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A reasonable solution on liturgy

Both friend and foe of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a joint project of the world’s English-speaking bishops’ conferences, agree that one of the core issues in the current debate over its future is episcopal authority.

Supporters of the commission see the demand for control made last October by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, head of the Vatican’s liturgy office, as a threat to the authority of bishops’ conferences; critics see Medina’s action as an emancipation of the bishops from liturgical bureaucrats whose progressive views, they feel, dominate the commission’s work.

Though both views have been pushed to extremes, both contain their kernel of truth. The commission, born at Vatican II, really is an expression of the empowerment of bishops’ conferences intended by the council fathers. It is a recovery of what a young Joseph Ratzinger called the “horizontal” dimension of authority in the church, which had badly atrophied under more than a century of ultramontanism and its emphasis on vertical ties to the pope.

Yet for that claim to be more than mere rhetoric, the bishops who represent their national conferences on the commission need to take an active hand in steering its work. While every jot and tittle of every commission document has always had the full approval of the episcopal governing board, it is no doubt salutary now and again to ask if the bishops are as engaged as they might be.

A reasonable person looking at the debate, therefore, would conclude that while Medina’s assertion of new powers such as a veto over staff and a ban on original texts violates the intent of the Vatican Council documents, and therefore should be rejected, it would nonetheless be prudent to strengthen the bishops’ involvement in the commission’s inner workings.

Remarkably enough, that seems to be what has happened in the new statutes now awaiting review. The outcome would thus be largely a positive one for the English-speaking Catholic world.

Of course, the story is far from over. Medina could declare the new statutes unacceptable, an act with uncertain consequences but one that would generate new, fruitless conflict. The careful process followed by the bishops should inspire trust that the proper result has been achieved.

Then, too, some may worry that bishops with an ideological axe to grind could use the new level of involvement specified in the statutes to frustrate the work of the commission or to push out staff with whom they do not agree. That fear, however, will surely dissipate as reasonable people sit down to work together.

If the statutes hold up, the crisis over the commission could be remembered for three valuable lessons it taught the church. First, it has offered a needed reminder that liturgical renewal is still unfinished business.

Second, the level of communication among English-speaking bishops engendered by the crisis has probably not been rivaled since the council. One hopes the conversations will continue. A first fruit might be addressing the rift that seems to have emerged between the United States and other English-speaking conferences over translation issues. It would be a serious blow to collegiality and communion if that rift were to widen into an open split.

Third, the process behind the statutes is a tantalizing hint of how a system of checks and balances might work within Catholicism. Neither Rome, nor the commission’s critics, nor its boosters got all of what they wanted, but the process of give and take, shaped by significant public debate, has led to a result that seems basically sound. It’s a case that merits study by anyone searching for ways to foster collegiality in the life of the church.

It is premature to declare a happy ending to the drama surrounding the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. As plot twists go, however, this one’s not bad.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000