Earlier, I talked about why I think it’s a positive that we’re getting a more technically-accurate translation of the Mass which will put us more in line with the rest of the Roman Rite. Now I want to talk about those who would sabotage the new translation, as well as those who are stepping up to stop them.
I. Resistance From The Usual Suspects
A number of “Spirit of Vatican II” types have been quick to attack the new translation. At first, I found this bizarre: it’s not as if the Church is making any bold new theological statement with these translations, and yet, the battle lines look very much like the lines drawn for a theological dispute. I suspect I know why it’s ruffled so many feathers, and why it’s these people in particular who are upset. First, the new translations are more in line with Latin, and done at the urging of the Vatican. For those who hate the Latin they grew up with, and hate the Vatican and any notion of centralized authority on Earth, this alone is damnable. Second, the translations are more technical and formally correct: it’s the NASB, rather than the Good News Bible. Sometimes, that’ll mean it’s harder to recite the words of the Mass from memory, and some people are upset about that (I’m actually pleased with this). Those pleased are most likely to be the ones who feel the need to perpetually dumb the Mass down for Catholics, to use forever sillier and stupider hymns in lieu of the Church’s antiphons, to try and turn a Church striving for Summa Theologica into a Church striving for Kumbaya. Third and finally, these translations are part of the “legacy” of Vatican II. Of course, the translations weren’t done according to the rules laid out by the Second Vatican Council, but if you ignore the Council and follow the “Spirit of the Council,” this makes perfect sense. This is of extreme importance for aging liberal clergy and laypeople, since Vatican II was their big claim to fame for trying to commandeer the Church in a new direction (I suppose we’d call that direction “left”). Their connection with the translation is personal as well as theological.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, we’ve seen lots of acts of sabotage. The South African Catholic Bishops (who didn’t want to go along with the new translations, from what I understand) sprung the translations upon the congregations with little notice or explanation, and with lots of voices (including bishops) protesting the new translations. The people were – unsurprisingly – not happy with the new translations. Who’d blame them? They’re not catechized about why these changes are happening or what it means, and they’re only hearing one narrative: that these are Vatican-imposed changes to turn the clock back before Vatican II.
II. Fr. Ryan’s Attempts to Stop the New Translations
Fr. Michael Ryan here in the US has tried to rally the troops to battle the Vatican. To that end, he wrote an article in America advancing his agenda. With no seeming sense of irony, Fr. Ryan’s pushing for more time, lamenting the idea of thrusting massive liturgical changes upon the people. I mention the lack of irony, because the changes in the Mass are really small, and his website celebrates the post-Vatican II reforms to the English-language Mass which were abrupt, radical, and never explained to the laity. In many places, centuries of Catholic tradition were set aside in favor of theological novelties. In contrast, these are restorations to the English liturgy which have been proceeding incredibly slowly to ensure compatibility with the Latin texts on which our Rite is based, changing things back to how they were a few decades ago. It would be as if a school district decided to change the words of the Pledge of Allegiance one day with scarce warning, then complained a few years later when they were ordered to restore the words to the same used by everyone else… and complained because they thought kids might be confused as to why the words of the Pledge were changing. It just isn’t credible for progressives/heretics to play the “I’m scared of the impact sudden changes will have on the congregation” card while advocating for “progress.”
Here are some of Fr. Ryan’s major “points”:
- “It is now 45 years since the Second Vatican Council promulgated the groundbreaking and liberating document on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.”
Note that. It’s “liberating.” Before Sacrosanctum Concilium = Bad. After Sacrosanctum Concilium = Good. I don’t mind saying that a Council brought about beneficial change — I think all Church Councils do. But defining a Council as “liberating” can be a pretty problematic theology, because it (can) act as if Christ’s work of redemption needs improving. More fundamentally, it’s indicative of a mindset that acts as if there’s a pre-conciliar Church and a post-conciliar Church, rather than the Catholic view that there’s only one Church. The “two church” view is the view of sedevacantists and heretics of all stripes, “liberal/progressive” and “conservative/reactionary.” The orthodox view is that the Council was a boon to the Church. Same Church, before and after, but aided in numerous ways by the Second Vatican Council.
- As an eager and enthusiastic North American College seminarian at the time, I was in St. Peter’s Square on the December day in 1963 when Pope Paul VI, with the world’s bishops, presented that great Magna Carta to the church.
My mom (I believe) was the one who mentions how much she dislikes how really liberal priests have to make every homily about them. It’s not a trend I’d really noticed until she said it, but I’ve been aware of it a lot since then.
- The conciliar document transcended ecclesiastical politics. It was not just the pet project of a party but the overwhelming consensus of the bishops of the world. Its adoption passed overwhelmingly: 2,147 to 4.
Catholics believe Church Councils are guided by the Holy Spirit. Fr. Ryan’s view of the Church as a political sphere rather than a spiritual one is extremely problematic, and self-defeating. If the Church were nothing more than a political sphere, then of course She could reverse some earlier decision She had. This is the catch-22 heretics find themselves in. They take a particular (unsupported) reading on the Second Vatican Council and its import. To arrive at this reading, they say: the Church is just political and can reverse Herself, She did so in Vatican II … and now, She can do so no more. The conclusion doesn’t just not flow from the premises; the conclusion is the opposite of the premises.
- Not in my wildest dreams would it have occurred to me then that I would live to witness what seems more and more like the systematic dismantling of the great vision of the council’s decree. But I have. We Catholics have.
Note that the document itself isn’t being violated in any way. The “great vision” of the Council’s decree is being violated.
- For evidence, one need look no further than recent instructions from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that have raised rubricism to an art form, or the endorsement, even encouragement, of the so-called Tridentine Mass.
Oh my goodness! The always-valid Tridentine Mass, used for centuries (and closely related to the Masses preceeding it back to antiquity), carefully crafted by countless Saints, and casually discarded in the US during the 60s? How on Earth could the Church think Her Tridentine Mass is worth Her “endorsement, even encouragement”?
Fr. Ryan is from Seattle, so I’m assuming this is all scary and verboten to him. Here in the Alexandria diocese, like much of the rest of the world, we frequently offer the Mass in the Extraordinary (Tridentine) Form: and it’s offered by some of the finest priests to serve the Ordinary Form. In places where the Tridentine Mass isn’t stigmatized and spat upon, priests can love both forms. There’s no need to decide to be a Tridentine Mass-rejecting progressive heretic or a Novus Ordo Mass-rejecting reactionary heretic.
- It has become painfully clear that the liturgy, the prayer of the people, is being used as a tool—some would even say as a weapon—to advance specific agendas.
Yeah. Some people use it to advance a two-Church agenda, or to crush the Tridentine Mass, or… wait, that wasn’t what he meant? And note this term “the prayer of the people.” The liturgy is just that. But that’s why it’s centralized and standardized: so that all the people are praying in harmony. If we’re all gonna hold hands and sing, we at least need a central body to tell us which song we’re gonna be singing.
- And now on the horizon are the new translations of the Roman Missal that will soon reach the final stages of approval by the Holy See. Before long the priests of this country will be told to take the new translations to their people by means of a carefully orchestrated education program that will attempt to put a good face on something that clearly does not deserve it.
First the Inquisition, and now this! A “carefully orchestrated education program” sounds like something you’d find in Soviet Russia. In fact, what he’s describing is an attempt to not foist this change on the people unawares. Note this: he’s protesting both the fact that people are unaware, and the fact that the Church is trying to educate them.
- The veterans who enthusiastically devoted their best creative energies as young priests to selling the reforms of the council to parishioners back in the 1960s will be asked to do the same with regard to the new translations. Yet we will be hard put to do so.
Oh, I see. A “carefully orchestrated education program” is fine if it’s (one’s own imaginary version of ) Vatican II that’s being sold.
- We can see the present moment only as one more assault on the council and, sadly, one more blow to episcopal collegiality. It was, after all, the council that gave to conferences of bishops the authority to produce their own translations (S.C., Nos. 36, 40), to be approved, it is true, by the Holy See but not, presumably, to be initiated, nitpicked and controlled by it. Further, the council also wisely made provision for times of experimentation and evaluation (S.C., No. 40)—something that has been noticeably missing in the present case.
Paragraph 36 of Sacrosanctum Concilium doesn’t actually call for bishops to produce their own translations. It says they’re supposed to approve them, with subsequent approval by the Holy See. So here, Fr. Ryan’s point is undermined because he’s appealing to authority which doesn’t exist: an imaginary part of paragraph 36 which gives bishops an unbridled authority to just create new translations. If para. 36 gives them that power, we would have to conclude that para. 40 gave the same to the Holy See, since that paragraph acknowledges the Vatican’s overriding parallel authority. In fact, let’s look to what para. 36 actually says:
36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.
2. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters.
3. These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See. And, whenever it seems to be called for, this authority is to consult with bishops of neighboring regions which have the same language.
4. Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned above.
So Latin Mass is to be preserved (section 1), but the “competent territorial ecclesiastical authority” can decide if to allow the vernacular (section 3), and if so, must approve any vernacular translations (section 4). Note that this doesn’t say to abolish the Latin Mass and leave bishops’ conferences in charge of producing a new Mass translation. In fact, it says virtually the exact opposite. Once again, Vatican II is the best remedy against “The Spirit of Vatican II.”
- This leads me to pose a question to my brother priests: What if we were to awaken to the fact that these texts are neither pastoral nor ready for our parishes? What if we just said, “Wait”? I know it might smack of insubordination to talk this way, but it could also be a show of loyalty and plain good sense—loyalty not to any ideological agenda but to our people, whose prayer the new translations purport to improve, and good sense to anyone who stops to think about what is at stake here.
Note who the loyalty is clearly not to: Fr. Ryan’s superiors (his bishop and the pope, for example). He just thinks he knows what’s best for the people better than those who God, in His Providence, placed over those same people. It’s not just insubordination, it’s unchecked arrogance. As a layperson Fr. Ryan purports to help, let me just say “thanks, but no thanks.”
- What is at stake, it seems to me, is nothing less than the church’s credibility. It is true that the church could gain some credibility by giving us more beautiful translations, but clumsy is not beautiful, and precious is not prayerful.
Does Fr. Ryan think people are going to lose faith in the Church if She restores more accurate liturgical texts? How and why? Unless, of course, Her priests are undermining Her and those same texts. Then, there’d be a crisis. But they’d never do that… right?
And as for the translations, the primary purpose of a translation is to say what the original text says, not to “be beautiful.” Translations are often not as beautiful as the original. As I understand, when St. Luke translated Zechariah’s Song (Luke 1:67-79) from Hebrew into Greek, it lost some fascinating word plays on the names of John, Zechariah, and Elizabeth. He didn’t just toss out the Hebrew prayer and make up some lines of his own which he thought sounded better in the Greek.
- During a recent dinner conversation with friends, the issue of the new translations came up. Two at the table were keenly—and quite angrily—aware of the impending changes; two were not. When the uninformed heard a few examples (“and with your spirit”; “consubstantial with the Father”; “incarnate of the Virgin Mary”; “oblation of our service”; “send down your Spirit like the dewfall”; “He took the precious chalice”; “serene and kindly countenance,” for starters), the reaction was somewhere between disbelief and indignation.
Ok, birds of a feather flock together, and Fr. Ryan likes to talk about himself. What does this prove? Ohhh yeah, the other imaginary part of para. 36, where Fr. Ryan’s dinner guests get to veto the Holy See. My mistake.
One person ventured the opinion that with all that the church has on its plate today—global challenges with regard to justice, peace and the environment; nagging scandals; a severe priest shortage; the growing disenchantment of many women; seriously lagging church attendance—it seems almost ludicrous to push ahead with an agenda that will seem at best trivial and at worst hopelessly out-of-touch.
I just include this to show what priests like Fr. Ryan consider the most pressing issues facing the Church. Not the rising tide of atheism and secularism, not the rapidly-degrading culture and loss of a sense of God in the public sphere, not the tens of millions killed by abortion. Nope: the Church should focus more on the environment, instead. Because She will seem “hopelessly out-of-touch” otherwise. Right.
- Recently the Archdiocese of Seattle sponsored a seminar on the new translations for lay leaders and clergy. Both the priest who led the seminar (an accomplished liturgical theologian) and the participants gathered there in good faith. When passages from the proposed new translation were soberly read aloud by the presenter (I remember especially the phrase from the first eucharistic prayer that currently reads “Joseph, her husband,” but which in the new translation becomes “Joseph, spouse of the same virgin”), there was audible laughter in the room.
I’m just shocked that he thinks this is a good argument. So other heretics laugh at the Gospel message. “Spouse of the same Virgin” is an accurate translation of the Latin, and is intended for a reason: to make it clear that Joseph and Mary didn’t have sex. That is: to protect a vitally important theological doctrine we hold dear. Ha ha.
There’s more: the chilling reception the people of the dioceses of South Africa have given the new translations. In a rare oversight, the bishops of that country misread the instructions from Rome and, after a careful program of catechesis in the parishes, introduced the new translations to their people some months ago. The translations were met almost uniformly with opposition bordering on outrage.
Of course. Their mistake. A “careful program of catechesis” by the dioceses who couldn’t even figure out the “use by” date on the side of the carton.
So the question arises: Are we priests going to give up, too? Are we, too, going to acquiesce? We do, of course, owe our bishops the obedience and respect that we pledged to them on the day of our ordination, but does obedience mean complicity with something we perceive to be wrong—or, at best, wrongheaded? Does obedience mean going against our best pastoral instincts in order to promote something that we believe will, in the end, actually bring discredit to the church and further disillusionment to the people? I do not think so. And does respect involve paying lip service to something to which our more instinctive reaction is to call it foolhardy? Again, I don’t think so.
I do. Note that Fr. Ryan isn’t saying that the new translations are immoral. He isn’t appealing to conscience. When he claims that this is “wrong,” he doesn’t mean that in a moral sense. He’s only saying they aren’t what he would do if he were the pope, or the bishops, or whatever. And he’s defining obedience as only obeying those things you would have chosen to do on your own. That’s the antithesis of obedience. If obedience means anything, it means obeying the prudential judgment of your superiors, not substituting your own prudential judgment for theirs.
So, to be clear, he is advocating disobedience and dissent, with a veneer of “but obedience is important when you want to obey!”
- “What If We Just Said No?” was my working title for this article. “What If We Just Said, ‘Wait’?” seems preferable.
Ok, so it’s a thin veneer.
III. The Orthodox Backlash
It’s not really surprising to hear the never-happy-with-Rome crowd unhappy with Rome. Seeing articles in America attacking the Vatican (or Catholicism more broadly) is as shocking as seeing articles about sports in Sports Illustrated. Here’s where it gets more interesting, though. America gave space to Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D. for a brilliant retort. It’s a perfect comparison: Fr. Ryan is a graying priest whose formative years were heavily impacted by Vatican II, and who clearly defines himself by it (as his own article shows). Fr. Stravinskas is slightly younger [a high school freshman during Vatican II, while Fr. Ryan was in seminary], and certainly represents the youthful view. My advice is to check out Fr. Stravinskas’ retort – it’s superior to my own.
In the late 60s, dissident theologian Charles Curran lead a revolt against Humane Vitae, and was largely successful in the US: how many birth control homilies have you heard? The fact that Ryan can’t muster the same sort of show of support obviously has something to do with the subject matters (people care more about birth control than liturgical nuances), but seems to me to speak more broadly to the changing times. People today realize that dissent is futile. What has grandstanding, bold, flowery language, and misleading citations to Church texts gotten heretics so far? So they’re able to command a parish here or there or even a diocese where Catholic Truth is mangled and perverted. Then they die, and are replaced with orthodox successors who pick up with their predecessors left off. Was that really worth the cost in lost human souls?
Insight Scoop, an Ignatius Press blog, ran a blurb of Fr. Stravinskas’ response right after a post on “the death of dissent.” The two thoughts go well together, since the “death of dissent” piece argues persuasively that there’s no new wave of heretics precises because there’s nothing for them to rebel against. The Catholic Faith isn’t some scary, towering monolith in the minds of modern youth the way it was for Irish immigrants growing up in the ghetto decades ago. It’s a voice of sanity crying out in the wilderness in an insane and cruel world. There are still those for whom it’s chic to attack Catholicism, or who try and destroy Her from within, but we’ve seen the consequences of their “conform to the present age” alternative, and it’s terrifying (Romans 12:2).
It’s sad how far the heretics got in drowning out, diluting, and distorting the Catholic message. The vast majority of kids who go through Catholic K-12 in the US leave with little clue what She teaches. Second-graders with a dog-eared Baltimore Catechism had more of a clue than their modern US counterparts who aren’t even exposed to the Catechism. But we’re starting to see the tide turning, and it may, just may, be morning in American Catholicism, the New Springtime of Evangelization proclaimed by John Paul the Great.