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Ecumenist calls Rome’s translation norms unrealistic, authoritarian


As a Presbyterian minister of the word and sacrament and a committed ecumenist for many decades, I responded to Liturgiam Authenticam, a Vatican document issuing new rules on liturgical translation, with considerable sorrow. The May 7 publication of Liturgiam Authenticam (NCR, May 25), only six days after a meeting of the Consultation on Common Texts in New York City, has canceled 30 years of ecumenical preparation of liturgical texts.

I have represented my church for 30 years as a member of the North American Consultation on Common Texts, and for a time served as chair of that body. And on the occasion of the 1983 publication of Common Lectionary, I encouraged the formation of the international, ecumenical English Language Liturgical Consultation. The history of the ecumenical liturgical conversation in the English-speaking world is rooted in the extraordinary support -- in terms of staff, finances and expertise -- of the Roman Catholic International Commission on English in the Liturgy. The origin and history of this ecumenical conversation would probably have been impossible without that encouragement.

Sadly, there were no representatives of that Catholic liturgy commission at the Consultation on Common Texts this year, for only the second time in 30 years. Nor did the representative of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy give us any hint of the impending publication of Liturgiam Authenticam, which virtually repudiates everything we have done since the founding of the Consultation on Common Texts in 1965.

This curial document, signed by the prefect and the archbishop secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and with the approval of Pope John Paul II, quite forthrightly states, “The norms set forth in this instruction are to be substituted for all norms previously published on the matter.” This is not the language of ecumenical discourse; it is not even polite. For this ecumenical participant, this language cannot but raise very serious questions (as have actually been expressed by a certain cardinal at the recent consistory in Rome) as to whether the current curial leadership in Rome is not only “deaf” but determined to repeal the Second Vatican Council’s decisions relating to the language of liturgy.

Reading this document for the first time, I fell apart in tears. In a letter to America magazine, published in June 2000, I had expressed my profound worry that just such an ecumenical detachment was impending.

The document states that regarding “the principles and norms contained in this instruction,” there should be “an appropriate relationship or coordination” between translations used in the various rites of the Catholic church. “A similar agreement is desirable with the particular non-Catholic Eastern churches or with the authorities of the Protestant ecclesial communities, provided that it is not a question of a liturgical text pertaining to doctrinal matters still in dispute, and provided also that those consulted are truly capable of functioning as representatives of the same ecclesial communities.” I can only assume that this is a not-so-subtle reference to both the Consultation on Common Texts and the English Language Liturgical Consultation. As far as I know, the Holy See is not engaged in working ecumenical relationships with other English-speaking bodies. Thus, in a not-so-gentle way, it questions our reliability.

The question must be raised as to whether it is a matter for curial officials to determine whether or not the Protestant liturgical partners properly represent their “ecclesial communities” and as to whether those “communities” have sufficient numbers to be taken seriously. (Someone once said, “Where two or three of you assemble in my name, I am there.”)

In 1994 I led the executive committee of the English Language Liturgical Consultation (along with the Rev. John Fitzimmons of Scotland) to Rome to appeal to the Congregation on Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to request that the dicastery grant faculties to Roman Catholic bodies such as religious houses, dioceses or theological schools to use the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary, since it is so closely related to and based upon Ordo Lectionum Missae. The structure, principles of selection and the gospel readings are all identical with the Roman Catholic patterns. Since to this date there has been no formal response, I can only assume the answer: No! That is too bad, since the similarities of the two lectionaries have, in the English-speaking world, created considerable joy and harmony as the faithful, Catholic and Protestant, have discovered a large measure of unity and agreement around the liturgical use of scripture. Indeed, clergy of very diverse traditions, certainly in North America, meet on a weekly basis to do exegetical and homiletic work together.

Liturgiam Authenticam is quite clear that no liturgical texts are to be created in “vernacular” languages, even though that has already happened in the Swiss and Italian sacramentaries. The norm is “the identity and unitary expression of the Roman rite.” The document says, “The translation of the liturgical texts of the Roman liturgy is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is a rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language.” Such a definition seems to suggest word-for-word translations from Latin “originals” and ignores what is known in biblical and liturgical translation as “dynamic equivalence.” Such a restriction produces not only bad vernacular linguistics, but in many ways distorts the genius of older languages.

A second issue has to do with the matter of generic language -- that is, the “weakness” of English in not having a useful neuter set of words. The document clearly acknowledges this, and says to avoid “expressions characteristic of commercial publicity, political or ideological programs, passing fashions, and those which are subject to regional variations or ambiguities in meaning.” Academic style manuals are not to be used as standards for translation, it says. “On the other hand, works that are commonly considered ‘classics’ in a given vernacular language may prove useful in providing a suitable standard for its vocabulary and usage.”

I cannot imagine why academic style manuals are so dangerous, or why reference is made to “classics” in the English language, which is continually evolving. Does this mean Elizabethan expressions? It was, after all, part of the marvelous impact of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium that pushed Protestant liturgical expression into the 20th century.

The norms pertaining to the translation of the Bible are even more problematic from an ecumenical point of view. The document declares that there must be only one approved translation -- not the New Revised Standard Version, which the Vatican rejected for use in liturgical texts in 1994. It speaks explicitly of the Psalter, which reminds us of the suppression of the International Commission on English translation of the Psalter. (A colleague of mine in Old Testament and Aramaic studies has declared the suppressed translation the best in English he has ever seen.)

Why should there be “only one approved translation”? Certainly literacy levels in the English-speaking world cry out for translations using differing vocabularies and syntax. Varying texts might well serve differing liturgical purposes and peoples.

Liturgiam Authenticam directs that biblical readings “be conformed entirely to the Ordo Lectionum Missae or to the other approved and confirmed liturgical texts, as the case may be.” This is apparently the response to the English Language Liturgical Consultation’s 1994 initiative, and the answer is, No!

Further, “great caution is to be taken to avoid a wording or style that the Catholic faithful would confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions, so that such a factor will not cause them confusion or discomfort.” May this Protestant catholic observer respectfully ask to what this prohibition refers?

Anyone who has worked carefully in the translation of liturgical texts will recognize what an unrealistic and authoritarian set of directives this is. It amounts to a repudiation of vernacular usage and arrogance of both the Latin language and the Latin rite. Surely, in this day of globalization, such a stance is at least misguided, if not totally wrongheaded.

The politics of this document are quite obvious. The emphasis on required Vatican approval, the insistence on decisions by conferences of bishops, as opposed to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, and the dismissive references to “Protestant ecclesial communities” and their representatives is clear. It signals the effective termination of the longstanding international partnership between the Catholic International Commission on English in the Liturgy on the one hand, and the Consultation on Common Texts and the English Language Liturgical Consultation on the other.

Toward the end of this sad reversal of many years of happy and fruitful ecumenical collaboration, it is stated with what must be an extraordinarily sardonic note, “From the day on which this instruction is published, a new period begins” for the liturgical use of vernacular languages. It adds that the norms established apply to previous translations, “and any further delay in making such emendations is to be avoided.”

As a committed ecumenical liturgist of at least three decades, I can only say in response to Liturgiam Authenticam: No! And how sad.

Horace T. Allen Jr. is professor of worship at Boston University School of Theology.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001