Online Edition – Vol. IX, No. 5: July-August 2003

ICEL Statutes: Review and Update

by Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy

A set of revised statutes to govern the International Commission on English in Liturgy (ICEL), the "mixed commission" that translates official liturgical books into English, was approved by the bishops at their June meeting.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, US representative to ICEL, presented the latest revision of the statutes, and asked for his fellow bishops’ authorization to vote in favor of the statutes at the ICEL board meeting this summer. If the ICEL board approves them, they will be submitted to the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) for approval (recognitio).

The revision of ICEL’s governing statutes has been underway for several years, especially since October 26, 1999, when Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, then prefect of the CDW, sent a letter to the president of ICEL’s Episcopal Board setting out conditions that the statutes should meet.

The US bishops discussed a draft of revised ICEL Statutes at its June 2000 meeting in Milwaukee. At that time the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) asked that the draft Statutes be further revised to comply with Cardinal Medina’s recommendations in the October 1999 letter.

Yet further revisions were required when the Fifth Instruction on the Implementation of the Liturgical Reform, Liturgiam authenticam (authentic liturgy) was released in March 2001. The subject of the Instruction was translation of liturgical texts.

Last October, Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect for the CDW, wrote to the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory, noting several deficiencies in the draft of the statutes then under consideration.

Latest draft fixes most problems

The revised ICEL statutes presented at the June 2003 meeting of the US bishops appear to remedy most deficiencies that Cardinal Arinze noted.

Cardinal George said he expected that most of the ICEL board members would give the new version a positive vote, although he noted that the New Zealand representative to ICEL argues that Liturgiam authenticam is not binding.

The New Zealand representative to ICEL, Bishop Peter J. Cullinane, of Palmerston, had criticized the CDW in a letter to Adoremus Bulletin in December 2001, in which he stated, in part, "Attempts by the CDWDS to control an agency that has been established by the Conferences, and to set up committees that could effectively sideline the Conferences in the work of preparing translations, seriously conflict with Church law, and the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam does not change that law". (Bishop Cullinane’s letter, with our response, was published in AB February 2002, p 10.)

The Bishops’ Discussion

In the discussion that followed Cardinal George’s presentation on the revised ICEL Statutes, Bishop Donald Trautman (Erie) objected to the requirement that the CDW grant a nihil obstat to translators. He contended that this process was followed in revising the translation of the Lectionary, which he finds unsatisfactory.

And, of course, I find the present Lectionary seriously flawed and not proclaimable. So my concern is if we’re going to follow that same procedure, where the Congregation gives a nihil obstat for translators, what makes us think future translations are going to be any better than what we have already?

Cardinal George pointed out that the revision of the Lectionary for the US was not an ICEL project. (The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, not the CDW, had required revision of the US Lectionary. Five American bishops were involved in the revision, along with Vatican experts. Bishop Trautman was chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy at that time.)

New Procedure Includes Bishops’ Review/Amendment of Translations

The new ICEL Statutes provide for the bishops to review the proposed translations twice.

In the first review, each bishop could offer amendments, which would go to an ICEL "editorial committee" for incorporation into the text. The resulting modified text would then be sent back to the member-conferences for the required two-thirds approval vote.

Bishop Peter Rosazza (Hartford) objected that this process was time-consuming and cumbersome. He suggested that the initial review be entrusted to a committee within the Conference, made up of those with competence in the translation of biblical languages. (There is a sub-committee for the Review of Scripture Translations, now chaired by Bishop Arthur Serratelli, auxiliary of Newark.)

Cardinal George responded: "A conference could, I suppose, delegate its responsibility for approving the texts that come to it to a smaller group within the conference. I don’t think the Holy See would appreciate that".

In fact, Liturgiam authenticam emphasizes each bishop’s personal responsibility to review liturgical translations:

70. …As regards the examination and approbation of the texts, each individual Bishop must regard this duty as a direct, solemn and personal fiduciary responsibility.

72. The Bishops, in fulfilling their mission of preparing translations of liturgical texts, are carefully to ensure that the translations be the fruit of a truly common effort rather than of any single person or of a small group of persons.

After the discussion, a strong voice vote authorized Cardinal George to approve sending the ICEL statutes to the Holy See for recognitio when the ICEL board meets this summer. (There were no audible "no" votes.)

Protracted Process Ending?

It would be very welcome news if the reform of ICEL were coming to completion at last — a project Pope John Paul II called for nearly a quarter-century ago, in his 1988 apostolic letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus, on the 25th anniversary of the Constitution on the Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium:

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.

But evaluation of the "mixed commission" formed to translate the liturgical books into English did not take place. For more than a decade, ICEL continued its work with no change in its methods or procedures.

Two revisions of liturgical texts released by ICEL in the 1990s were highly controversial: the "Sacramentary" and the Rite of Ordination. Also an ICEL version of the Psalter and Canticles, published in 1994 and intended for use in the Divine Office, drew immediate criticism.

The ICEL translation of the revised Rite of Ordination, which had approved only by the Administrative Committee of the Conference, was rejected by the Holy See in 1997 with a letter noting a long list of deficiencies, including rearranging the Rite.

After this, requests from the Holy See for review of ICEL and its procedures became more insistent.

ICEL’s revision of the "Sacramentary" (Missal texts) was the subject of years of debate in the US Bishops’ Conference, and many texts were returned to ICEL for review. During their years of debate on the proposed ICEL revisions, the bishops became aware that they actually had virtually no control over the work of ICEL.

The "Sacramentary" was eventually submitted to the Holy See for approval, although the release a few months later of the new edition of the Missale Romanum (summer 2000) seemed to make the ICEL "Sacramentary" moot.

Nevertheless, in March 2002, the revised "Sacramentary" was explicitly rejected by the Holy See, in a letter from Cardinal Medina Estévez that included an extensive list of "Observations on the Translation of the Roman Missal" (see AB June 2002, p. 1, 5).

ICEL to "revise thoroughly and without delay"

A forceful statement on the need to review the statutes governing ICEL was contained in the October 1999 letter of Cardinal Medina Estévez to Bishop Maurice Taylor (Galloway, Scotland), then chairman of the ICEL Episcopal Board.

In this letter Cardinal Medina stated that the ICEL Statutes were to be "revised thoroughly and without delay". The letter specified several "considerations" that were to be incorporated into the new statutes.

The following year, a new set of statutes was submitted to the eleven bishops’ conferences that make up ICEL. (The US bishops discussed them at their June 2000 meeting, and the BCL asked that they be further revised.)

The landmark instruction Liturgiam authenticam (March 2001) contained very detailed rules for the structuring and procedures of the "mixed commissions" (such as ICEL) that would produce vernacular liturgical translations.

But there were further delays, and considerable resistance in some quarters to any "thoroughgoing reform" of ICEL.

Deficiencies Persist…

In a letter to conference presidents dated October 23, 2002, Cardinal Arinze, who had become prefect of the CDW October 2, noted several deficiencies in the draft ICEL Statutes then under consideration. (The full text of this letter appeared in AB Dec-Jan 2003, p. 7.)

Cardinal Arinze’s letter observed that the draft did not fulfill the requirements of Liturgiam authenticam; indeed, it omitted any reference to this key document on translation. The draft also omitted the role of the CDW, did not include a term limit for the director of the ICEL staff, and did not provide for the nihil obstat (approval) required from the CDW for translators and other key ICEL personnel.

He noted further that the draft did not limit the role of ICEL to translation of the official liturgical books, and he objected to a proposed "Consultant’s Committee" that would continue to operate independently.

The cardinal also suggested that ICEL expand its membership beyond the original eleven member-countries, so that Conferences in countries where English is widely used could become full voting members of ICEL.

The newly revised ICEL Statutes that the US bishops reviewed at their June 2003 meeting reflect Cardinal Arinze’s criticism.

The Purpose of ICEL Defined

In accord with requests from the CDW, the provisions of Liturgiam authenticam to govern the "mixed commissions" that translate liturgical texts are cited several times in the preamble of the new statutes. For the first time in its history the limited purpose of ICEL is explicitly stated:

3. The purpose of the Commission is to prepare English translations of the editiones typicae of the Roman liturgical books and any individual texts of the Roman Rite (cf. Liturgiam authenticam, no. 98). The translations are to be faithful and exact with respect to the original texts but also authentic examples of the vernacular language, suitable for proclamation. They are to stand secure as the authentic voice of the Church of God, expressed in the English tongue (cf. Liturgiam authenticam, no. 7).

Significantly, ICEL will no longer produce original texts for prayers, nor make structural changes in the rites, nor undertake Scripture translations (such as the defective "ICEL Psalter" published in 1994, subsequently suppressed by the Holy See and withdrawn from publication) or other independent projects.

Translation Procedures Revised

The Statutes outline the procedure to be followed when a liturgical book is to be translated.

ICEL will appoint a translating team, all members of which must have the Holy See’s approval (nihil obstat: see below).

When a draft translation is complete, a revision team is appointed, which must include at least one bishop. If the revised draft is approved by the ICEL Board it is sent to the member Conferences where the individual bishops review the text, may register their approval, disapproval or offer amendments.

Next, an editorial team is appointed to review the bishops’ amendments and try to incorporate them into the text. Like the revisions team, the editorial team must have at least one bishop member. There is no mention of a nihil obstat for any member of these two teams.

Again, the full ICEL Board must approve the amended text, and this approved text is sent to the Conferences for their official vote. If the Conferences approve, the text is sent on to the Holy See for recognitio.

This procedure clearly increases the involvement of bishops in translation of liturgical texts, but seems somewhat different from Liturgiam authenticam §96, which said:

For example, the work undertaken is coordinated in such a way that a first draft of the translation is prepared by the liturgical commission of one Conference and then improved by the other Conferences, even in light of the diversity of expression prevailing in the same language in the individual territories.

The Nihil obstat for ICEL’s "principal collaborators"; Oath of Fidelity Required

One provision common to the letters of both Cardinals Medina and Arinze, and of Liturgiam authenticam, is the requirement that the "principal collaborators" on liturgical translation projects must obtain an approval known as a nihil obstat ("nothing stands in the way") from the Congregation for Divine Worship.

This closer oversight by the Holy See of who will translate and make important decisions about ICEL projects brought objections from many liturgists — and from a few bishops.

This nihil obstat will now be required for the Executive Director of the ICEL Secretariat (currently Father Bruce Halbert), for all staff who act in a supervisory capacity, and for all non-bishop members of the teams appointed to draft the translation of any liturgical book. The nihil obstat must be obtained before the person begins work. ICEL personnel will be appointed for a maximum (renewable) term of five years.

Furthermore, long-term employees and consultors must assent to Church teachings and make the Profession of Faith and the Oath of Fidelity.

Membership in ICEL to Be Bishops

A major change in the structure of ICEL is that all members of ICEL shall be bishops (Statutes §9).

This accords with Liturgiam authenticam‘s requirement (§94):

The Members of the Commission are always Bishops, or at least those equivalent in law to Bishops. It pertains to the Bishops, furthermore, to direct the Commission as its Members.

The eleven bishop representatives of the ICEL Conferences constitute the ICEL Board, and supervise all of its activities. There are no other standing bodies; all translating teams are appointed as needed for specific projects.

Liturgiam authenticam §95 further recommends that the bishop members of the "mixed commission" be those "who are responsible for dealing with liturgical matters in their respective Conferences, as, for example, the chairman of the liturgical commission of the Conference". (Cardinal George, the US bishops’ representative to ICEL, is now the chairman of the Committee on Liturgy.)

This new structure, with increased involvement of the Holy See and of bishops, is dramatically different from the self-perpetuating autonomy that has characterized ICEL until now.

Originally, ICEL had an Advisory Committee, none of whose members were bishops. This committee appointed its own members, chose the translators, and often decided on its own to supply original texts or rearrange rites (as was done in the revised "Sacramentary" and the Rite of Ordination).

The earlier draft of revised Statutes had included a provision for a "Consultants’ Committee", almost identical to the old Advisory Committee. The difference was that bishops would serve on this committee and would have some say in the appointment of its members.

Cardinal Arinze’s October 23, 2002, letter, however, specifically objected the proposed "Consultants’ Committee":

The provision of a "Consultants’ Committee" poses the additional difficulty of a non-episcopal body effectively exercising deliberative power regarding the texts without itself being subject to any Conference of Bishops. Such an arrangement seems to have been at the root of certain difficulties experienced in the past.

The current version of the ICEL Statutes eliminates the "Consultants’ Committee" altogether, and entrusts supervision of the operations of ICEL to its Executive Committee: four bishops elected from among the eleven bishops who form the ICEL Board.

This Executive Committee is to oversee the Secretariat, appoint translators and ad hoc translation teams, and select and approve any experts who work on translations.

The new Statutes also allow for an expansion in the membership of ICEL beyond the present eleven Conferences that have full voting membership. Several other countries are currently associate members. This item responds to Cardinal Arinze’s letter, also, although the specific criteria and procedures to admit new members are yet to be determined.

Cardinal Arinze had also suggested that some method should be devised to make ICEL membership more in proportion to the number of English-speaking Catholics in their countries. (Almost 80% of English-speaking Catholics in ICEL-member countries live in the United States.) Proportional representation has not been provided for in the Statutes.

Changes in ICEL’s Finances

ICEL’s financial arrangements will also change as a result of the new Statutes. Its assets and revenue will now be jointly owned by the member Conferences, and distributed to them in amounts proportional to the number of Catholics who worship in English in each country.

Previously, ICEL revenue (royalties from copyrights) was earmarked for ICEL projects, though revenue could be distributed to the Conferences if it was not considered necessary for a planned project, but ICEL’s view of its role was so expansive that this rarely happened. In fact, for many years the Conferences heavily subsidized ICEL — principally the US Conference.

In the new arrangement, the Conferences may still have to subsidize ICEL’s translation projects, but they would also have more control over them than in the past. Furthermore, ICEL will undertake fewer projects, since it must confine itself to translating liturgical texts only, and may not produce original texts or other works of its own.

What’s Next?

Some provisions of these statutes, especially the nihil obstat, continue to be opposed by many liturgists and former ICEL personnel, including some bishops. A few have objected to the increased involvement of bishops who are not themselves experts in translation.

Assuming the ICEL Board approves the revised Statutes in the present version, they will soon be submitted to the Holy See, where they might be further amended before they enter into effect.

"Thoroughgoing reform" Advances a "new era of liturgical renewal"
Almost forty years after the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, the Church now has an official set of translation principles in Liturgiam authenticam.

There is a new committee, Vox Clara, composed of English-speaking bishops, to assist the CDW in reviewing English translations of liturgical books. This group is now working on a ratio translationis (translation method) to apply the general principles of Liturgiam authenticam to specific translation problems from Latin into English.

It appears that there will soon be new Statutes to govern the work of ICEL.

We may indeed be at the beginning of what Liturgiam authenticam called 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".

So we hope. So we pray.



Helen Hull Hitchcock Susan F. Benofy