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Vatican officials challenge Trautman

NCR Staff

In a letter to the editor of a U.S. magazine, two Vatican officials have challenged an American bishop and reasserted demands for controversial new controls over the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

The bishop in question, Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., told NCR that he welcomed the letter but was “chagrined” by portions he sees as inaccurate.

The letter from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez and Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, the two top officials in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, will appear in the May 13 issue of America, a Jesuit weekly. It responds to a March 14 article by Trautman, chair of the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee.

In that article, Trautman criticized Medina’s demand for revision of the statutes of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy to give his office broad new powers over its operation. Medina and Tamburrino assert in their letter that the Holy See is in the best position to evaluate liturgical translations.

The Holy See “is seasoned in the practice of discernment between innovation that is likely to be fruitful and that which is not,” they wrote. “She is the one most capable of determining whether translations faithfully transmit the content of the Latin prayers of the Roman rite, precisely because those prayers are her own heritage, and her gift to each new generation of the faithful.”

Trautman told NCR that the letter is “an expression of true dialogue” and “helps to refocus the position of the congregation.”

He objected, however, to a suggestion that he believed “bishops might more effectively exercise their collegial responsibility only in the absence of the Holy See.”

“I find that most upsetting and inaccurate,” Trautman said, noting that his March 14 article specifically acknowledged the Vatican’s role of safeguarding the liturgy by giving recognition to texts after they have been approved by bishops’ conferences.

On the question of original texts, the Vatican officials said it should be up to individual bishops’ conferences to generate them, not the commission. They also warned that when “such texts differ completely in function, style and length” from the Latin originals, there is a danger that they “aim to replace the tradition with an entirely different reality.”

“The cardinal did not respond to the fact that the Italian, Polish, French, German and Spanish sacramentaries all have original texts in these vernacular languages,” Trautman told NCR. “Is the congregation saying that all of these texts, all of which are in present use, all of which have been approved by those conferences of bishops, are dangerous? I cannot imagine the episcopal conferences of these countries acted in such an irresponsible way.”

Trautman said he knows of “no complaints” about the original texts produced by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. “No one has found any lack of orthodoxy, or any sense that this is harming the received Latin tradition.”

The language on original texts offers further evidence that Medina may reject the commission’s translation of the Sacramentary, currently awaiting review in Rome. It utilizes almost 300 original prayers.

Medina and Tamburrino reiterated their claim that staff and advisers for the commission should be required to obtain a nihil obstat from Rome, in effect giving the Vatican a veto power over personnel. They argued that it would be more efficient and less expensive for the Vatican to reject proposed staff than to reject the later results of their work.

“Even a denial of a nihil obstat, coming prior to the expenditure of resources in a venture foreseen to be futile, would be far less of a hindrance to the quality of the working relationship between the Holy See and the conferences of bishops than the prospect of a repeated denial or long delays of the recognitio,” Medina and Tamburrino wrote. Recognitio is the formal term for Vatican approval of a text.

Trautman said that Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy specifically assigns responsibility for liturgical translation to the bishops’ conferences, though with a provision for confirmation from the Holy See.

On the question of translation principles, the Vatican officials said they were not trying to insist on the “wooden mechanism” of a literal word-for-word approach. They suggested, however, that the English version should stay close to the Latin original.

“Docility to the original text may result in constructions which stretch the limits of the receptor language, though these constructions should flow gracefully enough to become comprehensible, familiar and beloved by those who hear them and pray them repeatedly,” they wrote.

Trautman said that for the moment he did not plan to publish a response.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000