Online edition —
Vol. IV, No. 5: September 1998
ICEL Psalter Lacks Savor
Holy See’s 1996 Order to Revoke Imprimatur Revealed in August
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
On August 6, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland, the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a decree withdrawing the US bishops’ imprimatur from the Psalms translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.
Bishop Pilla was acting on instructions conveyed in April 1996 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The imprimatur is an official recognition that a work is suitable for publication.
In his letter to bishops accompanying the decree, Bishop Pilla stressed that "the revocation of the imprimatur should in no way be perceived as a revocation of the judgment of the censors’ opinions concerning the fidelity or accuracy of the text", nor as a reflection on "the judgment of our bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations that recommended the granting of the imprimatur.” [Bishop Pilla’s letter and decree were published in Origins, Sept. 3 , Vol. 28:12, pp. 215.]
Bishop Pilla said the decision to remove the imprimatur was due to "changing circumstances” according to which "the conference’s decision to grant the imprimatur is no longer considered appropriate or opportune.” He did not explain the two-year delay in acting on the Vatican’s instruction.
The ICEL Psalter was published in 1995 by Liturgy Training Publications of the Archdiocese of Chicago, with the imprimatur of Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, president of the NCCB.
The imprimatur was granted after the text was approved by the bishops’ Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations. Members were Bishop Richard Sklba auxiliary of Milwaukee, chairman; Bishop Emil Wcela auxiliary of Rockville Centre; and Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie. (Bishop Trautman was then chairman of the Liturgy Committee.)
The ICEL Psalter is a version of the psalms that employs "inclusive language" and other gender neutralizing devices (called "dynamic equivalence" by its proponents) in deference to the sensibilities of the translators.
The original version of the ICEL Psalter was even more radical in the excision of the language of divine fatherhood. One of its principal translators, Sister Mary Collins, OSB, conceded that some tinkering had to be done to make it acceptable to the bishops, while clearly indicating that it was intended as an incremental step in the direction of a truly feminist psalter.
In the foreward to the published Psalter, editor Gabe Huck, long-time head of Liturgy Training Publications, wrote that in 1993 "when the text was submitted to the United States Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine for the imprimatur [it] was entirely free of gender-exclusive pronouns for God. Before the imprimatur was granted, however, the committee insisted that the translators use male pronouns for God in a very few places."
Third Rejected Biblical Text
The CDF’s revocation of the imprimatur of the ICEL Psalter is the third occasion in recent years in which Rome has intervened to correct biblical translations that had earlier been judged doctrinally adequate by the US bishops’ conference.
In 1994 the Congregation for Divine Worship revoked the authorization for liturgical use of two English-language texts a revised New American Bible translation of the Psalms and a proposed Lectionary based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
An NRSV-based Lectionary had already been published by the Canadian bishops without required Vatican approval. (As a concession to the Canadian bishops, the Vatican has permitted temporary use of the defective lectionary for the Church in Canada only.)
The RNAB Psalter was used for the original version of a proposed Lectionary for use in the United States, necessitating its replacement in the final version which was recently approved for publication. (The first volume of the new US Lectionary is to appear in November.)
Bishop Pilla’s desire to maintain administrative good-will is understandable; but his language reveals the breach that separates the Holy See’s concerns from those of some members of the episcopal bureaucracy.
Although the competence of the CDF is in matters of Church doctrine, Bishop Pilla suggests that its intervention was a judgment of "inappropriateness" — a term that can cover almost any kind of wrong, as recent news of US political leaders strikingly illustrates.
But the delayed and understated response to the CDF’s intervention is not an isolated incident. The Holy See’s interventions on the granting of annulments in US tribunals and on the pastoral letter on homosexuality, "Always Our Children", as well as on the translation of the Catechism and the RNAB and NRSV biblical translations met with similar reactions.
In each case the disagreement with the Vatican was not over particulars of doctrine, but over some bishops’ expressed bafflement about how and why the notion of "doctrine" was pertinent to the project at all. Portraying the CDF’s instruction on the ICEL Psalter as a question of "inappropriateness" suggests that Cardinal Ratzinger’s objections are based on superficial matters of style, rather than on serious doctrinal problems with the text.
It is difficult to avoid suspecting that, for those who oversaw the generation of "inclusive language" liturgical texts, "heresy" is an affliction of wild-eyed fanatics of a type that did not survive the 16th century, and that to judge that a man’s doctrine is defective is as shocking and grotesque as to accuse him of demonic possession. In any case, the evaluation of liturgical texts on the basis of what is appropriate and opportune suggests a lack of clarity about what a doctrinal error might be.
No one who has read Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem or the CDF Statement on the Pastoral Care of Homosexuals or on the German bishops’ admission of divorced Catholics to Communion can remain in doubt as to his remarkable precision and clarity in distinguishing doctrinal error from theological conjecture.
In the case of the rejected RNAB Psalms and NRSV Bible, the corrections were emphatically concrete. Discussions of the Psalter had begun in February 1996. Consequently, if the CDF’s objections to the ICEL Psalter were stated diplomatically in the official communication to Bishop Pilla (the text of the April 1996 letter was not released), this does not indicate vague, subjective misgivings on the part of the Holy See.
Proponents of the ICEL Psalter and of other inclusive language translations have suggested that fear of women’s ordination has made the Vatican overly susceptible to alarmist promptings of "conservative" pressure groups. Adoremus is confident that, when the smoke finally clears, it will be apparent that the Holy See will have read the US bishops’ proposals more carefully than the some of the US bishops themselves.
The entire matter of the ICEL Psalter is a textbook illustration of the problems with national episcopal conferences. This was the subject of the recent papal letter, Apostolos Suos, and one to which Adoremus will return.
Helen Hull Hitckcock is the Editor of Adoremus Bulletin and the founder of Women for Faith and Family. Adoremus Staff contributed to this story.