Pope Francis: Let the bishops translate, not the Vatican

Will all things visible and invisible become seen and unseen? Should the Lord be with your spirit, or also with you? All these questions and more may — or may not — be coming to a diocese near you after a major change in Vatican canon law and practice announced today. In a motu proprio titled Magnum Principium, Pope Francis reversed the approval process for translations of the Catholic liturgy from the original Latin. Joshua McElwee reports that the change hands most of the authority to local episcopal conferences:


In a motu proprio issued Sept. 9, the pontiff says he is making a change to the church’s Code of Canon Law so that the Second Vatican Council’s call to make the liturgy more understandable to people is “more clearly reaffirmed and put into practice.”

The motu proprio, given the title Magnum Principum, modifies two clauses of Canon 838. The rewritten clauses say simply that the Vatican is to “recognize” adaptations of Latin liturgical texts approved by national bishops’ conferences.

A comparison of the Italian text of the prior and new versions of the canon makes the change clear. Where the Italian says the Vatican was tasked before with “authorizing” all liturgical translations, it is now asked simply to “review” translations made by the bishops’ conferences.

That review will partly come through a process of confirming that the translations appropriately reflect the intent of the original Latin, known as a confirmatio.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments said in a note accompanying the release of the motu proprio that the confirmatio process “leaves responsibility for the translation, presumed to be faithful, to the pastoral and doctrinal munus of the bishops’ conference.”

Crux sees turbulence ahead, especially in the English-speaking world:

For much of the 1990s and 2000s, debates over liturgical translation were the hot-button topic par excellence in English-speaking Catholic conversation.

At one level, it was a debate over substance: Should translations veer more in the direction of adopting the contemporary idiom in English, to make them more accessible – a principle formally known as “dynamic equivalence” to the Latin original – or should they stick as close as possible to that Latin, in order to make them universal and timeless? …

Issued in the form of a motu proprio, meaning a legal document issued under the pope’s personal authority, “Magnum Principium” represents, at least indirectly, Francis’s response to what has been one of the most contentious issues in English-speaking Catholic life over the last twenty years: Who should decide how Catholic worship sounds in English?


That’s the simple question, but the answer is much more complicated. Vatican II wanted to bring the liturgy closer to the people, hoping that the process would eventually give each language the same liturgical charism of the original Latin. That would also require a basic fidelity to the Latin original, however, both for sacramental purposes and to ensure the unity of worship within the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis addresses this tension in Magnum Principium, via John Thavis, and his view that the local episcopacy is better suited to resolve it — with proper oversight at the Vatican:

Because the liturgical text is a ritual sign it is a means of oral communication. However, for the believers who celebrate the sacred rites the word is also a mystery. Indeed when words are uttered, in particular when the Sacred Scriptures are read, God speaks to us. In the Gospel Christ himself speaks to his people who respond either themselves or through the celebrant by prayer to the Lord in the Holy Spirit.

The goal of the translation of liturgical texts and of biblical texts for the Liturgy of the Word is to announce the word of salvation to the faithful in obedience to the faith and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord. For this purpose it is necessary to communicate to a given people using its own language all that the Church intended to communicate to other people through the Latin language. While fidelity cannot always be judged by individual words but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act and according to its literary genre, nevertheless some particular terms must also be considered in the context of the entire Catholic faith because each translation of texts must be congruent with sound doctrine.


What does all this mean in terms of process? Until now, episcopal conferences drafted translations in the vernacular for their own languages, and then submitted them to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The panel would issue a detailed review, usually with a significant number of questions and changes, to which the episcopal conferences would have to respond. It allowed for central control over translations, but in many cases determined by people who may not have much familiarity with local idioms and constructs in the vernacular.

The new process devolves most of the authority back to the episcopal conferences. The CDW now only has a yes/no authority on final approval and a directive to give the benefit of doubt to the episcopate, which theoretically should simplify matters. “The confirmatio of the Apostolic See is therefore not to be considered as an alternative intervention in the process of translation,” CDW Secretary Archbishop Arthur Roche writes, “but rather as an authoritative act by which the competent Dicastery ratifies the approval of the bishops.”

In theory, that will accelerate the process and allow the bishops who know the language best to propagate the best translations of the Mass and other liturgical works. It might be interesting to see how that works in practice, however. Will the CDW issue any guidance when rejecting a translation, and if so, how would that differ from the status quo ante? If not, it might portend an even more cumbersome process in which episcopal conferences have to guess what the CDW wants for approval.

John writes that this might add to the tension between conservatives and progressives within the Catholic Church:


The move, which involved a modification of church law, reverses years of Vatican efforts to exert centralized control on the thorny issue of language in the liturgy. It is bound to set off a new round of criticism by conservative Catholics who fear that Francis is slowly undoing the legacy of his two predecessors.

For Americans, there’s some irony to that, as most understand political conservatism as championing the concept of subsidiarity (decentralization) rather than solidarity (centralization). Within the church, the issue relates to a tension between the need for universality and apostolic authority, a tension that has existed since, well … Peter and Paul. As Casey Stengel said, you could look it up.

At any rate, this debate will likely be limited to the academics on either side. For most Catholics, it will be the equivalent of a Beltway process story — of little impact to their experience in the pews and therefore simply a theoretical change. However, that could change if bishops in English-language conferences begin to tinker with the Mass translations again, after having enforced a major change just six years ago. That translation effort came directly from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, in which now-retired pontiff exhorted the episcopacy to adhere more closely to the “venerable and ancient usage” of the traditional Latin Mass.

The result got mixed results and no small number of complaints, Christopher Lamb recalls for The Tablet:

In 2001 the Vatican issued Liturgiam Authenticam which set out principles for translating the Mass into local languages from the Latin original. This called for more literal translations of the Latin into the vernacular, which contrasted with an earlier approach called “dynamic equivalence” where a translation took place according to the sense of words and phrases. 

But this was controversial by many local bishops conferences who felt it was an example of Rome over reaching itself in the translation process.

“It is no surprise that difficulties have arisen between the Episcopal Conferences and the Apostolic See in the course of this long passage of work,” the Pope said, hinting at past disagreements. 

The 2011 English missal was produced according to Liturgiam Authenticam and received a mixed response. Supporters praised it for being more faithful to the Latin and bringing in scriptural allusions, critics said it was clumsy and contained poor English.

Now, however, Francis’ new law undermines this ruling as well as Vatican attempts to interfere in the process of translations. 


This change by Francis does truly represent a change in direction between the two popes, and is at least in part a response to that controversy. (It’s also part of Francis’ efforts to reform the Curia and promote subsidiarity in general.) But how likely is another change in English-language liturgy, or a reversion back to the pre-2011 Mass? America Magazine’s Fr. James Martin is skeptical of any substantial impact, especially in the US:

Answer: No, not really. The introduction of the changes in 2011 brought a lot of grumbling in the pews for Catholics who had grown so familiar with Mass responses as to have them memorized. The USCCB has enough on its plate as it is without taking on this massive enterprise for the second time in a decade, especially when the current translation does hew closer to the original Latin, even if sometimes sounding less than euphonious in American ears. If nothing changes in the parishes, then this procedural change will not have much impact at all on most Catholics. And if they do decide to change the translation again, no one will be blaming the Vatican this time for confusion in the pews — it will all be on the bishops, which might be enough of a disincentive to let this particular sleeping dog lie.

Crux concludes its report with this amusing bit of irony:

Though issued in Francis’s name and drawing on his authority, the new document appears when the pope himself is out of town, wrapping up his Sept. 6-11 trip to Colombia. Tonight, he’s scheduled to celebrate an open-air Mass in Medellin, where presumably he’ll draw on the Vatican-approved translation for Colombia – ironically, observers say, one in which the Congregation for Divine Worship played just the activist role discouraged by the motu proprio.


For now, anyway.

Update: The WSJ’s Francis X. Rocca has an excellent analysis of this, too:

By granting more power to national assemblies of bishops on how to translate the Mass, Pope Francis will be at odds with liturgical conservatives in the church, who have viewed the bishops’ conferences as part of the problem. In Europe, some bishops still prefer a translation that says Jesus spilled his blood “for all” instead of “for many,” which is closer to the Latin “pro multis.” Critics say that “for all” could imply that salvation through Jesus is automatic, without the individual’s own efforts.

Pope Francis faces high-level resistance from within his own administration. Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s liturgical office, remains a vocal supporter of the “reform of the reform,” a movement encouraged by Pope Benedict that seeks to reintroduce elements of traditional worship, such as having the priest face the altar rather than the congregation at certain points in the Mass. The movement has also encouraged greater use of Gregorian chant and polyphony and a revival of traditional church architecture and decoration.

Be sure to read it all. Which episcopal conference will be the first to try out their new authority? Bet on the Germans, not the Americans or English-language conferences.

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