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Q: What is the current status of the translation document Liturgiam Authenticam?

A: The answer to this question—if, indeed, there is a clear answer—requires some preliminary groundwork.

The Instruction Liturgiam Authenticam was published in 2001 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The Congregation’s Prefect at that time was the Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, while Pope John Paul II approved and authorized its publication. Liturgiam Authenticam is subtitled, the “Fifth Instruction for the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council,” which means (as you may have divined) that there were four previous documents from the Holy See that applied Sacrosanctum Concilium’s broader principles to more particular elements of the liturgy. The fourth instruction from 1994, Varietates Legitimae, for example, gives detailed instructions about liturgical inculturation.

Liturgiam Authenticam expands upon article 36 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:

Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants…. These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2 [i.e., bishops’ conferences], to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See. And, whenever it seems to be called for, this authority is to consult with bishops of neighboring regions which have the same language. Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned above [i.e., today’s conferences of bishops].

Based upon this paragraph, Liturgiam Authenticam provides, first, details and norms about the translation of the Latin language into the mother tongue, and, second, procedures for “competent territorial ecclesiastical authorities” to submit translations for “approval, that is, confirmation, by the Apostolic See.” In general, Liturgiam Authenticam emphasizes a more formally-equivalent translation that emphasizes unity with the original Latin text, and it places a great deal of authority on the Holy See in a translation’s approval. These two dimensions—translation principles and the mechanics for approving them—are necessary for sorting out Liturgiam Authenticam’s place today.

Since its promulgation in 2001, Liturgiam Authenticam has governed not only the translation of the Misale Romanum’s third edition into English in 2011, but also such rites as the Order of Confirmation (2016) and the Order of Celebrating Matrimony (2016). The Instruction is currently being used to translate other ritual texts, such as the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults and the Liturgy of the Hours.

But since the release of Pope Francis’s motu proprio, Magnum Principium, on September 9, 2017, the status of Liturgiam Authenticam has been called into question. Are its norms and guidelines still in force? If yes, to what degree? If no, ought old texts be retranslated, or current translation projects be put on hold?

Various letters and commentaries since Magnum Principium’s release have not entirely clarified these questions. Yet sifting through their details might (I repeat, might) see the emergence of the mens ecclesiae on Liturgiam Authenticam. Here, in brief, is the sequence of letters and commentaries.

To begin with, Pope Francis released the motu proprio, Magnum Principium, on September 9. Dated September 3 and effective October 1, Magnum Principium alters Canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law which governs the “ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy” by bishops, bishops’ conferences, and the Holy See. The noteworthy additions to the canon are that the Holy See must “recognize” (give recognitio to) ritual adaptations proposed by local episcopal conferences; that conferences are to prepare “faithful” (fideliter, “faithfully”) translations from Latin into the vernacular languages; and that these translations, rather than the previous recognitio by the Holy See after its regular involvement in preparing translations, will in the future only require “confirmation” (confirmatio) at the process’s end. While Pope Francis’s motu proprio does not mention Liturgiam Authenticam by name, he does indicate that the post-conciliar laws and instructions, insofar as possible, “must be followed by Liturgical Commissions as the most suitable instruments so that, across the great variety of languages, the liturgical community can arrive at an expressive style suitable and appropriate to the individual parts, maintaining integrity and accurate faithfulness [fidelitate] especially in translating some texts of major importance in each liturgical book.”

Along with the motu proprio’s September 9 release, Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, appended a commentary to Magnum Principium called by the Holy See, “A key to reading the motu proprio, Magnum Principium.” The Archbishop’s commentary focuses especially on the meanings of fideliter (“faithfully”), recognitio (“recognition”), and confirmatio (“confirmation”). He mentions Liturgiam Authenticam three times. First, it is mentioned along with the document Comme le prévoit as a key document published “with the goal of responding to concrete problems which had become evident over the course of time and which had arisen as a result of the complex work that is involved in the translation of liturgical texts.” Second, Liturgiam Authenticam is put forward to emphasize the Holy Father’s insertion of the word “faithful” into canonical legislation: “[C]anon 838 §3 clarifies that the translations must be completed fideliter according to the original texts, thus acknowledging the principal preoccupation of the Instruction Liturgiam Authenticam.” Last, after recognizing Liturgiam Authenticam’s value in promoting “faithful” translations, Archbishop Roche clarifies that the “Instruction Liturgiam Authenticam itself…must be interpreted in the light of the new formulation of canon 838 when it speaks about seeking the recognition” (italics added). In short, Archbishop Roche’s “key to reading the motu proprio” acknowledges Liturgiam Authenticam as a valuable tool for producing faithful translations but sees its prescriptions about the process of finalizing liturgical texts are now out of date.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, apparently publicized on October 1, 2017, his own commentary and interpretation on the motu proprio, including his thoughts on how it relates to Liturgiam Authenticam. (I say “apparently,” for when responding to this commentary, Pope Francis would say the note was “incorrectly attributed” to Cardinal Sarah.) In this note, Cardinal Sarah says that, even though recognitio and confirmatio are not synonymous—the former concerns ritual adaptations while the latter vernacular translations—these are essentially interchangeable as far as the Holy See’s work is concerned. In fact, were one to strike the word recognitio from the document Liturgiam Authenticam and replace it with confirmatio, there would in reality be no difference in the authority of the Instruction from pre-Magnum Principium applications. In other words, little to nothing has changed in practice. On the whole, though, this note concerns not Liturgiam Authenticam’s translation principles but its procedures, of which confirmatio and recognitio speak.

Pope Francis, after receiving the Cardinal’s letter and note on September 30, responded publicly to Cardinal Sarah’s note (or at least the one attributed to him) on October 15. The Holy Father makes clear in his response to Cardinal Sarah that confirmatio and recognitio are not interchangeable, as the Prefect’s commentary put forth. Thus, the process of completing liturgical texts as outlined in Liturgiam Authenticam is in need of restructuring in light of the motu proprio and Canon 838. The Holy Father names specifically paragraphs 76 and 79-84 of Liturgiam Authenticam, each of which deals with procedure—but not translation principles. On the necessary “fidelity” of translations, the Holy Father offers this point: “in the light of the motu proprio, the fideliter of number 3 of the canon implies a threefold fidelity: in primis to the original text; to the particular language into which it is translated, and finally to the intelligibility of the text to those for whom it is destined.” Since Liturgiam Authenticam’s principles speak directly to these three elements of fidelity (see number 20 concerning fidelity to the original text, numbers 20, 21, 57, 59 for fidelity to the receiver language, and numbers 25, 27, 32, 47 about fidelity to intelligibility), then its norms are still valid.

So, after this recent and winding (and, perhaps, yet to be resolved) drama surrounding Liturgiam Authenticam, does the Magisterium consider it still in force and applicable to today’s liturgical translations? At this writing, we can posit a definite “yes” and “no”!

Yes: from all that has been said, Liturgiam Authenticam’s translation principles are still applicable for a “faithful” ritual text. (Of course, whether it’s the Bishops or the Congregation who have the final word on whether the translation is “faithful” seems an ongoing question.)

No: the procedures and work to achieve a final product outlined in the Fifth Instruction are no longer entirely applicable.


—Answered by Christopher Carstens, Editor, Adoremus Bulletin

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens is Director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, instructor at Mundelein’s Liturgical Institute, editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, and a voice on The Liturgy Guys Podcast.