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Issue Date:  June 30, 2006

Jarring history of the liturgy wars

The liturgy wars, it seems, have come limping to an end. With the vote by the U.S. bishops during their recent meeting in Los Angeles, it appears that the latest round of battles has concluded and that before long Catholics will have to deal with revisions to the texts used during Mass.

Those among the bishops, particularly Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., a rare liturgist among the bishops, who argued most persistently -- in a losing cause -- for retaining what might be called a “user-friendly” approach to translation, conceded graciously in the end.

“For the good of our people,” Trautman said, “we have to make this work.”

Some other professional liturgists, largely sidelined during the translation process, spoke in equally conciliatory tones.

For the good of the community, we are heartened by Trautman’s resolve and join him and others in the wish “to make this work.”

In doing so, however, we think it important not to lose sight of how we arrived at this final stage. It is an essential part of the post-Vatican II record.

It is unfortunate, though appropriate, that the language of battle has come to characterize the debate in recent years over translations of English texts used in Catholic worship.

The language of battle is unfortunate because liturgy is supposed to serve as a point of union, not division. It is appropriate because the tactics used to reverse the reforms that had resulted from the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and more than three decades of subsequent work were secretive and engineered by people incompetent in the discipline and accountable only to a small group who had achieved power. That power was used to accomplish what they could not by persuasion or through the mainstream of liturgical scholarship.

If wars ever have winners, then the winners in this one comprised a small crowd of powerful actors in the Vatican, in league with others passionately opposed to the direction that translation of documents had taken in the 35 years since Vatican II, who managed to overthrow that process and put in place one of their own. In 1997, as John L. Allen Jr. reported nearly eight years ago, 11 men met in secret in the Vatican “to overhaul the American lectionary, the collection of scripture readings authorized for use in the Mass. Short-circuiting a six-year debate over ‘inclusive language’ by retaining many of the most controversial uses of masculine vocabulary, and revamping texts approved by the U.S. bishops, this group decided how the Bible will sound in the American church.”

That was the beginning of the final phase of a coup that upended all of the processes that had been in place since Vatican II, translation principles that had been approved by a previous pope and decades of work by a number of bishops and a host of liturgists and Bible scholars.

Of the group that met in secret, only one man (no women were included) held a graduate degree in scripture studies; two members were not native English speakers; another was from the United Kingdom and had spent no significant time in the United States; and the group included several members who came in with reputations for opposing inclusive language. “Powers in Rome handpicked a small group of men who in two weeks undid work that had taken dozens of years,” the NCR report continued.

Life goes on and so will the community, even if we have to wrap our tongues around awkward constructions that treat Latin as if it were the language Jesus himself spoke and even if we have to wait longer for our own official language to acknowledge that more than half the human race is female.

We can do all of that and, given that the community has persisted through far worse, there is a certain confidence one can have in saying that we will do all of that.

But the recitation of the history is significant in demonstrating that at the highest levels of the community there were those who had little regard for precedent, competence, the work of others and established process. It is an attitude that has seeped down into lower levels of church governance, where too often power is the only credential necessary for mandating jarring and extreme changes to the life and practice of the community.

That way of operating seems fundamentally contrary to the instincts of a community where life is predicated on the Christian Gospel.

In service of that Gospel, there are numerous possibilities for moving ahead on this issue now that it has been decided. One of the most important considerations will be acknowledging the mistakes of the past. Yes, even though one might agree with the general direction and processes of liturgical reform since Vatican II does not mean one automatically agrees with every word translated or, God knows for certain, every song sung.

What will be most important is the manner and degree of educating -- catechesis -- that is done regarding the new translations and why things are changing.

We hope that the educating is user-friendly, pragmatic as well as theoretical and theological. Most of all, we hope professional liturgists and practitioners are brought in as full partners in the preparation of teaching materials and in the implementation of the new translations.

Finally, we suspect that the way forward will also include accommodating those who simply refuse to go along and will stand in place and continue to use the same language they’ve been using for decades. Our suspicion is that God will not be terribly upset by a little show of resistance.

The moment calls for the graciousness that Trautman and others have demonstrated. We hope that discussion of liturgical reform in the future will show similar consideration for the good of the larger community.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006

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