Last week, the Bishops’ Conference announced that in spite of Pope Francis’ instruction that they should have more authority over liturgical translations, Catholics in England and Wales would continue to be restricted to the use of the current, much criticised, Missal
Since 2011 English-speaking Catholics have endured a translation of the Mass whose language is, by general consensus, archaic, verbose and in places frankly unintelligible. Characterised by cringing modes of address to God inherited from ancient court etiquette but jarringly obsequious in English, it is larded with latinate technical terms – “compunction”, “conciliation”, “participation”, “supplication”, “consubstantial”, “prevenient”, “sustenance”, “oblation”, “laud” – for all of which there are far more user-friendly English equivalents.
The translation bizarrely attempts to replicate the complex grammatical structures of Latin. The result is protracted sentences with multiple subordinate clauses, hard for priests to proclaim and for congregations to follow. It is also profoundly anti-ecumenical. It abandons familiar versions of the Creed and Gloria shared with Anglicans and Protestants, while its insensitive and repeated use of the language of “merit” plays to Protestant suspicions that Catholics rely for salvation on their own works rather than on the grace of God. Even to Catholic ears, “merit” now carries misleading Pelagian resonances, doubtless capable of orthodox interpretation, but which have no place in the language of vernacular prayer.
The current missal embodies the theories on translation set out in Liturgiam Authenticam, a directive issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2001. This document rejected the principle of “dynamic equivalence”, which held that translators should not attempt slavish replication of the syntax, vocabulary and word order of the Latin originals, but aim instead to communicate their substance as fully as possible in an authentically vernacular idiom. This principle had guided all Catholic liturgical translation since Vatican II, and reflected the common-sense norms employed in literary translation more generally.
In rejecting it, the authors of Liturgiam Authenticam purported to be defending the Church’s tradition. In fact, the directive was a profoundly untraditional text. It not only represented a rupture with world-wide post-conciliar developments in the liturgy, but in the interests of a tendentious argument it oversimplified the untidy plurality of the liturgical past. Revealingly, its 86 footnotes contain only two references to anything written before 1947, one of those a citation from Aquinas which distorted his meaning by taking it out of context. Liturgiam Authenticam was a crass and ill-informed document, whose inadequacies were subjected to a withering analysis by the conservative American liturgist and chant historian, Peter Jeffery, in Translating Tradition, which should be required reading in every seminary.
But Liturgiam Authenticam was nevertheless used to legitimise the suppression of a far superior translation of the Missal which had been approved by all 11 English-speaking bishops’ conferences in 1998. With great pastoral sensitivity, that book retained what was best in the texts in use since the 1970s, while providing dignified and accurate versions of prayers which had earlier been paraphrased or shoddily rendered. But it also succeeded in producing texts that sounded natural in English, rather than slavishly replicating the verbal patterns peculiar to Latin. That cut no ice in Benedict XVI’s Rome: the bishops were browbeaten into accepting the suppression of their own admirable Missal.
In addition to clearing the way for the current translation, which many find a barrier to prayer rather than a channel for it, the suppression of the 1998 book was an act of naked power. It undermined Vatican II’s recognition that the local episcopates rather than the Curia held primary responsibility for the sacramental life of the churches. In September this year, Pope Francis set about rectifying this situation and reasserting the Council’s teaching. His motu proprio, Magnum Principium, restated the fundamental principle of dynamic equivalence, that fidelity in translation “cannot always be judged by individual words but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act”. More importantly, the Pope insisted that responsibility for liturgical translations lay first and foremost with bishops’ conferences. Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, immediately attempted a Curial damage limitation exercise, insisting that, in fact, nothing whatever had changed, Liturgiam Authenticam was still in force, and his Congregation retained primary authority over all translations. Pointedly, the Pope took the unusual step of publicly correcting him.
The shabby process by which the English-speaking bishops’ conferences were bulldozed into submission and the present Missal was imposed is traced by John Wilkins in a powerful new book. Lost in Translation: The English Language and the Catholic Mass is a pungent Tract for the Times, in which Gerald O’Collins – an Australian Jesuit who taught at the Gregorian University in Rome for 33 years, in association with Wilkins – a former editor of The Tablet, call on the bishops to reinstate the suppressed 1998 Missal. By close comparison of the two translations, O’Collins amply establishes the general superiority of the suppressed translation over the current version, and highlights the beauty and effectiveness of the original English opening prayers, which the 1998 book provided for use alongside the traditional collects. O’Collins’ argument can occasionally be over-insistent, as when he dismisses the three-fold “mea culpa” with the somewhat peremptory diktat that, “Everyone today can and should express repentance by simply confessing, ‘I have sinned through my own fault.’” Nor will everyone agree that “Dominus Deus Sabaoth” in the Sanctus is better translated “God of Power and Might” (which to some ears has about it a faint whiff of the jackboot), in preference to the more concretely biblical “Lord God of Hosts”. But few objective readers are likely to dissent from the overall case made here for the inadequacies of the current Missal, and the superiority of the suppressed 1998 version.
All the more baffling, therefore, that the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales last week declared its intention to continue the exclusive use of the current Missal. In response to widespread representations, they explained, they had sought advice on the implications of the Pope’s initiative from the CDW. That is, they had applied for interpretation of Francis’ intentions to the very body whose prefect had recently attempted to subvert the Pope’s return of liturgical responsibility to the bishops. Not very surprisingly, they were told that Magnum Principium was not retrospective, and they were consequently not at liberty to replace the present Missal. This direction, it appears, they have meekly accepted.
I know nothing about the negotiations which led to this dismaying outcome. Unanimity among bishops on the need for change is doubtless hard to achieve. An ingrained instinct of deference, practical concerns about cost and possible disruption, and a natural inclination to let sleeping dogs lie, possibly played their part. But this dog is not sleeping, and it is no secret that many of the bishops are as unhappy with the present Missal as anyone else.
Nothing in the Christian life is more important than prayer, and the Mass is the heart of prayer. The Missal we have suffered since 2011 was a disastrously misconceived project, imposed on a reluctant episcopate. By retaining it, the bishops are saddling us for the foreseeable future with an ugly and alienating version of what should be the Church’s most fundamental school of prayer, and generations of Catholics will learn from it that the liturgy is not for the likes of them. It is urgently to be hoped that even now the bishops can be persuaded to discharge the duty Pope Francis has reminded us belongs first and foremost to them, and give their flocks the wholesome food already to hand, their own 1998 Missal.
‘Lost in Translation: The English Language and the Catholic Mass’, by Gerald O’Collins with John Wilkins, is published by Liturgical Press.
Eamon Duffy is Emeritus Professor of Christian History at the University of Cambridge and a past president of Magdalene College.