Vatican Vandalism: The New English Translation of the Catholic Mass

The untimely new translation of the Mass is so impenetrable that one publisher just released a companion volume for priests with suggestions on where to pause and what words to emphasize, so that they prayers may be understood. Not the greatest endorsement of perceptive translation.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

This weekend, English-speaking Catholics around the world will walk into their churches to find an act of Vatican vandalism, as a new English translation of the Mass is foisted upon them. This new translation is a throwback to 19th century English that would make the Brontë sisters feel right at home. (I should, in fairness to the Brontës, point out their prose is eminently more readable than the Mass translation in question). For forty years, Catholics have been using a translation that, while not perfect, was often lyrical and poetic. And, after two generations of use, familiar.

The new translation is none of the above, driven by the desire to get as close to the Latin as possible. It goes out of its way to remind people of the majesty of God, which is a good thing. And that they are sinful. (I suppose the Mass texts should emphasize it, since Jesus seemed to spend so little time doing so). The translation is so impenetrable that one publishing house just released a companion volume for priests with suggestions on where to pause and what words to emphasize, in order for people hearing the prayers to understand them. Not the greatest endorsement of perceptive translation.

How we got to this point is a classic tale of palace intrigue and conservative grassroots organizing. The same social forces that have the Tea Party curating congressional debates about the motto "In God We Trust" when millions are jobless has Rome inflicting this new translation to correct doctrinal drift that, as far as I can see, isn't much of a problem. Take for example the new words in the creed.

Catholics who worry about the growing spread among them of the 4th century heresy of Arianism will be consoled to see that instead of saying that Jesus is "one in being with the Father," we will now be enunciating the incomprehensible "consubstantial with the Father." (This also strikes a blow to the errant followers of Apollinarianism, in case that's on the rise, too.) It all feels like a solution in search of a problem. Happily, the Catholic Church has no other problems to deal with.

I think the Tea Party analogy is instructive, because it's this same discomfort with modernity and pluralism that motivated the changes from Rome. English-speaking Catholics were among the most progressive in the worldwide Church. And this new translation is a jerk to the choke-collar by Vatican officials. It's part of their larger effort towards a "Catholic Restoration" of more traditional values and ways. The new translation should feel right at home to those who pine for former times (at least if you pine for the 19th century). For example, Catholics with even a hint of feminist sensitivities will be appalled to see the new translation never misses an opportunity to use the term "men" to describe human beings. The United Nations stopped doing that in 1948.

This couldn't have happened without a generation of bishops appointed by John Paul II, many of whom have willingly signed on to push back as much toothpaste into the tube as possible. Even when, through a bureaucratic snafu, South Africa launched the new translation a year early by mistake - and it proved an unalloyed disaster - there was not a cry among the bishops to delay or abandon the effort. It was endorsed and embraced with only the tiniest of murmurs of protest from a few brave bishops who understood how needless and ill-timed this was.

Of course, the forces of the restoration are firmly in control of the Catholic Church's apparatus at this point. You would think they would be doing a Snoopy-dance, since by any measure, getting this new Mass thrust upon hundreds of millions of English-speaking Catholics is a true accomplishment. But they seem as pinched and neuralgic as ever. Joy seems in short supply with so much doctrinal error at every turn.

Will this make more Catholics love the Mass? I doubt it. It will make more conservative Catholics happy. And that seems to be a decided inclination in the present administration's ease at stepping around the Second Vatican Council's teachings to appease those far right of center.

Even at a time of such diminished credibility for the Catholic Church, most of the faithful will simply put up with the changes. More's the pity. Nevertheless, this new translation of the Mass is obtuse, inelegant and, ultimately, unnecessary.

Popular in the Community