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Mixed Reactions to Italian Bishops’ Proposed New Translation of Lord’s Prayer

The Italian bishops have submitted for Pope Francis’s approval a proposed change to the words of the Our Father. According to a December 11 report by Valerie Richardson of the Washington Times, the Italian Episcopal Conference has changed the words “lead us not into temptation” to “abandon us not when in temptation” (emphasis added) and that the pope is “expected to approve” the new change to the ancient prayer. The news that the pope may give his approval has prompted some Catholic writers to address the concerns the proposed translations—and the pope’s related comments—have raised.

“A year ago,” Richardson writes, “the pope brought the issue to the forefront when he described the petition widely used for centuries in many languages, including English and Italian, as ‘not a good translation.’”

Richardson was quoting comments Pope Francis made during a December 6, 2017, Italian television interview. Elise Harris quoted the full context of the pope’s words in a December 8, 2017, Catholic News Agency report:

“I am the one who falls, it’s not (God) who pushes me toward temptation to see how I fall,” Francis said. “A father doesn’t do this, a father helps us to get up right away.”

“The Pope said that the one who leads people into temptation,” Harris writes, quoting the pope, “‘is Satan; that is the work of Satan.’ He said that the essence of that line in the prayer is like telling God: ‘when Satan leads me into temptation, please, give me your hand. Give me your hand.’”

In a December 14, 2018, article for the National Catholic Register, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin writes that many reports on the new translation see Pope Francis favorable to the changes because of his previous comments on a similar change made by French bishops in their recent retranslation of the prayer.

“It is thus likely that [Pope Francis] will (through the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) approve the [Italian] translation,” Akin said, adding that the Italian initiative comes not in response to these comments on the French version but “after a 16-year study of the question” when “John Paul II was pope….” He also notes that the Spanish-speaking nations have already been praying the Lord’s Prayer according to a similar change in translation.

“As a native speaker of Spanish,” Akin writes, “Pope Francis is already used to a non-literal translation, again suggesting he’s likely to approve the Italian proposal.”

It is not improper “in principle” to use a non-literal translation of the Lord’s Prayer, Akin continues. “Languages do not map onto each other in a one-to-one fashion, and translators sometimes must use non-literal translations if they are to make the meaning of a statement clear.”

Yet Italian journalist Sandro Magister in a November 21, 2018, article for the Italian online journal L’Espresso sees the new translation violating a more important principle.

For, he writes, “to be strictly logical, if God cannot ‘lead’ us into temptation,” as the current translation states, “it is not clear why he should instead be allowed to ‘abandon us’ to it” in the new translation. “For two millennia, the Church has never dreamed of changing that difficult word of the Gospel, but has instead interpreted and explained it in its authentic meaning.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the Greek word for “temptation” has two meanings which cannot be communicated by the use of a single English word: “the Greek means ‘do not allow us to enter into temptation’ and ‘do not let us yield to temptation.’” The Catechism also notes that “God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one” but rather “wants to set us free from evil.” For this reason, the Catechism says, Christ taught us to pray to God, to recognize that only in God’s divine grace can we free ourselves from the temptations to sin.

“God does not want to impose the good but wants free beings…. There is a certain usefulness to temptation,” the Catechism teaches. “No one but God knows what our soul has received from him, not even we ourselves. But temptation reveals it in order to teach us to know ourselves, and in this way we discover our evil inclinations and are obliged to give thanks for the good that temptation has revealed to us.”

Quoting in full an editorial in the Italian weekly Vita Nuova by Silvio Brachetta of the Institute of Religious Sciences in Trieste, Italy, Magister sees the desire to change the translation as a matter of “human presumption” by seeking to avoid teaching about this part of the Lord’s Prayer, as the Church fathers had taught, and rendering Church teachings on sin and damnation more friendly to modern sensibilities.

“Behind the negation of the evangelical ‘ne nos inducas’ (“lead us not”) is the presumptuous rejection of a scandal,” Brachetta says, “the scandal of the eternal perdition of the impious and the very fact that Christ could be a ‘stumbling block’ himself, in fact a ‘scandal.’”

In a January 30, 2018, article for Crisis online magazine, David Arias notes that St. Augustine and St. Thomas are both succinct in their explanation that when we ask God not to lead souls into temptation we are proclaiming that, without God, man is helpless in his struggle against sin.

Arias writes that in St. Augustine’s view, “we beg God for the divine aid we need against the inclination to sin (contra inclinantia in culpam). While this seems clear enough, we may still wonder about the precise formulation of this petition. Why say, ‘lead us not into temptation,’ as if to imply that God can and perhaps sometimes actually does lead us into temptation?”

“St. Thomas answers this very question in his Expositio in orationem dominicam,” Arias continues. “He writes: ‘Is it possible for God to lead someone into evil, since [the Lord’s Prayer] says: “and lead us not into temptation”? I say that God is said to lead into evil through permitting it. This occurs when, because of many sins, God withdraws his grace from a man who then falls into sin after grace has been removed.’”

The new translation suggests, says Brachetta, that rather than rely on such wisdom of the Church fathers, an updated translation seeks to force an issue that the greatest minds only approach in humility.

“It is…true that the interpretation of these evangelical passages on the part of Saint Thomas or Saint Augustine may leave the reader dissatisfied,” Brachetta writes, “because the doctors know well that ‘fides at ratio’ are in harmony but by no means coincident. Saint Thomas and Saint Augustine examine the mystery, but they do so in humility: at times they are able to satisfy fully and wisely a certain inquiry, but other times they can respond to or satisfy partially those who seek an explanation.”

As to whether the American bishops will seek to change the English formula of the prayer, Akin says it is not likely.

“For that to happen, the U.S. bishops would need to ask the Holy See for a change, and I don’t see that happening any time in the foreseeable future,” Akin writes. “The standard English version has been in use for a very long time, and it is deeply ingrained in Anglophone Catholic culture.”

“There would be a huge ruckus if the U.S. bishops proposed changes to the English version of the Lord’s Prayer,” Akin also writes, “and I don’t see them wanting to undertake such a challenge. They have more pressing issues to deal with (to say the least).”

The Editors