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The puzzling anachronism of the new translation's critics

Submitted by Simon on Tue, 02/15/2011 - 9:45pm

Galvanized by an open letter from Anthony Ruff, America magazine sees dissent in the ranks over the new translation of the Roman Missal.

Let us start with Fr. Ruff's letter. While I assume substantive objections to the new translation lurk in the background, the letter confines itself to procedural concerns, and I shall do the same. Ruff sees

[t]he forthcoming missal [a]s but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. 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.

And how right he is. Let us review how we arrived here—here, that is, in the summer of 1969.

In 1963, the second Vatican Council approved the constitution Sacrosanctum concilium, setting forth the framework for revising the liturgical texts, and the following year, Pope Paul VI assigned the task of implementing it to an ad hoc working group, the Consilium.1 So far as translation was concerned, the Consilium decided that regional bishops' conferences would draft a text subject to review by the Holy See to ensure substantive accuracy and compliance with translation norms, a "solution [that] would not involve the authority of the Holy See until the final stage of approval. At that point, if doubts or difficulties concerning the translation arose, the Holy See would serve as an arbiter for a solution to the problem."2 Meanwhile, so far as substance was concerned, the Consilium labored to produce a new ordo.3 After three years of work, a Synod of Bishops was convened to consider the proposed "revision," and as Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani would remind Paul in his Intervention, that Synod rejected the proposed text. But Paul ignored the 1967 synod; and he ignored Ottaviani (and those who shared his concerns); and he ignored the nagging gap between Sacrosanctum concilium and the Consilium's novus ordo; and on April 3, 1969, in Missale Romanum, he directed that the liturgical revolution would begin scarcely six months thence, the first Sunday of advent 1969, November 30.

It is therefore easy to understand why Fr. Ruff might weep at Paul VI's "top-down impositions by a central authority" and indulgence of the Consilium's hijacking of the council, the lack of consultation, the lackings of the final text, the stunningly short timeline so peremptorily imposed by Missale Romanum, and so on.

It is harder to understand how this criticism can be leveled not at the promulgation of the novus ordo, as we have been pretending, but of the new translation, which we will be using from this fall onward. Doing so goes a step beyond Orwellian; positively surreal, it is, to coin a phrase, Picassan.4

While Fr. Ruff's comments aptly describe the imposition of the Ruff-approved novus ordo, however, his points stand (even if he fails to apply it consistently) if they also apply to the new translation. Do they? To answer that question, we must briefly review how we arrived here, at the start of 2011. Pay close attention to the symmetries and asymmetries between this timeline and the Consilium/novus ordo timeline outlined above.

In March 2001, Pope John Paul II approved the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam, setting forth the norms for translating liturgical texts, and the following month, he established an ad hoc working group, the Vox Clara ("clear voice") committee, to assist in and oversee the translation, reviewing the translations proposed by regional bishops' conferences.5 In 2002, the third edition of the authoritative latin text of the novus ordo became available for the translators to begin work. For nearly a decade, the translation percolated slowly, with proposed texts bouncing back and forth between ICEL, the bishops' conferences, and the Vatican. As Fr. Peter Stravinskas observed a year ago, "[t]he level of input was such that many complained that the project would never be completed because of the painstakingly sensitive consultative process. Yet with guidance from Vox Clara and experts in Rome, the new text was completed and was approved by the U.S. bishops in 2009." At last, after eight years of work, the Holy See approved the final text in March 2010, and that summer, the USCCB's then-President Francis Cardinal George announced that the new translation would go into effect at the start of advent 2011—the following year, that is.

One thing is clear: It is difficult to sustain process-based criticisms against the new translation. Whatever else this process has been, it is far less sweeping in scope, far more consultative in operation, and far more reasonable in implementation than the process which gave us the novus ordo. As the Catholic Herald's William Oddie puts it, "there has already been a huge battle over this (which the good guys won), a battle which began when Pope John Paul [II] … made it clear that Mass translations in future should be faithful to the Latin text (not theologically and devotionally emasculated like the English translation currently in use)…."6

Let us now return to America, which I spanked just yesterday for being less than entirely forthright in terms of the truth. Hiding behind some good old-fashioned lamppost journalism, they say through Prof. Richard Gaillardetz—whose book Teaching with Authority is essential reading, by the way—that the Mass, which "should be a source of unity[,] is about to become instead a source of significant disunity, and it did not have to happen that way."

That is a rhetorical trick that I have bemoaned in the past, and Prof. Ann Althouse provided the classic takedown in dissecting Justice John Paul Stevens' Bush v. Gore dissent. Casting himself on a moral high ground that looks very much like that claimed by America p.p. Gaillardetz, Stevens wrote that "[a]lthough we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law." Get over yourself!, retorted Althouse:

[W]hat is this really saying? To decide the case my way would preserve the illusion that people have that courts do their work in a properly pure spirit? Yet the statement itself openly invites people to cast aside that illusion. … If Justice Stevens were really worried about the injuries to the nation caused by breeding mistrust for the courts, he would have expressed his anxieties only in closed chambers. Indeed, he could have joined the majority to help give people confidence that the Court was the neutral, prestigious agent of the rule of law that people would like it to be. The decision to print that paragraph, then, has at least as much significance as the words’ literal meaning.7

The gambit here is to criticize your opponent for creating turbulence when it's actually your opposing efforts that create the turbulence—or, if you have the moxie to try it, to pretend to be above the fray while bemoaning one side of an argument for creating a situation that either side could fix. Gail Collins' recent piece on Planned Parenthood in the New York Fishwrap is an example of the latter; the new translation's public critics exemplify the former. Frankly, the answer to critics of the New Translation who rush into print bemoaning the division caused by the new translation is the same as Althouse's answer to Stevens: If you were really worried about the new translation causing division, you wouldn't be sowing the seeds of that division through public dissent. The decision to tell anyone who will publish you that you're afraid of division has at least as much significance as your words’ literal meaning—and the former impeaches the latter.

I certainly agree with Prof. Gaillardetz that it's sad that "what should be a source of unity is about to become instead a source of significant disunity," but expressed as public criticism, his observation is the dam bemoaning the lake's oppositional attitude. I also agree with him that it doesn't have to be that way—and my answer is that the danger of the new translation being divisive would be far less if its critics would stop ginning up those divisions.

  1. 1. See Sacram Liturgiam (Paul VI, 1964); Inter Oecumenici I.2 (CECSL per Paul VI, 1964); John Baldovin, Reforming the Liturgy 2 (2008); see generally Piero Marini, A Challenging Reform ch.1 (2007).
  2. 2. Id., at 28; see Sacrosanctum Concilium, nos. 22 § 1 and 36 § 3.
  3. 3. "Produce," by happenstance, is synonymous in English with "fabricate." Cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's preface to Msgr. Klaus Gamber’s The Reform of the Roman Liturgy.
  4. 4. As, indeed, are the claims of many opponents of the new translation. America quotes Canadian liturgist Bernadette Gasslein, who acidly (but astutely) observes that "Ritual behavior is always hard to change.One would have thought that a congregation that deals with ritual behavior would have understood that." Indeed, the Sacred Congregation for Rites did understand that; its conservatism on this point—and to paraphrase John Henry Cardinal Newman, to be deep in history is to cease being liberal—was precisely why Paul VI bypassed it and created the Consilium. Many of the new translation's critics seem oblivious to the irony that whatever force their criticisms may have against the new translation, they seem to apply a fortiori to the translation that they so desperately cling to. If Card. Ottaviani isn't smirking at all this, he's a better man than I.
  5. 5. The committee, it should be noted, included representatives from throughout the English-speaking world: George Cardinal Pell (Australia, chairman), Archbishops Alfred Hughes and Oscar Lipscomb, and Cardinals Justin Rigali and Francis George (USA), Oswald Cardinal Gracias (India), Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor (England), Archbishop Kelvin Felix (Saint Lucia), Archbishop Peter Kwasi Sarpong (Ghana), Bishop Philip Boyce (Ireland), and Bishop Rolando Tirona (Philippines).
  6. 6. William Oddie, The attacks on the new English Missal are the last expiring gasp of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ in The Catholic Herald, Feb. 14, 2011.
  7. 7. The Authoritative Lawsaying Power of the State Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court, 61 Md. L. Rev. 508, 565 (2002).

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