Authentic liturgy needs to be understood
The Tablet16 February 2017 If the language with which we pray is not the language with which we think, write and speak, it constitutes a barrier that separates us from God. This is the major flaw in the current translation of the Latin Mass into English, and it could hardly be more serious. It can leave congregations reciting the words of the Mass only notionally, without entering into their meaning with their hearts and minds. Or it jolts them with its insistence that “he” and “him” mean “he and she” and “him and her”, a perverse reminder that as far as the Church is concerned they live in an exclusively male universe where non-males are invisible.
The fault lies with a 2001 document, Liturgiam Authenticam, a product of the years of Pope John Paul II’s final sickness, when the Vatican curia became a law unto itself. Its publication wrecked a promising project to provide a new translation in good understandable English that had received the unanimous support of all the English-speaking episcopal hierarchies. The responsibility also lies with those same hierarchies, who feebly submitted to this dictatorship of the literal-minded.
Literal, because Liturgiam Authenticam’s basic principle was not the equivalence of meanings and concepts but the close matching of words. So consubstantialem became “consubstantial”, not “of one being with” as in the previous version. One clumsy technical term never used in any other context replaced four simple words said hundreds of times a day. And clumsily verbose English sentences had to be constructed to replicate the Latin’s literal meaning.
Pope Francis is reported to have asked for Liturgiam Authenticam to be reviewed, possibly in the light of objections from French and German-speaking bishops to proposed alterations to their own vernacular texts. They are exercising the collegiality which is theirs by right: in this respect it is they, not the Vatican, who are the guardians of the tradition.
This is a signpost towards a more open and consultative – and inclusive – Church. In 2001 it might have been reasonable to wonder whether inclusive language was here to stay, but the verdict is now clear. “Him” does not mean “her”, nor does “men” mean “men and women”. The translation is therefore inaccurate even by a literal test. Salvation is not on offer to only half the human race.
The essential first step to becoming a synodal church is to get into the habit of asking the people. Bishops’ conferences do not need Vatican permission to do so. Allow the distribution and use of the text the Vatican suppressed, and let priests and people decide which they prefer. If they want to keep the newest version, the clumsy literal translation, then let them. If they want the more fluent and comprehensible version, which their bishops approved, then that should be their choice. With the Tridentine Rite and the Ordinariate liturgies now authorised for use alongside the present version as well as the original Latin text, liturgical pluralism has already arrived. There would be no change there. And priests and people could celebrate Mass on Sunday and understand every word, rejoicing in the simple beauty of the language.