e-mail us


Take the time for real debate on translation

It might seem a bit curmudgeonly, in this season of cheer, to shine the spotlight on the latest move by Vatican bureaucrats to bring yet another broadly collegial activity -- translating church texts into English -- under the firm control of Rome.

This latest attack on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, one of the pet targets of the right wing, is nonetheless a fitting example of the state of things for Catholic Christians as we turn the page of a new century.

Curiously enough, with each tick of the clock in the direction of a new millennium, some appear intent on taking the church a corresponding step into the past.

Most American Catholics have probably never heard of the commission, but its work reaches into their lives every time they go to Mass, or to a Catholic funeral, or an adult baptism.

Of course, the issue involves far more than whether the commission translates liturgical texts word for word, as Rome wishes. It fits the pattern of moves against other individuals and institutions that has become a hallmark of the latter years of Pope John Paul II’s reign.

In a confidential letter to Scottish Bishop Maurice Taylor, chair of the commission, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, ordered that staff and advisers for the commission receive a Vatican “nihil obstat,” or official permission, to do their work.

The Vatican also wants to impose 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.

Medina expects the new statutes that would carry out his wishes to be ready by Easter.

“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,” he wrote.

That is verbal window dressing designed to obscure a bare-knuckles power grab. The fact is that the “theological reflection” that has gone on amounts to a great uneasiness with power resting in any hands outside of a tight little knot of curialists in Rome.

The council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” specifically assigns responsibility for translations to national bishops’ conferences and encourages those that speak the same language to work with one another. It says nothing about translation bodies coming under Vatican authority.

In other contexts, Rome is legendary for the caution with which it approaches liturgical matters. It took the better part of a decade to approve the Lectionary. The new ordination rite is still up in the air, as is the Sacramentary. So what’s the rush to fundamentally overhaul the body responsible for translating liturgical texts?

The commission’s 11-member governing board, due to meet in London in late January, should insist on time for a careful, open debate. The liturgical issue seems clear: English-speaking scholars and bishops are in the best position to judge how a text should be translated to make it come alive in song, in prayer and in proclamation.

An even broader principle is also at stake. Vatican II ostensibly balanced Vatican I’s emphasis on papal (which in practice often means curial) power with a restored sense of the authority of the bishops -- a concept known as collegiality. Given that Rome seems unwilling to trust local bishops even to employ their own language faithfully, if ever there was a moment to defend the council’s vision, it has arrived.

If the commission’s governing board does not make this case, then the individual bishops’ conferences should. Before rushing to hand over another chunk of their authority to the Roman curia, let them take time to study the issues.

As the church’s beautiful Christmas liturgies unfold anew for tens of millions of English-speaking Catholics this season, they remind us that public worship in the Catholic tradition is a precious gift. Decisions about its future should not be made in haste.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999