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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 3: May 2002

US Scholars Resuscitate Rejected Psalms

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

An organization of Scripture scholars announced to its members recently that it intends to resuscitate a 1991 "inclusive language" version of the Psalms that was rejected by the Holy See for use in the Lectionary.

Benedictine Father Joseph Jensen, executive Secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association (CBA) and one of the principal translators of the rejected Revised Psalms of the New American Bible, announced the plan April 10, and posted a rationale and re-revised Psalms on the CBA web site (http://cba.cua.edu).

The problem with this version of the Psalms was "inclusive language", which made it unusable even as a base text for the US Lectionary, which is based on the New American Bible (NAB). Nevertheless, the defective Revised Psalms appear in all the current editions of the New American Bible. (The Revised NAB New Testament, completed in 1986, was used for the Lectionary, with modifications required by the Holy See, along with the original 1970 NAB Old Testament. The Old Testament has now also been revised.)

Despite the rejection of the Revised Psalms for liturgical use by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994, and notwithstanding the recent Instruction on liturgical translation, Liturgiam authenticam, which does not permit gender-neutering biblical texts, Father Jensen believes that an "inclusive" version of the Psalms is needed.

"Since the CDF's main objection was on the basis of inclusive language, we have done some further revision in the interests of making it more acceptable", he said. "This revision deals mainly with vertical language ('God language'), and the 'rationale' that accompanies it offers justification for the 'vertical' language which is retained."

In particular, Father Jensen suggests that his CBA colleagues "bring [the new version] to the attention of those in your diocese involved in the liturgy, most especially those who deal with the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC). We would like support for the compromise position we present from whatever source".

Last August, the CBA board issued a stinging critique of the translation Instruction, Liturgiam authenticam. In the statement addressed to the US bishops, the CBA board sharply criticized the Instruction for the role it accorded the Nova Vulgata, and for the Instruction's interdiction against translation devices that make sacred texts conform to a time-bound political agenda - such as feminist ("inclusive") language.

The CBA board also objected to the Instruction's support for words with expressly sacred meanings. (See "Group demands revision of Holy See's translation Instruction", AB , September 2001, p 1. For an explanation of the role of the Nova Vulgata in liturgical translations, see the statement of the CDW on the facing page.)

The CBA critique insisted that alternatives must be sought for words such as "man", "mankind", "fathers", when they are used collectively.

It said "The [Instruction's] claim that 'the Church herself must freely decide upon the system of language that will serve her doctrinal mission most effectively' is breathtaking in its disdain for the actual speech of specific peoples".

Among other CBA board members who signed this statement to bishops were its principal author, Father Richard Clifford, SJ; CBA president, Sister Diane Bergant, CSA; CBA board chairman, Bishop Richard Sklba, auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee,and member of the USCCB Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations. Father Clifford and Father Jensen were also on the board of editors of the 1991 Revised NAB Psalms (Father Jensen was chairman).

Bishops who collaborated in the Psalm revision project were, along with Bishop Sklba, Erie Bishop Donald Trautman, current head of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine; and Bishop Emil Wcela, auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre (also Archbishop John Whealon and Bishop Enrique San Pedro, SJ, both now deceased.)

The same bishops produced Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use, presented to the conference for vote in November 1990. The RNAB Psalms followed shortly, and in 1992 the revision of the Lectionary complete.

The CBA's rationale for resuscitating the "inclusive" Psalms repeatedly cites these 12-year-old Criteria, which, as it happens, were firmly revoked by Liturgiam authenticam.

CBA claims that the revival of the Psalm revision is now timely because the Lectionary was approved in 1997 "only provisionally and for five years, with the understanding that the matter would be reviewed in five years".

The rationale justifies using "vertical" language for God based on the 1990 Criteria, but offers this "compromise" with the CDF: "the new text here presented now provides a masculine pronoun wherever one appears in the Hebrew".

The section, "About Horizontal Language in This Revision", clings firmly to familiar nostrums:

"A literalistic translation is not necessarily an accurate translation. We assert that inclusive language more accurately renders the sense of Scripture when the original text did not intend a gender-specific reference. No authority has ruled out horizontal inclusive language. It should be clear that in 21st century America, 'vocabulary and idioms of everyday speech' require inclusive language. Several Bishops' conferences, almost every publisher, and almost every educational institution has adopted guidelines requiring or suggesting inclusive language; any other sort of diction will soon be obviously obsolete".  

The CBA again enlists ecumenism to promote its cause, citing the International Bible Society's recent revival of its controversial "inclusive language" Today's New International Version, scheduled to appear in 2005. (See News Page)  

The rationale concludes, "Thus there are many indications that language changes and these changes must be taken into account if the biblical texts intended for study and liturgy are to be clearly accurate and useful for those who live in our world today".

If Father Jensen and his collaborators at the CBA might be praised for persistence and tenacity, less so, it seems, for propaedeutic perspicacity.

***

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