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Magnum principium:

A Commentary

by Phil Lawler

These two articles appeared on the website, Catholic, and are reprinted with permission of the Editor.

September 11

Pope Francis Pope Francis has amended the Code of Canon Law to give national bishops' conferences the primary role in approving the translations of liturgical texts.

The motu proprio Magnum principium, released on September 8, is consistent with the Pope's push for decentralization of Church authority. By amending #838 of the Code of Canon Law, he removes the task for translation from the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship, giving the responsibility instead to individual episcopal conferences.

On paper, Magnum principium involves only a minor shift in jurisdiction. But in practice the Pope's move is likely to have considerable impact, possibly re-igniting the battles over translations that were fought with particular vigor in the English-speaking world in the 1990s.

The papal document was released shortly after Pope Francis declared that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II are "irreversible." Although the Pope has not shown a great interest in discussion of the liturgy, the new motu proprio has been widely interpreted as a reversal of a trend toward ending liturgical experimentation: a trend that began under Pope John Paul II and was enthusiastically supported by Pope Benedict XVI.

In 2001, the Vatican released Liturgiam authenticam, a document designed to provide guidelines for liturgical translations. That document — which called upon translators to adhere as closely as possible to the language of original Latin texts — remains in effect. However, the new papal document is already being hailed by critics of Liturgiam authenticam as grounds for a reconsideration of the fundamental principles of translation, and for a fresh effort to provide new English-language translations for the liturgy.

Even under the terms of the motu proprio, the Vatican retains the authority to recognize new translations. However, national episcopal conferences are now charged with the responsibility to "faithfully prepare visions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See."

Pope Francis explains that the existing Vatican documents on liturgical translation "were and remain at the level of general guidelines and, as far as possible, must be followed by liturgical commissions as the most suitable instruments … " He writes that the liturgical texts in vernacular languages should approximate the Latin originals "for their elegance of style and the profundity of their conceptions with the aim of nourishing the faith."

In an explanatory note accompanying the papal document, Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, notes that the Vatican will continue to review and evaluated adaptations of liturgical rites. But for translations, he explained, his dicastery will "confirm" the decisions of the local bishops' conferences. "Obviously," the archbishop writes, "this presupposes a positive evaluation of the fidelity and congruence of the texts produced in respect to the typical editions on which the unity of the rite is founded, and, above all, taking account of the texts of greatest importance, in particular the sacramental formulae, the Eucharistic Prayers, the prayers of ordination, the Order of Mass and so on."

It is noteworthy that Pope Francis called upon Archbishop Roche to provide the explanatory note, rather than giving that task to Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Cardinal Sarah, who has been an strong defender of traditional approaches to the liturgy, may have been bypassed in the preparation of the new document.

September 13

How the US bishops should respond to the motu proprio

Now that the nation's episcopal conference has primary control over liturgical translations, thanks to the new motu proprio Magnum principium, here's what prudent American bishops should do:


The new papal document released this week could have enormous implications. It's no mistake that secular outlets like the New York Times, which ordinarily take no interest whatsoever in the language of the liturgy, recognized the importance of the motu proprio. Magnum principium could cause another round of heated debates, disrupting the life of Catholic communities that are only now recovering from the "language wars" of the 1990s. The secular media outlets might welcome feuds within the Catholic Church. The disputes make news; they provide good sport for spectators. But the costs — measured in terms of disturbing the peace within the parishes — would be prohibitive.

The mainstream media are not alone in their enthusiasm for the potential changes wrought by Magnum principium, of course. "Progressive" Catholics lost the arguments of the 1990s, and have been spoiling for another chance. Pope Francis has made it possible to renew the battles, but he has not made it mandatory. The nation's bishops will decide whether or not to re-open Pandora's Box.

Over the past 50 years the Catholic laity have been battered repeatedly by precipitous changes in the Mass. Again and again liturgists have instituted their pet projects — sometimes authorized, sometimes not — without consulting the ordinary faithful. Most Catholics would probably prefer to change the liturgy in one way or another — nobody is happy with the current situation — but above all the ordinary parishioner wants stability. The faithful do not want tinkering and fine-tuning; they want the Eternal Sacrifice. Still less do they want another era of intramural fighting; they want to worship in peace.

American Catholics are only now growing accustomed to the latest English-language translations, which replaced the wretched "dynamic equivalence" approach with a more faithful rendition. Like any human effort, this translation is imperfect. Budding wordsmiths can pick out phrases that might be translated more fluently. In some cases perhaps they are right — although in many cases it seems clear that the most impatient liturgists are working to "dumb down" the translation, robbing the language of its dignity.

There will always be imperfections in any translation. There will always be translators looking for work, and publishers spotting an opportunity to promote a new set of liturgical texts. So there will always be an influential lobby, urging bishops to correct the translation — and then to correct that translation a few years later. Wise bishops should realize that whenever they satisfy that lobby, the lay faithful will pay the price: not just the price of printing new books, but the price of disruption — the price of finding the liturgy unfamiliar yet again.

Moreover, while he gave the national bishops' conferences the authority to supervise new translations, Pope Francis did not give them any reason to plunge into the task. On the contrary, he stated in Magnum principium that the existing Vatican instructions on translation "were and remain at the level of general guidelines and, as far as possible, must be followed by liturgical commissions … " So if translators honestly wish to follow the Pope's instructions, they should prepare any new English-language text in line with the principles set forth in Liturgiam authenticam. But that document, issued in 2001 to conclude the last episode of the "language wars," was the inspiration for the current English-language liturgical translations.

Articles written 11 September 2017 and 13 September 2017

Phil Lawler is the Editor of Catholic World News (CWN).

Copyright © 2017 Trinity Communications. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.

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