Vatican's translation fiasco

January 25, 2011
This Vatican move, its about-face on liturgical language, may receive less automatic, unquestioning obedience than most.

For about thirty years, scores of translators, consultants, theologians, etc. had labored to add more reverence and awe to English-language Mass prayers that were hurriedly produced after Vatican II. It was agreed that the language of ritual needed a tone more elevated, more set apart from the familiar style heard in everyday speech. The product of decades-long work by the International Commission on English (ICEL), submitted to the Vatican with the expectation that it would be speedily approved, was rejected.

Instead, the Vatican imposes its own English translation, refusing to accept the work of the world-class experts assembled to carry out the liturgical reform launched at Vatican II. This time, reaction to Rome’s tyrannical move raises anger around the world in addition to the usual gearing up to obey.
Language experts find the Vatican-imposed translation of the missal awkward and obscure because it too slavishly maintains the structure of Latin, which renders the literal translations clumsy and hard to understand in English. Prelates around the world are affronted by this latest example of Rome reversing “collegiality"—the sharing of Church governance by the bishops begun at Vatican II. Some have responded with the words “scandal” and “outrage.” The National Catholic Reporter writes of liturgy wars.
Father Anthony Ruff, who worked for ICEL, complains that
a couple thousand passages in the new missal have to be in stilted, unnatural English to follow the Latin literally, . . . There is a major issue here of whether the Vatican has [a] coherent position in throwing 1998 in the wastebasket and then approving an incoherent mess like 2010.
[This appeared as an unverified comment that I should have verified. Anthony Ruff contacted me to say it doesn't sound like himself. I agree and actually wondered about the language in it—Anthony is highly articulate. I await his statement. Stay tuned. . . .
Here is Anthony's statement amending the one that inaccurately quoted him.
I would say that many passages throughout the new missal use stilted, unnatural English in order to follow the Latin literally. There is a major issue in the Vatican rejecting a coherent translation in 1998 and approving an incoherent approach to translation in 2010.
Catholic womanpriest Bridget Mary Meehan writes:
It appears the Vatican is heading full speed backwards to medieval times. . . . the good news is that Roman Catholic Womenpriests use inclusive language and imagery for God in our liturgies. . . . Let me make a prediction—one day—the Vatican will adapt or perhaps even copy our inclusive liturgie (sic).
It will be interesting to see how obsequiously Vatican marching orders will be followed by local bishops and—what could prove more interesting—theologians and linguists around the world. This “liturgy war” creates one more opportunity for Catholics to question top-down governance in their Church. We can add it to the forces mentioned in the previous post.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, the pope was next to God. Catholics might disagree with a priest—my dad did on occasion—but disobeying the pope was unthinkable. Today, critiques of the pope’s actions and words are common; Vatican directives are dissected and often resisted. While Benedict XVI may not be personally responsible for this translation fiasco, he strongly pushes centralized Vatican power, as NCR informs us in an article calling the eminent theologian Hans Küng a straight arrow.
Küng . . . believes that the present crisis in the church shows that he was right [about his progressive theological views]. The whole Roman system is in question, he maintains, though neither the Vatican nor the majority of the bishops yet realize it.

Küng recalls how French theologian Yves Congar, who played a major part at Vatican II (1962-65), would tell him, “If you want to understand the Roman Catholic church today, look at the 11th century.” There one sees the break between West and East, the rise of “Roman absolutism” and “enforced clericalism—including the law of celibacy.” Küng thinks that Benedict is still wedded to that paradigm. “He is an antimodernist in the deepest sense of the word.”
I agree with Küng that the whole system is in question, and to Bridget Mary Meehan’s prediction, I add my own. One day the Vatican will be a clearing house for Catholicism instead of its seat of government; it will be a unifying symbol instead of a tyrannical force. Prelates will stop wearing the garb and carrying the insignia of Roman emperors. Catholicism will cease being a monarchy and move closer to democracy, perhaps even adopting practices such as congregations choosing their pastors.

I may not be around when these things happen, but that the present system is falling apart I do not doubt.

January 31
No issue adds more urgency to the need for change in the Church than the exclusion of women from ordination, governance, and imaging the DIVINE. After the Vatican did its about face on liturgical language, the new team it brought in officially included only one woman. It adds significance to Bridget Mary Meehan’s prediction (below).

I attended a fascinating presentation on the Vatican’s upcoming language changes. The morning was exhilarating, as we heard an informative and fascinating explication of "What's Happening to the Mass." One AHA moment came for me because I am familiar with the role in some languages of inflectional endings, which in English have almost disappeared—“who” and “whom” are left but rarely used correctly. We were shown how Latin's inflectional endings clarify relationships between words in Latin, and these meanings are lost in word-for-word translations into English—only paraphrases can convey them accurately. But the Vatican directive specifically avoids paraphrases—part of the reason for the fiasco.

But then came a midday prayer that, as usual in Christian prayers, reduced the Transcendent Source of All to a humanlike male individual, a "he." It was a typical Christian prayer, and I suppose organizers just didn’t bother to clean up the language for this setting, but after the morning’s presentation, non-inclusive language stood out more conspicuously and offensively. It was an insult to the women and men there who know better and are open to a broader vision.

Ron Rolheiser in the Sunday Visitor models clean, uplifting language for Catholics. Here is an excerpt from his column:
“. . . God who is the author of beauty, sexuality, intimacy, truth, justice, energy, color and pleasure. . . . the One of which these things are only a pale reflection.
I appreciate his avoidance of male pronouns in reference to God.
The religious sister who emailed this comment to me also uses language that enlightens.
I continue to enjoy your blog. You make a difference in my life by clear explanations. I find it fascinating that our Beloved Source is NO THING, and ALL IN ALL, as well as VOID and FULLNESS OF BEING.
Sending positive energy to you and into the universe, Mary Lou
How I wish we could hear terms like these in our liturgies! Instead of conjuring up the image of a humanlike individual, they induce wonder and awe, a genuine appreciation of Transcendence. I believe we’ll see more of this language in the future as Catholicism absorbs lessons from science, other religions, and even the carping of some atheists.

February 5
Here’s the latest, reported in America magazine:
Anthony Ruff, OSB, a prominent liturgical scholar and professor of liturgy at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., . . . publicly withdraws from all diocesan speaking engagements promoting the new translation of the Roman Missal. . . .

“. . . When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process—and then when I think of Our Lord's teachings on service and love and unity—I weep."
Ruff came to a larger realization:
"My involvement in that process, as well as my observation of the Holy See’s handling of scandal, has gradually opened my eyes to the deep problems in the structures of authority of our church."
Finally someone with authority in the Church has the guts to tell the truth! Reactions to Ruff’s stance include predictable variations of “he is not obedient to Christ because he is not obedient to the hierarchy”—the conflation of hierarchy with divinity.

Now what we need are more men like Roy Bourgeois with the guts to participate openly in the liturgies of Roman Catholic Womenpriests. We need liturgies that induce awareness of holy Transcendence, using the sort of terms used by Mary Lou below. To use a not yet overused phrase, I hope the Church chooses the right side of history.

Martin Luther King & Catholics, January 20
Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is one of his most celebrated compositions. It was written in 1963 on jail-house scraps of paper to 8 white Christian leaders in Birmingham who criticized his work as “unwise and untimely.”
My present reading of his answer strikes me as remarkably wise, timely, and pertinent to the present conflict between the Catholic hierarchy and growing Catholic authority challenging the hierarchy. One center of such burgeoning authority is women religious with high status, responsibility, and visibility in health care, education, and other service areas. Another center is Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP), and a third is the Catholic press, publications such as National Catholic Reporter and America.
Here are quotations from King’s Letter and their relevance to the conflict in the Catholic Church.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Church rulings with unjust effects for some threaten unjust effects for everyone. The whole institution is undermined by these:
• excluding women from ordination and governance,
• punishing persons who demonstrate exceptional moral courage (Roy Bourgeois and others for supporting women priests),

• punishing Catholic health care institutions for disobeying bishops whose decisions run counter to the views of ethicists,
• Punishing theologians who question familiar beliefs.
These acts of injustice by the hierarchy rob Catholicism of its moral authority when it addresses the larger society. Why listen to the pope or bishops talking of peace or pornography when they show such poor moral judgment in their own house?
It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
It is unfortunate that Catholics disobey their religious leaders, but it is even more unfortunate that people with conscience have no alternative.
I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." . . . we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension [that helps us rise] to the majestic heights of understanding . . .
To the gadflies I identified above as tension creators in the Church, I add theologians who enlighten us about the Divine Feminine.
Privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
We cannot expect Church hierarchy to surrender its privileges voluntarily.
As Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
Religious institutions (Vatican offices, bishoprics and parishes) are more immoral than individuals in them. How many of us have experienced compassionate individuals reluctantly laying down a rule they personally opposed? Individuals tend to perpetuate the norms of an institution they work for. It takes extraordinary discrimination and courage to discern its failings and act on them.
A just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. . . . A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.
The pertinence of this to Church laws discriminating against women and other lay people could not be more obvious.
Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Often I hear people express disgust with Christian churches. Catholics are leaving in droves. A Pew Forum study showed that about a third of American adults raised Catholic are no longer Catholic, 71 percent of them saying they left because their spiritual needs were not met. Until now I haven’t even mentioned the clergy sex abuse scandal, which exposed the clerical culture of privilege and the hierarchy’s growing irrelevance as a moral force.

I challenge Catholic leaders to apply Martin Luther King’s words about freedom “for the Negro” to freedom for our Church.

February 10
The events in Egypt remind me of the Catholic hierarchy’s tight hold on the reins of power. I do not promote or suggest revolution in the Church, but it’s good to see the parallels in our religious institution to a political system of oppression/repression. It’s good to look at the hard truth.


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