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ICEL bishops agree to take more control; still developing new rules

NCR Staff

Despite the urgency implied in a Vatican demand for action by Easter, the bishops who govern the International Commission on English in the Liturgy left a special two-day session in London Jan. 21 and 22 without any firm decisions on new statutes for the body.

A source at the meeting who asked not to be identified said most bishops seemed cool to a Vatican assertion of broad new powers over the commission. Because “nothing decisive” happened in London, however, the source said it is too early to predict the extent to which the bishops are prepared to rebuff Rome’s demands.

One point that seemed clear, the source said, is that the bishops intend to take more visible control over the inner workings of the commission.

A joint project of 11 bishops’ conferences in which English is the dominant language, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy translates liturgical texts from Latin and prepares other documents at the direction of its governing board.

It has long been a target of Catholic conservatives and some Roman officials, who believe its translations take too many liberties with the Latin originals.

The most recent critique came in an Oct. 26 letter from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Roman congregation that handles liturgical affairs, to the commission’s chair, Scottish Bishop Maurice Taylor.

Medina demanded that the bishops redraft the statutes to give his office more control. Specifically, Medina asserted the right to approve staff and advisers, and asked that the commission be barred from creating original texts or publishing without Rome’s approval (NCR, Dec. 24, Dec. 31, 1999/Jan. 7, 2000, and Jan. 14). Medina told the bishops to have a draft of new statutes incorporating these points ready by Easter.

The meeting in London was called to discuss Medina’s letter. A Jan. 24 news release referred to “intensive discussions” and said the bishops hope to have “a mature draft” of new statutes ready to submit to member conferences and to Medina’s congregation “in the near future.”

The commission has been working on a revision of its statutes since May 1999, before the Medina intervention.

“The bishops of the board are confident that the revised constitution will strengthen the commission’s ability to continue providing the bishops’ conferences with acceptable drafts of English-language liturgical books,” the news release said.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the U.S. delegate to the commission, told Catholic News Service that “the neuralgic point, or one of them,” in the two-day session had been the assertion that staff and advisers for the commission should be required to obtain a nihil obstat from Rome.

George declined requests for comment from NCR.

The source present for the London meeting told NCR that “no one” openly supported the idea of a Roman nihil obstat, but that no vote was taken on this or other substantive matters.

“There was a sense that a fundamental question is at stake here,” the source said. “Is this a joint project of the bishops’ conferences or a creature of the congregation? It almost comes down to that.”

The source said one point of agreement was that the bishops should be seen to be “in firmer control” of the commission. Critics have long charged that the commission is unduly influenced by its staff and advisers.

In the new set of statutes, the bishops who form the commission’s governing board may require that the board take a formal vote before draft documents can be sent by their advisers to member conferences for comment. Also, the bishops may assume a more hands-on role in proposing advisers, to counteract the impression that the advisory committee is a “closed shop.”

Procedurally, the source said, many of the bishops in London were concerned that changes in the commission’s statutes reflect the desires of member bishops’ conferences and not just come in response to the Medina letter.

“We did have Vatican II, after all,” the source said. “This project is the responsibility of the bishops’ conferences.”

The source said that unlike a previous session with the commission’s governing board, George did not take a strongly critical stand in London. He was “more nuanced,” the source said, “and seemed to realize that some of these criticisms are over the top.”

A committee has been appointed to continue working on the statutes. George acknowledged in the CNS report that the bishops might not meet Medina’s deadline, but said, “We are going to do our best.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000