the revised edition of the sacramentary, soon to be presented to the congregation as approved by all the conferences, are especially critical,” Taylor wrote.

Several sources contacted by NCR echoed Taylor’s argument. The revised sacramentary has been approved by the English-language bishops’ conferences and is now in the final stages of preparation for submission to Rome.

“Perhaps our fears are exaggerated,” one observer said, “but it sure looks like we’re coming to a crisis over the sacramentary.”

Pilarczyk is quoted in the administrative committee minutes as saying, “All things considered, it is better that [Rome’s] consultants focus on the praenotanda than on the revised sacramentary to which the NCCB has devoted so much time and energy.”

The U.S. bishops’ staff recommended adoption of the Vatican revisions. A report prepared by the secretariat said, “It is the opinion of the secretariat that most of the ... revisions represent an improvement over the ICEL draft and that these revisions could be integrated into the ICEL text without significantly compromising its readability.”

In the administrative committee’s minutes, Archbishop Jerome Hanus of the Dubuque, Iowa, archdiocese, calls the secretariat’s analysis “respectful and careful, truly exemplary,” while he terms the ICEL statements “neither as precise nor as helpful.” Hanus is currently the chair of the bishops’ liturgy committee.

National Catholic Reporter, June 19, 1998