Online Edition – Vol. II, No. 1: March 1996
Confusion about Scripture Translations for Liturgical Use:
A Status Report
Trendy Texts Cause Confusion — Can Consultations Resolve Controversy?
By Helen Hull Hitchcock
Several new revisions of Scripture texts have appeared recently. In the context of controversy over translations of liturgical texts, people are understandably confused. Many readers have expressed concern about whether the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is permitted for liturgical use. Even after Vatican confirmation of this translation of the Bible was rescinded last year, some people say the NRSV is being used at Mass in their parishes or dioceses.
The confusion over the NRSV is compounded because of a situation in the Canadian Church. After the letter from Archbishop Geraldo Agnelo, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, was received by the presidents of English-speaking bishops’ conferences last year, the Canadian bishops asked for and received permission from the Holy See for interim use of liturgical books incorporating the NRSV texts they had already printed without proper authorization.
The permission to continue to use these unauthorized books was granted to the Canadian Church only, with the understanding that the Canadian bishops would correct the books as soon as possible — after the Holy See completes its examination of Scripture translations proposed for liturgical use and authorizes texts for the English-speaking churches.
Catholics in the United States are further confused because some liturgical workbooks printed in the U.S. have included the unauthorized NRSV lectionary readings printed alongside the authorized readings from the New American Bible. The NAB translation was produced for the U.S. Bishops by its official agency, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, for use in churches in the United States. This is the version that appears in lectionaries and missalettes.
Two other translations are approved for liturgical use in America: the Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition. Lectionaries based on the Jerusalem Bible and RSV-Catholic Edition have been approved for use in most English-speaking countries.
Adding to the confusion, a monthly publication printed in Toronto, Living with Christ, which prints all the Scripture readings for Sunday and daily Masses as well as the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) using the unauthorized NRSV translation. This book is being actively promoted in the United States.
Problems with NRSV
The NRSV translation of the Bible is problematic because of its insistent use of so-called “inclusive” language. The NRSV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) produced by a Committee of translators under the mandate of the Division of Education and Ministry of the National Council of Churches.
The translators’ introduction to the NRSV reveals that “linguistic sexism” was a primary motivation for undertaking this revision:
“During the last half a century since the publication of the RSV, many in the churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text. The mandates from the Division specified that, in references to men and women, masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture.” (Introd. p xiii, xiv)
Although the NRSV translators deem theirs a “moderate” use of “horizontal inclusive language”, other scholars have criticized the translation. Among the defects noted in the NRSV is the obscuring of the traditional Christological reading of the Psalms and other Old Testament passages by substituting other words for “man,” “Son of man”, etc.
Approval withdrawn by the Holy See
In 1992, the American bishops approved the NRSV translation at the request of the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy. It was then submitted to the Holy See for confirmation as required by canon law, which was then given by the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW). In the light of the current controversy it is important to note that:
1) The CDW’s initial approval of the NRSV was given by a letter to the national conferences, not by official decree;
2) The Holy See did not approve the NRSV as a lectionary for Mass (no lectionary had been submitted for confirmation);
3) The Canadian bishops said they did not believe further approval by the Holy See of a lectionary for Mass based on the NRSV was required. (Earlier, in connection with changing Dei Verbum from “This is the Word of the Lord”, to “The Word of the Lord”, the CDW had said its formal approval was not required for such minor changes in translation.)
When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) became aware of the problems with the NRSV, which involved doctrinal and theological issues, not merely matters of style, approval of the text had to be withdrawn. Like the initial approval, rescinding of the approval was also given by letter (dated July 27, 1994) to the presidents of the national conferences.
This letter from Archbishop Geraldo Agnelo, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, was not made public until October 25, 1994. Cardinal-designate William Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a formal statement noting this action on November 1. This statement was published by the Catholic News Service (the bishops’ official news service) on that date, and was subsequently published in Origins, the bishops’ official documentary publication (November 10, 1994, Vol 24: No 22, p 376).
At the same time, and in the same July letter, the Holy See also denied approval for liturgical use of the Revised New American Bible (RNAB) Psalter. Both the RNAB Psalter and New Testament had been given an imprimatur by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, and approved by the American bishops in 1991.
A new lectionary incorporating this revised translation had been produced and submitted to the Holy See, but had never received the required confirmation. This proposed American lectionary is, therefore, not approved.
Liturgists oppose Holy See
The reason for the NCCB’s delay in releasing the July letter rescinding permission for these scripture translations has never been adequately explained. However, the conflict over the translation of the Catechism and the current revisions of the Sacramentary (Roman Missal prayers used for Mass) proposed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL] has made it clear that some bishops are strong advocates of inclusivizing all liturgical texts.
Also, the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, a quasi-official arm of the bishops’ liturgy committee, had issued a “Resolution of Immediate Concern” at their national meeting in October 1994 only days before the Vatican letter was made public. The federation’s resolution (RIC #2), expressed concern over the delay in approval from Rome for the Lectionary based on the Revised NAB and stated: “we oppose any revocation of the confirmation of the New Revised Standard Version” and “are seriously concerned about the dangerous precedent that such a revocation would set.”
The purpose of this revision of the New American Bible had been the same as the NRSV. While the introduction to the RNAB New Testament acknowledges the continuing controversy surrounding “discrimination in language,” and that “participants in the debate hold mutually contradictory views”, the new translation reveals the same doctrinal and theological problems resulting from an attempt to “gender-neutralize” the language.
Rome Consultation and “Secret Norms”
Because of the increasing controversy over both the NRSV and the RNAB, and growing concern over feminist influence on translation principles affecting all liturgical texts, a consultation was held in Rome in January 1995.
Participants included representatives of the NCCB and theologians and scripture scholars chosen by the Holy See. This consultation eventually resulted in the so-called “secret norms” for translation issued last August by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This document, which has not been made public,* [*as of the date of this article–ed.] provides interim guidelines for translation of scripture texts used in the liturgy.
These “secret norms” have been the subject of much speculation; but should probably be considered an emergency measure to provide guidance for bishops in dealing with revised texts now being produced in many language groups (including English), rather than as a final replacement for the earlier translation principles, such as the controversial statement, Comme le prevoit, published in 1969.
This statement, prepared by a committee (Consilium) formed after Vatican II to implement the constitution on the liturgy, had advocated a “dynamic equivalency” (or “free translation”) approach to liturgical texts. This is the theory espoused by ICEL in its proposed revisions of the Roman Missal. The theory has received sharp criticism in recent years.
Bishops on translation, forum
A further reason for the Holy See’s decision to issue provisional translation norms may have been the proposal by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy to adopt Interim Guidelines for Adapting Unrevised Liturgical Texts for the Sake of Gender-Inclusive Language Referring to Human Persons, introduced at the June 1993 NCCB meeting in New Orleans.
These proposed Guidelines, had they been adopted, would have given to “priest celebrants and other presiding ministers” authority to improvise changes in order to “inclusivize” liturgical texts (except the canon of the Mass and the Lectionary) without the necessity of approval of either the NCCB or the Holy See. In fact, this BCL proposal actually invoked the CDW’s earlier comment on Dei Verbum regarding “minor changes” to justify improvising changes to official texts without requesting confirmation.
The bishops, however, did not approve the proposed “Guidelines” in 1993. Instead, at their June 1994 meeting in San Diego, they appointed a committee to plan a forum for consideration of the language issues affecting the principles of translation and the composition of new liturgical texts.
This forum on vernacularization, still in the planning stages, would presumably include bishops, scripture scholars, translators, theologians or others conversant with the current controversy. It will almost certainly re-examine the NCCB’s 1990 Criteria for Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scripture Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use, which included “Principles for Preparing Pericopes” [selections] from the New American Bible for use in the Lectionary for Mass.
(The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, at their October 1994 meeting, issued a resolution (RIC #1) complaining that the forum on vernacularization “has subsequently been used by some as a tactic to delay the process of approval of the segments of the Sacramentary.”)
Other problem texts: revised Grail and ICEL Psalters
Also in November 1993, when a revised book of Psalms known as the Grail Psalter was presented for the bishops’ approval at the NCCB meeting, it failed to receive the necessary majority of votes. A principal concern was the matter of the Psalms references to Christ which are eliminated by “horizontal” inclusivization. (For example, Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly” is traditionally understood to refer to Christ as well as to all people; but this reading is impossible if it is translated, “Happy are those…”)
There is yet another translation of the Bible which is being strenuously promoted for liturgical use, the ICEL Psalter. This version of the Psalms produced by a committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) was published in July 1995 by Liturgy Training Publications of the Archdiocese of Chicago in two editions, The Psalter (all 150 Psalms) and Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer.
Both these ICEL texts were expressly intended for liturgical use, and some religious communities have already begun to use them. The ICEL Psalter is the most extreme in its commitment to feminist demands regarding language of any translation considered here. Although this text was granted an imprimatur by Cardinal Keeler in January 1995, it has never been submitted to the full body of bishops for their consideration or vote; therefore, of course, it has never been submitted to the Holy See for approval.
A note on the title page of the ICEL Psalter acknowledges that “This translation is offered for study and for comment by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.” The ICEL Psalter is not approved for liturgical use in any manner whatsoever.
Where we stand now:
Neither the NRSV nor the RNAB are permitted for liturgical use in the churches of the United States.
The liturgical use of the NRSV is permitted only in Canada where books had been prematurely published.
The ICEL Psalter may not be used in the liturgy.
At present, with the sole exception of the RSV Catholic Edition re-published in 1994 as the Ignatius Bible, there are no complete Catholic bibles currently in print that have not already been “gender neutered. Obviously, then, no new lectionaries can be produced using any other translation until this anomalous situation can be resolved.
Evidently, most American bishops seem to want to introduce “gender-neutral” language if this does not compromise doctrine and obscure meaning of Scripture and liturgical texts. However, experience shows that this objective cannot be achieved. Even changes on the so-called “horizontal” level create substantial problems affecting doctrine and meaning.
“Man”, when used in its generic or inclusive sense, with its multiple layers of meaning, cannot be eliminated without destroying some of those layers — as was seen, for example, in the controversy over “and became man” in the Creed.
Moreover, use of “inclusive language” actually excludes all those who believe that “inclusivism” does not proceed from a natural change in the language, but rather is an innovation rooted in the ideology of feminism.
NCCB Statement on the Status of the NRSV and RNAB Texts
In the interest of clarification of the status of the NRSV and RNAB texts, Cardinal Keeler’s statement of November 1, 1994, is re-printed here exactly as it appeared in Origins.
“Last week in Rome, Archbishop Geraldo Agnelo, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, confirmed that a letter addressed to me on July 27, 1994, constituted the congregation’s communication to us of the withdrawal of the permission to use the New Revised Standard Version for liturgical purposes.
“An official of the congregation had informed Msgr. Robert N. Lynch, NCCB/USCC general secretary, at a private meeting on Oct. 5, 1994, that the July letter was the official response on the matter. Subsequent press coverage, however, seemed to indicate to the conference’s staff in Washington that perhaps a new letter had been prepared and mailed.
“Because the July 27 letter did not bear the characteristics of a formal decree, my presumption was that it was a continuation of correspondence that had begun earlier last summer. Also, at the time of this correspondence, the preparation of the Revised New American Bible (NAB) Lectionary was the more immediate concern for us in the United States. Following receipt of correspondence from the Congregation for Divine Worship, those working with the Revised NAB Lectionary in this country began preparing a response to the observations received from the Holy See. These were completed recently but have not been forwarded to the congregation.
“Last week in Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, kindly met with me and, following the review of the situation, agreed that it would be very helpful if members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission residing in Rome could meet with some of our bishops and scholars who are working on the Revised NAB Lectionary to discuss and clarify principles for translation. It is in the context of the review of the Revised NAB Lectionary that the confirmation of the permission for liturgical use of the NAB Psalter has been withdrawn, as was also indicated in the July 27 letter. Because of the foreseeable modifications in the Psalter, permission was withdrawn so that two versions of the same psalter not be in use.
“The use of either the NRSV or the revised NAB for reading or Bible study is not at issue. Both translations are properly approved for these purposes.
“What is at issue is liturgical use, the public proclamation of the Word of God in the living tradition of the Catholic Church. One of the points which I believe the scholars would want to discuss is the application of the apostolic constitution Scripturarum Thesaurus of April 25, 1969, and the decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship and for the Discipline of the Sacraments issued on Jan. 21, 1981, as guides, especially for liturgical translations.
“The continued collaboration between the congregations of the Holy See and the committees of our conference should help us soon to have a Lectionary which will be both faithful to the tradition of the Church and serve the urgent needs of our people for a lectionary in the English currently used in our country.”
Chronology of Bible Translations
1966: Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition completed and published.
1970: New American Bible completed and published.
1975: ICEL is “committed to inclusive language”, only two years after completion of ICEL liturgical texts.
1986: Revised New Testament of the New American Bible completed and approved by bishops; published 1987.
1989: New Revised Standard Version is completed; published 1990.
1990: November: American bishops approve “Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use.”
1991: Revised NAB Psalter is completed and approved by bishops; published 1992. NRSV-Catholic Edition is completed and approved by bishops in both the U.S. and Canada; published 1992.
November: American bishops approve NRSV and RNAB Psalter for liturgical use and submit it to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship.
1992: April: Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship sends letter to American bishops approving the text of NRSV (No lectionary was submitted) and RNAB Psalter.
June, November: The American bishops approve a lectionary incorporating the RNAB New Testament and Psalms and submit to Vatican for approval.
1993; June: “Interim Guidelines” for ad lib. “inclusivizing” some texts used in the liturgy proposed for June NCCB meeting by Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy. They are not approved.
November: Revised Grail Psalter incorporating feminist language is rejected by the bishops at the NCCB meeting.
1994: June: English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church appears, after delay of nearly two years because of “inclusive” problems. Vatican translation uses RSV for Scripture passages (also a few NRSV citations unaffected by inclusivism).
June: Bishops appoint a committee to plan a forum on translations at NCCB meeting.
June: Ignatius Bible (RSV-Catholic edition) re-published.
July 27: Congregation for Divine Worship rescinds approval of both NRSV and RNAB by letter to bishops” conferences.
October 11: FDLC resolution at national meeting urges acceptance of NRSV, says rejection by Vatican would set “dangerous precedent”.
October 25: Vatican’s withdrawal of approval from NRSV is revealed by Catholic News Service; U.S. and Canadian conference officials at first deny receiving notice from the Vatican.
November 1: Cardinal-designate Keeler, president of NCCB, issues statement on Vatican decision.
1995: January: Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith holds consultation on translations of Scripture and liturgical texts.
July: ICEL’s Psalter and Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer published by Archdiocese of Chicago, Liturgical Training Publications, with Cardinal Keeler’s approval. Never voted on by NCCB; not approved for liturgical use.
August: Vatican (CDF) issues “secret norms” for translation.
September 5: Bishop Trautman of the BCL calls The New Testament and Psalms – An Inclusive Version, published by Oxford University Press and based on the NRSV; an “irresponsible translation that offends the doctrine of the Church and revealed truth”.
November: Report at NCCB meeting on progress with planning bishops’ translation “forum”.