ROME – In a move likely to generate special reaction in the English-speaking Catholic world, Pope Francis on Saturday made a series of amendments to Church law governing liturgical translation, the net effect of which is to shift a considerable share of the power away from the Vatican and to local bishops’ conferences.
More broadly, the new legal document is likely to be taken as one of Pope Francis’s strongest moves yet in terms of fostering greater collegiality in the Catholic Church, meaning shared decision-making between local churches and Rome.
It’s also likely to be seen as at least a partial reversal of a 2001 Vatican instruction called Liturgiam Authenticam, issued under St. Pope John Paul II, which both ratified a more activist role for Rome in taking control of the translation process. However, Francis was careful to insist that the basic principle in Liturgiam Authenticam, of ensuring that translations into the vernacular languages are faithful to the Latin original, remains in force.
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?
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?
For the most part, due in large measure to Vatican intervention, those tensions were resolved in favor of universality.
At another level, it was a debate over process: Should the decisions be made by the local bishops, who know the realities in their backyard best, or in Rome, which ultimately has the responsibility for preserving the unity of Catholic worship?
In effect, what Francis did on Saturday was to deliver a victory for the side of the local bishops. That step is in keeping with what the pope had described as “a sound decentralization” in the Church.
“It is not advisable for the pope,” Francis has said, “to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory.”
In a set of amendments to canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law, Francis specified that from here on, the Vatican will still have the authority to say “yes” or “no” to a proposed translation, but it won’t have any real role at the final stage of the translation process itself. No longer would the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments be submitting extensive lists of proposed amendments; it will confirm, or not, the results at the end.
In a commentary released by the Vatican on Saturday in tandem with the new motu proprio, Archbishop Arthur Roche, the number two official of the Congregation for Divine Worship under Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, put the effect this way:
“The confirmatio of the Apostolic See [referring to the technical act of approval] isn’t configured as an alternative intervention in the translation, but as an authoritative act with which the competent dicastery ratifies the approval of the bishops,” Roche wrote.
(As a footnote, observers say the motu proprio likely won’t have much practical effect on groups such as Vox Clara, an advisory to the Congregation for Divine Worship on English translations created in 2001, since most of its work involves providing advice to translators at earlier stages in the process.)
Father John Zuhlsdorf, a longtime conservative writer on liturgical topics who blogs under the handle “Fr. Z,” posted a piece on Saturday suggesting the motu proprio seeks to find a “middle path” in the collegiality debate.
“The Congregation [for Divine Worship, in the Vatican] still retains the veto power,” he wrote. “That’s good, provided the congregation retains competent and strong personnel.”
Still, Zuhlsdorf also suggested that the unity of Catholic worship, a principle which Pope Francis endorses in the document, nevertheless may be “undermined” by his decision.
In terms of past history, the decision by Pope Francis may prove especially noteworthy in the English-speaking world.
In English, most of the work of liturgical translation for the various bishops’ conferences is carried out by a mixed commission known as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a body headquartered in Washington, D.C., whose current executive director is Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth of the Archdiocese of Westminster in London.
Eleven bishops’ conferences are full members of ICEL: Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Scotland, Southern Africa, and the United States. Fifteen other conferences, where English is used to a lesser extent, have access to ICEL texts.
In the 2000s, tussles over the future of ICEL were a key component of the “liturgy wars,” and ended largely with Rome and its desire for translations closer to the Latin originals prevailing, and a new staff brought on board.
In the here-and-now, however, the new motu proprio’s greatest immediate practical effect may come in Europe.
For one thing, Catholic bishops in Germany some time ago declined to work with a commission established under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and proceeded on their own to produce a translation. That document was recently rejected by the Congregation for Divine Worship, and, according to a report in the French newspaper La Croix, the Germans took their complaints to Francis, forming part of the background to the decision to issue the motu proprio now.
For another, there are some bishops in places such as Italy and France that have never adopted the new use of the phrase “for many” (in Latin, pro multis) to translate the words of Christ during the Mass, preferring the older phrase “for all,” referring to for whom Christ shed his blood.
Some observers believe that under the terms of the new motu proprio, bishops’ conferences in those countries can now issue rulings requiring the use of pro multis.
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.