Online Edition – Vol. II, No.7: November 1996
"Or Words to that Effect"
ICEL’s Principle of "Dynamic Equivalence" Changes More Than Words
by Father Jerry Pokorsky
In the play, "A Man for all Seasons", there is a courtroom scene where Thomas Cromwell at last secures the needed testimony to condemn Thomas More. Richard Rich, newly appointed Attorney-General for Wales, perjures himself by testifying that Thomas More expressed disloyalty to the King. Rich gives this distorted account of his questioning More: "’Parliament has made our King the Head of the Church. Why will you not accept him?’ Then he said Parliament had no power to do it". The judge (Norfolk) demands, "Repeat the prisoner’s words". Rich nervously replies: "He said ‘Parliament has not the competence to do it.’ Or words to that effect".
In recent years, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has translated the official texts of the Mass with words that more or less express the meaning in Latin. Officially, ICEL employs the theory of "dynamic equivalence" to translate liturgical texts from the typical edition of the Latin into English. But many bishops are concerned that ICEL’s translations too often express moreand often lessthan the full meaning of the Latin texts. When bishops have expressed their concerns in writing, the Bishops’ Liturgy Committee has responded time and again that ICEL’s dynamically equivalent rendering "adequately translates the Latin."
But as one philosophy professor put it, the term "dynamic equivalence" is a good example of jargon designed to disguise an ideological agenda. For example, in order to accommodate the current ideological demand for so- called "inclusive language", translators often drop or recast whole Latin phrases to avoid the generic use of ”man" or "he". The result is said to be the dynamic equivalent of the original text.
At the semi-annual meetings of bishops when the revised texts are presented for vote, the Liturgy Committee often suggests that the critics of the new translations demand "slavishly literal" renditions, in contrast to ICEL’s more enlightened dynamically equivalent translations.
The theory of dynamic equivalence is now being employed not only for translation per se, but also to present theological concepts and even historical events not as they actually are, but in "words to that effect".
A striking instance of this occurred at a symposium held at Notre Dame in October of 1994, as revealed in the symposium proceedings (Romano Guardini: Proclaiming the Sacred in a Modern World, ed. Robert A. Kreig, CSC, Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1995).
The subject of this symposium, Monsignor Romano Guardini, was an influential theologian, liturgist, and professor of philosophy at the universities of Berlin and Munich during the forties and fifties, a leader of the liturgical renewal movement before the Second Vatican Council, and a prolific writer. His dozens of books (including The Faith and Modern Man) influenced an entire generation of Catholics in Europe and America, but are now mostly out of print.
A revival of Guardini’s works would be welcomed enthusiastically by all who are concerned about the post- conciliar reform of the liturgy. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has lamented that theologians like Guardini are not read often enough.
Regrettably, however, from the point of view of the symposium’s presenters Guardini can only be rehabilitated by a revision of history.
Sister Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, an outspoken feminist and a long-time member of ICEL, disguises her revisionism under the banner of "dynamic equivalence":
…I have decided that my translation of Guardini on liturgy should employ the principles of dynamic equivalence. I will present to you, often in his own words, what I have come to believe he would say today were he alive in this new age of the church’s life and if he hadt his platform for his remarks.
According to Sister Kathleen, we should understand Guardini not by what he literally said, but by "words to that effect" she will supply.
In another paper, Holy Cross father, Robert Kreig, associate professor of theology at Notre Dame and author of a book called Story-Shaped Christology, reviews Guardini’s publications. But Father Kreig does not think Guardini’s work should be republished today. He warns, "Some of Guardini’s texts can be misconstrued now to support a neoconservative or ‘restorationist’ agenda". He believes this danger exists because the books were written before the council and since "the pre-Vatican II Catholic ‘world’ no longer exists" they would be read out of context.
Father Kreig adds:
…since the Second Vatican Council, the theological disciplines have undergone significant changes in their methods and central issues. For instance, scriptural study now relies on a host of historical and literary methods, and Christology depends upon approaches "from below" as well as "from above". Furthermore, ecclesiology is addressing issues such as collegiality among bishops and lay ministry, and liturgical study is inquiring into issues of culture, ritual and symbol. Because Guardini does not employ these new methods or speak ,to these pressing current issues, he could be wrongly perceived as opposing them. In fact, Guardini must be remembered for his intellectual courage, open-minded inquiry and readiness to enter into dialogue with contemporary ideas.
Guardini, like the Council itself, is worth remembering for his "spirit" rather than for what he actually said. Here we see the principle of dynamic equivalency used to reinvent or, more precisely, to censor the treasury of the Church’s liturgical theology by contemporary elites fearful of the true meaning of words. Apparently this is the only way Catholics can be protected from dangerous pre- conciliar misconceptions promoted by great Catholic theologians of the recent past.
Advocates of the revised scriptural and liturgical texts have made it clear that even the new revisions will need to be re-done almost as soon as this version is approved. Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, president of ICEL, once estimated that fresh revisions would be needed every couple of decades. Considering the time it takes to complete this massive project, this would imply that ICEL might begin its next revision almost at once. One result of this would be to assure the continuation of ICEL, whose work has been funded by royalties from the texts it produces, as well as by grants from the national conferences (principally the U.S.).
But it is just possible that the liturgical translators themselves might come to regret their principle of dynamic equivalence if it causes them to lose control of the process of change. When ICEL’s new translation of the Sacramentary (Roman Missal) is authorized, how long will it be until priests and parish liturgists take liberties with even the new texts, retranslating or reinterpreting the words as they see fit — on their own authority and without the approval of ICEL or the bishops? (In fact, some are doing this now, even before the new texts are officially approved.) Some may consider the liturgical language (and theological opinion) of the 1980s and ’90s obsolete soon after the year 2000. Might not the words of the new Missal and Lectionaries be revised by priests and others who "have come to believe" what the Church "would say today" were it possible to take into account a "new age of the Church’s life?"
Once the principle is in place that the meanings of words are subject to constant re-interpretation, on what grounds could the liturgical establishment object to any change whatsoever? True, some liturgists would undoubtedly delight in the chaos that would result from extemporized changes; and some publishers of liturgical books might reap greater profits in such a situation.
However, by establishing dynamic equivalence not only as a principle of translation, but as a principle of historical revisionism, as at the Guardini symposium, the liturgical establishment risks undermining its own authority to do the interpreting for everyone. Appeal to authority becomes meaningless according to the principle of dynamic equivalence which advocates placing not only words but liturgical legislation and even Catholic doctrine, "into context".
Saint Thomas More’s view of the use of language provides a refreshing antidote to the chaos of dynamic equivalence. Earlier in the play, More had learned that Parliament planned to administer an oath of acceptance of the invalidity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. He asks about the wording of the oath, and his son-in-law answers, "We don’t need to know the wordingwe know what it will mean!" More responds with vehemence, "It will mean what the words say!"
It is useless to speculate how the history of the Church in England may have been changed if Thomas More had not been martyred. More was called to a martyrdom he did not seek, and this was in accordance with God’s will. And Richard Rich, by his perjury, made himself the unwitting instrument by which God’s will was accomplished.
Nevertheless, the trial of Thomas More shows dramatically that fidelity to actual words is crucial, and that the lack of it may have very serious consequences. The integrity of the Mass depends on faithfulness to the true meaning of words. It must not be sacrificed to "words to that effect".
Father Pokorsky is a priest of the Arlington diocese, and a member of the editorial committee of ADOREMUS (Susan Benofy and Helen Hitchcock contributed to this article.)