In their meeting this week in Baltimore, Catholic bishops, among other matters, have been dealing with a new English translation of the Roman Mass, a project that has been in the works for more than a decade. Monday’s story offers this context for the bishops’ work:
Rome requires one international committee to translate for each major language, and this text is intended to serve nations as diverse as Ireland and Pakistan. The bishops can propose amendments, but Vatican officials have final say over the text.Much of the new translation has already been accepted; only the approval of the translation of antiphons was on the agenda of the Baltimore meeting.
In 2001, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments published Liturgiam Authenticam, new rules for translation. It stressed faithfulness to fourth-century Latin texts that were translations from Greek, Hebrew and other languages. It encouraged a special vocabulary for prayer that differed from everyday speech.
Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, a past president of the bishops’ committees on doctrine and liturgy, was attempting—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—to convince the bishops to reject the antiphons. His real objection was not to the antiphons themselves, but to the emerging translation generally. According to Rodgers, Trautman views the new Mass “as a ‘slavish’ rendering of Latin into convoluted, ungrammatical English.” She quotes Trautman as saying, “American Catholics have every right to expect a translation of the new missal to follow the rules for English grammar. But this violates English syntax in the most egregious way.”
The issues in play were not simply literary ones, however. Tautman argued that Vatican II required that translations of the Mass be approved by bishops in jurisdictions where they will be used. In response to complaints from English-speaking jurisdictions outside the U.S., however, the Vatican had urged American approval of the antiphons before American bishops had had the opportunity to weigh in on their appropriateness, and the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, obliged. Tautman argued that this was a violation of canon law. “I do not see how an unnamed Vatican official can trump a doctrinal statement of the second Vatican Council,” and he speculated on what other rights the bishops might surrender in the future.
Tautman wanted to insist on the approval of antiphons by the conference, a tactic intended to delay approval of the entire Mass and provide an opportunity to improve it. Instead, the bishops voted 194–20 to endorse Cardinal George’s ceding final approval to the Vatican.
Actually, what first caught my eye in these stories was the following in today’s report:
But some auxiliaries were vocal in the debate, including Bishop Richard Sklba [CQ} [sic] of Milwaukee.Anglicans, particularly Episcopalians, can draw lessons from these stories of Roman Catholic decision making. First, it is gratifying that our prayer book is appreciated even among Roman Catholic bishops. It is worth noting, however, that the Book of Common Prayer has never been a literal translation of anything. From the beginning, it drew on many sources, was influenced by both Catholic and Protestant theology, and respected the population that was to use it in worship. The Roman Catholic approach to producing a new English Mass is very different.
He noted that Pope Benedict has recently announced plans to permit Episcopalians and other Anglicans to become Catholic but keep using their Book of Common Prayer. That means more Catholics will have exposure to that book.
“The language of the Book of Common Prayer is elegant … in its phraseology and cadence,” he said. “It has shaped our English language for almost 500 years. Our proposed text will be compared to that historical one, critically I’m afraid, and with less positive results. We need more time to prepare a text worthy of our church.”
That approach deserves more comment. The centralization of the Roman Catholic Church, even though it may formally require local buy-in, is cumbersome and unresponsive. Those inclined to accept an Anglican covenant should take note. Decision making by an institution that spans the globe and encompasses diverse popualtions with widely differing viewpoints is, at best, difficult. The necessary compromises often satisfy no one, and the tendency to circumvent perpetual discussion and gridlock by central-authority fiat can be difficult to resist.
Does the behavior of the Roman Catholic Church suggest what our Anglican future will be under a covenant? Part of the Anglican genius, I think, is the ability of individual churches to respond effectively to the pastoral needs of the people in their cultural context. The populations and Anglican churches of the U.S. and Nigeria are too different to expect that either church should dictate liturgical or doctrinal terms to the other, but that will be a part of our Anglican future under an Anglican covenant. This is a most fundamental argument against a covenant. Those who would have such a compact speak disparagingly of “culture.” Humans cannot exist without culture, however, and religion that is somehow independent of culture cannot but be irrelevant to people’s spiritual needs.
Those who would centralize power within Anglicanism are today concerned about morality and the nature of the clergy. If we adopt a covenant, it will, I predict send us down the road of increasing conformity. Soon, Anglicans will insist on a uniform prayer book, one as grammatical, lyrical, and relevant as the English Mass being produced by the Vatican. God save us!