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Bishops reject controls sought by Rome

NCR Staff

A much-anticipated set of new statutes for the International Commission on English in the Liturgy provides none of the sweeping new powers over the translation body a Vatican official demanded in late October 1999, according to observers who have seen the statutes.

The sources, who spoke to NCR on the condition of anonymity, said the statutes do enhance the supervisory role of the bishops who govern the commission.

The new statutes represent something of a reversal for Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, the U.S. bishops’ representative to the commission. Sources told NCR that George had proposed a revision of the statutes in January that was closer to the Vatican’s demands.

Capping years of frustration with what it perceived as translations that took too many liberties with Latin originals, especially in the direction of gender-neutral “inclusive language,” Rome asked in late October that the commission redraft its statutes to give Vatican officials control over its internal operations (NCR, Dec. 24).

Because the commission was created at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as a joint project of 11 English-speaking episcopal conferences, without any direct tie to the Vatican, many observers see the current controversy as a key test of the council’s vision of a stronger role for bishops’ conferences and local churches.

The new statutes, which were presented to presidents of the English-speaking conferences at an unusual April 26 meeting in Washington, ensure that bishops sit on key committees. They also create a regular review of personnel by the bishops. Those moves will cheer critics who have long complained that the commission is too dominated by its staff and advisers.

However, the statutes do not embody any of the most controversial changes demanded by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in an Oct. 26 letter to the chair of the commission. Specifically, the new statutes do not:

  • Give the Vatican power to veto staff and advisers for the commission in the form of a requirement for a nihil obstat from Rome;
  • Bar the commission from producing original texts in addition to translating Roman liturgical documents;
  • Eliminate or reduce the functions of the full-time executive secretary of the commission;
  • Limit staff to fixed terms with longer service based on Roman approval;
  • Prohibit the commission from issuing documents without Roman approval.

According to the sources who spoke to NCR, the bishops’ conferences presidents who met in Washington did not take any formal action, but the sense of the group was supportive.

A news release issued after the meeting endorsed the statutes without revealing their content. “The revised constitution, which a working group of the episcopal board has drafted, addresses the need for revision in practical and effective ways and provides a good foundation for further discussion and refinement,” it said.

Procedurally the next step is not entirely clear. Medina’s Oct. 26 letter directed that new statutes be approved by six of the 11 bishops’ conferences before coming to his office for approval. A later letter from Medina, however, asked that the commission send the draft statutes to his office before they go to the conferences.

An official from the U.S. bishops’ conference told NCR that he expects the American bishops to receive the new statutes in June.

Medina shows no signs of backing down from his demands. In a recent letter to the editor of a U.S. magazine, he defends the request for a nihil obstat and for a ban on producing original texts by the commission.

Sources said that the current version of the statutes represents a “substantial overhaul” of an earlier proposal put before the bishops who govern the commission at a special meeting in London in January. At that session, called to respond to Medina’s letter, George put a draft on the table that integrated many of Medina’s demands. Other bishops expressed reservations, leading to a decision to create a subcommittee to consider revisions.

The subcommittee consisted of George, Bishop Peter Cullinane of New Zealand, and Bishop James Foley of Australia. According to the sources, Cullinane and Foley, along with the commission’s chair, Bishop Maurice Taylor of Scotland, steered the draft away from the points in Medina’s agenda.

“It’s a victory for the collegiality agreed upon at the Second Vatican Council,” said a bishop from outside the United States who has seen the new statutes. “It protects the idea that the commission is a project of the bishops’ conferences and not of Rome.”

The bishop said that a new dynamic within the commission is a tension between the other 10 conferences, largely supportive of the commission’s independence, and the United States. “When Pilarczyk was the U.S. representative, this was not the case,” he said, referring to Archbishop Daniel Pilzarczyk of Cincinnati. “But Francis George is much more Rome’s man.”

George did not respond to requests for comment by phone and fax.

The bishop said some of the resistance to Medina’s agenda within the commission is also resistance to domination by the United States. Even though more than 80 percent of the world’s English-speaking Catholics are in the United States, the bishop said the commission was designed to be a cooperative venture and not an arm of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Another source said that while bishops supportive of the commission are generally pleased with the new statutes, some of its advisers and staff are wary, waiting to see how the more hands-on role for the bishops envisioned in the draft will work out in practice.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000