May 15, 2000

Bishop criticizes Vatican, praises ICEL

Online edition –

Vol. VI, No. 3: May 2000

Bishop criticizes Vatican, praises ICEL

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Recent statements by Erie Bishop Donald Trautman sharply criticized Vatican "interference" in the affairs of bishops and national conferences concerning the liturgy.

In an article, "ICEL and Rome", published in America March 4, the chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and former chairman of the Committee on the Liturgy (1993-1996) targeted a Vatican letter to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL] that called for "thoroughgoing reform" of the translation body.

The letter, dated October 26, 1999, was written by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, to Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, who heads ICEL. (It was published in Origins January 13). The letter said that "in its present form [ICEL] is not in a position to render to the bishops, to the Holy See, and the English-speaking faithful an adequate level of service". (See "ICEL needs ‘thoroughgoing reform’", AB Feb. 2000.)

Bishop Trautman’s criticism focused on what he termed "three pivotal points" in Cardinal Medina Estévez’ October letter:

1) that ICEL is to translate existing authorized texts only, and may no longer add new texts of its own composition, "which in fact are not the province of the Mixed Commission [ICEL]". (The letter also said that ICEL may no longer add rubrics or authorize publication or use of its texts without prior authorization of the Holy See);

2) that the Holy See must approve appointments to ICEL’s staff (The letter said, "The members of what are currently termed the Advisory Committee or the Secretariat and their respective collaborators shall require the nihil obstat of this Congregation in order to assume and to maintain their posts");

3) that there are problems with the quality of the English translations of liturgical texts produced by ICEL (concerns expressed by "not a few bishops", the Vatican letter said).

Another letter, sent January 14 by the secretary of the CDW to Bishop Taylor, ordered ICEL to cease disseminating its translation of the book of Psalms and the Canticles used for liturgical prayer. These ICEL translations of Scripture were judged doctrinally unsuitable for use in Catholic liturgy by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996, and the bishops’ imprimatur was ordered removed. (See "ICEL Psalter ‘a danger to faith’", AB April 2000.)

As chairman of the BCL during the years when massive revisions of scriptural and liturgical texts were proposed, Bishop Trautman was involved in the revision of the Lectionary for Mass, as well as the proposed ICEL Sacramentary. He is also a member of the Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations, which makes recommendations on biblical texts submitted to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops [NCCB] for its imprimatur.

Problem of "original prayers"

Bishop Trautman objects to the Holy See’s curb on the ICEL staff’s creation of new prayers for the Mass. This prohibition, he says, conflicts with a 1969 document on translation principles known as Comme le prèvoit, from which he quotes, "Texts translated from another language are clearly not sufficient for the celebration of a fully renewed liturgy. The creation of new texts will be necessary" (Comme le prèvoit, No. 43).

These translation principles have been criticized by both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship and are reportedly being replaced.

The bishop argues that ICEL’s original prayers are needed to "respond to pastoral needs that are not addressed in the Latin editions of liturgical books". He says that "Catholic worship has always included prayer texts in original languages", and that there are original texts in other language-groups’ translations.

He asks:

Why then is there a strong prohibition against English original compositions? Will these Sacramentaries in other languages be recalled? English-speaking Catholics have an obligation to offer their own contributions to the living corpus of prayer that they have received. Our faith experience of Jesus, reflecting our contemporary culture, is just as valid as the faith experience of those in the former millennium.

Whether or not one agrees that "faith experience reflecting our contemporary culture" should shape the liturgy, the bishop’s comments imply that only the ICEL staff is capable of writing prayers in English. (The Vatican letter did not in principle prohibit original prayers.) Bishop Trautman’s comments suggest that the Vatican’s objection to the ICEL prayers is an example of unwarranted interference with the bishops’ conferences:

Who has advised the Congregation [for Divine Worship] to limit the work of ICEL in this regard? What is the objection to these texts, all of which have been approved by the conferences of bishops? How liturgically impoverished we would be if ICEL had not composed prayers for the funeral of someone who has committed suicide or for the death of a young child. The shepherds of the Church need to be counted on this issue of pastoral sensitivity to God’s people.

The "shepherds of the Church", however, are not the ones who produce these original prayers – nor do the bishops even choose who writes them. This is a key point. The general editor of the current English version of the Sacramentary had his graduate students compose some of the original ICEL prayers. The Congregation for Divine Worship is surely no less able to select competent writers of prayers for Mass than is the staff of the "mixed commission", ICEL.

Recent history shows that national conferences of bishops have no control whatever over what is produced by ICEL’s staff; they vote only on what is presented to them. As many bishops said at the time they voted on the proposed texts, they rely on the Holy See to scrutinize everything the conferences submit for approval – and presumably also expect that any "liturgical impoverishment" in the texts will be noticed and corrected.

A further issue in the matter of added original prayers is not only the quality of these creations, but their quantity. The ICEL staff composed dozens upon dozens of new prayers for the proposed revision of the Sacramentary – no less than forty-one in the section on Masses for Special Needs and Occasions alone.

The Vatican and ICEL staff

Bishop Trautman correctly sees that the requirement of Vatican approval for appointments to the ICEL staff is extremely strong criticism of the procedures for these appointments and of the present staff. (Cardinal Medina Estévez’ letter to ICEL mentioned the executive secretary, a layman.) But the bishop suggests that the Vatican is exceeding its competence. He says that the "episcopal board of ICEL has approved membership on the ICEL Advisory Committee", consisting of "liturgists, sacramental theologians, biblical scholars, classicists, experts in English literature and in church music".

Does the Vatican’s call for reform in the selection of ICEL’s translation teams represent unjust interference with an established process? And does any change in ICEL’s practices of the past three decades undermine the legitimate authority of bishops’ conferences?

Bishop Trautman asks:

Who is better able to know these English-speaking scholars – the episcopal board members of the countries in which the scholars live and work, or a dicastery in Rome?

He drives home this point:

The requirement of the nihil obstat from the Roman Congregation seems to demean the episcopal conferences. … To impose abruptly a nihil obstat is to question the working relationship between the conferences of bishops and the Congregation. … The nihil obstat is an intrusion in a process in which there already exists a proper balance. … It can only be hoped that Cardinal Medina’s letter will be refocused.

[Nihil obstat means approval; literally, "nothing obstructs" – Ed.)

The bishop may not intend so direct a challenge to the expertise and authority of the Holy See as his statements suggest. In principle, of course, there is no reason why a bishop – or group of bishops – could not carefully and conscientiously select excellent translators and other experts who are also deeply committed to transmitting the truth of the received Catholic faith accurately. This was undoubtedly the reason that the Holy See approved the initial formation of the "mixed commission". But more than three decades of experience have made it clear that the system is not working.

For whatever reason, ICEL has become a self-perpetuating bureaucracy answerable only to itself, whose staff members have inordinate power to control and shape the belief of Catholics by manipulation of the words through which Catholics worship.

Too many of the influential men and women who work for ICEL have published works that challenge core Catholic teachings – on the nature of the Church, on the theology of the Mass, and on the roles of the clergy and the laity in the liturgy. Their theological views inform their approach to translating sacred texts.

That the Vatican now recognizes this problem – and the risk to the faith of millions of Catholics it entails – is clear. And the Holy See’s action to assure the integrity of liturgical texts is logical and necessary. Many Catholics will not understand why any bishop would oppose this intervention by the Holy See.

Conflicting theories, goals

The defense of ICEL’s procedures and appointments prefaces Bishop Trautman’s comments on translation principles, the root of the problem with ICEL’s work. Although Bishop Trautman’s article presents this as a dispute over authority – ICEL and bishops’ conferences vs. Roman Congregations – this is incomplete, at best.

During the years of debate on the proposed revisions of the Lectionary and Sacramentary (and before that, the Catechism of the Catholic Church) it became clear that translation cannot be seen merely as a matter of style ("contemporary" vs. "traditional"). Translation deeply affects doctrine, and translations used for Catholic worship are of paramount importance to the transmission of the Catholic faith.

It is now overwhelmingly clear that there are two essentially incompatible views of the fundamental objectives of liturgical translation. They are: dynamic equivalency (which gives the translator maximum freedom to interpret the meaning of a text , employing terms and usages he deems relevant to contemporary culture in order to convey its content); and functional equivalency (which stresses fidelity to the original text, including the author’s choice of words, images and metaphors, without sacrificing intelligibility in the receptor language). It is easy to see how these two disparate approaches affect the resulting translations.

The "dynamic equivalency" approach is employed by ICEL. Vatican authorities have found that this method has often led to significant doctrinal problems with the translated texts.

The "Vatican norms"

In 1995, during review of the revised Lectionary, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued norms for Scripture translation. The problems with the first version submitted to the Vatican required massive revisions, and necessitated these "norms". The norms reflect the "functional equivalency" approach, which some liturgists at the time called "slavish literalism". (Bishop Trautman, as chairman of the BCL, was involved in the revision of the Lectionary.)

These norms stressed maximum possible fidelity to the original text in order to convey accurately the meaning intended by the inspired author. Since then, the Holy See has judged ICEL’s biblical translations doctrinally deficient (i.e., Psalms and Canticles).

Although Bishop Trautman did not mention it in his America article, one of ICEL’s key positions is its long-standing commitment to use so-called "inclusive language", in conformity with the feminist view that the English language is intrinsically "sexist", hence the language must be changed to achieve justice for women. The Vatican norms were a point-for-point rebuttal of this narrow and highly politicized view.

Alluding to these norms, Bishop Trautman says,

Recent directives of the Congregation aimed at ICEL’s work appear to require a word-for-word, syntax-for-syntax correspondence between the Latin and the English texts. The Congregation has implied on several occasions that strictly literal translation is the primary goal, and that if the vernacular texts cannot always be immediately understood by those who hear them, explanations can be given afterwards in the homily or by catechesis. Does not such an approach run counter to the great hope of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope Paul VI?

On this point, Bishop Trautman quotes the former head of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute and longtime member of ICEL, Benedictine Father Anscar Chupungco:

Fidelity to the original refers to the content or meaning of the text, not to the form or component words and phrases. That is why a word-for-word translation is not a guarantee of fidelity to the text.

Father Chupungco strongly advocates liturgies that reflect particular cultures and contemporary political concerns, and promotes ICEL’s "dynamic equivalency" approach to translation. The goal is to convey the "content or meaning " of the text in terms the translator thinks will be most relevant and acceptable to contemporary culture, even if this results in altering the original text, adding (or deleting) words, images and concepts. (See, inter alia, his book, Liturgies of the Future: The Process and Methods of Inculturation, 1989, Paulist Press).

A question of competency?

It is hard to understand why anyone should think that the only alternative to ICEL’s methods is a "word for word, syntax for syntax" rendering.

This would imply that the scholars and experts at key Vatican Congregations are not competent to judge the merits of vernacular texts. And this would be a stunning indictment. The Holy See has been producing translations of documents into English and other languages for many years – including the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The original English translation of the Catechism submitted for the required approval was so flawed that the Vatican had to produce an entirely new translation, thus delaying its appearance in English-speaking countries for almost two years.

Music and proclamation

A further problem is music – texts to be sung during the liturgy. Some liturgists claim that "dynamic" translations are required in order for liturgical texts to be made suitable for singing and proclamation. Bishop Trautman echoes this opinion. He does not, however, give any examples of Vatican translations that he thinks are deficient, or of ICEL renderings he believes superior. He did not mention, either, that the ICEL Psalter and Canticle translations, expressly intended for reading and singing aloud, were so extreme in their "dynamic" approach, so tainted by "translator’s bias", that they have been judged by the Church’s highest authorities to be doctrinally defective, forbidden for use in the liturgy and unsuitable even for private prayer.

Bishop Trautman concludes his America article by saying that "This is a critical time for liturgical translation. It is a time of transition, new challenges and new opportunities. It is a time for prayer, reflection, serious study, critique and discussion."

To this we unreservedly say, "Amen".


Copyright © 2000-2007 Helen Hull Hitchcock



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.