Jun 15, 1972

Bishops Discuss ICEL Future Revision of ICEL Constitution in progress

Online Edition

– Vol. VI, No. 4: June/July 2000

Adoremus Fifth Anniversary – June 29, 2000

Bishops Discuss ICEL Future
Revision of ICEL Constitution in progress


by Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL] was the subject of intense if inconclusive discussion at the June 2000 meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Milwaukee.

The account below gives the recent background of the effort to resolve problems with ICEL. A transcript of the US bishops’ conversation on the draft Constitution at their June 2000 meeting will appear in the August issue of the Adoremus Bulletin. — Editor

Part I – Recent History of the ICEL Controversy

Controversies over translation have been prominent in the deliberations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for the last several years. During the process of examining proposed revisions of the ICEL texts used in the English-speaking Church since 1973, it became clear that the issues surrounding translation are far deeper than matters of linguistic style; they involve substantial matters of Catholic doctrine.

During the bishops’ examination of the proposed revision of the Roman Missal produced by ICEL, it became clear that the production of these translations — which affect every English-speaking Catholic — was supervised neither by the bishops’ conferences involved, nor by the Holy See. Neither the Holy See nor the conferences had oversight of appointment of ICEL staff or even of the governing principles of translation used by ICEL. This discovery led, eventually, to a letter from the Holy See asking for ICEL’s "thoroughgoing reform".

The letter, from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, to Bishop Maurice Taylor, president of ICEL’s Episcopal Board, was sent last October. The letter directed the sponsoring conferences of ICEL to revise the statutes (or constitution) of this body. Appended to the letter was a list of "Considerations" (recommended provisions for the constitution) to bring this body, which has provided liturgical translations for all English-speaking Catholics in the world, under closer supervision both of the sponsoring conferences and the Holy See.

Until now, ICEL has been essentially autonomous, largely because its "Advisory Committee", which controls the details of the actual work, has had virtually no oversight by either the member conferences of bishops or by the Holy See. (See "ICEL needs ‘thoroughgoing reform‘", and "Letter of Cardinal Medina Estévez to Bishop Taylor", AB February 2000.) It is a self-perpetuating body, apparently with power to appoint its own members, and even reject members suggested by the members of the Episcopal Board.

The eleven-member Episcopal Board of ICEL met in London in January to begin the process of revising the Constitution. At that time Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the NCCB representative to the Episcopal Board, offered for consideration a draft revision of the ICEL Constitution (or statutes). Reportedly, this initial draft incorporated the Holy See’s "Considerations", but it encountered resistance by some of the ICEL bishops. Consequently, a three-member subcommittee of the ICEL Episcopal Board was appointed to revise it.

This revised draft of the new Constitution was presented to representatives of bishops’ conferences of the ICEL member countries at a special meeting on April 25, 2000, in Washington, DC. Presidents of eight of the eleven ICEL Episcopal Conferences, Chairmen of Conference Liturgical Commissions of the US and Canada, and three members of the ICEL Episcopal Board attended. Americans present, in addition to Cardinal George, were Galveston-Houston Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB); Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, NCCB Vice-President; and Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy.

According to an April 28 press release, "The meeting involved an exchange of information, and it was not the purpose of the participants to take any formal action on behalf of their Conferences". It was stated that the "participants found widespread agreement on the following points":

1. It is the competence of the Episcopal Conference, in accord with Canon Law, to prepare and approve translations of texts which become liturgical texts after recognition by the Holy See.

2. Such translations must always be faithful to the Latin text, theologically sound, pastorally and culturally sensitive, and liturgically effective.

3. The service of the ICEL staff, translators, and other expert advisers in preparing an English vernacular liturgy has been invaluable and essential. The participants expressed gratitude for this work and praised the expertise with which it has been done, while also considering matters which have caused some concern.

4. After more than 30 years experience, the need for revisions in the ICEL constitution is apparent, especially with regard to increasing episcopal oversight for ICEL’s work, to guarantee its fidelity in translation and theological, pastoral, and liturgical soundness.

5. The revised constitution, which a working group of the Episcopal Board has drafted, addresses the need for revision in practical and effective ways and provides a good foundation for further discussion and refinement.

6. The participants affirmed the need for regular consultation and dialogue with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Translation is an important but not the sole element in making the vernacular liturgy truly the "summit and source" of Christian life. Across a whole range of issues affecting the liturgy, the fraternal collaboration of the Conferences with the Congregation guarantees that the liturgy will have its central place in the faith life of Catholic people.

"No new powers"
The text of the proposed new statutes, as revised by the ICEL bishops, was mailed to the US bishops in early May, along with a commentary on how closely they conformed to the Holy See’s "Considerations". It was not released to the press until the bishops’ June meeting in Milwaukee. Nevertheless, the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) commented on the proposed Constitution in detail in its May 12 issue, citing sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to NCR’s John L. Allen, Jr., the new Constitution "provides none of the sweeping new powers over the translation body a Vatican official demanded in late October 1999".

The Holy See’s letter to ICEL had listed specific points to be covered in new ICEL statutes. These included a requirement that prospective staff receive a nihil obstat from their local ordinaries and from the Congregation for Divine Worship before being appointed. The new Constitution was also to specify that ICEL’s activity be restricted to translating the Latin editiones typicae of the liturgical texts, and that ICEL should not engage in cultural adaptations such as writing original prayers or changing the rubrics. The statutes would also specify that ICEL texts could be published only after they had received approval for liturgical use from Rome — an apparent reference to the problems with the ICEL translation of the Book of Psalms.

Although the proposed Constitution does respond to some of the Vatican’s concerns, it does not accede to the requirement that the Holy See must approve the translators and experts who will be the Consultants group (formerly "Advisory committee"), nor to the October letter’s indication that ICEL was no longer to be the body that produces original texts. Furthermore, neither the Holy See nor the member conferences of bishops will have direct control over the texts. Instead, oversight of ICEL is to be exercised entirely by its Episcopal Board.

Another omission in the draft Constitution is the "reconfiguration" of the office of Executive Secretary, which Cardinal Medina’s letter had stressed. Other of the letter’s Conditions were modified, such as the requirement that there be fixed terms for ICEL staff (instead of virtually perpetual terms, as has been the ICEL practice). The terms of office would now be indefinitely renewable.

The discussion of the draft Constitution at the June meeting generally substantiated the NCR‘s May 21 account. The original draft had apparently followed the Holy See’s October letter more closely than the ICEL committee’s later draft. It was this compromise draft Constitution that the US bishops saw at their June meeting. No vote was taken. Cardinal George said he would present the bishops’ reflections to the ICEL Episcopal Board meeting in San Francisco later this summer.

More cross currents…
In an unusual intervention at the June meeting, Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, presented a resolution of the BCL asking that "the Episcopal Board further address those considerations of the Holy See not presently incorporated in the Constitution in consultation with the Holy See".

Archbishop Lipscomb later revealed that this was not a unanimous vote of the BCL. Two members abstained, he said.

The other members of the BCL are Archbishops Justin Rigali, St. Louis, and Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati; Bishops Tod Brown of Orange, Blaise Cupich of Rapid City, Allen Vigneron [aux.] of Detroit, and Donald Trautman of Erie. Bishop Trautman, formerly chairman of the BCL, is also chairman-elect of the Bishops Committee on Doctrine, to succeed Archbishop Pilarczyk, who was also the former NCCB representative to ICEL.

Freedom from Rome ­ or from bureaucracy?
Reactions to the Holy See’s intervention in the affairs of ICEL have been strong, if predictable.

The National Catholic Reporter published an editorial, in the same May 21 issue that "broke" the story of the ICEL statutes, presenting the situation as a conflict between supporters of ICEL, who see oversight by Rome as a threat to the authority of bishops’ conferences, and ICEL’s critics, who see such oversight as liberating the bishops from the tyranny of ICEL’s bureaucracy. Both sides, the NCR suggested, agree that the conferences should exert some authority over ICEL:

A reasonable person looking at the debate … would conclude that while Medina’s assertion of new powers such as veto over staff and a ban on original texts violates the intent of the Vatican Council documents, and therefore should be rejected, it would nonetheless be prudent to strengthen the bishops’ involvement in the commission’s inner workings.

This is an oversimplification, at best, though perhaps understandable in view of the complexity of the matter. It implies that the Holy See does not have the ultimate authority over Catholic worship — which is false, of course. It also conveys the false impression that the conflict over translations is between the bishops’ conferences and the Vatican, rather than a fundamental disagreement between some ICEL members and the Holy See (and many bishops) over what a liturgical translation is supposed to accomplish.

Reasonable Catholics would be more likely to conclude that any international body involved with Catholic worship that declares its independence from the Holy See violates far more than the intent of the Council documents.

Unhappy ICEL associates
Although the NCR appears to be content with the proposed new Constitution, some close associates of ICEL do not share its "reasonable" view.

Among them is Gabe Huck, long time director of Liturgy Training Publications, and editor of the ICEL Psalter published by LTP in 1994. The imprimatur of this long-term project of ICEL was removed at the insistence of the Holy See because "the text does not accurately represent the word of God and therefore risks being a danger to the faith". (See "ICEL Psalter: ‘a danger to faith’", AB April 2000.)

Huck’s comments appeared in the February 2000 issue of ChurchWatch, a publication of the dissident organization Call to Action (CTA), and on the CTA web site. Under the title "Personal View: The Vatican vendetta against ICEL", Huck charged that Cardinal Medina "seems to have no credentials whatsoever in liturgy, but the job really isn’t about liturgy. It is about power and the centralizing agenda". He insists that Cardinal George "brings no expertise" to ICEL. He predicts that the bishops "will snub Medina’s demand for reforms by Easter" but will nevertheless submit revised statutes to Rome.

Huck also said, "’Adoremus’ (the archconservative liturgy lobby) is exulting. Most bishops wish the whole affair would just go away. The Left hardly has time for such nonsense, and there are few forums to address the Catholic community about these power plays".

Huck seems to see all claims to authority — whether by Rome or the bishops — as "power plays". His comments do not support NCR‘s contention that the advocates of ICEL support the authority of the English-speaking bishops. If the liturgy should be regulated only by those whose "expertise" he accepts, Cardinal George is no more acceptable than the Holy See.

"Gestapo" Vatican?
An even more intemperate view was vented in a letter to NCR (May 19, 2000). In reference to the Vatican’s demand that ICEL take steps to stop "diffusion" of the ICEL Psalter, the writer says "One reads the letter and thinks immediately of the way World War II movies portray the Gestapo".

In the five-paragraph letter there are two additional comparisons of the CDW to the Gestapo and one comparison to Herod. The writer claims that the "heavy-handed tactics" of the Congregation are a greater danger to the faith than the ICEL Psalter, and charges:

Particularly bothersome to the congregation are international copyright laws, for these preclude the most obvious solution: collecting all the Psalters and burning them in front of various cathedrals of the English-speaking world. In reality, of course, like all totalitarian governments, the congregation cares nothing about copyrights — or any rights!

The letter was signed "Peter J. Scagnelli, Framingham, Mass.", with no further identification.

Father Peter Scagnelli is a priest of the diocese of Providence, ordained in 1976, and is a long-time associate of ICEL. In the early seventies he composed a number of alternative Opening Prayers for the ICEL Sacramentary.

He has since written and translated other alternative prayers and has three volumes of these in print, one for each of the three years in the cycle of Sunday Mass readings. They are published by LTP as Prayers for Sundays and Seasons and are intended as companions to LTP’s annual publication Sourcebook for Sundays and Seasons. This latter has been edited by Scagnelli since 1997, and in earlier years his original prayers were included in its pages. He also edited the first of the Sourcebooks in the late eighties. He has been director of a diocesan worship office (Providence) and a member of several ICEL committees.

The Sourcebooks often recommend practices not in keeping with the rubrics. Though unofficial, these publications are widely used, and are regarded as official by many, because they are often sold to parishes at a discount by diocesan worship offices, and have been recommended in the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter.

It is hard to see how views such as Father Scagnelli’s could contribute to "fraternal collaboration". That such opinions — especially concerning those who have legitimate authority over the sacred liturgy of the Roman Rite — are held by anyone who influences the practices and even the very words used by Catholics in parishes throughout the English-speaking world, shows how great is the need for the Holy See’s oversight.

In particular, it shows why the Vatican’s nihil obstat is needed for the ICEL staff.

Holy See responds to a bishop’s challenge
When a bishop expresses specific objections to the Holy See’s requests, the Congregation is willing to answer them. Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie voiced his objections to the Holy See’s October "Considerations" in an article published in the March 4, 2000 issue of America magazine. (See "Bishop criticizes Vatican, praises ICEL", AB May 2000.)

Bishop Trautman was chairman of the BCL during much of the process of approving ICEL’s revised texts and will assume chairmanship of the Doctrine Committee in November. He was also member of the committee for Review of Scripture Translations that recommended giving the NCCB’s imprimatur to the ICEL Psalter in 1994. (The imprimatur was withdrawn in 1998 responding to a 1996 letter from the Holy See. See "ICEL Psalter ‘a danger to faith‘", AB April 2000.)

The Congregation for Divine Worship responded by a letter to America, signed by Cardinal Medina and CDW secretary, Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, published in the May 13th edition. This extremely unusual, if not unprecedented medium was chosen, the letter said, because:

Bishop Trautman has utilized an instrument in the public forum to express certain views about the Congregation’s initiative which can and should be answered in the same public forum out of respect, not only for His Excellency Bishop Trautman, but also for the opinions of those who will have read his article.

The Congregation dealt in turn with each of Bishop Trautman’s "three pivotal points" of criticism.

Repeating a frequent charge, Bishop Trautman had said that the Congregation’s directives "appear to require a word-for-word, syntax-for-syntax correspondence between the Latin and the English texts". Cardinal Medina replied to this:

I am happy to clarify that this certainly is not the intention of the Congregation, since the successful translation of the liturgical texts cannot be achieved by such a wooden mechanism. Nevertheless … the Congregation must ensure that the content of the original texts be conveyed faithfully and completely, without paraphrases or glosses, and hence without the omission of concepts which may have become less popular, or the introduction of others which may currently be enjoying popular favor. Sometimes it is the least popular and least understood notions which are most needed in a given time.

Original texts and "inculturation" questions
Concerning the competence of ICEL to compose original prayers, the Holy See’s letter to America pointed out that this is a form of inculturation, and, consequently, requires by its nature that it be the bishops of a particular country who sense the need and take the initiative. The diversity of English-speaking cultures makes an international body such as ICEL inappropriate for this task. The letter said,

The substantial unity of the Roman Rite is not impeded, but enriched by the fruitful interaction between the received tradition and the specific situations, needs, values, expressions, and gestures of a particular culture, and the composition of new texts is one form which such inculturation may conceivably take. Still, it is precisely the nature of inculturation which requires that it be the Bishops of a given country who should sense such a need and such a possibility, communicate the same to the Holy See, receive the approval of the latter, and oversee the adaptations as a legitimate particular expression of the Roman Rite within their own territory. On the other hand, a Commission charged with preparing texts for countries as diverse as the United States of America and the Philippines is not the type of body within which such proposals can be initiated on the proper basis and carried out in the proper manner.

Furthermore, when the composition of new texts is undertaken as part of the same project as the translation of the Roman liturgical books, then there is the danger that the authentic and integral transmission of the tradition will give way to a product which aims to replace the tradition with an entirely different reality, and which fails to convey the wealth contained in the former. When the number of original texts approaches that of the traditional Roman orations, then the substantial unity of the Roman Rite is placed in jeopardy. When such texts differ completely in function, style and length from those in the editiones typicae, then one must question whether they are in fact the result of a fruitful interaction between the received tradition and a given culture, since any such interaction is scarcely evident in the texts themselves.

Bishop Trautman had said that the current procedure for appointing members of ICEL staff is a proper exercise of collegiality, and the Congregation’s desire to give a nihil obstat "seems to demean the episcopal conferences".

To this the Congregation responded that "it is precisely within the context of collegiality that the Holy See has her own unique responsibilities to fulfill". The Holy See must grant approval (called a recognitio) to liturgical texts, and sometimes requires changes to them:

No one has cast in doubt this function of the Holy See, which is very clear in the Church’s tradition and in her law. Yet, in the unfortunate event that a text might not receive the recognitio of the Holy See, a considerable expenditure of time, effort, and money on the part of the Bishops would have been wasted.

The Congregation adds that since in the exercise of collegiality "roles of the Holy See and the Bishops are distinct and complementary",

Collegiality, in the sense that the Catholic Church has always understood it, requires the simultaneous exercise of both roles, and it is indeed puzzling to be faced with the seeming implication that the Bishops might more effectively exercise their collegial responsibility only in the absence of the Holy See!

Concerning the nihil obstat, the Congregation believes that the requirement is not intrusive, but would in fact facilitate the process of producing acceptable translations. One must consider the nature and meaning of a nihil obstat, which, the letter said,

is granted in the absence of compelling reasons for not doing so. If such reasons do exist, on the other hand, this means that conditions also exist in which the texts that will be produced are not likely to receive the recognitio, at least without significant changes. It is the conviction of the Congregation that even a denial of a nihil obstat, coming prior to the expenditure of resources in a venture foreseen to be futile, would be far less of a hindrance to the quality of the working relationship between the Holy See and the Conferences of Bishops than the prospect of a repeated denial or long delays of the recognitio.

The Congregation emphasizes that its October 26 letter was not directed at the role of the Bishops’ Conferences as such, but to ICEL,

a body which has been constituted by them for a specific purpose while displaying at times a manner of acting which places in doubt the degree to which its initiatives can truly be regarded as flowing from the Bishops themselves….

In any event, the Holy See wishes to ensure that the Commission for liturgical translations be in service to the Bishops’ own mission rather than viewing itself as an independent agent for liturgical renewal.

The letter concludes by pointing out that the "Holy See is no stranger to any culture" and is "seasoned in discernment" which "need not be construed as hostility toward an authentic and appropriate originality":

She [the Holy See] has her own wealth of experience with which to evaluate and facilitate the work of liturgical translation, and this experience is a resource which would be insufficiently utilized should her role be reduced to passing judgment on a finished product that might have been much better with her assistance. And, in the final analysis, she is the one most capable of determining whether translations faithfully transmit the content of the Latin prayers of Roman Rite, precisely because those prayers are her own heritage, and her gift to each new generation of the faithful.

The Last Word?
A sharp response to the Holy See’s letter soon appeared in America.

This letter, published in the June 3-10, 2000, edition, proposed that the Congregation for Divine Worship should ask the ICEL bishops for their nihil obstat for the Congregation’s staff. The letter was signed by Gerald J. Sigler.

In 1965, Father Gerald J. Sigler, of the Diocese of Erie, was appointed the first Executive Secretary of ICEL. While serving in this capacity he was among the signers of a letter sent in 1968 to Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, DC, dissenting from the Church’s teaching on contraception. Despite the fact that his faculties to teach and to hear confessions were suspended by the Cardinal in October 1968, Sigler continued as Executive Secretary of ICEL until January 1970. Even after his resignation as Executive Secretary, he continued as a "chief consultant" to ICEL and as a member of the ICEL Advisory Board, while he was also teaching liturgy in a graduate program and a seminary at Woodstock.

Sigler later left the priesthood.

To be continued . . .

Susan Benofy and Helen Hull Hitchcock were part of the press corps attending the June meeting of the NCCB in Milwaukee.


Helen Hull Hitchcock Susan F. Benofy