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Pope Francis’s motu proprio on translation a strategic move


By Rita Ferrone


The following commentary is reprinted with permission of Pray Tell blog of the Liturgical Press in Collegeville MN,

In a strategic move of great importance, Pope Francis recently issued a motu proprio which will return authority over liturgical translations to the conferences of bishops, by means of a change in canon law.

In the motu proprio, Francis outlines briefly the history of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy since the Council. His motu proprio is given in order to more clearly enunciate the guiding principles that have come down to us from the time of the Council.

In this statement, Francis by no means disregards the importance of central authority and its unifying function. Yet he also acknowledges that the relationship between Rome and the conferences has not always been smooth: “It is no surprise that difficulties have arisen between the Episcopal Conferences and the Apostolic See in the course of this long passage of work.” The motu proprio addresses this concern so that “a constant co-operation full of mutual trust, watchful and creative, between the episcopal conferences and the dicastery” (the CDWDS) can be maintained.

Francis carefully balances the emphatic need to consider the practical usefulness of texts for the good of the faithful and to safeguard the integrity of each language, with the imperative to convey the original meaning of the text fully and faithfully, even after adaptation, so that the unity of the Roman Rite may shine forth.

Where the clarification comes into focus is in the final portion of the motu proprio, which presents a change in the wording, specifically, of Canon 838.3.

The new text reads as follows (my translation):

It is up to the Conferences of Bishops to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in the vernacular languages, adapted suitably within the defined limits of the liturgical books, to approve and publish them for the regions of their relevance, after the confirmation of the Holy See.

The key elements that are new in this text are the words “approve,” which was not there previously, and “faithfully,” which is also newly added. In other words, the trust given to the conferences is both to do their work faithfully, and to approve it.

This motu proprio will effectively reverse some of the actions taken by Francis’ predecessor to centralize control over liturgical translations in Rome. It will likewise block any future attempts by the Congregation for Divine Worship to unilaterally enforce compliance with the instruction Liturgiam authenticam. It returns decision-making power in liturgical translations to the local bishops, as the Council envisioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium 36.4, which states that the local authorities “approve” translated texts for liturgical use.

In recent years, the field of translation has become a battleground for issues of liturgical inculturation and updating to the times. The fifth instruction on the right implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “On the Translation of Liturgical Texts” (Liturgiam authenticam), has been a lightning rod for controversy, as it insisted upon a highly literal translation, outlawed inclusive language, held back ecumenical co-operation, and diminished the role of episcopal conferences.

The English-speaking bishops produced a translation of the Missal according to Liturgiam authenticam in 2011. That effort was mired in conflict, however, and the results received mixed reviews. The translation was praised by some for its elevated tone and scriptural allusions, but criticized by others as overly wedded to Latin syntax, clumsy to proclaim, and marred by errors. Meanwhile, translations prepared in other languages, such as German, French, and Italian, have been stalled due to clashes between the demands of the instruction and the pastoral judgment of the local bishops.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis authorized a committee, under the leadership of Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the CDWDS, to review Liturgiam authenticam and make recommendations for its revision. The committee met and sent in their report, which was not made public, to the pope. It is not clear to what extent this report may have influenced the motu proprio, but Francis does mention explicitly that he has “listened to the opinion of the commission of bishops and experts” he instituted before reaching his decision.

By taking the route of formally realigning the structures of accountability in canon law, Francis has provided immediate relief to those conferences which balked at the distortions of language and the pastoral ineptitude introduced by a rigid implementation of Liturgiam authenticam. What the final fate of Liturgiam authenticam will be, and whether a revised instruction will eventually be produced to supersede it remains to be seen. For now and for the foreseeable future, however, the pope has removed all obstacles to the regional bishops’ prudent exercise of judgment and authority concerning translation.

The motu proprio comes shortly after Pope Francis’ speech to the Italian Liturgical Conference, in which he invoked his magisterial authority to affirm that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II are “irreversible.” Taken together, these two statements have considerably strengthened the hand of those in the church who have fought to retain the freedom to adapt the liturgy to local realities and the times in which we live, a flexibility promised by Vatican II. It has also correspondingly weakened the position of those who advocate a “reform of the reform” including the desire to return to Tridentine-inspired principles of uniformity and centralized control in liturgical regulation.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the CDWDS, and frequent advocate for both Liturgiam authenticam and a “reform of the reform,” has also been put in a more disadvantageous position by these statements of the pope.

In the English-speaking world, upcoming decisions concerning new translations prepared according to Liturgiam authenticam should now be watched closely, as their approval is not a foregone conclusion. If the bishops say “no” in the future, their word is law.

Rita Ferrone is an independent scholar and author of several books on liturgy. She writes frequently for the Pray Tell Blog and Commonweal magazine, and is editor of The Yale ISM Review.