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Online Edition - Vol. III, No. 5: July/August 1997
Vatican Translation Norms Reject "Inclusive Language"
The conflict over translation principles pits political accommodation against theological truth

"The translation of scripture should faithfully reflect the Word of God in the original human languages, without 'correction' or 'improvement' in service of modern sensitivities."

Vatican Norms

Editor's Note: While not mentioning the term "inclusive language" as such, the Holy See has conclusively rejected the possibility of inclusive language devices for biblical translation. The so-called "secret norms" for translation of biblical texts for use in the liturgy were sent to all bishops two weeks before their June meeting in a confidential packet of documentation on the proposed Lectionary for Mass. (The Vatican norms were published in the July 4, 1997 issue of the National Catholic Reporter .)

The Vatican norms are, in essence, a point-by-point negation of the US bishops' Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Us, adopted in November 1990, in preparation for the revision of the Lectionary for Mass. The revised Lectionary based on these Criteria was sent to the Vatican for approval two years later.

The Vatican norms were issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They appear below in their entirety.

Norms for the Translation of Biblical Texts for Use in the Liturgy

1. The Church must always seek to convey accurately in translation the texts she has inherited from the biblical, liturgical, and patristic tradition and instruct the faithful in their proper meaning.

2. The first principle with respect to biblical texts is that of fidelity, maximum possible fidelity to the words of the text. Biblical translations should be faithful to the original language and to the internal truth of the inspired text, in such a way as to respect the language used by the human author in order to be understood by his intended reader. Every concept in the original text should be translated in its context. Above all, translations must be faithful to the sense of Sacred Scripture understood as a unity and totality, which finds its center in Christ, the Son of God incarnate (cf. Dei Verbum III and IV), as confessed in the Creeds of the Church.

3. The translation of Scripture should faithfully reflect the Word of God in the original human languages. It must be listened to in its time-conditioned, at times even inelegant, mode of human expression without "correction" or "improvement" in service of modern sensitivities.

a) In liturgical translations or readings where the text is very uncertain or in which the meaning is very much disputed, the translation should be made with due regard to the Neo-Vulgate.

b) If explanations are deemed to be pastorally necessary or appropriate, they should be given in editorial notes, commentaries, homilies, etc.

4/1. The natural gender of personae in the Bible, including the human author of various texts where evident, must not be changed insofar as this is possible in the receptor language.

4/2. The grammatical gender of God, pagan deities, and angels according to the original texts must not be changed insofar as this is possible in the receptor language.

4/3. In fidelity to the inspired Word of God, the traditional biblical usage for naming the persons of the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is to be retained.

4/4. Similarly, in keeping with the Church's tradition, the feminine and neuter pronouns are not to be used to refer to the person of the Holy Spirit.

4/5. There shall be no systematic substitution of the masculine pronoun or possessive adjective to refer to God in correspondence to the original text.

4/6. Kinship terms that are clearly gender specific, as indicated by the context, should be respected in translation.

5. Grammatical number and person of the original texts ordinarily should be maintained.

6/1. Translation should strive to preserve the connotations as well as the denotations of words or expressions in the original and thus not preclude possible layers of meaning.

6/2. For example, where the New Testament or the Church's tradition have interpreted certain texts of the Old Testament in a Christological fashion, special care should be observed in the translation of these texts so that a Christological meaning is not precluded.

6/3. Thus, the word man in English should as a rule translate adam and anthropos ( anqwpos ), since there is no one synonym which effectively conveys the play between the individual, the collectivity and the unity of the human family so important, for example, to expression of Christian doctrine and anthropology.

Without "correction" or "improvement"

The key norm of the document is Norm 3: "The translation of scripture should faithfully reflect the Word of God in the original human languages. It must be listened to in its time-conditioned, at times even inelegant, mode of human expression without 'correction' or 'improvement' in service of modern sensitivities."

Of course, the "improvement" of sacred texts in the service of modern sensitivities is the precise purpose of inclusive language, and its elimination by the Holy See means that the project of politically tuned gender-sensitive translation is doomed in the Catholic Church.

Conflict Unresolved?

The Vatican Norms help to clear up a number of unexplained circumstances surrounding the controversy over biblical translation that took place in the past five years. Reflecting as they do the Holy See's position on the primacy of fidelity to the sacred text, the norms demonstrate that the Vatican rejection of the proposed Lectionaries based on the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and Revised New American Bible (RNAB) was not a matter of trifling quibbles which a little fine-tuning could correct, but point instead to a profound disagreement about the nature of translation and of the Church assembled at prayer in the liturgy.

While the theory behind the US bishops' project was one of "pastoral concession" ­ in effect, cutting a deal with feminist cutters-and-pasters by accepting as final their less outrageous changes in the text ­ the principle governing the Holy See's criteria was doctrinal: the conviction that God reliably speaks to us in Scripture and that the integrity of His Word must be safeguarded in translation.

The two approaches are irreconcilable, and in hindsight it is obvious why three archbishops had to be dispatched to Rome to patch together a Lectionary from parts salvaged from works earlier judged "obsolete" on pastoral grounds. The final translation contains some inclusivist expressions that are, in context, awkward rather than erroneous (after all, if you render every word of the Bible by "nostril" you're going to be right some of the time) but the defeat for the project of inclusivist translation is staggering.

While making some things clear, however, the published Norms spawn some mysteries of their own.

For example, at the bishops' Spring meeting last year, Bishop Donald Trautman, then chairman of the Liturgy Committee, told reporters that the "secret" norms were largely congruent with the US bishops' 1990 Criteria for scripture translation.

When reporter David Toolan, SJ , of America magazine asked if the Vatican translation norms were significantly different from the 1990 Criteria , Bishop Trautman replied,

No, in fact some of them are almost verbatim to the American Criteria . Some are, and some are not. But many are almost vebatim, which I'm very pleased to say. The Congregation has used our wording. Some are verbatim, others are not.

But at this year's meeting, Bishop Trautman told his fellow bishops that the very same Vatican norms consign to oblivion the Lectionary revision carried out according to the US bishops' 1990 Criteria . The marked alteration in Bishop Trautman's view of the Vatican Norms for Translation is puzzling.

Last June, when Bishop Thomas Costello of Syracuse asked if there are different norms for the translation of Scripture than for other texts, Bishop Trautman said,

We have to differentiate between norms for the approval of a Lectionary as opposed to that which will be used for the proclamation in the liturgy. There are different norms present. Those are the norms we are talking about. So the New American Bible Lectionary awaits a confirmation. But we have a process in place. We have been working along with two congregations: The Congregation of Doctrine and the Congregation for Divine Worship. Working closely with two congregations.

When asked last year about the issues dividing the bishops on the revisions Bishop Trautman thought "there are very hopeful signs" that problems with the Lectionary had been worked out and said,

I don't think there is a division; there is a question of emphasis. Bishops are struggling to understand the role of translation There are principles of translation that I think are often open to interpretation. No matter what principles we agree upon there will always be a judgment call when the translator goes to apply that principle to the concrete text. It's just a choice on the part of the translator relative to understanding nuances.

How could application of exactly the same Vatican norms have led to a translation that "does a disservice all the collegial efforts of the past"?

Keeping Out Christ?

Perhaps the most significant phrase in the latest discussion of the Lectionary was Archbishop Rembert Weakland's comment that the result of applying the Vatican Norms to the Lectionary results in a "creeping Christologicism". The Holy See's norm #6/2 requires that translators take care that Christological connections between the New and Old Testaments not be precluded in translation, a fairly modest stipulation, one would think.

The fact that a bishop should be worried by the insistence that Old Testament references to Jesus Christ not be obscured; furthermore, that he should view the Holy See's concern as evidence of a dangerous trend, puts into vivid relief the striking contrast of the positions of the principal adversaries in the Translation Wars.

The conflict pits political accommodation against theological truth. This is not merely a question of emphasis. And there is no neutral position. The Vatican Norms for Translation make it clear where the See of Peter stands.

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