For more than two thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church has endured the perennial tension between ideological exclusivism and idyllic universalism. It may be that the tacit ideal behind the hierarchy’s various actions has really been universalism applied to the dominant ideology. The tension resisting this ideal has played out as an ideological tussle of sorts between “traditionalists” and “modernists” or “progressives.” It is as though the political parties of a college’s political union had achieved sacred status by virtue of being assiduously applied by college students all too seriously to the religious domain. Along with the presumed seriousness necessarily come rigidity and the presumption of omniscience at least with respect to the ideology.
As the pendulum has swung back and forward in the Church through the centuries, linguistic changes have served as markers or perhaps high-water marks—hardly neutral or objective means of transmission as in the anti-usury view that money is solely a means of exchange. Given the complexity of human language, moreover, no translation could ever hope to attain objective or definitive status. In fact, the process alone used to select between alternative wordings, as well as the wordings themselves, inevitably involves ideological values and assumptions.
In this essay, I contend that some notable word-choices in the English translation of the Latin Missal that went into effect at the beginning of Advent in 2011 dovetail both in substance and process with the post-1979 reactionary movement against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. I am not saying that the new translation lacks any merit whatsoever. The literalness of the word-to-word translation can in specific instances heighten a sense of the mystery of the divine in the Mass. For example, the repetition of “fault” thrice in the confession can add to what should be a contrite mood. At the same time, departing from the literal Latin can also facilitate a spiritual sensibility. For example, translating homines as men, as in for us men and our salvation, needlessly excludes (or at the very least can be expected to offend) women. With respect to God, we are human (homin) beings. The choice itself of men thus implies a certain belief or attitude, rather than simply being “more accurate.”
In my view, translating the Latin should not only wrestle with the inherent multivalence of words and sentences, but also take into account the point of the Mass, which is to bring about an interior religious experience of the divine that transcends the limits of human words and syntax. For example, eliminating mention of entering under a roof (which comes from a Biblical story involving Jesus) so close to the mysterium of receiving communion could be worth not taking the literal word-for-word approach there, as recalling a Biblical passage is perhaps too distracting just before communion is received. The more intimate receive you may be better final words before the interior experience of ingesting Christ through the Eucharist. In fact, the approaching mysterium could be facilitated even more by switching from the vernacular to Latin as the consecration moment and communion approach. The shift alone might give worshippers the sense of entering the holy of holies in the Temple. That is to say, relaxing the “one language OR the other” assumption could facilitate creating a sense of sacred time and space within the ritual. Therefore, I am not providing a global verdict here even on whether the Mass should be in Latin or English, as this may be a false dichotomy. Accordingly, I recommend a line-by-line approach that includes both the word-for-word approach and the more flexible principle of “dynamic equivalence.” Going out of a limb, I would even say that how the understanding and experience of the Mass has changed since the Latin Missal was penned (or carved out of stone) should be taken into account.
My recommendations are undoubtedly utopian, so here I confine my argument to the claim that the translation of a text for a religious ritual should not reflect the arbitrary or dogmatic rigidity of a particular ideology or partisan agenda, whether left, right or center. I contend that the 2011 translation tends to serve a particular partisan, ideological ideal—that of religious traditionalism. Most notably, it includes clerical distinction or supremacy, hence placing the clerics approving the translation in a conflict of interest. In other words, the process and content of the 2011 translation broaches the very real possibility that Christ’s church of Rome was being dominated by resentful counterfeits who crave power in order to remake (i.e., delimit) the church in their own ideological image. This, I submit, is the bottom-line concerning my thesis here. First though, I provide a bit of background.
Vatican II, or The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, was the 21st general council and met four times between October 11, 1962 and December 8,, 1965. The council was called by Pope John XXIII and concluded by Pope Paul VI. Whereas the First Vatican Council, held between 1878 and 1880, had a total of 737 bishops (mainly Europeans), Vatican II was the largest of the twenty-one councils with a total of 2,600 bishops from around the world. Vatican II thus had tremendous authoritative legitimacy within the Church. This is of no small matter, as the council produced the most changes in the Church since the Council of Trent during the Reformation. Particularly notable among the changes decided at Vatican II is the declaration that the Church includes all “people of God” (i.e., the laity), rather than only the hierarchy of the Church (i.e., the clerics). Accordingly, lay ministerial roles, such as lecterns and Eucharistic ministers, received more emphasis, as did making available both species of the Eucharist to the laity whenever practicable. The spirit of the council was inclusivity and the effort can be characterized as one of narrowing the distance between the clergy and the laity. Accordingly, the communal meal aspect of communion received more emphasis—though without relegating the sacrifice of the Mass. It is no coincidence that traditionalist clergy desiring to restore the distance emphasize the sacrifice of the Eucharist because only the priest shares in Christ’s sacrifice liturgically. I suspect that the 2011 translation of the Mass had as its primary purpose (or benefit) the reassertion of the clergy over the laity—an audacious task given the context of priestly presumptuous in molesting lay children. It is this audacity that I am trying to uncover in this essay, peeling off the asseverations of fidelity to the Latin via greater “neutral” accuracy.
The election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1979 signaled or began what could be called a “counter-Vatican II reaction” in the Church hierarchy. A generation has been realized in clerical appointments handed out by in large to traditionalists who emphasized clerical distinction over the laity and a conservative political agenda centered on one particular social issue. The post-Vatican II laity used to a greater liturgical role was gradually—often subtly or imperceptibly—pushed back in the process. The increasing salience of politically “social” conservative positions—with the anti-abortion stance serving as the definitive litmus test—dovetailed with the trend of increasing the clerical distinction. In other words, cardinals and bishops (and thus priests) who leaned to the right, both as Catholic traditionalists and politically, found roads to Rome relatively unobstructed and even welcoming, while others were tacitly handed their hats or otherwise sidelined or even marginalized in the hope that the membership would be purified.
Seattle priest Michael Ryan, who launched an international campaign on the internet to have the adoption of the new translation slowed down and test-marketed makes transparent the connection between the new translation movement and the clerical reaction against Vatican II. “People are the church, and this is not the bishops’ prayer, it is their prayer.” The anti-Vatican II “high clericalism” in the new translation is detectable in how the greeting at the beginning of the Mass is translated. “And also with you,” the lay response to the priest according to the translation used from 1974 to 2011, connotes mutuality because the response follows the priest’s, “Peace be with you.” The exchange of mutual recognition—you and you—implies an equality of the two distinct roles. In contrast, the “and with your spirit” in the 2011 translation highlight’s the priest’s distinctive role as differentiating the priest qualitatively from the laity. In other words, the laity refer to the priest’s spirit while the priest still refers to the laity as “you.” In a religious context, spirit is higher than you. This difference goes against the spirit of Vatican II, which sought to encourage lay ministerial involvement in the liturgy.
Consider how the 2011 translation came about. According to the New York Times, after the 1974 translation was modified in 1985, scholars “then began work on a new translation, and by 1998 a full draft of the new missal was completed and approved by bishops’ conferences around the English-speaking world. But Rome never approved that translation, and instead, in 2001, issued new guidelines requiring that the language of the mass carefully follow every word of the Latin text, as well as the Latin syntax, where possible. That marked a dramatic philosophical shift from the more flexible principle of “dynamic equivalence” that had guided the earlier translations.” Rev. Anthony Ruff, a scholar of Latin and Gregorian chant at St. John’s University and seminary worked on parts of the new translation but left after he became “increasingly critical of the clunky text and the top-down secretive process.” He claims the syntax is too Latinate—meaning that it is not good English. “Rome got its way in forcing this on us, but it is a Pyrrhic victory because it is not bringing the whole church together around a high quality product.” In other words, the new translation is the result of a heavily-ideological right-wing agenda foisted on the faithful by the highest levels of the hierarchy. Bishop Donald Trautman, a former chair of the U.S. Bishops’ liturgy committee, characterized the revision as “elitist” in the sense of being incomprehensible to the average Catholic. He could just as well have meant “heavy-handed” and “self-serving” in referring to the officials insisted on the crude, literal approach. The interlarding itself evinces the pre-Vatican II “high” clericalism that is present in the new translation particularly in “and with your spirit.”
Besides particular content-changes in the 2011 translation the way in which the English translation that had been in use for 41 years was being referred to by supporters of the word-for-word approach demonstrates the salience of a partisan agenda in motivating the translation. Gloria Ulterino, a lay Catholic of Rochester, New York, objected as much to the process as to the prayers. “Our liturgy is the work of the people at prayer, and the people of God have had no voice whatsoever in this,” she said. She was fighting an uphill battle against the anti-Vatican II traditionalist ideology that was in the ascendency at the time. Indeed, that ideology was placing its imprint on the Mass itself via linguistic changes. In this alone, laity such as Gloria were being handed their hats, or at the very least facing a more systemic headwind. Part of that wind was the chilling slap of having one’s ideology essentially ridiculed (e.g., ‘Hey, God, its me”).
Furthermore, the active role of ideological partisanship can be seen from the new translation being characterized with hyperbole as “a correction of some post-Vatican II errors done in haste.” In actuality, the 1974 translation came into effect nine years after Vatican II ended. Furthermore, that translation was modified in 1985. So much for hasty. The needless decimation alone points to or implies a belief that “the other side” is somehow an enemy deserving no respect at all. Indeed, when I published this essay, traditionalists assailed me as “uneducated.” To be sure, I can be lazy concerning proofreading, but “uneducated” is not the typical feedback I receive from people who read my essays. So from where did the “uneducated” comment come? I suspect that a partisan over-reaction manifested as an intransigent refusal to accord me or my position any respect whatsoever. I find very little Christ-like humility or compassion in the reductio absurdum and ad hominem attacks—reducing my position and me to an absurdity.
According to USA Today. “Vatican II’s key changes included invigorating the laity and shifting from strictly Latin Mass to offer the sacrament in the common language of the faithful.” This invigoration caused jealousy among some clerics in the stygian hierarchy. That emotion contributes to the way the traditionalists have characterized the 1974/1985 translation. “God merits elegant language, not ‘Hey, God, it’s me,” says Monsignor C. Eugene Morris, director of Sacred Liturgy for the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, where 185 men studying for the priesthood are training in the new liturgy.” Nowhere in the colloquial phrases is “Hey, God, it’s me.” That Morris feels compelled to exaggerate the “demon” points to his own attitude and traditionalist bias. He is making fun of a translation used by his Church for 41 years! Imagine what his students—the future hierarchy—must be like. It is probably fair to assume that the young priests studying under him are “in the club” concerning not only his stance toward Vatican II, but also his attitude toward post-Vatican II Catholics. In fact, I would wager that political conservatism, especially on abortion, is a de facto criterion for new students.
In the year the new translation went into use, a young right-wing priest two years out of seminary was dogmatically insisting in his homilies that Catholics have a religious obligation to martyr themselves for the anti-abortion political cause. Besides conflating ideology with theology, the conservative Republican priest was engaged in self-idolatry, essentially worshipping his own ideology. His asseveration had the tone of a presumed inability to be wrong concerning his ideological/political stance, which was thus accorded truth-value. Opinion vaunted as truth is as dogmatic as it is dangerous. The same attitude (and self-idolatry) was shared by another young priest in the parish. He regularly petitioned (for the congregation) during the Mass for a “pro-life” candidate to win the upcoming U.S. presidential election in 2012. That an anti-abortion candidate such as Rick Perry might favor the death-penalty and even cheer “racking em up” was apparently irrelevant even though the Catholic Church itself formally opposed capital punishment at the time. Presumably a candidate opposed to the death penalty but pro-choice on abortion would be equally preferable to the Church’s God.
Moreover, the priest’s respect for rules (i.e., authority) was curiously conditional. For example, in spite of being at the particular parish for training purposes, he dogmatically refused to make the cup available to the laity at the 8:30am daily Mass. Astonishingly, he knowingly went against the parish’s policy in his refusal to make the Sacred Blood available to the laity. I say “astonishingly” because he evinced a rather harsh judgmentalism (i.e., passive aggression) concerning laity who do not subscribe to the magisterium (i.e., the teaching authority of the Church). Ignoring Jesus’ teaching on compassion, the priest reportedly told at least one of the Eucharistic Ministers, “I’m just not going to do it. They (i.e., the laity) get it on the weekends—that’s enough for them.” That young priest did not withhold the cup from himself at the daily morning Mass. His selective acknowledgement of the parish policies (i.e.. Church authority) can be explained by his use of an ideological “legitimating” criterion. The salience of his political ideology in his religious vocation (i.e., ideology as truth) belied his participation as a priest in Christ’s sacrifice via the Mass, which is intimated in the new “and with your spirit.” Lest it be said, “he is only human,” it can also be said that not every human should be a priest.
In the context of young right-wing priests in general feeling secure enough in the Church to interlard the Mass with their partisan ideology, critics of the new translation naturally “deride the [newly translated] Missal as a throwback to the days before the 1960s Second Vatican Council.” To undo that council as if it had never happened would be pleasing, after all, to the young priests and their traditionalist mentors in the hierarchy. The sinister element can be discerned from how the 2011 translation came about in the context of the succession of translations.
According to the New York Times, after the 1974 translation was modified in 1985, scholars “then began work on a new translation, and by 1998 a full draft of the new missal was completed and approved by bishops’ conferences around the English-speaking world. But Rome never approved that translation, and instead, in 2001, issued new guidelines requiring that the language of the mass carefully follow every word of the Latin text, as well as the Latin syntax, where possible. That marked a dramatic philosophical shift from the more flexible principle of “dynamic equivalence” that had guided the earlier translations.” Rev. Anthony Ruff, a scholar of Latin and Gregorian chant at St. John’s University and seminary worked on parts of the new translation but left after he became “increasingly critical of the clunky text and the top-down secretive process.” He claims the syntax is too Latinate—meaning that it is not good English. “Rome got its way in forcing this on us, but it is a Pyrrhic victory because it is not bringing the whole church together around a high quality product.” In other words, the new translation is the result of a heavily-ideological right-wing agenda foisted on the faithful by the highest levels of the hierarchy.
Bishop Donald Trautman, a former chair of the U.S. Bishops’ liturgy committee, characterized the revision as “elitist” in the sense of being incomprehensible to the average Catholic. He could just as well have meant “heavy-handed” and “self-serving” in referring to the officials insisted on the crude, literal approach. The interlarding itself evinces the pre-Vatican II “high” clericalism that is present in the new translation particularly in “and with your spirit.” John Pinette, a former Catholic priest (traditionalists will no doubt stress former here with a self-satisfied smirk that hints at a latent passive aggression just below the surface ready to pounce on “them”), situates the political context within the Church at the time of the new translation. Just days before the new translation went into effect, Pinette wrote, “the forces of the restoration [of pre-Vatican II Catholocism] are firmly in control of the Catholic Church’s apparatus at this point.” That is, the new translation is “part of their larger effort towards a “Catholic Restoration” of more traditional values and ways” and “will make more conservative Catholics happy.” Pinette observes that this “seems to be a decided inclination in the present [Vatican] administration’s ease at stepping around the Second Vatican Council’s teachings to appease those far right of center.” Pinette’s perspective resonates with how the push of the movement further and further to the right by among traditionalist clergy (and laity) was asserting itself more and more boldly and stridently through homilies.
In a “big picture” sort of perspective, the 2011 translation provides us with a valuable snapshot of how far to the right the pendulum had swung since it formally began in 1979. Indeed, the continued movement further and further from the center was laying the seeds of the inevitable backward force even as the presumed increasing entitlement appeared to prove that the pendulum would never return to center. The traditionalists’ rendering of their extreme as the center only reinforced this appearance. The instinct behind the continued movement from the center was none other than greed, the fundamental desire for more. Under the sway of this instinct, what one has just achieved suddenly looks insufficient so one goes for still more, which paradoxically adds force to the eventual swing back to center. Additionally, the presumption that one cannot be wrong forestalls any check from self-discipline. The dominant movement is therefore utterly unwilling to hold itself back before it goes too far and inadvertently triggers the counter-force as if deterministically. This was the basic dynamic going on in 2011 as the traditionalist, Vatican II reactionaries sought to solidify their hold on the pendulum by instituting a more literal-to-the-Latin translation of the Mass. A narrower unity would replace a wider net.
Aside from the unnecessary loss of members who are not ideologically conservative, the Church suffers a cost in terms of foregone humility, compassion, and caritas seu belevolentia universalis. This phrase can translate as “love, that is, universal benevolence” or as “charity, that is universal benevolence.” Which is the accurate translation of caritas: the more literal charity or love? Charity is actually a false cognate of caritas, which means sublimated human love that includes self-love.
Beyond the ongoing tussle between traditionalists and progressives lies the eternal value of showing (and feeling) compassion when it is least convenient. Partisanship expunges this value even in the name of God. Christ’s body should be universal, with each member assuming a distinctive part. To privilege one part while severing others is at the very least short-sighted, and most probably hypocritical. I suspect that this was the underlying dynamic going on with the new translation. Perhaps this is nothing new, but it is unnecessary and unfortunate nonetheless. Yet given the nature of power (and greed), true selflessness is not likely to be chosen by those “on top.” I stand with those on the bottom, whatever their ideology. The least of mine, Jesus says, are the first, the Kingdom of God is within them, while most who are first are last. Were this principle to be applied to the Catholic hierarchy, I suspect many of the religious officials “at the top” might have reason to be nervous.
Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Bishops Tout Revised Mass As More Elegant,” USA Today, November 23, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-11-22/catholic-mass-liturgy-changes/51356546/1
John Pinette, “Vatican Vandalism: The New English Translation of the Catholic Mass,” The Huffington Post, November 23, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-pinette/vatican-vandalism-new-mass-tradition_b_1110369.html?ref=tw
Sharon Otterman, “Catholic Church Uses New Translation of Mass, Closer to the Original Latin,” The New York Times, November 28, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/nyregion/for-catholics-the-word-was-a-bit-different-amen.html