Revisiting Liturgiam Authenticam, Part I: Vox Clara

This is the first of a series of posts discussing issues related to the coming review and re-evaluation of Liturgiam Authenticam, the document which governs the translation of liturgical texts

Who is in charge of liturgical translations? The answer is a complicated one in today’s Catholic Church.

The first thing most people focus on when they think about the work of translation is the translators themselves. When a translation is wonderful, we praise their work. When it goes “clunk” we generally blame them. “Who picked these guys? We should have poets! Linguists! Theologians! They should be attuned to the pastoral needs of the praying church!” 

Next, people tend to praise or blame the bishops whose job it is to oversee translations. When something goes awry we wonder why they allowed it to happen. “Why did they approve these things? Are they tone deaf? Couldn’t they have sent them back for revisions until the results made better sense and sounded more like, well, English?” In other words, many assume our bishops are in control.

Alas, it is not so simple. Yes, translators are important, and yes, our bishops bear a large share of responsibility. But there are layers of influence that need to be unpacked before we can see who is really doing what in the process of liturgical translation.

Guidelines

When translators of liturgical texts in the Catholic Church do their work, they are following stringent guidelines established by others: in this case, guidelines written by Roman bureaucrats. This is why, incidentally, you don’t find poets working on liturgical translations. You may have translators who have a feel for poetry, but actual poets generally don’t go there. Even linguists and theologians have to endure the way of the cross in doing this work, so the more creative types are less likely to want to do it.

To compound the problem, the present guidelines that set the rules for how translations are produced are problematic in themselves, which is why Pope Francis has called for a commission to revise them. (In future posts, we will look at the specifics and discuss why they have been such a problem.)

But first, a few facts. What are these guidelines?

Today there are two documents that establish the ground rules for our liturgical translations: Liturgiam authenticam (LA), a document for the universal church, and the ratio translationis specific to English. The ratio translationis spells out in detail how the principles in Liturgiam authenticam are to be applied in practice in a given language. It’s more akin to a style sheet though; it’s not a philosophical document. We can set this one aside, because it’s a tool and will change depending on whatever document sets out the philosophy. The foundational document is Liturgiam authenticam. This is the proper focus of praise or blame for a lot of the results we see on paper and/or hear in church. 

Who wrote Liturgiam authenticam? It has no acknowledged authors and is intended to be anonymous. However, based on internal evidence (such as comparison with other published sources that appeared around the same time and which resemble the content of LA very closely) those who follow these things say the smart money is on Fr. Anthony Ward, an English Marist who served as a staffer (third in command) at the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) up until 2014, when he was dismissed. There was no known consultative process involved in producing it, though it’s safe to say that a few close colleagues might have been in on the drafting.

Politics

Now you are probably thinking, surely the whole Catholic Church around the world isn’t dancing to the tune of some document produced by a staffer at the CDW? Well, it depends on who his patrons are. Published sources walk timidly around this subject of course, but the code word for how this sort of thing happens is “influential cardinals.” Influential cardinals made it happen. In this case, the influential cardinals are known. They were Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (then prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and a longtime critic of the liturgical reforms after Vatican II) and Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez (a Chilean with traditionalist sympathies, who was then prefect of the CDW). They were supported in this by a handful of conservative prelates from the English-speaking world who appealed to them to intervene when the votes went against them in approving the 1998 translation (the 1998 translation was, as a result, never given recognition by Rome even though it was approved by canonical vote of the bishops' conferences). These cardinals were instrumental in deep-sixing the 1998 translation and persuading Pope John Paul II to sign off on this instruction, which is quite out of keeping with everything else John Paul II ever wrote about liturgy.

Both of these cardinals were virulently opposed to the translations that had appeared in English since Vatican II, and neither of them were happy overall with the freedom given to the bishops’ conferences to govern translations in the first place (a freedom given by Vatican II, incidentally—see Sacrosanctum Concilium 22.2, 36.3, and 36.4). They decided that something must be done. And, not surprisingly, that meant first of all taking control of the process by which translations are produced.

Power Centralized 

Liturgiam authenticam, accordingly, not only set down principles of translation, it also changed the structure of the process of approving translations so that control would be centralized henceforward in Rome. There were two aspects to this, in terms of procedure. First, LA includes the provision that the Holy See can produce and impose their own translations, if they don’t like the translations submitted to them by bishops from the various language groups. You can imagine how delightful this would be, and how much the bishops would look forward to it.

Second, some of the larger language groups such as English, German, and French, have long participated in what is called “mixed commissions” (a mixed commission is made up of bishops from more than one bishops’ conference) to prepare vernacular texts for worship. In the English-speaking world the “mixed commission” is called the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). Bishops from the member conferences of these mixed commissions vote on the translations prepared by the translators and, if the translations are approved, they are sent to Rome for the “recognitio” which then allows the conferences to go ahead and publish them. Or at least that’s how it used to work before 2001.

With the advent of Liturgiam authenticam, however, a new layer of oversight came into the picture: the CDW would appoint a committee of overseers to govern the work of the mixed commissions.* In other words, LA put into place a new mechanism of authority: a committee chosen by the CDW that answered not to the bishops’ conferences, but to them. It was a sort of “nanny commission” made up of bishops handpicked by Rome. For the English-speaking world, this “nanny commission” is called Vox Clara.

Under this system, the English-speaking bishops still have the right and obligation to vote on translations that are prepared by ICEL. But so little are they trusted that Vox Clara looks over their shoulder to make sure they do as they are told and don’t color outside the lines. The main point of this committee is enforcement of the new, strict, and counter-intuitive rules for translation (integral and complete adherence to the Latin, to name one example) set down by LA. It is a way of keeping control over translations firmly in the hands of Rome, at the expense of the bishops’ conferences. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this shift. It was a really big change in “who’s in charge” of translations. 

Vox Clara

Who is on this committee? Cardinal George Pell has been head of it since its inception. Cardinal Francis George also served on it until his death. The most recent list of members I could find on line is from 2015: Cardinal George Pell, chair; Bishop Thomas Olmsted, first vice-chairman; Cardinal Oswald Gracias, second vice-chairman; Bishop Arthur Serratelli, secretary; Cardinal Justin Rigali, treasurer; Archbishop Alfred Hughes; Archbishop Michael Neary; Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J.; Cardinal John Tong Hon; and Bishop David McGough. They were assisted at their meeting by seven experts and advisors.

What exactly has Vox Clara done over the past fifteen years? No one really knows, because there is zero transparency. But the idea is that they review the texts prepared by ICEL that the conferences have approved, and advise the CDW about whether or not to give these texts the recognitio. Strangely enough, they also appear to have the prerogative of intervening and changing texts at will. This committee is thus quite powerful. Indeed, they seem now to be the ones who are “really” in charge.

The Case of the Mystery Tweakers

The lack of transparency isn’t just some sort of abstract problem to worry us. It has already resulted in troubling outcomes.

In 2008, Vox Clara was presented with a rigorously literal translation of the Roman Missal into English that had been voted in by all the episcopal conferences that belong to ICEL. It was a struggle to get there, but they finally got every jot and tittle down, in accordance with LA. The text that the bishops got back to implement, however, wasn’t the one they had approved. The text that was “recognized” contained an estimated 10,000 changes from the one they had sent in. Who changed it and why? Nobody knows.

This is the sort of mess that results from (A) too much secrecy, and (B) who knows what else – maybe a few more mysterious “influential cardinals” or staffers and advisors who got their oar in somehow, either through the CDW or through Vox Clara. This is one of the reasons why it’s important that Pope Francis’s commission take a hard look at how this system, set up by order of Liturgiam authenticam, actually operates.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

We can do better than this. First of all, the bullying aspect of LA (we will produce our own translations if we don’t like yours) is a grave problem. There should be no question of “imposing” translations on unwilling bishops. This is just plain wrong. Rule by intimidation has no place in a Christian community.

The other problem, however, is the role of Vox Clara (and the analogous committees in the other language groups). It is not just that Vox Clara might have been responsible for making a dog’s dinner out of the 2008 version of the English Missal, as bad as this is. Nor is it merely that Vox Clara represents a wasteful duplication of effort (they have their own advisors and helpers, to re-do what others have already done).

The problem is that Vox Clara is an instrument of curial control over a process that rightly belongs to the local bishops’ conferences, according to Vatican II. The primary oversight of the translation of liturgical texts belongs in the hands of those bishops for whom a given language is their mother-tongue – with no “nanny committee” looking over their shoulder or tweaking texts behind their backs.

Some fear that, without Vox Clara or something like it, Rome will be cut out of the loop and be unable to intervene to solve problems. But that’s not at all the case. Granting recognition to the texts is, quite legitimately, the role of central (i.e. Roman) authority. This is fine. It has worked before. The point is that this recognition has been, and should be, a much simpler and more collegial process than what we now have under LA. Mostly it should be concerned with spotting possible doctrinal issues and clearing them up before the translation goes to press.

Conclusion

Pope Francis has called for a commission to review Liturgiam authenticam. When they meet, among the many issues they will have to consider, they will no doubt need to look closely – and critically – at the processes of oversight which LA has put into place. You can probably already guess my recommendation. They should retire Vox Clara, and its analogous committees in the other language groups, as soon as possible. Give back to the bishops’ conferences their rightful role as overseers of the liturgy in their regions. 

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* The French-speaking mixed commission is an exception. They have two organizations which work with liturgical texts, the AELF, which came into existence in 1969 and was similar to ICEL, and the CEFTEL, which came into being to implement LA. The relationship between these two organizations is not the same as that which exists between ICEL and Vox Clara.

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Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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