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Translation dispute reveals revisionists’ agenda

Comme le prévoit, the document setting out principles for translating Latin texts into English for use in Catholic worship, is not a secret document or a subversive attempt to undermine tradition. It was developed collegially and published by the Vatican body erected to manage liturgical reform. It received the personal attention of Pope Paul VI.

What is happening today to the principles laid out in that document says much about the basic divisions in contemporary Catholicism, and about the brazen revisionist efforts underway by those who disagree with the reforms put in motion by the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.

Certain elements in the church that deem themselves the keepers of orthodoxy have staked out huge claims wherever the battles over liturgy and liturgical translations have erupted. Comme le prévoit shows that their orthodoxy is a slippery matter, that when it comes to obeying Vatican decrees, theirs is a highly developed brand of “cafeteria” Catholicism.

On the specific matter of translation, Comme le prévoit clearly demonstrates that, contrary to the impression given by some bishops and self-appointed liturgical watchdogs, rules already exist for translating documents into English and for the development of original documents in the vernacular. The International Commission for English in the Liturgy has been following those rules for decades.

Some critics contend the English version of Comme le prévoit was doctored by commission personnel to reflect a more liberal approach to translation. Whatever the merits of that analysis, the fact remains that the English version was authorized by Rome and reflects the only official statement of translation philosophy in the post-conciliar era.

It should also be noted that commission personnel did not tamper with Comme le prévoit in the dead of night -- they were asked by the Vatican to assist with the English version, and Rome subsequently endorsed their work.

The transition to conducting liturgy in modern languages was a new experience for everyone, and particularly jolting for some. The past 30 years of establishing liturgical practices in English have seen some bumps as well as considerable success. It certainly is reasonable to suggest that it may be time to change or adjust some of those rules and approaches to translation or to discuss the workings of international commissions.

But to pose as a preserver of tradition while seeking to overturn established rules is galling to those who have been involved in the process and to those average Catholics who have benefited from the work of the commission.

Today the Holy See is at work on a new set of translation principles to replace Comme le prévoit. That process appears to be unfolding largely behind the scenes, involving little consultation among the liturgical experts who have labored over translations in the years since the council.

Beyond the particular matter of liturgical renewal, the story of Comme le prévoit illuminates a much broader landscape. The right wing of the Catholic church, at least in the United States, has appropriated such terms as “orthodoxy” and “tradition” as if they somehow have special ownership of the terms.

When confronted with the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the stock response has become that “liberals” are misinterpreting those texts and taking things too far.

There is often a smidgen of truth in such roundhouse retorts. But as Comme le prévoit shows, those in favor of reform have often been the ones faithful to Vatican mandates. The thinkers who prevailed at that council did, indeed, envision a different kind of church. Those who actually lived through it, who helped craft the documents, who knew the instincts and impulses of those historic meetings, know that the agenda of the right wing today is nothing short of a rollback of Vatican II.

Perhaps the single biggest mistake of the early Vatican II reformers and their heirs was that they trusted that the conciliar process -- and the results of that process -- would be honored, at least by church officials. Leaders such as Chicago Cardinal Francis George, who appeared so eager in the past to do the bidding of curialists intent on taking control of the commission, should reconsider not only its history but whether changing church mandates ought to occur by fiat from a single Roman congregation.

Those who love to advertise their fidelity to the institution and to tradition might force themselves to look down the road to a point where this frenzy of revisionism has played itself out. What we might well see, if they have their way, is a church disconnected from the core tenets of the most significant Roman Catholic gathering of the modern age -- and, consequently, from the people.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000