Revisiting ‘Liturgiam Authenticam’: An Update

Higher Expectations, but More Questions
Cardinal Robert Sarah / CNS photo
Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Vatican’s liturgy chief / CNS photo

In January, I wrote in Commonweal that Pope Francis has authorized a review and revision of the document that gives the Church its guidelines for liturgical translations: Liturgiam authenticam. Since then, some additional facts have come to light that should raise our expectations further.

First, a list of names of the people appointed to this commission was leaked on March 8 by a blogger in Spain. I wrote about this list of people and the challenge of their task here and here. The list has been confirmed by a reliable source, although it has still not been announced publically by the Vatican.

Second, the bishops of New Zealand have gone on record applauding the decision of Pope Francis to review Liturgiam authenticam and offering their full support:

New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference president Bishop Patrick Dunn said the New Zealand bishops welcome the move.

“The New Zealand bishops are delighted with the news that Pope Francis is arranging for a review of the 2001 document Liturgiam authenticam, and we will be very happy to support Archbishop Arthur Roche in this work,” Bishop Dunn said.

“The New Zealand bishops agree that translations for liturgical texts should be 100 percent accurate, but our concern has been that Liturgiam authenticam has produced texts that impose Latin syntax on contemporary English,” he said.

A couple of questions are inevitable in light of these developments. First, why is the commission (or committee, or task force, or whatever) being kept under wraps? It should be announced so that people are not kept wondering whether it really exists and who is actually appointed to it.

Two possible reasons occur to me. One is purely practical: There might be another appointment in the offing. For instance, there is no one from Latin America on the list. Are they waiting for another invitation to be accepted? The second reason I think of is less laudable, but, sadly, not impossible. A number of translation efforts are currently underway around the world. Most, I daresay all, of the translations that have been produced according to Liturgiam authenticam have been produced under pressure, and amid quiet misgivings if not flaming controversy. If it becomes clear that the rules of translation are going to change, the commonsense solution is to stop the presses. Isn’t it?

The review has been welcomed by New Zealand bishops; why are the American bishops silent?

Yet that outcome is one that some people will vigorously oppose. Suppose you are all in favor of the uniformity and closeness to Latin that Liturgiam authenticam demands—as Cardinal Robert Sarah has said he is. Surely you would want to go full-steam ahead and approve as many texts as possible that cleave to these standards, before the ax falls on Liturgiam authenticam. Then standards will change, but too bad: you have your highly literal Missal translation or whatever, and it will be too expensive to change it. Being “tight-lipped” could very well be an attempt to thwart the purpose of the review for a key period, until those pending texts are locked in. Continual uncertainty about whether this committee exists assists in this strategy.

This brings us to the English-speaking world. Why haven’t the American bishops or the other English-speaking conferences joined the New Zealanders in welcoming the review? Have they so bought into Liturgiam authenticam that they now oppose Pope Francis’s plan to review and revise it? Or are they too being kept waiting for the memo? Quite a number of additional translations into English are pending approval or in preparation. They are all being made according to the norms of Liturgiam authenticam–norms that have resulted in a divisive and unsatisfactory translation of the Missal. The commonsense strategy for the bishops now is to stop the presses until the new guidelines come out. If they don’t do this, it’s fair to wonder why.

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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