Sep 15, 2002

Hobgoblins Ambush ICEL, Liturgy

Online Edition – Vol. VIII, No. 6: September 2002

Hobgoblins Ambush ICEL, Liturgy

"Conservative groups" pilloried liturgists, and American prelates used "backroom tactics"to derail liturgical reform, say former ICEL head and "progressive" weeklies

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

After the announcement in early August that two Englishmen would be assuming the offices of chairman and executive secretary of the International Commission on the Liturgy (ICEL), negative reaction to the change of officers was instant and intense.

Bishop Maurice Taylor, Galloway, Scotland, chairman of the ICEL episcopal board since 1997, retired August 6. John R. Page, executive secretary since 1980, resigned August 15. Their successors are, respectively, Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, and Father Bruce Harbert of Birmingham, England.

Neither were mentioned in Bishop Taylor’s statement upon his retirement. But he wrote that John Page "has been unfairly pilloried", along with ICEL’s staff. ICEL’s work has been unjustly "called into question", he said, as have the bishops’ conferences "voting by large majorities" to approve ICEL texts.

Bishop Taylor’s statement did not reveal that the US bishops’ conference, who eventually approved ICEL’s revision of the "Sacramentary" (Roman Missal), had submitted hundreds of amendments that ICEL rejected — or that last November the US bishops returned to ICEL its proposed translation of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani for correction.

Two weekly journals known best for militantly "progressive" views of the Catholic Church — one British and one American — editorialized vigorously on the change of ICEL officers: Britain’s The Tablet in its August 16 edition, and the National Catholic Reporter, of Kansas City, Missouri, in the August 30 issue.

Both well-known weeklies expressed with equal alarm their view that the change of officers of ICEL is a sign that everything that had been accomplished in renewing the Catholic Liturgy during the past 35 years is being destroyed.

While The Tablet scored American "conservative groups", its American counterpart, the NCR, blamed the Holy See: "this papacy has permitted a wholesale reversal of the intent of the Second Vatican Council" and named bishops "who served as point men" for "the overthrow of ICEL".

The response of Bishop Taylor and both journals amply demonstrates that there is a deep cleavage within the Church over fundamental matters — a division that will be profoundly difficult to overcome.

Page "Pilloried"

Bishop Taylor’s press statement, "Truth, Honesty and Justice and the Need for Authenticity", praised John Page for his competence, integrity and patience during thirty years of work for ICEL, 22 of them as executive secretary. Page had announced in May he would retire August 15.

The bishop, who is suffering from cancer, said he felt compelled to speak about "unfair and even unjust" criticism, and said that people have "pilloried" Dr. Page and ICEL:

"Many good people connected with ICEL have suffered during this time of transition. The members of ICEL’s Episcopal Board have in effect been judged to be irresponsible in the liturgical texts that they have approved over the years. The bishops of the English-speaking conferences, voting by large majorities to approve the vernacular liturgical texts prepared by ICEL, have been similarly judged. And the labors of all those faithful and dedicated priests, religious, and laypeople who over the years devoted many hours of their lives to the work of ICEL have been called into question.

"The impression is given, and indeed is seemingly fostered by some, that ICEL is a recalcitrant group of people, uncooperative, even disobedient. This is mistaken and untrue. One is tempted to suspect that, no matter what ICEL does, its work will always be criticized by some because their minds are made up that the mixed commission is incorrigible and unworthy of continued existence.

"Among those immediately affected by these developments, none has borne their brunt more than the retiring Executive Secretary, John R. Page. It is John (and, by implication, the other members of the ICEL staff) who has been pilloried, sometimes by name, often by title, occasionally by inference. This has occurred in correspondence, official and unofficial, in articles published in several countries, in Internet and other media. Throughout this experience, John has acted with courtesy and a commitment to the good of the Church that is nothing less than the best kind of churchmanship, to use an old but apt term. It implies so many things, among them deepest love for the Church and all those whom it seeks to serve….

"I feel that if I were to remain silent in all of this I would be a party to unfair, and even unjust, damage to people’s reputations. And let’s try to be charitable as well as truthful. John Page, Peter Finn, the associate secretary, and the other four members of the ICEL Secretariat staff do not deserve to be pilloried as they have been. Accusations on grounds of lack of professional integrity are false. These people deserve well of us, the bishops and all the Catholics in English-speaking Churches whom they have served so well.

"John Page’s service of the Church over nearly three decades of work in and for ICEL has been exemplary".

Bishop Taylor did not say if he regarded any criticism of ICEL as being justified, nor did he name anyone he considered guilty of "pillorying". He did not comment, either, on ICEL’s revised statutes. He did not mention explicitly the Holy See’s role in restructuring the commission; nor did Bishop Taylor name the bishops that, as he told The Tablet, he "regretted" had failed to support ICEL.

However, he expressed gratitude to his predecessors, Archbishop Denis E. Hurley, OMI, emeritus archbishop of Durban, South Africa, and Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, Cincinnati. "I served on the Board of ICEL with both of these revered bishops of the post-conciliar Church" he said. "Their steady, wise and deeply involved leadership during the many years they directed ICEL’s service to the Conferences has been a constant guide for me throughout the five years of my own chairmanship".

The US bishops’ representative to the episcopal board of ICEL since 1997 is Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Father Bruce Harbert, the new executive secretary, taught at the Liturgical Institute at Chicago’s Mundelein seminary campus this past year.

It is probably safe to say that John Page is virtually unknown among Catholics. Despite the relatively high profile ICEL acquired since deliberations on the massive Missal revision project in the early 1990s, few have ever heard of John Page – including most priests and bishops. This is partly due to ICEL’s standard operating procedures from the beginning. Dr. Page and others who work for ICEL have consistently maintained a very low profile. So why would one man’s retirement after thirty years imply the overthrow of an international body that has provided English translations for the liturgy since 1963?

Among the seven "Considerations pertaining to the revisions of the statutes of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy" sent by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, to Bishop Taylor on October 26, 1999, was the following:

"2) It would seem also that the office of ‘executive secretary’ is in need of a careful reconfiguration, so as to increase in a notable way the due accountability of such a figure and to ensure a clearer demarcation of his role from that of the Bishop Members of the Commission. Perhaps the Commission itself, constituted entirely of Bishops, might elect a Secretary among its officers, making unnecessary the presence of an ‘executive secretary’ at its own meetings".

The letter to Bishop Taylor and the list of "considerations" was made public by the National Catholic Reporter Dec. 24, 1999 (John Allen, "Vatican moves to take control of translation agency").

Cardinal Medina, whom The Tablet described as "the hard-line Chilean cardinal", observed in his letter to Bishop Taylor that "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 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". He also commented on the "gravity of the present situation":

"The Congregation notes that complications in the functioning of the Mixed Commission have now given Your Excellency cause to intervene in an exceptional way. Specifically, it has been reported that one draft translation was substituted at short notice by another, and that after the second had been approved by the Bishops of the Commission, that text was then set aside by Your Excellency in favor of a third text. There are also reports that misunderstandings may persist in the interpretation of the response of this Dicastery given on September 20, 1997, including the supposition that the list of observations included with that response was exhaustive. In fact, as the response stated, that list was merely illustrative, and it was not intended to be subject to discussion or refutation by translation personnel of the Mixed Commission. Furthermore, from the reports which the Congregation has received, it would appear that Your Excellency, in the face of such difficulties, has commendably seized the appropriate moment to raise the issue of a revision of the Statutes of the Mixed Commission".

(Letter of Cardinal Medina Estévez to Bishop Taylor, AB Feb. 2000, p. 4, 5)

It is worth recalling that criticism of ICEL began in about 1968, though it was ignored for decades, until the new set of revised texts began to appear in the early 1990s. The Holy See has been very patient.

Crusading police

The unsigned editorial in The Tablet, August 16, "The Liturgical Battlefield", said that "The outgoing chairman of the commission responsible for translating liturgical texts from Latin into English has spoken out as a duty of conscience against what he describes as a pillorying of the commission’s bishops and staff over many years. Bishop Maurice Taylor … says the impression given by ICEL’s critics is mistaken and untrue and that ICEL staff do not deserve to be pilloried as they have been".

The Tablet quoted Bishop Taylor saying "the attacks were objectionable not because they expressed disagreement over translations, but because they implied disobedience and lack of fidelity to the Church. He said he regretted that fellow bishops had not done more to defend ICEL from false accusations from wherever they came".

"The often vituperative attacks have been led by conservative groups, especially in the United States", the editorial continued, "Father Joseph Fessio’s Ignatius Press, Mother Angelica’s EWTN network, and publications such as The Wanderer and Adoremus, have over the years identified John Page and ICEL as a symbol of everything they loathe — feminism, modernism, and inculturation. Crusaders are urged to police liturgies in search of aberrations, and to notify Vatican personnel who ask bishops to look into the complaints. These groups, some of which are opposed to the vernacular Mass, often have the ear of high-ranking Vatican officials", The Tablet stated.

The Tablet did not cite any instance of these "vituperative attacks" or "false accusations", however.

(For the record, although the Adoremus Bulletin has reported extensively on the protracted difficulties with Scriptural and liturgical translations, it has mentioned Dr. Page’s name no more than a half-dozen times. Our web-search of its pages located three brief direct quotes, without comment, and two routine citations of his name and position with ICEL. Our editorial policy has always been to avoid negative adjectives about people and hyperbole in our critical reports. Also, we are confident that "high-ranking Vatican officials" have perfectly good ears of their own. Obviously Adoremus is not "opposed to the vernacular Mass", hence our concern about the English translations.)

Ambushed by bishop "point-men"

The editorial in the August 30 edition of the National Catholic Reporter accused "some of the most reactionary elements in Catholic church leadership" of the "unconscionable ambush".

"Ambush" said the editorial, "aptly describes what has happened in recent years to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy…. This papacy has permitted a wholesale reversal of the intent of the Second Vatican Council, the work of 30 years of some of the best liturgists and biblical scholars throughout the world and the oversight by bishops of a translation approach that had the written approval of Pope Paul VI" — a reference to a document on translation produced by the Consilium committee in 1969 that was replaced by the Instruction, Liturgiam authenticam, in 2001.

"The ambush happened at the urging of a small but highly dogmatic band of revisionists, largely in the United States, and aided by the likes of Chicago Cardinal Francis George and Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who served as point men on the mission", the NCR continued.

"While one of the most serious crises to rock the Church in modern times went largely unattended, these clerics focused their attention on making sure that no unnecessary feminine pronoun crossed the lips of the faithful".

But as "point men", said NCR, the cardinal and the archbishop may "feel some consolation that, as members of a conference that now lacks credibility in the broader culture, they can still throw some weight around inside the Church. Little by little they used backroom tactics, secret meetings, and the power of the office of Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, to remake the International Commission on English in the Liturgy".

Liturgical hobgoblins

The NCR says it has "documented the overthrow of ICEL from the start"; and that reporter John Allen "has consistently shone light on a story that would otherwise have gone mostly unnoticed".

"What has happened is shameful, because a small cadre has decided — not by dint of persuasion or by choice of most of the English-speaking Catholics, but by ecclesiastical force — to roll back the work of a host of bishops and scholars who labored for more than three decades", the editorialist writes. "What was once the work of experts approved by the overwhelming votes of national conferences of bishops has now been put in the hands of ideologues fearful should our liturgies and prayers, in even the slightest way, appear inclusive. What we will get is the work of liturgical hobgoblins.

"This is an affront to men and women throughout the Church, many of whom will continue to edit texts in the pews so that the language they speak in prayer is inclusive", the writer added, apparently encouraging the disobedience of individuals who "correct" words they don’t like in Lectionaries and Missals on their own.

"The shame of the matter is compounded by the fact that the revisionists’ tactics have demeaned and maligned the work and reputations of so many" says the editorial, and quotes Bishop Maurice Taylor, who "did little to hide his indignation" in his statement to the press after the appointments of Bishop Roche and Father Harbert were announced. It quoted the bishop bemoaning that "the labors of all those faithful and dedicated priests, religious and laypeople who over the years devoted many hours of their lives to the work of ICEL, have been called into question".

"God in all her glory…"

The NCR editorialist caps off with a final denunciation:

"The overthrow of ICEL is, in many ways, but another manifestation of the hubris that infects so much of the leadership of the church today. Those who proudly wear the labels of self-proclaimed orthodoxy and tradition often betray the best of both in their actions. They hold themselves above accountability. They set themselves up as bulwarks against dreaded secular influence and the evils of modernity when they actually fear the intelligence of the faithful and they fear losing control.

"And God, in all her glory, surely is not pleased".

It seems remarkable that the NCR claims to know the mind of God — an arrogance of which the "self-proclaimed orthodox" are most often accused.

Neither The Tablet nor the NCR, in discussing what they regard as the demise of the liturgical reform, mentioned the influence of prominent homosexual liturgists — such as Michael Spillane, long-time executive director of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, canonist John Huels, or Kenneth Martin, former associate director of the secretariat of the US Bishops Committee on the Liturgy. These men did not deny their actions, yet they continued to occupy key positions even after their pederasty was known to authorities (see this issue, p 1, and AB June 2002, p 1).

The editorials in these well-known and widely read "progressive" weeklies are important, because they portray rather vividly what is really at stake in the "language wars".

It is not, in the end, a dispute over either style or linguistic theories — nor even a clash of cultural perspectives. It is, foremost, a conflict over the core meaning of the Catholic faith, and the essential evangelical mission of the Church: the transmission of this faith to the whole world — clearly, accurately and compellingly. That translation is key to fulfilling this mission is also crystal clear. The language of the Church must not be disfigured by the ideology of any group or any culture or any age. Pope John Paul II stressed this in his call to evaluate the liturgical developments since the Council in Vicesimus Quintus Annos, on the 25th anniversary of the Council’s constitution on the liturgy.

Comments of the Holy Father in a message to Australian bishops on December 14, 1988, make this point well:

"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".


Helen Hull Hitchcock is editor of the Adoremus Bulletin and of The Politics of Prayer, a collection of essays on translation issues published in 1992 by 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.