Jul 15, 1997

Vatican Translation Norms Reject “Inclusive Language” The conflict over translation principles pits political accommodation against theological truth

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


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


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.


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


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

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

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


in English should as a rule translate






), 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


Conflict Unresolved?


The Vatican


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


of the time) but the defeat
for the


of inclusivist translation is staggering.

While making
some things clear, however, the published


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’


for scripture translation.

When reporter

David Toolan, SJ

, of


magazine asked if
the Vatican translation norms were significantly different from
the 1990


, Bishop Trautman replied,

No, in fact some of them are almost verbatim to the American


. 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


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

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



the most significant phrase in the latest discussion of the Lectionary

Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s

comment that the result
of applying the Vatican


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


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


for Translation

it clear where the See of Peter stands.


The Editors