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Past is prologue to liturgy debate

NCR Staff

In the present crisis surrounding the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, many church-watchers believe the core issue is not just the fate of liturgical reform, but the authority of bishops’ conferences and the decentralization those conferences were supposed to accomplish in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Recognizing the authority of the conferences to manage the transition into the vernacular languages, observers say, was envisioned as the first step toward allowing the faith to take root and develop in ways distinctive to local cultures rather than reflecting a uniform Roman model.

Ironically, one of the most passionate endorsements of that view at the time of the council came from then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, who today, as a cardinal and head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a leading critic of both the commission and episcopal conferences. Ratzinger’s views are contained in commentaries, no longer in print, written after each session of the council.

Among other things, observers say, the commentaries illustrate the difference between the Ratzinger of the council and Ratzinger the Vatican prefect.

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy was established by English-speaking bishops at Vatican II to translate liturgical documents, such as the prayers for Mass, from Latin. Over time the agency has also produced new texts in English. When the Vatican demanded sweeping new powers over the commission in late October, many observers saw it as a retreat from the council’s desire to empower local churches.

Rome has made similar demands for new authority over translation agencies working in other languages.

As NCR went to press, the next act in the drama seemed set to unfold on April 25, when a virtually unprecedented gathering of presidents of English-speaking bishops’ conferences was to take place in Washington to discuss the commission’s fate.

Ratzinger himself has defined what’s at stake in the meeting -- not in recent weeks but in 1963, after the first session of Vatican II, where Ratzinger was a highly influential peritus or theological expert.

“An especially important development is the decentralization of liturgical decision-making,” Ratzinger wrote then.

“The first chapter of the ‘Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’ contains a statement that represents for the Latin church a fundamental innovation. The formulation of liturgical laws for their own regions is now, within limits, the responsibility of the various conferences of bishops. And this is not by delegation from the Holy See, but by virtue of their own independent authority.

“This decision makes it possible to restore to the liturgy that catholicity which the church fathers saw symbolized in Psalm 44 -- the bride with her many-colored raiment. We may restore to the liturgy all the fullness which is quickening the church,” Ratzinger wrote.

“At the same time something of importance in its ecclesial significance is also involved. One should consider that from the standpoint of canon law, the bishops’ conferences as such did not exist before,” Ratzinger wrote.

“They possessed no legislative power but were merely advisory. Now that they possess in their own right a definite legislative function, they appear as a new element in the church’s structure and form a kind of quasi-synodal agency between individual bishops and the pope. In this way a kind of continuing synodal element is built into the church, and thereby the college of bishops assumes a new function.

“Perhaps one could say that this small paragraph, which for the first time assigns to the conferences of bishops their own canonical authority, has more significance for the theology of the episcopacy and for the long desired strengthening of episcopal power than anything in the ‘Constitution on the Church’ itself,” he wrote.

“For in this case an accomplished fact is involved, and facts, as history teaches, carry more weight than pure doctrine. And so, without fanfare, and largely unnoticed by the public, the council had produced a work fundamental in the renewal of ecclesiology.”

Ratzinger’s commentaries were published as Theological Highlights of Vatican II (Paulist, 1966).

Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, editor of America magazine, said this long-forgotten passage from the early Ratzinger perfectly illustrates what’s at stake in the tussle over the international commission.

“It’s very clear that Vatican II saw a need for decentralizing, as he points out,” Reese said. “Now Rome seems to be recentralizing. Rome says it still believes in collegiality, but it’s collegiality with the pope. Somehow they get from there to involving themselves in where you put commas in a liturgical text.”

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy is a federation of 25 bishops’ conferences where English is a major language. It is governed by a board of bishops from conferences in the United States, England and Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, South Africa and the Philippines.

The current crisis was triggered on Oct. 26, 1999, when Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, head of the Vatican’s office on liturgy, wrote to Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland, chair of the commission’s board, to demand that its statutes be revised to give the Vatican a direct role in governing the commission.

Specifcally, Medina asked that his office be given veto power over staff and consultants, that translators stick more closely to the Latin originals of texts, that the commission be barred from creating original documents, and that it not publish anything without Rome’s approval. The news of Medina’s letter was first reported in the Dec. 24, 1999, issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

The move capped years of conservative criticism of the commission, centered on its “dynamic equivalency” philosophy of translation. In contrast to a word-for-word approach, dynamic equivalency allows translators more freedom to adapt texts to the needs of their audiences and to the requirements of public speech. The commission has come under special fire for its use of inclusive language or avoiding gender-specific terms.

Medina set a deadline of Easter for new statutes to be devised, but a special January meeting of the commission’s governing board in London failed to produce an agreement. Sources told NCR at the time that while the American representative, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, was sympathetic to Medina’s concerns, some of the other representatives were worried by what they saw as a threat to the authority of the bishops’ conferences.

In recent years, Ratzinger has become an increasingly vocal critic of the commission’s approach to translation. He has suggested that feminist ideology is behind the push for inclusive language, which he believes undercuts the church’s traditional reading of scripture.

Ratzinger has also expressed increasingly strong reservations about bishops’ conferences. In a 1965 article in the progressive journal Concilium, he argued that episcopal conferences were “a legitimate form of the collegiate structure of the church” and rejected the claim that they lack a theological basis as “a one-sided and unhistorical systematization.” By 1983, however, when the American bishops issued their pastoral letter on war and peace, Ratzinger was arguing that episcopal conferences have no standing to teach on doctrinal issues.

In 1998, Ratzinger defended the papal document Apostolos Suos, which forbade bishops’ conferences to teach unless their conclusions were unanimous or had Rome’s approval -- precisely on the basis that there is no theological status for groupings of bishops below an ecumenical council.

Reese said that it is no accident the Vatican effort to reduce the power of the bishops’ conferences is being fought on the field of liturgy. “Before they even debated bishops and collegiality at the council, they gave some real authority to the conferences over liturgy,” Reese said. “This is where it all started.”

Reese said that Vatican officials sometimes argue that the international commission is not an episcopal conference but a semi-autonomous body, “neither fish nor fowl,” that competes with the authority of the conferences.

“As far as I can see, that’s just not true,” Reese said. “It’s a creature of the bishops’ conferences. They select its members and determine its policies.”

In his 1963 commentary, Ratzinger appears to welcome institutions that allow bishops to collaborate without direct ties to the Vatican.

“Suddenly a phenomenon which had hitherto gone unnoticed made its impact -- the fact that in the Catholic church, although there were strong, unifying bonds between the individual bishops and Rome, there were hardly any ‘horizontal’ ties among the bishops themselves,” Ratzinger wrote. “These really should have constituted an essential element of Catholicity.

“Out of the distress of the hour, then, something really new and needed had come back -- the development of a ‘horizontal Catholicity,’ with cross-connections among those who call themselves Catholic,” he wrote.

“Yves Congar had stressed such bonds as a necessary complementary element to the ‘vertical’ unity joining all to the center of the church. For, as the start of the council had shown, these horizontal connections had actually been lost in the church’s practical life.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000