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Liturgical language struggle takes turn to traditionalism


In a potentially decisive turn in the long-running struggle over translation of liturgical texts into English, new leadership that is more congenial to the traditionalist approach demanded by Rome has been installed for the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

At a July 29-Aug. 1 meeting in Ottawa, Canada, bishops from English-speaking conferences who govern the commission, also known as ICEL, named the coadjutor bishop of Leeds in England, Arthur Roche, to replace Scottish Bishop Maurice Taylor as their chair. They also tapped Fr. Bruce Harbert, a former Anglican with a background in patristics, medieval languages and English, to replace John Page as executive secretary.

Over the years, Harbert has voiced some criticisms of the commission, suggesting he may be closer to the line of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship. An English priest of the Birmingham diocese, Harbert will move to Washington and take over Sept. 9.

ICEL has been known for a flexible approach that allows translators some freedom to alter the structure, sequence and exact wording of texts in order to render them accessible in contemporary English. The commission has stressed, however, that the aim is to render texts more faithful to the original meaning rather than less, as well as to make them suitable for public proclamation in worship settings.

One high-profile alteration justified on these grounds is the avoidance of the word man when consistent with the meaning of a text, part of an approach known as “inclusive language.”

Under Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez at the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Vatican has demanded that ICEL stick much more closely to the Latin originals of liturgical texts. Critics believe some of the commission’s translations betray hidden agenda such as feminism, anti-clericalism and a bias against the transcendent.

The Vatican effort to realign the approach to liturgical translation culminated with the May 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam. The goal, according to the text, was to foster a “sacred style” of liturgical speech distinct from ordinary conversation. A related aim was 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.” (The document proved controversial. Critics said it struck at the heart of Vatican II ecclesiology by centralizing power in the curia and by insisting that local cultures adopt an essentially Roman style of worship.)

Medina has also demanded greater control over the commission’s inner workings, including the right to approve staff and advisers. Since the commission was originally conceived as a joint enterprise of English-speaking bishops’ conferences, some see the move against it as part of a centralizing tendency in the pontificate of John Paul II.

The debate at times became exceptionally bitter. Taylor, the Scottish bishop, who missed the Ottawa meeting because of illness, reflected some of those hard feelings in a press statement.

“The members of ICEL’s episcopal board have in effect been judged to be irresponsible in the liturgical texts that they have approved over the years. The bishops of the English-speaking conferences, voting by large majorities to approve the vernacular liturgical texts prepared by ICEL, have been similarly judged. And the labors of all those faithful and dedicated priests, religious and laypeople who over the years devoted many hours of their lives to the work of ICEL, have been called into question.

“The impression is given, and indeed is seemingly fostered by some, that ICEL is a recalcitrant group of people, uncooperative, even disobedient. This is mistaken and untrue,” Taylor said. “One is tempted to suspect that, no matter what ICEL does, its work will always be criticized by some because their minds are made up that the mixed commission is incorrigible and unworthy of continued existence.”

Taylor then defended Page and the rest of the commission’s staff in strong terms.

“John Page, Peter Finn, the associate secretary and the other four members of the ICEL Secretariat staff do not deserve to be pilloried as they have been. Accusations on grounds of lack of professional integrity are false. These people deserve well of us, the bishops and all the Catholics in English-speaking churches whom they have served so well,” Taylor said.

Harbert, the new executive secretary, has sometimes sided with ICEL critics.

In a 1996 article in New Blackfriars, for example, Harbert described the commission as “something of a tyranny, which individual bishops’ conferences are in effect powerless to resist.” He described its translations of some prayers for the Mass as “unmemorable,” flawed by a “cuddle-factor” of excessive emphasis on the heart as opposed to the mind, and revealing a “propensity towards Pelagianism” by stressing what humans do rather than what God does.

In an Aug. 9 interview with NCR, Harbert called Liturgiam Authenticam a “courageous document on texts.”

“It’s not easy to write prescriptively on language,” Harbert said, “but I thought it did so very well. The time had come when some guidance had to be given.”

Harbert served as a visiting faculty member for the winter quarter of 2001-2002 at Cardinal Francis George’s liturgical institute at Mundelein seminary outside Chicago. That institute, led by Msgr. Francis Mannion, was in part conceived as an alternative to progressive liturgical approaches associated with some ICEL consultors.

At the same time, Harbert described himself as “not really a politician,” and said that he believes it is “entirely inappropriate that the liturgy should be a battlefield.”

He said, for example, that Liturgiam Authenticam “has not spoken the last word” on the word man -- the use, or avoidance, of which in many liturgical settings has become symbolic of attitudes toward wider gender issues in the church. Harbert said the issue would require “much study,” especially from Hebrew scholars.

Further, Harbert said that much of the commission’s work on the new Roman Missal, the prayer book for the Mass, is good and should be maintained. “To start with a clean sheet would be unrealistic,” he said.

Roche, a former general secretary of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, described himself as “honored to have been elected” in a released statement.

“I am confident that with the appointment of Fr. Bruce Harbert as its executive secretary, and in a spirit of cooperation, ICEL will move forward with confidence to translate liturgical texts that will be worthy of our language and memorable for their nobility,” Roche said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002