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Translation ambushed in a curial cubbyhole

The notion that the people should be central to liturgy, “the work of the church,” is at the core of the liturgical movement affirmed by the Second Vatican Council that has flourished ever since.

That concept is not some novel idea developed as part of a “liberal” agenda in recent years. Rather it is the sense of the council, understood deeply by those most involved in developing its thought. The centrality of the people of God was one of the more radical shifts in ecclesiology to come out of the council, and perhaps that is why it has come under such severe attack three decades later.

The word attack may seem a bit heavy-handed, but what else can be said of the revelations in John Allen’s account of a group that met behind closed doors in the Vatican to bowdlerize the inclusive-language biblical translations that scholars, liturgists and the majority of the U.S. bishops had painstakingly produced and approved over a number of years?

Since the council, inclusive language has become important because it lends credibility to an idea central to liturgical reform -- that all the people of God, not just men, should hear themselves addressed in worship.

In another sense, of course, inclusive language is about fairness. Women are excluded and marginalized in many ways, and the church should not be complicit in that mistreatment. Call it fidelity to the gospel or just common decency, but the church’s public speech should not consign anyone to second-class status.

These seem simple enough principles. When applied to translating the Bible, they also result in a remarkable degree of linguistic accuracy. The ancient languages of scripture -- Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek -- usually address both genders, even when specifically masculine terms are used. Even the maleness of God is far less pronounced in these languages than it is in many English translations. The new lectionary’s version of the Psalms, for example, uses scores of masculine pronouns for God that do not appear in the Hebrew original.

Yet for the opponents of inclusive language, the issues run deeper. They worry that if the words of scripture can be vetted to suit whatever ideology is in fashion, then is anything sacred? Is there any deposit of faith left beneath the shifting sands of a given era’s tastes? Moreover, some fear a slippery slope: If the church caves in on inclusive language, women’s ordination cannot be far behind.

These are legitimate issues to discuss, and everyone was led to believe that processes and commissions were already in place to carry out such conversations.

But that is not what happened. The U.S. bishops were not invited to send a delegation of their best and brightest Bible scholars and liturgists, along with the bishops who had been involved with the lectionary from the beginning, to negotiate with Vatican officials as decisions were made. Nor was the highly regarded Pontifical Biblical Commission ever involved. Instead, 11 men did the work in secret.

That almost no one in the room possessed the sort of background in Biblical studies and ancient languages the task honestly required confirms what has been suspected all along: This was phony dialogue. In fact, the conclusions were largely determined in advance by Vatican authorities, who then cloaked their decrees in the thinnest veil of consultation.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be rushing to the defense of the U.S. bishops, who approved the original lectionary by an overwhelming margin, and then just six years later approved a document in many ways its antithesis by a two-thirds vote. But even if the bishops were not prepared in this instance to defend the principle of subsidiarity, we must. The U.S. church, drawing upon the joint wisdom of its Bible scholars, liturgists and common people, must be allowed the freedom to determine which translations make sense for its communities. It’s the only way a universal church can work.

The lectionary is another case in point of a widely noted trend in the church, away from collegiality and toward centralization of authority in Rome. That the U.S. bishops find their own episcopal authority increasingly irrelevant in such a context hardly needs to be said.

Certainly there is a place in the process for doctrinal review in Rome -- though if serious doctrinal errors can really slip past the massive U.S. bishops’ conference, we’ve got bigger problems than how to translate a few lines of scripture. If there are objections to those translations, let them be voiced openly and resolved by the appropriate agencies, not by ad-hoc groups composed largely of amateurs, executing plays scripted for them in curial cubbyholes and aided and abetted by the most extreme reactionaries within the church.

Should that debate ever occur in the open, there is undoubtedly a place at the table for men such as Michael Waldstein -- by all accounts, a gifted scholar and effective advocate for a conservative point of view. But that table should also include persons from other perspectives, other scholars, other liturgists and especially some of the church’s richly gifted women. It should be real dialogue, respecting the literal sense of the texts and balancing the competing interests in today’s factionalized church.

Perhaps when the five-year review called for by the U.S. bishops rolls around in 2002, the lessons learned from this experience will lead to a different outcome -- a genuinely inclusive process that would, at last, produce a genuinely inclusive text.

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998