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Vatican wants inclusive translation pulled

NCR Staff

Citing doctrinal flaws and dangers to the faith, a Vatican official has instructed the embattled international commission that translates liturgical texts into English to stop circulation of its version of the Old Testament psalms.

Completed in 1993, that translation is known for its use of inclusive language, or vocabulary that is not gender specific. The Vatican official told the International Commission on English in the Liturgy that it has a “duty in conscience” to discourage use of the text, despite any obstacles posed by civil copyright laws.

Released as a study text, the translation, known as a psalter, is widely published and used by religious communities for communal prayer.

The commission’s psalter has long been viewed with suspicion in Rome. In 1998, the U.S. bishops withdrew their imprimatur, granted in 1995. That decision was made under Vatican pressure (NCR, June 19, 1998).

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal official, has criticized inclusive language for reflecting feminist ideological influences. He has likewise argued that reducing masculine pronouns makes it difficult to read the psalms “Christologically,” that is, as anticipations of Christ.

The directive about the psalter is the latest blow to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a body created after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as a collaborative endeavor of English-speaking bishops’ conferences.

Roman criticism of the commission has mounted for several years, culminating in an Oct. 26, 1999, letter from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, asserting broad new powers over the agency (NCR, Dec. 24, 1999).

The new move against the psalter came in a Jan. 14 letter from an official in Medina’s office. Addressed to Scottish Bishop Maurice Taylor, chair of the commission’s 11-member governing board, the letter insists that distribution of the psalter be stopped. A copy of the letter was obtained by NCR.

“The most significant fact is that the … text has been found after careful study by the Holy See to be doctrinally flawed,” the letter says. “Such a text is clearly no more suited for private prayer than for public proclamation, and it is therefore a matter of the greatest importance to impede its further diffusion.”

The letter is signed by Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, Medina’s second in command.

Though commission staff declined to comment, sources told NCR that Taylor had earlier written to the congregation about the psalter. He said that under civil law in the United States and other countries, the commission generally cannot withdraw permission for religious communities and liturgical publishers to reproduce the translation. A standard contract grants reprint permission for as long as the relevant copyright lasts.

Tamburrino alludes to this argument in his Jan. 14 letter. “It may or may not be the case that the issues of civil copyright licenses impose the restrictions … which are claimed in the briefing. … There remains, however, the question of a duty in conscience to ensure proper information not only on the juridical status of the text, but also on the fact that the text does not accurately represent the word of God and therefore risks being a danger to the faith,” he wrote.

Tamburrino asks that Taylor set “the necessary machinery in motion” to cut off circulation of the text and instructs him to inform the congregation of the details.

The commission’s translation has been issued in different forms by several publishers. Liturgy Training Publications in Chicago reported in 1998 that it had sold 15,000 to 20,000 copies of the psalms, and another 30,000 copies of a version arranged for daily prayer.

The 5,600-strong Sisters of Mercy in the United States chose the commission’s version of the psalms for their most recent book of morning and evening prayer. Sr. Sheila Carney, a member of the committee that made the selection, said the sisters consulted with biblical scholars and other experts.

Carney said that “freshness of language” and “singability” were among the factors that led to the choice. The issue of scriptural accuracy was part of the evaluation, Carney said. “There was nothing that would have led us to be concerned.”

Carney said the prayer book has been “very warmly received” by the sisters. She noted that some English-speaking Mercy communities outside the United States also use the commission’s translation.

Several communities of Dominican men and women in the United States likewise use a prayer book incorporating the commission’s version of the psalms. That book appeared in the mid-1990s with a preface from the order’s master, English Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, calling the new translations “faithful to the original texts.”

Dominican Fr. Frank Quinn, who worked on the prayer book, said the commission’s translation is “absolutely not doctrinally flawed.”

“The committee that produced this translation had expert scripture scholars and others working on it,” Quinn said. “I would love to see them [the Vatican] explain just what the flaws are.”

In 1997, Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minn., published a book of prayer for Benedictine oblates using the commission’s psalter. According to Benedictine Fr. Michael Naughton, that edition has sold 8,000 copies over three printings. “To my knowledge, we have received no complaints about it,” Naughton said.

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy began work on a new translation of the psalter in 1978. The text was finalized in 1993 and released as a study text so that it could be revised after communities had experimented with the new translations in prayer, chant and song.

Paulist Fr. Lawrence Boadt, a member of the editorial committee that produced the psalter, told NCR that extensive precautions were taken to ensure accuracy and doctrinal fidelity. “From 1978 to 1984, we only translated 10 psalms,” Boadt said. “We used that time to study the work, including the issue of theological accuracy.”

Boadt noted that the committee justified its use of inclusive language under the guidelines in a 1969 Vatican document on translation, Comme le prévoit, that is now likely to be revoked by Rome (NCR, Jan. 14).

“The issue here is obviously inclusive language,” Boadt said. “If not for that, nobody would be raising doctrinal objections.”

The full text of Tamburrino’s letter may be found at www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm Click on the Documents button.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000