Nov 15, 2001

When Beauty is Revolutionary

Online Edition

– Vol. VII, No. 8: November 2001

When Beauty is Revolutionary

Reflections on Liturgiam authenticam

by Father Raymond Gawronski, SJ

The Word has power a power to penetrate and transform the darkness of matter without being itself destroyed (John 1). The words of Christ have been known to tumble empires.1

"What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul". Those words once changed the direction of my young life, and have haunted me ever since.

The other day, I tried to make sense of a Gospel reading sense that had somehow been lost in translation, slipping through the mind that yet balked at its unfamiliar cadence: "I have come to call, not the self-righteous, but sinners" (Matt. 9:13 Lectionary [1970] Feast of Saint Matthew, September 21).

As I read this, I knew something was wrong: the words did not flow. One stumbles over "self-righteous" — even if it were a literal translation of the text, which it is not. In fact, this translation turns the very words of Jesus upside down and ignores the tradition, Felix culpa! [happy fault]. For His point seems to be that those who are, in fact, righteous are not in need of Him. The self-righteous would be sinners.

Ideologies are political systems for the mind, clung to by people like the Pharisees who cannot venture into the bracing world of ideas on their own. Because it is not grounded in truth, or goodness, or beauty, but rather in the shifting sands of worldly power, ideology has a way of creating ugliness. (Much of our modern church architecture has been described as an "ideology in stone".)

Ugliness can also infect language. It can be heard in the Sequence for Our Lady of Sorrows as it appears in the Lectionary (1970):

"Virgin of all virgins blest!
Listen to my fond request:
Let me share your grief divine.

Let me to my latest breath,
In my body bear the death
Of that dying Son of yours".

That Son of yours? Anything, anything, to avoid the word "thine" which, though it fits beautifully into the rhyme of the hymn, is so redolent of that old world it must yield to the linguistic bulldozer. That Son of yours. Our Lord. God. Demeaned for ideological reasons, not for the first time in the twentieth century but by the Church?

The Sixties were a heady time in the world, and, with Liturgiam authenticam, the Church is finally, it seems, coming to terms with the most gratuitous wrong turns that came about at that time and subsequently set the course for Catholic worship. I would like to share some reflections on the document and some of its effects.

Vatican II offered a tremendous invitation to the Church worldwide: to a new collegiality, and with it, a new responsibility. It was perhaps natural, but sad for all that, that local churches, at least the ones in our English-speaking purview, should so quickly have been commandeered by groups with ideological axes to grind. It is commonly acknowledged that people with well-formed agendas moved into the power vacuum created by the turn from Trent.

Revolutions are famous for spawning committees. After the Council, rather than accepting the responsibility that adulthood should bring, some Catholics continued playing rebellious games with the "powers that be" trying to get away with as much as they could, taunting, teasing, authority to step in and do something about it, always with an eye on the all-policing media.

The Spirit of the Sixties

The 1969 document Comme le prévoit ("as foreseen") served for several decades as standard for translating liturgical documents. Its very title — in the vernacular — speaks of the spirit of the Sixties that produced it. In the world that "spirit" had some things to commend it; in the Church it has proven disastrous insofar as that which claimed to be a spirit of liberation (fundamentally a critique) came to serve as the basis for forming a new canon, setting a new standard for developing liturgy and liturgical translation within the Church.

At the heart of what the spirit of the Sixties meant for the Church was an identification of the Church’s best intentions with the agendas of elites in the political/academic worlds. There had to be a cadre who could adequately read the "signs of the times", who could professionally interpret the Zeitgeist for the retrograde religious mind now lost and confused in the "Secular City".

Perhaps the central item taken into the Church from the intellectual world of the Sixties was the self-hatred of a certain type of European intellectual. Ignoring the experience of the Eastern half of Europe at any time, past or present — that is, discounting the ongoing experience of modern totalitarianism — these intellectuals were true children of Rousseau, seeking paradise anywhere but in their own European civilization. And who more fully represented that civilization than Rome and the Roman Church?

Rejecting all that was past, the Red Guards of China or the New Left of Europe and America were determined to smash all that had been in order that heaven might finally be realized on earth. Key to this was the vision of a "noble savage," unfettered by the burden of history, tradition, or the constriction of classical form. The "noble savage" could be found anywhere at all except in traditional culture — and nobility could only be found in the savage. Tradition was seen as basically constrictive and oppressive.

Recovery of the "Roman tradition"

Perhaps the most important thing to be said about Liturgiam authenticam is that it reasserts the dignity of the Roman tradition within the Catholic Church: it insists that the Roman tradition is a tradition worthy of respect, indeed, one that serves as standard for the further development of that religious tradition, even as the Eastern traditions are for the Eastern Churches.

For years, a campaign has been waged against any sort of "Latinization" in the Eastern Churches. Though I suspect that that has at times been overdone in the Christian East, there is much to commend a concern for purity of tradition.

This cultural purism has strangely been ignored in the Latin Church, marginalized along with the so-called "traditionalists." Liturgiam authenticam finally says something the Eastern Catholics have been saying for decades: there is an authentic tradition here, with its own dignity and riches. And this authentic tradition must be central in the ongoing life of the Church.

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in its deliberations and decrees assigned a singular importance to the liturgical rites, the ecclesiastical traditions, and the discipline of Christian life proper to those particular Churches, especially of the East, which are distinguished by their venerable antiquity, manifesting in various ways the tradition received through the Fathers from the Apostles (LA §4).

Indeed, the Roman Rite is a "precious example and instrument of true inculturation" (§5) in its ability to assimilate the genius of various peoples, especially in its orations. Yet some translations "have impeded the progress of the inculturation that actually should have taken place" (§6) –hence the need for the document.

Note the strong sense of the Roman tradition; but also, a sense for that which has been learned ("in the light of the maturing of experience"):

In fact, it seems necessary to consider anew the true notion of liturgical translation in order that the translations of the Sacred Liturgy into the vernacular languages may stand secure as the authentic voice of the Church of God.2 This Instruction therefore envisions and seeks to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal, which is consonant with the qualities and the traditions of the particular Churches, but which safeguards also the faith and the unity of the whole Church of God.(§7).

In Comme le prévoit, the world largely sets the standards for the Church; in Liturgiam authenticam, the Church has its own tradition, it represents its own culture, and can and should have an effect on the world. In Comme le prévoit, Heraclitean panta rhei ("all is change") rules: one has the impression that all is changing, all the time. In Liturgiam authenticam, there is resistance to "frequent change" (§27) — to change for its own sake.

Impressive is the insistence in Liturgiam authenticam that there be adaptability, flexibility in the worship life of the Church, firmly within the context of her tradition.

Ideology versus the sacred

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Sixties saw both a great flowering of technological prowess and a romantic reaction to it. It was the great age of "experts" in all aspects of life. In Comme le prévoit, we see reliance on this very clearly. Though also wanting experts, Liturgiam authenticam calls for "bishops who are expert" (§70) and explicitly calls for "a truly common effort rather than of any single person or of a small group of persons" and again it is "the bishops" who are singled out as primarily responsible (§72).

Comme le prévoit had addressed itself primarily to the experts, while Liturgiam authenticam, though acknowledging the need for experts, addresses itself to the bishops as the primary teachers. It allows that:

The translation of liturgical texts requires not only a rare degree of expertise, but also a spirit of prayer and trust in the divine assistance granted not only to the translators, but to the Church herself, throughout the whole process leading to the definitive approbation of the texts (§75).

In effect, if this document is a blow to technocrats to abstract language, to academic manuals I believe it aims to be a liberation of artists:

To be avoided on this account are expressions characteristic of commercial publicity, political or ideological programs, passing fashions, and those which are subject to regional variations or ambiguities in meaning. Academic style manuals or similar works, since they sometimes give way to such tendencies, are not to be considered standards for liturgical translation. On the other hand, works that are commonly considered "classics" in a given vernacular language may prove useful in providing a suitable standard for its vocabulary and usage (§32).

Modes of speech by which heavenly realities and actions are depicted in human form, or designated by means of limited, concrete terminology –as happens quite frequently in biblical language (i.e., anthropomorphisms)–often maintain their full force only if translated somewhat literally, as in the case of words in the Nova Vulgata Editio such as ambulare, brachium, digitus, manus, or vultus [Dei], as well as caro, cornu, os, semen, and visitare. Thus it is best that such terms not be explained or interpreted by more abstract or general vernacular expressions. As regards certain terms, such as those translated in the Nova Vulgata as anima and spiritus, the principles mentioned in above nn. 40-41 should be observed. Therefore, one should avoid replacing these terms by a personal pronoun or a more abstract term, except when this is strictly necessary in a given case. It should be borne in mind that a literal translation of terms which may initially sound odd in a vernacular language may for this very reason provoke inquisitiveness in the hearer and provide an occasion for catechesis (§43).

Liturgiam authenticam stresses catechesis on the given (classical) form: it insists on respecting form. Paul Ricoeur has written that "the symbol invites thought"3 — invites thought in a way that keeps symbols intact, so that they may continue to be fruitful sources of thought. The technocratic mind, on the other hand, tries to "reduce symbol to concept"4 and it is precisely this reductionism that translations have been effecting for thirty years. Classical form: after the romantic excesses of the Sixties, some return to classical form was needed, and this document represents that return.

If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities. Indeed, it will be seen that the observance of the principles set forth in this Instruction will contribute to the gradual development, in each vernacular, of a sacred style that will come to be recognized as proper to liturgical language. Thus it may happen that a certain manner of speech which has come to be considered somewhat obsolete in daily usage may continue to be maintained in the liturgical context. In translating biblical passages where seemingly inelegant words or expressions are used, a hasty tendency to sanitize this characteristic is likewise to be avoided. These principles, in fact, should free the Liturgy from the necessity of frequent revisions when modes of expression may have passed out of popular usage (§27).

Some other elements are worth noting.

The insistence on consistency in theological vocabulary is meant to resist a spirit of confusion:

In order that the faithful may be able to commit to memory at least the more important texts of the Sacred Scriptures and be formed by them even in their private prayer, it is of the greatest importance that the translation of the Sacred Scriptures intended for liturgical use be characterized by a certain uniformity and stability, such that in every territory there should exist only one approved translation, which will be employed in all parts of the various liturgical books. This stability is especially to be desired in the translation of the Sacred Books of more frequent use, such as the Psalter, which is the fundamental prayer book of the Christian people5 (§36, cf. §41).

There is a welcome encouragement to produce dignified looking books for use by the laity — a turn away from "Missalettes":

The books from which the liturgical texts are recited in the vernacular with or on behalf of the people should be marked by such a dignity that the exterior appearance of the book itself will lead the faithful to a greater reverence for the word of God and for sacred realities.6 Thus it is necessary as soon as possible to move beyond the temporary phase characterized by leaflets or fascicles, wherever these exist. (§120)

Political manipulation — that is, "experiments", which are merely ways of introducing something that will later be un-removable — is combatted by the principle that "it is not permissible to publish, for the use of celebrants or for the general public, any liturgical texts that have been translated or recently composed, as long as the recognitio is lacking" (§80).

The practice of seeking the recognitio from the Apostolic See for all translations of liturgical books7 accords the necessary assurance of the authenticity of the translation and its correspondence with the original texts. This practice both expresses and effects a bond of communion between the successor of blessed Peter and his brothers in the Episcopate. Furthermore, this recognitio is not a mere formality, but is rather an exercise of the power of governance, which is absolutely necessary (§80).

It has been said that the "Rhine Flowed into the Tiber" in the Sixties: that a Western Europe that had shown its spiritual bankruptcy, and was dazed by the Bauhaus in architecture, was left further drained by the War, and yet somehow seemed to dominate the Council. It is argued that scientific triumphalism, which should have been checked by the events of the War, experienced a certain victory in the Church. We can see something of this in Comme le prévoit, where its authors’ unquestioning faith in a certain vision of democracy that is, mere majority rule, the search for the lowest common denominator evidently replaced any regard for quality (and so, to the authors of Comme le prévoit, poetry is unacceptable, or, if poetry there must be, it must be "common poetry" (CLP §15).

The Sixties were the age of the New Left in France, the thirst for a vision in the wasteland, the reaching out to Marxist models. Thus emerged a strange mix of technocracy and romantic rebellion, two spirits that feed on each other, without creating an integrated vision. In the rules for translation of Comme le prévoit, we see technocratic man attempting to conceptualize that which might best be left suggestive — and imaginatively fruitful — to "reduce symbol to concept".

In Comme le prévoit, language is a vehicle for conveying abstract ideas: one has the impression of excessive reverence for "modern concepts" (CLP §33). In Liturgiam authenticam, the word itself is respected: the beauty of language, a language that can be memorized, because it is "truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities" (LA §27; cf. 48, 64). Language is allowed to have symbolic depths and overtones that are lost if human speech is merely a tool to convey concepts.

The existentialist philosopher, Martin Heidegger, saw his German culture as the one alternative to the mass barbarisms of Soviet Bolshevism and American consumerism. Tragically, a paganized Germany succumbed to the Nazi vision and the perversion and destruction of European Christian civilization within its empire. The present Holy Father, a student of literature and drama, and a creative artist himself, is a man of the word, and he has brought to light a dimension to the Church that was ignored at the time Comme le prévoit was written. Perhaps Liturgiam authenticam could only have been written after the collapse of the Marxist alternative, and a growing disenchantment with what Hans Urs von Balthasar called the "anima technica vacua."8 Hence, the call to a return to a more ancient tradition.

Although Liturgiam authenticam affirms the benefits of modern scholarship and technical prowess, it rejects the tyranny of experts, and allows the spirit of art, of poetry, of excellence and quality to re-claim their place. The technocratic bias of the twentieth century is corrected: beauty re-claims her place in religious language. Indeed, language itself can be healed: feminine pronouns are allowed to return along with the masculine, as befits an incarnate religion, a hopeful sign if it means greater fidelity to Scripture and the Mind that created it.

Though respected and indeed essential to the work of translation, academic meritocracy is invited to yield pride of place to the hierarchal principle embodied in the Church’s episcopal leadership.

Like her chief shepherd, with Liturgiam authenticam, the Roman Catholic Church speaks with a new and fearless confidence in the ruins of the modern West, summoning us to the task of weaving the best of contemporary culture into the continuing life of the tradition. The deep resonance that this document seems to accord with the spirit of the Church being reborn among us should be cause for a real if sober optimism.

Benedicamus Domino!



I am especially indebted to Dr. Stephen Beall and the members of the Marquette Communio Discussion Group for many of the insights here.

1 We live in an age that believes in matter and not in spirit, in quantity and not in quality, in feelings but not in form. I am indebted to Huston Smith and through him the school of thought around Rene Guenon for a renewed sense of reverence for tradition.

2 Cf. Pope Paul VI, Address to translators of liturgical texts into vernacular languages, November 10, 1965: AAS 57 (1965) 968.

3 The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, ed. Charles E. Regan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), p. 46.

4 I am indebted to Marquette graduate student Christopher Dorn for this phrase and insight.

5 Cf. Pope Paul VI, Apost. Const. Laudis canticum, November 1, 1970. n. 8: AAS 63 (1971) 532- 533; Officium Divinum, Liturgia Horarum iuxta Ritum romanum, editio typica altera 1985: Institutio Generalis de Liturgia Horarum, n. 100; Pope John Paul II, Apost. Letter Vicesimus quintus annus, n. 8: AAS 81 (1989) 904-905.

6 Cf. Second Vatican Council, Const. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 122; S. Congr. of Rites, Instr. Inter Oecumenici, n. 40 e: AAS 56 (1964) 886.

7 Cf. Second Vatican Council, Const. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 36; S. Congr. of Rites, Instr. Inter Oecumenici, nn. 20-21, 31: AAS (1964) 882,884; Code of Canon Law, can. 838.

8 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Epilog (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1987), p. 8.


Father Raymond Gawronski, SJ, is an assistant professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He is also an aggregate member of Mount Tabor Byzantine Catholic Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. The essay published here began as a panel presentation on Liturgiam authenticam at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars convention in Omaha, September 30.



Father Raymond Gawronski, SJ