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Time for leadership amid liturgical strife

An ancient and often-quoted truth of Catholic life is lex orandi, lex credendi -- “the rule of worship is also the rule of faith.” The point is that the prayer of the church, codified in its liturgy, is the most profound expression of what the church believes.

Perhaps that insight accounts for the intensity of debate surrounding liturgy, for it goes to the core of who we are as Catholics. If the church is the body of Christ, the liturgy is what carries the blood to the brain. To extend the metaphor, that blood supply is currently in danger of being choked off by extremist elements within the U.S. church, in concert with a cabal in Rome, intent on reversing the liturgical reforms that have been taking hold for the past 30 years.

It is time for the voices of reason within the U.S. bishops’ conference to put the question squarely: Can they be, in this moment of reckoning, the determined pastors their U.S. flock deserves?

The most recent moves by Rome against translations approved by the American bishops give a new boost to those on the extreme right whose goal seems to be the elimination of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. ICEL is a consortium of 26 bishops’ conferences for which English is the principal language. Conferences designate a bishop representative to the organization that, for nearly 35 years, has translated liturgical texts from Latin to English.

In the minds of many on the Catholic far right, ICEL has become an unlikely, and largely undeserved, symbol of all they loathe: feminism, modernity and the reform-minded “spirit of Vatican II.” While most of the church has welcomed ICEL’s translations, incorporating them into worship and prayer, the zealots have been grinding away, currying favor with their counterparts in Rome.

It is easy to be deceived by the seeming obscurity of the present disputes. To most Catholics, arguing over whether one uses the word presbyter or the term pastor of souls to describe the celebrant at Mass, or how often one modifies scripture with sacred may seem dangerously like enumerating angels on the head of a pin.

But make no mistake, there is a sweeping agenda at work here, one crafted in pursuit of an ecclesial double-play: undercutting the work of those who have labored since the council to implement its liturgical vision and at the same time asserting greater Roman control over a U.S. bishops’ conference perceived by the right as too weak or too compromised to take action itself.

Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio and his Ignatius Press, the Adoremus Bulletin, groups such as Credo and Catholics United for the Faith, and outlets such as EWTN and The Wanderer all advance the cause. The crusaders urge their members to “police” liturgies to spot what they consider aberrations. They regularly notify Vatican personnel who, astoundingly, notify bishops to look into the complaints. Good, faithful people can be tagged as “suspect” or “controversial,” damaging or ending church careers.

In the present instance, Rome’s veto of two key liturgical texts is disturbing on multiple levels. It unjustly impugns the meticulous work of translators, censors and scripture scholars who have labored to produce in English material that is both doctrinally faithful and poetic enough to be suited for liturgical use. It suggests that the U.S. bishops who reviewed and approved their work erred and that Rome is better able than our own bishops to judge which English rendering of a Latin text is appropriate for use in this country. Most perniciously, it invites more skulduggery and finger-pointing from the right, emboldened by the Vatican’s apparent willingness to take the complainants seriously.

Unfortunately, most of this activity occurs out of view of ordinary Catholics who trust that such matters will be dealt with responsibly by church leaders. At this writing, as the bishops begin their June 18-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, the question is whether that trust has been misplaced.

Many are speculating that the bishops, tired of controversy, will simply acquiesce to Rome’s demands. For the sake of the American church with whose best interests they are entrusted, however, we hope the bishops will pursue a more deliberative and aggressive response.

National Catholic Reporter, June 19, 1998