Apr 15, 2000

Vatican: ICEL Psalter "a danger to faith"

Online Edition –

Vol. VI, No. 2: April 2000

Vatican: ICEL Psalter "a danger to faith"

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

The Vatican’s determination to assure accuracy in liturgical translations was emphatic in a recent instruction to the international body that produces English-language liturgical texts that it must stop the spread of its version of the book of Psalms.

A letter dated January 14 from the Congregation for Divine Worship to the president of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy insisted that circulation of the doctrinally flawed Psalm texts, in print since 1995, be stopped. The Vatican letter to Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland, head of the 11-member bishops’ governing board of ICEL, appeared April 3 on the web site of the National Catholic Reporter (www.natcath.org).

The letter was written by Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, secretary of the CDW. It said, in part, that "The most significant fact is that the text has been found after careful study by the Holy See to be doctrinally flawed. Such a text is clearly no more suited for private prayer than for public proclamation, and it is therefore a matter of the greatest importance to impede its further diffusion". 

Doctrinal problems in translation

In December 1993, Pope John Paul II cautioned a group of US bishops on the question of translation of liturgical texts, reminding them that liturgical prayer should be: "…free of ideological influence and doctrinal ambiguity" [Acta Apostolica Sedes September 9, 1994, Vol LXXXVI, N.9, p.755].

Doctrinal problems with the ICEL translations stem in part from its use of so-called "inclusive language". In "An Introduction to the Translation", Sister Mary Collins, OSB, chairman of the Psalter project, complained that the published version was only "half full of new wine" because the US bishops’ Committee on Doctrine had refused " ‘in principle’ to give the imprimatur to any biblical translation, however successful, that had avoided calling God ‘he’. Anticlimactically, the translators returned to undo some of their original work". She said she hoped that "a second edition may finally present the text that was intended".

Other significant doctrinal problems arise from ICEL’s "dynamic equivalency" approach to translation, which aims to convey the ideas of a text in what the translator judges to be contemporary idiom. By contrast, "functional equivalency" stresses fidelity to the words and meaning of the original text, thus diminishing "translator’s bias" and ideological tampering with the text.

The controversy over translation principles surfaced during the proposed massive revision of the Roman Missal and re-translations of Scripture.

In 1995, new norms to aid in translation of biblical texts were issued by the Vatican, and a complete revision of guidelines for liturgical translation in use since 1969 is expected.

ICEL’s revision of the Psalter, completed in 1993, had been approved by the US bishops’ Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations before being granted the conference’s imprimatur in 1995 (given by then-president Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore).

The ICEL text was judged doctrinally defective and forbidden for liturgical use by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996.

In April 1996 a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger to Bishop Anthony Pilla, then president of the US bishops’ conference, called for the withdrawal of the imprimatur. The text of this letter was never revealed, and no action was taken until August 1998, when Bishop Pilla complied by issuing a decree which said merely that the text was "judged inappropriate" to carry the imprimatur.

Problems continue

Yet the principal publisher of the texts did not withdraw the books from circulation. Liturgy Training Publications, a subsidiary of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Divine Worship, publishes the Psalter and its companion books, Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer, and The Canticles. The latter includes 60 canticles (songs) from other parts of the Bible used in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Gabe Huck, longtime head of LTP, was editor of The Psalter and wrote its foreword. LTP continues to promote these books, and its Spring 2000 catalog, four years after the Holy See judged the work doctrinally defective, calls The Psalter "the perfect prayer or study book. Ideal for anyone searching for a way to pray".

Although the ICEL texts were expressly forbidden for liturgical use, they were used by three religious orders (Dominicans, Benedictines and Sisters of Mercy) in their recently revised Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office).

Alluding to discussion of copyrights granted by ICEL to publishers, Archbishop Tamburrino’s January 14 letter said, "It may or may not be the case that the issues of civil copyright license imposes restrictions. There remains, however, the question of a duty in conscience to ensure proper information not only on the juridical status of the text, but also on the fact that the text does not accurately represent the word of God and therefore risks being a danger to the faith".

The letter instructs Bishop Taylor to "set the necessary machinery in motion" to cease circulation of the texts, and to report plans to the Congregation.

See related articles on ICEL and translation issues:

ICEL needs "thoroughgoing reform"Vatican’s latest move to correct translation problems — by Helen Hull Hitchcock (Vol. V, No. 10: February 2000)

New Liturgical Books Coming SoonWill the Vatican’s new Roman Missal affect ICEL’s "Pastoral Introduction"? — by Helen Hitchcock and Susan Benofy (Vol. V, No. 7: October 1999)

ICEL Psalter Status: A Letter Exchange — Fr. Jerry Pokorsky and Rev. James Moroney — (Vol. IV, No. 9: February 1999)

ICEL Psalter Lacks SavorHoly See’s 1996 Order to Revoke Imprimatur Revealed in August — by Helen Hull Hitchcock (Vol. IV, No. 5: September 1998)

Vatican Translation Norms Reject "Inclusive Language"The conflict over translation principles pits political accommodation against theological truth — by Helen Hull Hitchcock (Vol. III, No. 5: July / August 1997)

ICEL Texts Face ResistanceDisaffection with Translation Widespread among Bishops — by Thomas M. Rearly (Vol. I, No. 1: November 1995)

(For more article on translation issues, click here)



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.