Sacred Vs. Vernacular Language
Gregory Wolfe October 27, 2009 - 5:33am
Bishop Trautman of Erie, PA, former chair of the bishop's liturgy committee, has just delivered a lecture criticizing the current draft of the new translation of the Missal. An article about his talk can be found here. An excerpt from the article:
He said the "sacred language" used by translators "tends to be elitist and remote from everyday speech and frequently not understandable" and could lead to a "pastoral disaster.""The vast majority of God's people in the assembly are not familiar with words of the new missal like 'ineffable,' 'consubstantial,' 'incarnate,' 'inviolate,' 'oblation,' 'ignominy,' 'precursor,' 'suffused' and 'unvanquished.' The vocabulary is not readily understandable by the average Catholic," Trautman said."The [Second Vatican Council's] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy stipulated vernacular language, not sacred language," he added.
Liturgical matters are minefields -- I''m smart enough to know that. But may I just ask a few questions?Does anyone else out there feel a little uncomfortable with the good bishop's remarks about "the average Catholic"?I suppose Bishop Trautmann would also criticize the following words: "abolish," "forebears," "subversion," "sovereign," "eradicate," and "tribulation" -- but then the average American couldn't have been expected to understand President Kennedy's inaugural address, right?As someone who cares a great deal about the linguistic health of the Church and the culture, I confess that I don't find his list that terrifying. Some of the words are even suffused with a certain grace.There is a persistent strain of verbal iconoclasm in our culture that is not fundamentally different from the impulse that once led to the smashing of statues and looting of reliquaries.Also, can anyone explain to me what this distinction between "sacred" and "vernacular" language is? If he's talking about Latin vs. vernacular languages I think he's already on shaky ground, but let's not debate Sacrosanctum Concilium again. Rather, my fear is that he's saying something that's vaguer and more disturbing.Isn't the liturgy where we encounter the sacred?It seems a sad day to me when the sacred is equated with elitism.I can hear some of the counter-arguments being formulated -- a sacred language is the province of an elite that maintains a hegemony over the poor; I'm too young to remember the liturgy before Vatican II, etc.But I just don't believe in the opposition between the sacred and the common man, any more than I believe the medieval peasant secretly wanted to throw a rock through the rose window in Chartres.Anyway, since we're debating how the English language should be used, it is all vernacular. Capturing the sacred in liturgical language is not simply a matter of using big words; it includes syntax, metaphor, cadence, and more.Dante broke with literary tradition and wrote in his own vernacular, Italian. And butchers and bakers could be seen walking around Florence with the Divine Comedy in their hands, big words and all.By all means, let's debate liturgical changes, translations, etc. But let's do so without patronizing people or treating the sacred as if it is a problem to be avoided.