Feb 15, 2000

Vatican’s latest move to correct translation problems — ICEL needs "thoroughgoing reform" by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Online Edition –

Vol. V, No. 10: February 2000

Vatican’s latest move to correct translation problems —
ICEL needs "thoroughgoing reform"

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

The translation of sacred texts for use in Catholic liturgy is a matter of such key importance in the transmission of the faith that careful Vatican oversight of the production of these texts is required, and translators or commissions of translators must have official approbation for this work — especially those having a strong international dimension.

It seems unlikely that many Catholics would dispute such a statement. Pope John Paul II said as much in a 1988 letter on liturgy on the 25th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

But when a Vatican letter emphasizing this point was revealed in December, it excited considerable interest, and some hostility.

The reaction may not be surprising in the context of the decade-long debate over proposed English-language re-translations and revisions of Scripture and prayers used for Catholic worship. Similar reactions also greeted Ex Corde Ecclesiae, issued in 1990, which requires authenticity in Catholic theology faculties. Only this past November were the US bishops able to agree on an "implementation" of the document.

The letter, dated October 26, 1999, was written by the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, to Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland, head of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the most powerful body of liturgical translators in the world.

The letter said, in part, that

Problems with the English-language translations of the liturgical texts assume a particular gravity in proportion to the prominence of the English language in the international community. Even while it remains essential that liturgical translations be made directly from the original texts into the various modern vernacular languages, the impact which the English-language translation is likely to exert on certain other versions is an observed and unavoidable fact, which in turn must be said to place a significant responsibility on those charged with the translations into English. Moreover, the experience of the years since the Council, as well as a deepening theological reflection, have brought clearly into focus the fact that the constitution, the regulation and the oversight of an international commission for liturgical translation are rightfully the competence of the Holy See to a degree which is not always sufficiently reflected in the Statutes which govern such bodies.

The letter was made public in the December 24 issue of the National Catholic Reporter ("Vatican moves to take control of translation agency", by John Allen), and the complete text of the letter was made available on NCR’s web site (http://www.ncronline.org/). An editorial in the same issue called the cardinal’s letter a "bare-knuckles power grab".

This is very far from the truth. While the letter is clearly a vote of "no confidence" in the way the translation commission operates, the Vatican has acted with great patience in its dealings with ICEL, and this most recent action should surprise no one who has observed the situation closely.

The Vatican letter said that "Statutes of the ‘International Commission on English in the Liturgy’ are to be revised thoroughly and without delay". The new statutes are to be drafted "in active consultation with [the Congregation]" by the bishop members of the Commission themselves, not by staff, and are to be submitted to the Holy See by Easter 2000.

The basic contents expected of the revised statutes are summarized in seven "Considerations" appended to the letter, including the following:

1) the activities of the "Mixed Commission" [ICEL] are "defined as translation of the [official authorized editions] of the Roman liturgical texts and books in their integrity", and not "any proposals for cultural adaptation, modification or the composition of original texts".

[This alone represents a major change, since ICEL has always appropriated to itself the authority to produce original texts and often proposes striking "modifications" — additions, deletions and paraphrases — rather than straightforward translations.]

2) ICEL’s involvement with similar bodies in other denominations are to cease.

[ICEL members helped organize the Protestant "English Language Liturgical Commission" and has worked closely with the ELLC to produce "common texts" for worship. This involvement has, predictably, affected the translations and frequently has led to theologically unwarranted "modifications", apparently from excessive zeal for ecumenism.]

3) members of ICEL’s advisory commission are to serve for fixed terms; all appointees are to obtain permission from the Congregation.

[This would effectively end the self-perpetuating bureaucratic structure of ICEL, which has been answerable only to itself since it was first formed by a group of bishops from eleven English-speaking countries in 1963. (Fifteen other countries also use ICEL translations.) Although in principle the idea of having one translation for a multi-national language like English makes good practical sense, from the beginning, ICEL has been dominated by one narrow "progressive" interpretation of the intention of the Council’s liturgical reform, and has used its unparalleled influence to promote these views which conflict in essential ways with authentic Catholic teaching.]

A meeting of ICEL’s eleven-member episcopal board was scheduled for late January in London to discuss its response to the letter.

Translation and doctrine
In order to grasp the full meaning of the Vatican letter, it should be seen in the wider context of the Holy See’s growing concern for authentic transmission of Catholic teaching through translated texts. Cardinal Medina Estèvez’s letter to Bishop Taylor is the latest exchange concerning translation problems which have intensified in recent years — problems that involve substantial matters of doctrine, not merely of style, and which are not confined solely to ICEL translations.

Observing the 25th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1988, Pope John Paul II wrote a pastoral letter on the liturgy in which he commented specifically on liturgical translation:

For the work of translation, as well as for the wider implications of liturgical renewal for whole countries, each episcopal conference was required to establish a national commission and ensure the collaboration of experts in the various sectors of liturgical science and pastoral practice. The time has come to evaluate this commission, its past activity, both the positive and negative aspects, and the guidelines and the help which it has received from the episcopal conference regarding its composition and activity" ("Apostolic Letter on the 25th Anniversary of the Liturgy Constitution", para. 20).

Again, in 1993, Pope John Paul told a group of American bishops in Rome for their ad limina visit that they should "guard the full doctrinal integrity and beauty of the original texts".

One of your responsibilities in this regard … is to make available exact and appropriate translations of the official liturgical books so that, following the required review and confirmation by the Holy See (cf. CIC, can. 838, para. 2-3), they may be an instrument and guarantee of a genuine sharing in the mystery of Christ and the Church: lex orandi, lex credendi. The arduous task of translation must guard the full doctrinal integrity and, according to the genius of each language, the beauty of the original texts.

When so many people are thirsting for the living God (Ps 42:2) — whose majesty and mercy are at the heart of liturgical prayer — the Church must respond with a language of praise and worship which fosters respect and gratitude for God’s greatness, compassion and power. When the faithful gather to celebrate the work of our redemption, the language of their prayer — free from doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influence — should foster the dignity and beauty of the celebration itself, while faithfully expressing the Church’s faith and unity".

Ad limina address to the Bishops of California, Nevada and Hawaii, L’Osservatore Romano [English Edition], December 15, 1993

The Holy Father’s notes of caution to bishops whom he knew were facing a massive project to revise and re-translate the Mass and Scripture texts clearly reveal that this is by no means a new issue. Indeed, Cardinal Medina Estévez’s recent letter to ICEL reflects the Holy See’s continuing effort to assure accuracy and fidelity of translations.

Similar problems surfaced in the controversy over the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and delayed its appearance in English-speaking countries for two years. The same problems were the source of a like controversy over biblical translations used for Scripture readings for Mass (Lectionary) — a controversy that, in the past few years, has involved the withdrawal of the imprimatur of a book of Psalms produced by ICEL in 1995, and the Vatican’s 1997 declaration that the Revised New American Bible book of Psalms, and the New Revised Standard Version are unsuitable for use in the Catholic liturgy. The NRSV still retains the 1991 imprimatur of Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, however; and has been used — temporarily– for the Canadian Lectionary, as well as for the newly released Catholic Youth Bible (see "Selling Bibles to ‘Generation Y‘", AB Dec-Jan, 1999, p 3).

The originally proposed translations of the Catechism and the Scripture revisions had been deeply affected by the decision of translators to eliminate most masculine nouns and pronouns — both for God and for man. It was claimed that this neutering ("inclusive language") and "re-imaging" of metaphors for God was necessary for "justice to women" and for contemporary understanding because, it was claimed, the language itself had changed. (Since 1975, ICEL has been "committed" to the use of neutered English in all its work.)

A new Lectionary for Mass for the United States, based on an "inclusivized" translation of the Bible (the Revised New American Bible) was approved by the US bishops in 1992, and submitted to the Holy See for approval. The Lectionary required substantial revision, involving a team of bishops and Vatican experts.

During its review of the Lectionary, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found it necessary to issue new norms for the translation of scriptural texts used in the Liturgy.

Translation norms?
The new translation norms were necessary because key doctrinal concepts, such as the traditional Christological reading of the Psalms, were eliminated by the translators’ commitment to "inclusivism". Compiled in 1995, but not made public until 1997, the "Vatican norms" systematically dismantled the "Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use" introduced by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy and adopted by the NCCB in 1990 — just before the revised Lectionary texts were presented for the bishops’ consideration. (The first volume of the re-revised Lectionary was not available for use until November 1998, and the rest has not yet appeared.)

The NCCB’s 1990 "Criteria" were inspired by a 1969 set of translation principles, known by the French title, Comme le prévoit ("As foreseen"), which had been developed by the Consilium, a group given the responsibility for implementing the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council. Among the members of Consilium were founding members of ICEL, and ICEL also produced the English translation of Comme le prévoit.

This set of translation principles advocated "dynamic equivalency" or "free" translation, while the "Vatican norms" require "formal equivalency", or maximum fidelity to the original sacred texts.

(Details of the translation controversy have been reported in AB, and relevant documents and most articles are available under the heading "Scripture/Translation" on the Adoremus web site.)

During the decade of the 1990s, which also saw the multiplication of new Bible translations from various sources, the bishops were also confronted with the massive revision of the Sacramentary (prayers for Mass) proposed by ICEL.

Approval of the new texts, it was thought, would come quickly, as had been the case for the original English translations of the Mass texts, in use since 1973. But this did not happen, in part because problems encountered with the translation of the Catechism and Scripture texts led to greater sensitivity to the issues involved.

At their November 1993 plenary meeting, the American bishops rejected the first segment of the new ICEL Sacramentary, which delayed the approval for several years, and led to changes in procedures at the conference level. The proposed Sacramentary was released in eight segments, which eventually were approved by the American bishops after a confusing process of debate and vote lasting several years. Finally, in 1998, the proposed ICEL Sacramentary texts were sent to the Vatican for review by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. No one expected an early decision, and substantial revisions will almost certainly be required. Conceivably, the appearance of a Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal this year could delay the project further.

Early warning: "Further clarifications"
In June 1996, ICEL’s episcopal board, then headed by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, met with Archbishop Geraldo Majella Agnelo, then secretary of the CDW. At this meeting, Archbishop Agnelo said the Vatican was aware of the debate over liturgical translations, but said the Holy See "pays more attention to the results that are ultimately approved by the bishops’ conferences". He added that perhaps "there is a need to make further clarifications to the bishops’ conferences, in order to increase their involvement and their influence in something that is their right and duty: translating liturgical books and texts".

Archbishop Agnelo also said that while Comme le prévoit contains "valuable principles," it must be recognized "as a text dated 1969, from the first period of liturgical reform". He said that its current value "is therefore conditioned by the experience of the last 27 years, along with the fact that there exist new canon law norms regarding the approval of such translations".

The clear message that a new approach to translations of sacred texts is necessary was evidently not received, however. Despite such clear indications that there were very serious problems with the translation principles employed by ICEL, at the November 1996 meeting of the NCCB, the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy rejected amendments proposed by several bishops who requested changes in the ICEL texts — by invoking the principles of Comme le prévoit.

"Complete change of translators"
Before the October 1999 letter to Bishop Taylor, the most recent episode in the Vatican’s effort to correct translations had been a letter of September 20, 1997 from Cardinal Medina Estévez to Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla, then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which said that a revised ritual for ordination, also the work of ICEL, "cannot be approved or confirmed by the Holy See for liturgical use". The new ritual had been approved by the NCCB’s Administrative Committee in March 1996 and submitted to the Holy See for the approval required.

The cardinal’s 1997 letter, made public by Bishop Pilla, said that the "shortcomings [of the proposed revision] were so diffused that minor isolated corrections will not suffice", and that the translation "fails to transmit faithfully important doctrinal aspects of the Latin original". The letter said, in part,

It is also cause for concern that the translators have felt free to introduce changes at will, to ‘improve’ the order of the text, the rubrics, and the numbering. To the above-mentioned translation have been added new compositions. These have been found to be in disharmony with the conventions of the Roman Liturgy, confused, largely unsuited to the circumstances in which they would be used, and at best theologically impoverished.

The letter further advised that "it may be helpful to recommend that there be a complete change of translators on this project and that a new, independent and definitive English version be made afresh from the Latin texts."

Problems unresolved
The matter of the English translation of the Ordination Ritual is still unresolved. Cardinal Medina Estévez’s October 1999 letter to Bishop Taylor refers specifically to this defective work of ICEL, when he observes that further revisions to it were also defective, and implies that ICEL substituted unwarranted versions.

The problem of "added new compositions" has been a concern with ICEL versions of sacred texts for many years. Texts not found in the original editions have often been composed by this "Mixed Commission" and have become part of official English texts. Examples of these added texts are the "Psalm prayers" in the Liturgy of the Hours as used in the US (a different translation is in use in the United Kingdom), and the "Pastoral Introductions" to the Lectionary and the Sacramentary.

In 1998, the Vatican required more than 400 changes in the ICEL Introduction to the revised Lectionary for Mass, as well as the removal of the imprimatur from the "ICEL Psalter", published in 1995 by Liturgy Training Publications of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Bishops and ICEL
Although some have attempted to portray the conflict over translations as a conflict between the Vatican and American bishops, this is a serious misrepresentation of the facts, as the record of the bishops’ debate on proposed texts clearly shows.

The bishops proposed hundreds of amendments to the ICEL Sacramentary revision, most of which were rejected — by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy and/or by ICEL staff. The discussions of the Sacramentary texts revealed, too, that while the bishops often do not agree among themselves, there is now an increased sense of the importance of translation in the transmission of the faith, and of their own responsibility for the liturgy.

In June 1998, Cardinal Francis George, the present US bishops’ representative to the ICEL board, reportedly told the ICEL bishops and staff, meeting in Washington, that there was significant opposition to ICEL’s work not only in Rome but within the American bishops’ conference.

Cardinal George, who, along with many other American bishops, had been openly critical of some of ICEL’s proposed Sacramentary revisions, had recently been appointed ICEL representative by the NCCB Administrative Committee, succeeding Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk. Archbishop Pilarczyk, a member of ICEL for years, had served in that post eleven years, during which time he had also been president of the NCCB (1989-1992), and was chairman of the NCCB Liturgy Committee. He is current chairman of the Doctrine Committee. (Bishop Richard Sklba, auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee, will succeed to the chairmanship of the Doctrine Committee next year. Bishop Sklba, chairman of the Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations, has been an outspoken proponent of “inclusive language”, as has Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, former chairman of the Liturgy Committee and member of the Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations.)

An account of the 1998 ICEL meeting, based on information from an unnamed participant in the meeting, was published in the National Catholic Reporter ("George tells ICEL Rome wants changes", NCR, June 16, 1998). The NCR‘s source said that the ICEL board hoped for a dialogue with Rome "that would observe ICEL’s established processes".

But it is precisely ICEL’s "established processes" that have created so much conflict and confusion within the English-speaking churches, and serious difficulty for the Holy See — and that are long overdue for thorough revision.

Who or what is ICEL? Who "established" its "processes"? How did any unofficial agency within the Church become so powerful that it freely challenges the competence even of the highest Church authorities?

And what accounts for ICEL’s unwavering allegiance to a view that the liturgical reform intended by the Second Vatican Council was a radical departure from the Church’s key teachings on the meaning of the Mass — and most of her liturgical history — a view in fundamental conflict with that of Pope John Paul II, the prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, and millions of faithful Catholics, past and present?

The history of ICEL’s heretofore unchallenged domination of liturgical translation and its labyrinthine interrelationships with the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy and allied organizations, Catholic universities and dioceses, non-Catholic international bodies, and with publications and publishing companies is far too complex for this essay. The entire history of this "Mixed Commission" shows that an eventual confrontation with the Holy See was inevitable. The issues involving translation, ultimately, profoundly, concern the authentic transmission of the Catholic faith.

The gravity of such problems was stressed by the Holy Father in his message to the Australian bishops on December 14, 1998:

In a cultural climate dominated by subjective thought and moral relativism, the transmission of the faith and the presentation of the Church’s teaching and discipline has to be a matter of grave concern to the Successors of the Apostles. Unfortunately, the teaching of the Magisterium is sometimes met with reservation and questioning, a tendency which is sometimes fueled by media interest in dissent, or in some cases by the intention to use the media as a kind of stratagem to force the Church into changes she cannot make. The Bishops’ task is not to win arguments but to win souls for Christ, to engage not in ideological bickering but in a spiritual struggle on behalf of truth, to be concerned not with vindicating or promoting themselves but with proclaiming and spreading the Gospel.

That the Vatican has been forced to act — with evident reluctance and exercising remarkable patience — to correct persistent and serious translation problems is evident from the recent history surrounding revised translations of the Bible and of the Mass texts.

The problems with ICEL can also be seen, in a more general way, as symptomatic of the impediment to accomplishing the mission of the Church created when any unsupervised group of self-appointed "experts" becomes entrenched within her bureaucracy at any level.


Accounts of ICEL’s mission, objectives, structure and history are contained in several works by and/or about ICEL and its members. A few of these are:

Shaping English Liturgy, [essays by ICEL members detailing ICEL history, principles and projects], edited by Peter Finn and James Schellman (1990. Collegeville: Liturgical Press).

Thirty Years of Liturgical Renewal ­ Statements of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, edited with commentary by Monsignor Frederick McManus (1987. Washington: Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy).

Paul J. Hallinan – First Archbishop of Atlanta, by Thomas J. Shelley (1989. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc.) Archbishop Hallinan proposed the formation of an international body to prepare common English texts at an informal meeting of bishops from English-speaking countries held on October 2, 1963. He was an original member of the Consilium (created by Pope Paul VI in February 1964 to implement the Constitution on the Liturgy), and of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgical Apostolate.

The Monk’s Tale – A biography of Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, by Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ (1991. Collegeville: Liturgical Press).

Finding Voice to Give God PraiseEssays in the Many Languages of the Liturgy, ed. Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ (1998. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.)

Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer. "Introduction to the Translation", by Mary Collins, OSB (1995. Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications.)

The Mass in Time of Doubt: The Meaning of the Mass for Catholics Today, by Ralph Keifer. (1983. Washington: National Association of Pastoral Musicians).

The Politics of Prayer – Feminist Language and the Worship of God, 17 essays on "inclusive language", edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock, with annotated bibliography. "Introduction: Words on the Winds of Change" (pp. xxi-lvii), "Comments on Criteria" (pp. 339-342) (1992. San Francisco: Ignatius Press).



Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.