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Bishops withdraw imprimatur from Psalter

NCR Staff

Acting on instructions from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the U.S. bishops have withdrawn their 1995 imprimatur for the Psalter, or collection of Old Testament psalms, translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

The decision had been expected since confidential minutes of an Administrative Committee meeting of the bishops’ conference became public in June (NCR, June 19). In that closed-door session, the bishops discussed Rome’s insistence that the imprimatur be lifted and decided that, even though canon law made no provision for such a demand, they would comply. Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the church’s top doctrinal official.

An “imprimatur” is an official declaration by church authorities that a document is acceptable for publication.

The move may end any chance of the 1995 Psalter ever being approved for official church use. “I’d like to think it’s redeemable,” said Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., one of the bishops originally involved in approving the new Psalter. “But in my opinion, given what Rome is saying, we’ll have to start over.”

Privately, many critics say that the controversy illustrates the micromanagement in which Rome is willing to engage -- in this case, telling the U.S. bishops what English translation is best suited for their own use -- in order to combat what it sees as feminist contamination of the church.

“It’s all about control, their [Rome’s] fear of women’s ordination and the whole feminist agenda,” said one prelate, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Because the Psalter uses “inclusive language” principles, such as avoiding masculine pronouns for God, some persons on the Catholic right have accused the International Commission of being influenced by liberal pressure groups, including advocates of women’s ordination.

An April 1996 letter from Ratzinger to Pilla appeared to echo this criticism. In that letter, Ratzinger refers to “an unacceptable manipulation of the texts of sacred scripture” in the Psalter.

The Psalter is used by religious communities and others in the church for daily prayer. Though the 1995 translation was approved only for study, not for “liturgical use,” it quickly found wide acceptance in English- speaking communities because many regard older translations as inadequate for singing and chanting.

Gabe Huck, director of Liturgy Training Publications of Chicago, said the company has sold about 15,000 to 20,000 copies of the Psalter and an additional 30,000 copies of a version arranged for daily prayer. He said Liturgy Training will delete the imprimatur in future printings, but he does not expect a significant impact on sales.

Other sources said another concern for Rome, closely aligned with the inclusive language issue, is that a Psalter that eliminates masculine pronouns may undercut the so-called “messianic” reading of the psalms. Many in the church have traditionally interpreted some psalms as predictions of the coming of Jesus, a reading some see as more difficult in the International Commission’s translation.

In his letter announcing the decision, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, president of the bishops’ conference, strove to save face for those involved in approving the text. “The revocation of the imprimatur should in no way be perceived as a revocation of the judgment of the censors’ opinions concerning the fidelity or accuracy of the text,” he said, nor should it be seen as reflecting negatively on “the judgment of our bishops.”

Instead, Pilla alluded to “new information” and “changing circumstances” in which the decision to grant the imprimatur is “no longer considered appropriate or opportune.”

Behind the scenes, Pilla and other bishops are clearly agitated by Rome’s move. Pilla is quoted in the March minutes as saying he “strongly believes” the imprimatur was granted properly, even though the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and some National Conference of Catholic Bishops members “may not agree.”

“The conference has not acted in service to any particular agenda in regard to scripture translations,” Pilla said at the time, “but has engaged in an honest, scholarly effort in which scholarly differences of opinion have surfaced.”

Beyond the question of alleged bias, other bishops objected to Rome’s willingness to abandon its own processes. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, who was the U.S. bishops’ liaison to the International Commission at the time the Psalter was approved, said in March that the present circumstances are “inevitably offensive” to the bishops’ conference. “This 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 said Rome’s demand to lift the imprimatur was “unjust” to the International Commission, to the publisher and to the experts involved.

Rome also objected that the new Psalter is being used in liturgical settings, despite the U.S. bishops’ instructions to the contrary.

“Yes, it’s being used informally, by people in their prayer as opposed to a liturgical setting,” Huck said. “Does every prayer have to be in some official form?” Huck told NCR that unless somebody who is obliged to recite the official prayers of the church “uses these instead, there’s no problem,” noting that remains true even without the imprimatur.

Huck also noted that the International Commission’s intent in publishing a study edition was to allow people and communities to experiment with the text -- “to see if it chants and sings well” -- so that later a more definitive edition could be issued. “I don’t see how you do that without using it,” Huck said.

Trautman said the fact that the Psalter is being widely used “shows a lacuna” in the church’s inventory of approved liturgical texts.

“People in monasteries need a singable text,” he said. “The only approved text we have dates from the 1950s, and it doesn’t sing.”

Trautman said that many monasteries now produce their own texts, which are neither “uniform nor faithful to scripture.” Lifting the imprimatur from the new translation, Trautman said, raises the question of “how pastoral we have been in this.” He suggested that withdrawing the imprimatur might do little to dissuade religious communities from continuing to use the text. “Monastic communities will use what they have available to them,” he said.

Fundamentally, Trautman said, the issue raised by Rome’s action is one of process. “Vatican II said that local bishops’ conferences have the authority to produce their own translations,” he said. “Is that still in force?”

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998