Nov 15, 2010

Making the Case for "Consubstantial"

Online Edition: November 2010
Vol. XVI, No. 8

Making the Case for "Consubstantial"

by Russell Shaw

Among Catholics generally, the realization has begun to sink in that we’ll soon receive and in due course start using a new English translation of the Mass. A few people have known that for a long time, and among them reactions are of two kinds: eager anticipation on the part of some, dissatisfaction verging on rejection on the part of others. It’s instructive to consider the pros and cons of this disagreement.

For some of the unhappy ones the source of their discontent appears to reside at least partly in nostalgia. The English translations currently in use remind them of the good old days after Vatican Council II, when they were young and everything seemed possible. In the new translations they claim to see an undoing of Vatican II and a rolling back of liturgical reform.

Whatever else might be said of this view, the people who feel like that have had their shot at reforming the liturgy for the last 40 years. Now it’s somebody else’s turn. Fair’s fair, after all.

A more serious complaint is that the new English version is in some particulars too difficult for people to understand. An example frequently cited is the use of the word “consubstantial”. So, precisely because it comes up so often in this discussion, let’s take a moment to consider the great “consubstantial” debate.

The issue arises in the Nicene Creed, where the Latin text declares that Jesus Christ, Son of God, is “consubstantialem Patri”. In the English translation now in use this is rendered as “one in Being with the Father”. In the new version, it becomes “consubstantial with”. No contest, the critics say. Who knows what “consubstantial with” means? “One in Being” is better because it’s nice and clear.

But hold on. “One in Being” is not as clear as it seems. Nor, upon examination, is it even correct.

We are dealing here with the language of metaphysics — appropriately so, since this is a creed, a solemn statement of the content of faith in which it’s necessary that the formulations be precise. By this standard, the current “one in Being with” fails the test.

For one thing, the supposed clarity of “Being” is delusory. Being as we understand it — the being of ourselves and other created things — is only an analogical participation in the subsistent being of God. Yet the translation’s non-specific and undifferentiated application of the word “being” to God sweeps this huge difference aside. We get the appearance of clarity at the expense of accuracy, and in a creed that won’t do.

For another thing, the current translation to the contrary notwithstanding, “being” and “substance” aren’t the same thing. Being means “existence”. And while one trembles at the challenge of trying to say in a few words what “substance” means as a term in metaphysics, it signifies something like the unique, singular identity of a thing.

Is “consubstantial” mysterious? Certainly. The creed is speaking of no less a mystery than the Trinity — three Persons in one God — and affirming that the Second Person, the Son, while distinct, nevertheless is one with the First Person, the Father, in the unique, singular identity of God. In short, “consubstantial with the Father” is correct whereas “one in Being with the Father” is not.

One trusts that the translators of the new translation of the Mass have gone through an analytical process similar to this in making the many decisions any translation involves. If so, the new version will be a considerable improvement over the old.


Russell Shaw, long known in the US as a Catholic journalist, is adjunct professor of Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and a Consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. The most recent of his twenty books is Writing “The Way”: The Story of a Spiritual Classic (Scepter Publishers, 2010). He is also a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor, where this essay was first published. It appears in AB with the author’s kind permission.



Russell Shaw