An exchange at the Nov. 16-19 U.S. bishops’ meeting between Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., and Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the bishops’ conference, gave a glimpse into a key underlying issue in the decades-long process of translating texts for liturgical use by the English-speaking church.
Trautman asked how the translation of the antiphons used in the liturgy had been ceded to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship without debate or a vote from the U.S. bishops’ conference.
George, informed of the existence of a letter from the conference to the Holy See accepting its suggestion that the Vatican take over the translation of antiphons to expedite the process, said, “I must have signed it,” eliciting a wave of laughter from the assembled bishops.
Trautman asked, “How can this be? This was not a collegial process.” The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, he insisted, had made the bishops’ conference responsible for translations.
George noted the objection and said that it would be taken up as “a question of governance” after the bishops had completed the voting on the translation drafts before them.
The English version of the Roman Missal is now one step closer to publication and use in all Catholic parishes. Like the Lectionary, the book of scripture readings proclaimed at Mass, the missal will reflect a heavy-handed reassertion of Vatican control over every aspect of the translation process that was to have been the work of national bishops’ conferences. This reassertion included replacing the approved guidelines for translation, dismantling the commission assigned to produce English texts and dumping their work, rejecting the Lectionary approved by the U.S. bishops and replacing it with a text produced by its own 11-man commission. The Vatican’s stated emphasis on fidelity to the Latin and “sacred style” will soon face the test of “proclaimability” and grammatical fluency raised by critics when the new missal is used publicly.
The question of governance will remain. Just why did Rome deem it necessary to override its own rules from Vatican II, which held that bishops’ conferences were best suited to decide vernacular translations in their own languages? Was it really about keeping the renewed liturgy from creating a different church than the one Rome prefers in which a cultic priesthood is sole guardian of the higher mysteries that must be mediated to the rest of the baptized? Is the often arcane, transliterated Latin a further indication of the return to the Tridentine mode and ad orientem posture and throne room protocols that protect a monarchical church and its indispensable ranks of clergy?
The more significant question for our own bishops, entrusted with the welfare of the American church: Why have you conceded control so easily? Trautman’s interventions over the years were not just about good English but about affirming the conference’s legitimate authority and pastoral responsibility.
It has always been a question of governance, and for those who still believe in the renewal of the church, no laughing matter.