NCR: Jarring history of the liturgy wars
- View SourceNational Catholic Reporter
June 30, 2006
Jarring history of the liturgy wars
The liturgy wars, it seems, have come limping to an end. With the vote by
the U.S. bishops during their recent meeting in Los Angeles, it appears that
the latest round of battles has concluded and that before long Catholics
will have to deal with revisions to the texts used during Mass.
Those among the bishops, particularly Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., a
rare liturgist among the bishops, who argued most persistently -- in a
losing cause -- for retaining what might be called a ³user-friendly²
approach to translation, conceded graciously in the end.
³For the good of our people,² Trautman said, ³we have to make this work.²
Some other professional liturgists, largely sidelined during the translation
process, spoke in equally conciliatory tones.
For the good of the community, we are heartened by Trautman¹s resolve and
join him and others in the wish ³to make this work.²
In doing so, however, we think it important not to lose sight of how we
arrived at this final stage. It is an essential part of the post-Vatican II
It is unfortunate, though appropriate, that the language of battle has come
to characterize the debate in recent years over translations of English
texts used in Catholic worship.
The language of battle is unfortunate because liturgy is supposed to serve
as a point of union, not division. It is appropriate because the tactics
used to reverse the reforms that had resulted from the Second Vatican
Council of the 1960s and more than three decades of subsequent work were
secretive and engineered by people incompetent in the discipline and
accountable only to a small group who had achieved power. That power was
used to accomplish what they could not by persuasion or through the
mainstream of liturgical scholarship.
If wars ever have winners, then the winners in this one comprised a small
crowd of powerful actors in the Vatican, in league with others passionately
opposed to the direction that translation of documents had taken in the 35
years since Vatican II, who managed to overthrow that process and put in
place one of their own. In 1997, as John L. Allen Jr. reported nearly eight
years ago, 11 men met in secret in the Vatican ³to overhaul the American
lectionary, the collection of scripture readings authorized for use in the
Mass. Short-circuiting a six-year debate over inclusive language¹ by
retaining many of the most controversial uses of masculine vocabulary, and
revamping texts approved by the U.S. bishops, this group decided how the
Bible will sound in the American church.²
That was the beginning of the final phase of a coup that upended all of the
processes that had been in place since Vatican II, translation principles
that had been approved by a previous pope and decades of work by a number of
bishops and a host of liturgists and Bible scholars.
Of the group that met in secret, only one man (no women were included) held
a graduate degree in scripture studies; two members were not native English
speakers; another was from the United Kingdom and had spent no significant
time in the United States; and the group included several members who came
in with reputations for opposing inclusive language. ³Powers in Rome
handpicked a small group of men who in two weeks undid work that had taken
dozens of years,² the NCR report continued.
Life goes on and so will the community, even if we have to wrap our tongues
around awkward constructions that treat Latin as if it were the language
Jesus himself spoke and even if we have to wait longer for our own official
language to acknowledge that more than half the human race is female.
We can do all of that and, given that the community has persisted through
far worse, there is a certain confidence one can have in saying that we will
do all of that.
But the recitation of the history is significant in demonstrating that at
the highest levels of the community there were those who had little regard
for precedent, competence, the work of others and established process. It is
an attitude that has seeped down into lower levels of church governance,
where too often power is the only credential necessary for mandating jarring
and extreme changes to the life and practice of the community.
That way of operating seems fundamentally contrary to the instincts of a
community where life is predicated on the Christian Gospel.
In service of that Gospel, there are numerous possibilities for moving ahead
on this issue now that it has been decided. One of the most important
considerations will be acknowledging the mistakes of the past. Yes, even
though one might agree with the general direction and processes of
liturgical reform since Vatican II does not mean one automatically agrees
with every word translated or, God knows for certain, every song sung.
What will be most important is the manner and degree of educating --
catechesis -- that is done regarding the new translations and why things are
We hope that the educating is user-friendly, pragmatic as well as
theoretical and theological. Most of all, we hope professional liturgists
and practitioners are brought in as full partners in the preparation of
teaching materials and in the implementation of the new translations.
Finally, we suspect that the way forward will also include accommodating
those who simply refuse to go along and will stand in place and continue to
use the same language they¹ve been using for decades. Our suspicion is that
God will not be terribly upset by a little show of resistance.
The moment calls for the graciousness that Trautman and others have
demonstrated. We hope that discussion of liturgical reform in the future
will show similar consideration for the good of the larger community.
National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006