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Bureaucrats upend liturgical renewal

The same Vatican impulse that would force the mandatum requirement on theologians is busy disassembling some 35 years of work on liturgical renewal.

Under the guise of fostering a “sacred style” of speech that the “Catholic faithful” would not “confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions,” unknown Vatican bureaucrats have upended the understanding of Vatican II as put into practice by bishops from English-speaking countries and an approach to translation personally endorsed by the late Pope Paul VI.

In this case, certain Vatican functionaries, in league with the most reactionary elements in local churches, could not tolerate movement toward inclusive language, seen as a feminist “wedge issue” that would eventually lead to pressure for women’s ordination.

It is not, of course, illegitimate to ask how liturgical texts might be enhanced. Even the most ardent defenders of post-Vatican II renewal acknowledge that some of the initial translations were done in haste and lack poetic flair. The second-generation texts are much improved.

Moreover, there is theological depth in the Latin liturgical tradition that must be conserved.

The problem runs deeper. Inculturation, inclusivity, fidelity, unity -- all are worthy ideals. The question is, who decides what they mean? Who decides what happens when they conflict?

Catholic theology tells us the pope decides in communion with his brother bishops, who are charged to heed the voice of their local churches. In reality, curial officials decide, and the pope signs their decisions.

Perhaps the pope is being told, perhaps he believes, these decrees reflect wide consultation. They do not. Even more troubling, whatever consultation is carried out, the decisions are still made behind curial desks and not by bishops in open discussions.

This is the central crisis with which the church is faced. Its decision-making structures are not consistent with its theological statements.

The latest assault on the work of bishops and professional liturgists, Liturgiam Authenticam, illustrates why significant church leaders have risked their reputations in recent years to call for decentralization of power.

It is simply untrue to claim, as does the unnamed bureaucrat quoted in the story on page 13, that the recent change in the rules finally allows the pope to be involved. “The hope now is that the Holy See will be involved from the beginning, so we won’t have to say no at the end,” he said.

That assertion overlooks the involvement of past popes and the bishops who understood the intent of Vatican II as fleshed out in the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

Something is wrong when people such as Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, Capuchin Fr. Ed Foley and Viatorian Fr. Mark Francis, among the best liturgical minds the church has educated, express such strong reservations. They obviously were not consulted. If they were, their ideas were ignored.

Something is wrong when bishops who attended Vatican II and undertook the work of translating sacred texts into the vernacular are swept aside.

Perhaps the extraordinary consistory in Rome May 21-24 will explore ways of making decisions more consistent with the theology of communion.

Vatican II gave Catholicism a new orientation without the structural reform to match; that reform remains an essential challenge facing the church.

In the meantime, one ray of hope appears in news that the U.S. bishops hope to make some common-sense adjustments to new Vatican rules on lay ministers of Communion, toning down the clericalism of that document (see page 8). Maybe bishops in the English-speaking world, working collaboratively, can similarly blunt the worst aspects of the new document on translation.

That is, if the curia will let them get away with it.

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001