To be honest, I feel a bit sleazy devoting this column to the latest turning point in the Pope Francis era over power in the Church, when, at the moment, the pontiff is otherwise occupied in Colombia – desperately trying to help that country put an end to, and recover from, its long-running and bloody civil war.
That’s a conflict which has torn families apart for generations, scarred whole regions of the country seemingly forever, and cost an estimated 220,000 people their lives. In context, who’s up and down in Rome just doesn’t seem to rate.
Still, for anyone familiar with the history of Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), something momentous happened on Saturday, and its significance will reverberate long after Francis returns to the Eternal City. (Where, as it turns out, things aren’t quite as “eternal” as they sometimes seem.)
While the pontiff was on the road, the Vatican released a new motu proprio from him, meaning a legal document issued under his personal authority, amending canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law.
Bypassing the legal fine points, in essence what the changes mean is that from here on out, more control of the process of translating texts for use in Catholic worship into vernacular languages around the world will be vested in local conferences of bishops as opposed to the Vatican, and, specifically, as opposed to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
In particular, the edict limits the Vatican’s role at the end of the process, when a bishops’ conference submits a proposed translation for approval. No longer will the Congregation for Divine Worship submit an extensive list of required amendments to the text at that stage; instead, it will simply say “yes” or “no.”
Given that in most cases, Rome won’t want to delay an entire translation, many observers believe it’s now more likely that, whatever the bishops decide in the end, that will be what the Vatican accepts.
At the peak of what English-speaking Catholics called the “liturgy wars” in the 1990s and 2000s, the tide was definitely moving in the opposite direction. Rome succeeded in forcing an overhaul of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the mixed body that does most of the work for bishops’ conferences in English, bringing in a new staff more to the Congregation for Divine Worship’s liking.
The congregation also created advisory bodies in different languages, with the first being the Vox Clara Commission for English in 2001, and effectively took control of the translation endgame itself.
The net result in English was a new translation of the Mass which, at key points, broke with the post-Vatican II principle of “dynamic equivalency,” meaning translations that adapted the Latin originals of texts in ways that translators felt responded better to the needs of contemporary audiences, in favor of a translation more faithful to the Latin, which Rome felt would better safeguard the doctrinal treasures of the Mass and preserve the unity of Catholic worship.
Let’s be clear: Immediately, this decision doesn’t mean much. When Catholics go to Mass today, the prayers will be exactly the same as they were last Sunday. Over time, however, it could have significant implications for the look and sound of Catholic worship.
It’s well-known that Pope Francis, though he takes the Mass and the other sacraments of the Church highly seriously, isn’t terribly invested in the details of liturgical debates. He’s not Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, for whom the liturgy is a deep personal passion. As a result, one suspects Saturday’s move wasn’t primarily about substance. Instead it was about process, and what the pope’s gut tells him has gone wrong in the post-Vatican II period.
Over the last thirty years or so, there have been two dominant narratives about the fallout from Vatican II among Catholic insiders. One holds that implementation of the council went a little bit crazy in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and what John Paul II and Benedict XVI did was to supply some necessary course corrections, steering the Church back towards what this group sees as the “true” spirit of Vatican II.
The other narrative posits that the decisions of Vatican II were too great a shock for the Vatican’s system to handle and that the old guard was biding its time, waiting for the moment to come when they could start rolling things back. That moment arrived, they say, under John Paul and Benedict, and, as a result, critical elements of Vatican II’s promise were either stalled or outright reversed.
Probably, if you asked Francis himself, he’d tell you that he doesn’t fully swallow either of those narratives. (We’ll see, by the way, if someone does ask him that later today, during the customary in-flight news conference on the way back to Rome from Colombia.)
Still, Francis spent most of his career as a local bishop in faraway Argentina (far from Rome, that is), and from time to time voiced frustration over what he saw as obtuse and opaque decision-making in the Vatican. I once heard a high-ranking American prelate say, “Why the hell did they make me a bishop in the first place if they’re not going to trust me to run my own backyard?,” and it’s not difficult to imagine then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio echoing the sentiment.
It’s worth noting, too, that on Saturday, when the motu proprio appeared, Pope Francis was in Medellin, Colombia. In 1968, that city hosted a meeting of the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM), which is remembered as one of the pivotal turning points in Latin America’s embrace of the “option for the poor” as a core principle of Catholic social teaching.
Over the years, Francis has been deeply involved with CELAM, he believes in it passionately, and he probably smiled that his blow for collegiality was delivered on a day he was standing on ground considered sacred to CELAM’s biggest supporters.
Bottom line, this move will be seen as a vindication for liberals who insisted during the liturgy wars that it was outrageous for decisions to be made thousands of miles away in Rome rather than by bishops who know the local situation, and as a setback for traditionalists who learned to see bishops’ conferences as the problem and the Vatican as the solution.
No matter where one stands in that dispute, Saturday brought the clearest example to date that the pendulum is now swinging hard in the opposite direction from the one in which it was heading under the previous two popes.
And, just to beat someone to the punch, yes, I do get the towering irony here – Francis delivered this blow for collegiality by an exercise of raw papal power. However, in his own mind, he doubtless did so not out of personal whim but on behalf of local bishops everywhere, as well as what he sees as the legacy of the Second Vatican Council.