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NCR: Jarring history of the liturgy wars

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  • Douglas Cowling
    National Catholic Reporter June 30, 2006 Editorial: Jarring history of the liturgy wars The liturgy wars, it seems, have come limping to an end. With the vote
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 3, 2006
      National 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 Œinclusive 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
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