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Vatican moves to take control of translation agency

NCR Staff

In a move likely to fuel debate over both liturgical reform and Roman centralization, the Vatican has asserted sweeping new powers over the commission charged with translating liturgical texts into English.

Potentially the most controversial demand is that staff and advisers for the International Commission on English in the Liturgy receive a Vatican “nihil obstat,” or official permission, in order to obtain and to keep their jobs.

The directives came in a confidential Oct. 26 letter from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, to Scottish Bishop Maurice Taylor, the current chair of the commission. NCR obtained a copy of the letter.

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy was created after Vatican II as a cooperative venture among the world’s English-speaking episcopal conferences. It is governed and funded by those conferences.

The move could set the stage for another contentious debate within the U.S. bishops’ conference on Vatican demands for control over previously autonomous institutions, following the recent vote on norms for Catholic higher education (NCR, Dec. 3). Because the commission’s statutes must be revised, the Vatican’s new powers will not take effect until six of the 11 full member bishops’ conferences approve them by a two-thirds vote.

The Vatican wants fast-track action on the statutes. Medina directed the bishops who govern the commission to have a draft ready to submit to their conferences by Easter, and said the bishops themselves should carry out the revision “in active consultation with this dicastery.”

Rome has sent a letter to conference presidents relaying its instructions.

In addition to the right to veto staff and advisers, Medina is seeking rules that would bar the commission from publishing anything without Rome’s approval, from creating original texts and from forming relationships with non-Catholic organizations.

The full text of Medina’s letter may be found on the NCR Web site at www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm under documents.

The commission’s reaction to the Vatican demands will be discussed in a special meeting of the 11 bishops who sit on its governing board, slated for late January in London. Each member conference designates one bishop on the board; Cardinal Francis George of Chicago represents the United States.

Medina wrote the Oct. 26 letter in response to Taylor’s request for dialogue between the commission and the Vatican. Medina said that such conversation would be pointless until the structural changes outlined in the letter were accomplished.

An American liturgist familiar with the controversy over translation said that plans exist for similar instructions to the French and German translation bodies.

The move caps several years of criticism of the commission from the Vatican and conservative liturgical groups in the United States, both of which have charged the commission with taking too many liberties with the Latin originals of liturgical texts. Especially controversial is the commission’s preference for inclusive language -- the use of gender-neutral vocabulary where consistent with the meaning of the text, such as people rather than mankind.

In 1997, Rome vetoed a translation of the new ordination rite for bishops, priests and deacons prepared by the commission. In 1998, the Vatican demanded more than 400 changes to the commission’s translation of the introduction to the lectionary, or collection of scripture readings for Mass. At the same time, Rome insisted that the U.S. bishops lift their imprimatur, or approval for publication, of a collection of Psalms produced by the commission (NCR, June 19, 1998).

Medina voiced dissatisfaction with the ordination rite in his letter to Taylor. The commission’s translation of the Sacramentary, or collection of prayers for the Mass, is currently awaiting Vatican action; most observers doubt it will be approved without significant revision.

Though American liturgists have long complained about lengthy review processes in Rome, Medina placed the blame for delays in approving texts largely on the commission, saying its translations have caused “a disproportionate commitment of resources” in his office.

Observers said the controversy reflects two realities that have shaped the church after Vatican II: an ongoing tension between universality and local flexibility in the liturgy, and the Vatican desire to keep the influential American church closely aligned with its own priorities.

“Medina is dismantling the commission as it’s existed up to now,” said an American bishop who spoke to NCR off the record. “It’s a very political move designed to curb the influence of liturgists, primarily Americans, perceived by the Vatican as too liberal.”

“The issue boils down to, who knows best how a liturgical text should sound in English - the English-speaking bishops and their most talented scholarly advisers, or the Vatican?” the bishop said.

In a telephone interview with NCR, Taylor said the severity of Medina’s letter surprised him. “We thought we were responding to Rome’s demands in a normal way,” he said. “We’re now into an extremely serious, extremely difficult situation.”

Though some commission supporters hope the board will oppose Medina’s demands, sources told NCR that such resistance will likely have to come from outside the United States. George is said to share much of the Vatican’s criticism. In his first meeting with the board in June 1998, George warned that Rome was looking for dramatic changes in the commission’s approach to translation (NCR, June 19, 1998).

Moreover, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Liturgy has a rocky relationship with the commission. In recent months, the committee’s staff has clashed with the commission over several issues - leading to charges from some commission supporters that the bishops’ staff has attempted to exercise disproportionate influence over the commission’s work.

According to its statutes, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy is responsible to its member episcopal conferences - the full members are Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, The Philippines, Scotland, South Africa, and the United States. The commission’s staff and offices are located in Washington.

In the letter, Medina said the nihil obstat for staff and advisers would be granted “in response to the presentation by the commission of specified documentation that will include attestations by the ordinaries of the prospective members.”

Medina said employees should have the “necessary guarantees regarding their employment,” but should work for fixed terms. “This dicastery … would reserve the right to grant an extension of such terms by dispensation whenever necessary,” Medina said.

Medina said the position of executive secretary “is in need of careful reconfiguration, so as to increase in a notable way the accountability of such a figure and to ensure a clearer demarcation of his role from that of the bishop members.”

Medina also said the statutes should prevent the commission from granting permission for the publication of texts, or from publishing them directly, without the prior approval of the Vatican for liturgical use.

In recent years, publication of the commission’s translations ahead of Roman approval has generated controversy - especially its Psalter, or collection of Old Testament psalms, published by Liturgy Training Publications in Chicago. Based on inclusive language principles, that Psalter is widely used among English-speaking religious communities, although it never received Vatican clearance.

Medina claimed that events since Vatican II suggest that Rome should control international translation bodies.

“The experience of the years since the council, as well as a deepening theological reflection, have brought clearly into focus the fact that the constitution, the regulations and the oversight of an international commission for liturgical translation are rightfully the competence of the Holy See to a degree which is not always sufficiently reflected in the statutes which govern such bodies,” Medina wrote.

Supporters of the commission argue that this is not what was intended by Vatican II, noting that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy assigns responsibility for translating liturgical texts to the individual bishops’ conferences, urging them to work together with other conferences that use the same language.

“The commission actually predates the constitution by two months,” said Monsignor Fred McManus, a frequent consultant to the U.S. bishops on liturgical matters and an adviser for the commission. “It was entirely an initiative of English-speaking bishops at the council. It was never conceived as an arm of the Vatican.”

Medina said that English-speaking conferences bear special responsibility for fidelity to the Latin original, since many conferences around the world are often influenced more by the English version of church texts than the Latin.

In part, the rift between Rome and the commission reflects differing philosophical approaches to translation. Conservative liturgical activists have complained that the commission’s method of “dynamic equivalency” - aiming for translations that make the text accessible in English rather than for a word-for-word rendering of the Latin - produces doctrinally suspect results.

For example, in the commission’s translation of the revised rite of ordination, the Latin phrase universo clero - literally, “from the entire clergy” - is rendered as “from all who are called to your service.” Critics saw a deliberate attempt to soften the distinction between ordained clergy and laity.

The Vatican believes the commission should produce a literalistic translation, with adaptation to local circumstance performed by national conferences. Taylor, however, said some member conferences lack the resources to do that on their own.

Taylor said the commission is trying to strike a balance between the Vatican’s agenda and the needs of its members. “We want to pay attention to those in authority, in Rome and in the individual conferences,” Taylor said. “We really want to serve the church in the best possible way.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999