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Congregation blasts liturgical translation


In the latest crackdown on liturgical translation in English, the Vatican has rejected a proposed book of prayers for the Mass, blasting it as embodying the ethos of “consumerist societies.”

In a strongly worded seven-page set of observations obtained by NCR, the Vatican complained that the proposed translation, prepared by the embattled International Commission for English in the Liturgy, favors “constant variety,” and abandons sacred language in favor of “compositions … superficially attractive by virtue of their emotional impact.”

The Vatican also charged that certain texts sound like commands to God rather than prayers, reflecting a have-it-now consumerist spirit, and that the proper distinction between clergy and laity is softened.

The Vatican also criticized the use of inclusive language, avoiding gender-specific terms where consistent with the meaning of the text, as “faddish.”

The book of prayers for the Mass, called by its translators the Sacramentary, but by the Vatican the Roman Missal, was prepared over an 11-year period and submitted for approval to Rome in 1998. It was approved by a two-thirds vote of the American bishops and of other English-speaking bishops’ conferences.

Experts have long speculated that since, in the meantime, the Vatican has issued a new third edition of the Roman Missal, the translation of the second edition would be automatically superseded.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, however, was not content to let the proposed text simply lapse. Instead, the head of the congregation, Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, sent the observations and an accompanying letter to the presidents of English-speaking bishops’ conferences on March 16, indicating deep Vatican disapproval.

Medina described the observations as “not intended to be exhaustive, even in a generic sense.”

Other complaints include:

  • The commission should not add new prayers. The observations assert that variety is not “a cultural value capable of serving as a vehicle for authentic inculturation.”
  • The new prayers added by translators are also, the Vatican says, inferior to ancient ones that were “not mass produced at a given moment but grew over the course of many centuries.”
  • Inclusive language, according to the observations, is often “ill-adapted to the liturgical context.” The word man expresses a concept at once collective and personal that other terms cannot bear.
  • Inclusive language also reduces the focus of prayer to the actual assembly here and now, according to the observations. “For us and our salvation,” lacking the word man, is no longer a prayer for the salvation of all, according to the Vatican.
  • Inviting lay ministers to join the bishop at the altar for the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass, the observations state, means that “the intentional focus of this celebration on the sacramental priesthood is obscured somewhat.”
  • The observations also reject two bits of familiar wording. They insist that the Creed should not begin with “We believe,” but with “I,” and that the people should answer “and with your spirit” rather than “and also with you” when the priest says, “The Lord be with you.” In both cases, the observations assert, traditional formula have been altered to the detriment of theological meaning.

In his accompanying letter, Medina makes clear that he considers reforms in the International Commission on English in the Liturgy to be inadequate, pointing to an “evidently insurmountable divergence as regards fundamental principles of liturgical translation.”

The comment has extra significance in light of the looming meeting of a new Vatican body to oversee translation, called “Vox Clara,” in early May. NCR first reported the existence of this new body (NCR, April 5), and Medina’s letter suggests that Vox Clara may be utilized to “work around” the international commission.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002