Liturgical translations cannot be expected to receive a rubber stamp from the Vatican, despite new legislation giving bishops’ conferences more authority in the translation process, according to the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, writing in the L’Homme Nouveau – a French-language Catholic journal – said a new law on translating liturgical texts by Pope Francis published on September 9 “by no means” makes Vatican approval “a formality.”
Magnum Principium, or “Great Principle,” assigns considerably more control over the process of translating texts for use in Catholic worship away from the Vatican to local bishops’ conferences.
Previously, the Vatican would often propose a list of amendments to liturgical translations, and even established commissions which essentially took over the translation process for certain languages.
Magnum Principium changes canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law so that the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will no longer have a role in the translation process, but still be able to approve or reject a proposed translation when it is completed.
Although many observers said this means the bishops are more at liberty to stray from the original Latin without Vatican interference, Sarah is in effect saying, “not so fast.”
The cardinal points out the new law does not replace a 2001 Vatican instruction called Liturgiam Authenticam, issued under St. Pope John Paul II, which calls for a more faithful translation from the original Latin of the Roman Rite.
“There is therefore no noticeable change regarding the imposed standards, and the result which must follow from them for each liturgical book,” he writes in the article.
Sarah said the Vatican can only give approval (“confirmation” in the Latin text) after having “duly examined” the faithfulness of the translation.
He said this approval “is by no means a formality, that is to say, a sort of approval which would be granted after a rapid review of the work,” and that the new law still presupposes a “detailed review” on the part of the Vatican. The cardinal added the decision of the Vatican is binding, and liturgical texts can’t be published without this approval.
Although the Vatican would “not … ordinarily intervene” in the work of a bishops’ conference before it submits the translation for approval, Sarah said it might still be “desirable” for episcopal conferences and the Congregation for Worship to have “preliminary exchanges” and “mutual consultation.”
The cardinal also said that although the Vatican is not involved in the initial translation process, and the old method of the congregation sending back a series of amendments has been abolished, translations of particular words or phrases might still be “imposed” by the Vatican as a condition for approval.
He gave the example of the English translation of consubstantialem Patri in the Nicene Creed, declaring the Vatican “may impose – and even must impose” the phrase being rendered “consubstantial with the Father” over “one in Being with the Father.”
The cardinal’s example touches on the debate over the new English translation of the Missal released in 2010, where that change to the original translation was made.
Many priests and faithful complained the new translation was more difficult for both presider and congregation, sacrificing comprehension for a strict adherence to the Latin.
The debates over how closely translations must match the Latin original have been a hot-button topic since the Mass was first translated into vernacular languages after Vatican II, and the so-called “liturgy wars” consumed much of the energy of the Church from the 1970s until the early 2000s.
Conservatives in many countries complained the translations prepared in the immediate aftermath of the Council often strayed from the Latin, and some parts were effectively paraphrases at best, while liberals said a more dynamic translation was needed to make the Mass more accessible.
In 2002, the Vatican established the Vox Clara commission to assist in English language translations of the liturgy, and this commission was instrumental in formulating the 2010 translation of the Missal.
The most noticeable differences were the changing of the response “And also with you” to “And with your spirit” (et cum spiritu tuo in Latin), changing “for all” to “for many” (pro multis in Latin) in the Eucharistic prayer, and the re-introduction of “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault,” where in the old translation, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa had been simplified to “through my own fault.”
Magnum Principium could mean Vox Clara and other similar commissions are no longer necessary, while a mixed commission known as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) may take on a more important role, since it is composed of representatives elected from the English-speaking bishops’ conferences.
In other countries, the battle over translation has been even more heated.
The German bishops refused to work with a German-language equivalent of Vox Clara – called Ecclesia Celebrans – and are still using the German Mass published in 1976. A new translation was created and sent to the German-speaking countries in 2013, but the German and Austrian bishops refused to approve and implement it.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and president of the German Bishops’ Conference, claims Francis has vindicated their position, adding that Liturgiam Authenticam is a “dead end,” despite the fact it is still in effect.
“In their own language area, the bishops have the final responsibility for the liturgy,” he told a local Catholic radio station, according the French Catholic newspaper La Croix.
Marx, who also serves on the pope’s C9 Council of Cardinals, said “Rome is responsible for matters of dogma, but not matters of style.”
Those expecting a confrontation between Marx and Sarah will have to wait – the German cardinal said there was “no rush” for a new German translation, stating the 1970’s version “wasn’t that bad.”