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Battle over translation body reflects wider liturgical wars

NCR Staff

Students of contemporary Catholicism know that much of its theological and political clamor converges on the liturgy. In part, this reflects liturgy’s centrality in shaping Catholic attitudes, a principle expressed in the saying lex orandi, lex credendi -- “the rule of worship is the rule of belief.”

In part, too, in a diverse and oft-fractured church, the liturgy is one of the few places where Catholics still gather in common -- hence it is where their differences are most likely to combust.

Nowhere has the debate been more intense than around the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. A joint project of 11 English-speaking bishops’ conferences, the commission’s purpose is to translate liturgical texts from Latin. Over the past decade, this once-obscure agency has come to symbolize the broader liturgical struggle -- so much so that one adviser said the commission’s opponents seem to find “heresy lurking behind every comma.”

The controversy, fueled anew in recent weeks by a Vatican attempt to take control of the commission, seems to center on three issues:

  • Is the commission, like other institutions that took shape after Vatican II, an aid or an obstacle to collegial decision-making?
  • Should liturgical reform proceed toward more uniformity or more adaptability to local cultures?
  • What role should the U.S. church play with respect to the rest of the English-speaking world?

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy was born in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), when Catholicism moved from celebrating the Mass and other liturgies in Latin to the vernacular languages. The shift was part of a broader program of reform, designed to make the church’s rites more understandable to the laity and hence to increase their involvement.

Four English-speaking bishops at the council -- Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta; Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, South Africa; Archbishop Francis Grimshaw of Birmingham, England; and Archbishop Guildford Young of Hobart, Australia -- decided to propose a joint commission of English-speaking bishops conferences to do translations.

The commission was established Oct. 17, 1963, two months before the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy was adopted.

The commission submits its translations and original texts to member conferences, which decide individually whether to accept them. Approved texts are sent by each conference to Rome for what Vatican II called “recognition” -- a term the Vatican interprets as acceptance or rejection, though some canonists doubt that reading.

While most Catholics may never have heard of the commission, they almost certainly know its work. In the United States, every sacrament celebrated in English employs a commission translation.

Its influence is sometimes felt in the details. For example, the acclamation “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” -- recited after the consecration of the Eucharist at Mass -- is an original creation by the commission’s translators, who were dissatisfied with the options given in Latin.

In other cases, the commission’s impact is more global -- such as the Order for Christian Funerals. The commission’s new translation adds a host of original prayers for specific situations, such as a suicide, a sudden death or a death as the result of violence, in what translators called a recognition that “there is no such thing as a generic death.”

The commission employs a translation philosophy called “dynamic equivalency.” The goal is not word-for-word fidelity to the Latin, but an equivalent meaning that allows for more polished English expressions.

For example, a passage from the Latin version of the first eucharistic prayer in the Mass reads quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedek, sanctum sacrificium, immaculatum hostiam. Literally, that might be: “which your high priest Melchizedek offered to you, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.” The commission’s translation reads instead: “the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.” The latter was thought to be more accessible.

Critics charge that dynamic equivalency allows translators to inject their own theological biases into texts. Some felt the line cited above, for example, treats the Mass too much as a meal rather than a supernatural re-creation of Christ’s sacrifice.

Commission advisers  disagree. “A literal translation can be equally biased and unfaithful to the original,” said Franciscan Fr. Gilbert Ostdiek, a professor of liturgy at the Chicago Theological Union.

Ostdiek pointed to the term “person,” which in the ancient world did not mean a center of knowing and willing. “By repeating that word in reference to the Trinity today, we in effect become tritheists,” Ostdiek said. “The church teaches there is only one mind in God, but when we say there are three persons, that’s not what many believers hear.”

The commission’s use of inclusive language, or gender-neutral vocabulary, has likewise bred controversy. A new translation of the Creed adopted by the commission reads “for us and our salvation” rather than “for us men and our salvation.” Supporters see such changes as a matter of cultural sensitivity; critics suspect an ideological agenda driven by feminism.

Though its translations continued to be approved by more than two-thirds of the U.S. bishops, by the mid-1990s Rome began to take a more critical stance.

In 1997 the Vatican rejected the ordination rite translated by the commission; in 1998, Rome ordered the U.S. bishops to lift their imprimatur from the commission’s translation of the Old Testament psalms. The bishops were also instructed to make more than 400 changes in the commission’s introduction to the Lectionary, a collection of scripture readings for the Mass.

The tension culminated in an Oct. 26 letter from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, head of the Vatican’s agency for liturgy, to Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland, chair of the commission’s board. Medina directed Taylor to revise the commission’s statutes, giving Medina’s office the power to veto staff and advisers. He also wants the commission barred from publishing without Rome’s approval, and from creating original texts. He asked for the new statues to be ready within six months (NCR, Dec. 24).

Because the commission’s roots are in Vatican II, supporters see a move against it as an attack on the council -- especially its emphasis on collegiality, or the idea that power should be shared by all the bishops rather than concentrated in Rome.

“The commission is a perfect expression of the very soul of the council,” Hurley said in a telephone interview from his residence in Durban, South Africa. “It’s a splendid example of what the council envisioned in terms of collegiality and shared responsibility.”

Hurley, 84 and now retired, is the lone survivor of the four founders. He still represents South Africa on the commission’s board.

Hurley called Medina’s letter an “unacceptable” reversal of the council’s intentions -- a matter he said he felt qualified to judge since he was present for all four council sessions.

“The idea was that we trusted one another and could turn to experts in our own countries to perform these translations,” Hurley said. “We felt we were responsible enough to do that, to exercise care for the liturgy, without somebody breathing down our necks.”

The commission’s critics, however, say the council fathers did not envisage the creation of bureaucratic institutions when they called for bishops to share governance of the church.

“The council never envisioned an entrenched bureaucracy, answerable to no one but themselves,” said Helen Hull Hitchcock of the liturgical advocacy group Adoremus.

Bishops and bureaucrats

Hitchcock says the real power struggle is not between Rome and the local bishops, but between bishops and bureaucrats.

“The bishops want ownership,” Hitchcock said. “They will not let small self-appointed groups run things.”

This reality, Hitchcock said, is clear in the most recent restructuring of the U.S. bishops conference, which aimed to reduce the influence of committees and their staffs.

“You will misunderstand all this if you see it as a Vatican power-grab,” she said.

Some observers say there is merit in Hitchcock’s charge that the commission has an agenda.

Msgr. Francis Mannion said the commission “has tended to represent one school of liturgical studies” -- largely that of progressive reformers.

Mannion is a well-known liturgist who will take up duties in July as the head of a new liturgical institute founded by Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George.

“I know people of international competence who would bring a very constructive perspective to the commission, that would open up the discussion and loosen some of the rigidities,” Mannion said.

Most consultants for the commission do share the dynamic equivalency philosophy, according to Msgr. Fred McManus, who was present at Vatican II as a peritus (theological expert) and has been an adviser for the commission ever since. Without that consensus, McManus said, it would be difficult to work together.

Dominican Fr. Francis Quinn said the need for consensus has not stopped the commission from seeking diverse views. “We tried to get Evelyn Waugh to advise us,” said Quinn, a liturgist and commission adviser. Waugh, an English novelist, was known for his criticism of the new Mass.

“We’ve asked Ron Hansen,” Quinn said. Hansen is a novelist known for works such as Mariette in Ecstasy. “So this notion that the commission is a closed shop is just not so.”

Privately, commission staff members acknowledge that one change certain to flow from the present controversy is that the range of its advisers will become more diverse.

Other critics say the commission’s need to support a full-time staff creates policies never consciously set by the bishops.

“They have to sell books, which means they need constant innovation,” said Fr. James Gould, a priest of the Arlington, Va., diocese who offers commentary for Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network during meetings of the U.S. bishops. On those broadcasts, Gould has been critical of the commission.

“I’m not sure that constant innovation is the best thing where the liturgy is concerned,” he said.

Gould believes the U.S. bishops would do better to create ad-hoc “think tanks” drawn from the country’s best scholarly minds, rather than relying on a bureaucratic structure.

Hurley said bishops must be vigilant to ensure that institutions serve the purposes for which they were created. But he said what figures such as Hitchcock and Gould seem to be suggesting -- that the bishops themselves take a more hands-on role in liturgical translation -- is unrealistic.

“If we could have done it ourselves, we would have,” he said. “But we have neither the time nor the expertise.”

Others wonder how governance of the commission from Rome would serve the cause of episcopal ownership.

“It’s a matter of real skill to be able to provide good oral texts that can be proclaimed in the liturgy,” Quinn said. He warned that if Rome takes control of the process, “we will see the vulgarization of English” in the liturgy.

McManus said one irony of the Vatican’s demand for control is that the Roman curia originally wanted nothing to do with liturgical translation.

“They were telling us, we don’t want to do that,” McManus said. “They didn’t have the staff or resources.”

Some believe that’s still the case. If Rome wants to exercise direct control over the commission, “it would need to upgrade the quality of its own resources to be able to handle the task adequately,” Mannion said.

The debate over collegiality is tied up with another over liturgical philosophy. Commission supporters believe that the public worship of the church should be more sensitive to the particularities of local cultures; critics want a more uniform approach.

“What’s at stake here is whether there should be a normative liturgy for the entire church, or should each language group be able to make up its own liturgy -- which seems to be the commission’s view,” Hitchcock said.

Sacred Heart Sr. Kathleen Hughes, a long-time commission adviser, agreed that diversity in liturgical practice is a key issue.

 “The Vatican council was so strong on this, that worship should be expressed in the living language of the people. There seems to be a loss of nerve over that,” she said.

Hughes said the debate over inclusive language has to be seen in this context. “I need to hear myself named in the assembly so my ‘amen’ is drawn out of me,” she said. “The question of language is therefore a question of inculturation.”

McManus insisted that the commission has never sought to invent its own liturgies. “The goal is fidelity to the rite, but a fidelity that helps the text come alive in the communities for which it is intended,” he said.

A third level to the controversy concerns the relationship of the U.S. church to other English-speaking nations.

Going it alone

 “I come from a country with a small English-speaking population, and I knew that we could never produce our own translations,” Hurley said. “We’d have no coherent common text unless we joined forces.”

If the commission is dismantled, Hurley said, the U.S. church may have the resources to go it alone, but many of the smaller conferences do not.

Hurley said the other member conferences in the commission support its work. Criticism, he said, comes largely from the United States. In part, observers believe, that is the result of aggressive organizing campaigns by groups such as Adoremus.

Hitchcock believes Adoremus may have had “some effect” in creating the present climate, but said the concerns the group has raised are widely shared. “In some ways I’ve been carrying water for the church on this for years,” she said.

Quinn said he was astonished to find the commission presented by groups such as Adoremus as an example of liberal extremism. “You stand in one place and the world passes you by,” Quinn said. “All of a sudden you’re this left-wing radical, and you wonder, how did this happen?”

Observers said the changed attitude in the United States is also the result of shifts in the bishops’ conference. When Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati was the U.S. delegate to the commission, he was known as a supporter; today the delegate is George, a sharp critic (NCR, June 19, 1998).

A further dimension is the relationship between the commission and the U.S. bishops committee on liturgy, which observers say has soured in recent years. Privately, commission supporters accuse the committee’s staff of attempting to wield influence in a way that short-circuits the rights of other conferences; sources critical of the commission accuse it of being unresponsive to concerns of the U.S. bishops and their staff -- who represent 80 percent of the world’s English-speaking Catholics.

The next critical turn is likely to come in late January, when the commission’s 11-member governing board meets in London to respond to the Medina letter.

Hurley said he was sure the smaller conferences would resist the changes sought by the Vatican. “The question is the United States,” he said.

Mannion said he believes the importance of the commission has been overblown. “What matters is good preaching, good presiding, avoiding a new clericalism, and correcting ugly architecture, bad ceremonies and bad music,” he said. “Compared to that, the subtleties of translation are minor.”

Hurley, however, said that from the point of view of his country, the fate of the commission is important.

“It has been such a wonderful provider of services,” Hurley said. “I hope the United States will remember that.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2000