In the March 4 issue of America His Excellency, Bishop Donald Trautman, offered certain reflections regarding a letter that I had sent on October 26 of last year to His Excellency, Bishop Maurice Taylor, in his capacity as Chairman of the Mixed Commission for English-language liturgical translations. That letter, the contents of which have since been made public, dealt with the matter of the revision of the Statutes of the Mixed Commission, known as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.
For its own part, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments considers its correspondence confidential, and consequently does not generally make statements in the press in its regard. Nevertheless, Bishop Trautman has utilized an instrument in the public forum to express certain views about the Congregation’s initiative which can and should be answered in the same public forum out of respect, not only for His Excellency Bishop Trautman, but also for the opinions of those who will have read his article. His presentation centered on "three pivotal points," namely: the composition of original texts in English by the Commission, the requirement that its collaborators obtain the nihil obstat of the Congregation, and the requirement that liturgical translations "accurately and fully convey the content of the original texts."
The letter of last October 26, directing that the Mixed Commission revise its Statutes, did not constitute a sudden shift of position policy on the Congregation’s part. For example, the statement that the composition of original texts is "not the province of the Mixed Commission," is a repetition of a principle stated previously in a letter to the Presidents of the Conferences of Bishops sponsoring the Mixed Commission on September 20, 1997, regarding a translation of the Rites of Ordination; and also reflected in the Instruction Varietates legitimae, published by the Congregation on January 25, 1994, regarding inculturation in the Roman Liturgy (nn. 63-69).
The substantial unity of the Roman Rite is not impeded, but enriched by the fruitful interaction between the received tradition and the specific situations, needs, values, expressions, and gestures of a particular culture, and the composition of new texts is one form which such inculturation may conceivably take. Still, it is precisely the nature of inculturation which requires that it be the Bishops of a given country who should sense such a need and such a possibility, communicate the same to the Holy See, receive the approval of the latter, and oversee the adaptations as a legitimate particular expression of the Roman Rite within their own territory. On the other hand, a Commission charged with preparing texts for countries as diverse as the United States of America and the Philippines is not the type of body within which such proposals can be initiated on the proper basis and carried out in the proper manner.
Furthermore, when the composition of new texts is undertaken as part of the same project as the translation of the Roman liturgical books, then there is the danger that the authentic and integral transmission of the tradition will give way to a product which aims to replace the tradition with an entirely different reality, and which fails to convey the wealth contained in the former. When the number of original texts approaches that of the traditional Roman orations, then the substantial unity of the Roman Rite is placed in jeopardy. When such texts differ completely in function, style and length from those in the editiones typicae, then one must question whether they are in fact the result of a fruitful interaction between the received tradition and a given culture, since any such interaction is scarcely evident in the texts themselves.
Bishop Trautman sees the matter of the nihil obstat for collaborators of the Commission as "a question of collegiality." Though from a quite different perspective, the Congregation would concur with this statement, since it is precisely within the context of collegiality that the Holy See has her own unique responsibility to fulfill. In regard to liturgical texts, it is the Holy See that must grant the recognitio giving juridical effect to the approval of these texts by a Conference of Bishops for use in the Sacred Liturgy in their territory. In so doing, the Holy See can also introduce changes into the text, even substantial ones. No one has cast in doubt this function of the Holy See, which is very clear in the Church’s tradition and in her law. Yet, in the unfortunate event that a text might not receive the recognitio of the Holy See, a considerable expenditure of time, effort, and money on the part of the Bishops would have been wasted.
The Congregation therefore holds that the requirement of the nihil obstat for collaborators of the Mixed Commission is not an intrusion into the process of arriving at acceptable texts, but in fact would facilitate this process. By its very natureand indeed, even by its verbal meaningthe "nihil obstat" is granted in the absence of compelling reasons for not doing so. If such reasons do exist, on the other hand, this means that conditions also exist in which the texts that will be produced are not likely to receive the recognitio, at least without significant changes. It is the conviction of the Congregation that even a denial of a nihil obstat, coming prior to the expenditure of resources in a venture foreseen to be futile, would be far less of a hindrance to the quality of the working relationship between the Holy See and the Conferences of Bishops than the prospect of a repeated denial or long delays of the recognitio.
Neither the requirement of the nihil obstat nor the denial of the recognitio can justly be regarded as demeaning the office of the Bishops or their rightful role in connection with the Liturgy, and the same can be said of the granting of the recognitio while requiring changes. The roles of the Holy See and the Bishops are distinct and complementary, and respect for the Bishops’ office and their judgment does not permit the Holy See to abdicate her own office and her own judgment, which are exercised within the unique perspective of her role as guardian of the tradition not only of the Church as such, but of the Roman Rite in particular. Collegiality, in the sense that the Catholic Church has always understood it, requires the simultaneous exercise of both roles, and it is indeed puzzling to be faced with the seeming implication that the Bishops might more effectively exercise their collegial responsibility only in the absence of the Holy See!
It is also necessary to emphasize that the above-mentioned letter of October 26 directly addresses the role, not of the Bishops’ Conferences as such, but of a body which has been constituted by them for a specific purpose while displaying at times a manner of acting which places in doubt the degree to which its initiatives can truly be regarded as flowing from the Bishops themselves. Far from desiring to diminish the role of the Bishops in the work of liturgical translation, the Holy See would in fact hope that at least some Bishops might have been involved personally in the preparation of the vernacular version of a given text even prior to the stage of the evaluation and approbation of a final draft.
In any event, the Holy See wishes to ensure that the Commission for liturgical translations be in service to the Bishops’ own mission rather than viewing itself instead as an independent agent for liturgical renewal. Again on this point, the Congregation believes that its letter will ultimately support the working relationship between the Holy See and the Bishops, rather than threatening it. Indeed, recent experience has happily shown that frankness on controversial points such as this one helps to foster a working relationship that is mature, mutually respectful and productive.
Finally, it is necessary to address Bishop Trautman’s statement that "recent directives of the Congregation aimed at ICEL’s work appear to require a word-for-word, syntax-for-syntax correspondence between the Latin and the English texts." I am happy to clarify that this certainly is not the intention of the Congregation, since the successful translation of the liturgical texts cannot be achieved by such a wooden mechanism. Nevertheless, as emphasized in a letter from His Eminence, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dated February 1, 1997, the Congregation must ensure that the content of the original texts be conveyed faithfully and completely, without paraphrases or glosses, and hence without the omission of concepts which may have become less popular, or the introduction of others which may currently be enjoying popular favor. Sometimes it is the least popular and least understood notions which are most needed in a given time.
While many of the prayers of the Roman Rite are quite ancient, they have endured because they have within them a spiritual wealth which is perennial. Though composed in particular circumstances, they transcend the limits of their original situation to become the prayer of the Church in any place and in any age. The preservation and effective transmission of these precious treasures in a given vernacular is the first and most important purpose of liturgical translation. While liturgical prayer can and should be allowed to be formed by culture, one must never lose sight of the far more important fact that it must be formative of culture. Also, the work of translation should be deeply imbued with the realization that prayer can come from the heart only after it has been received as a gift from God, through the mediation of the Church.
There remains of course a certain freedom of style on the part of the translator, who nevertheless must bear in mind that it is often by means of stylistic devices (e.g., parallelism, chiasm, alliteration, etc.) that the dogmatic, theological or spiritual content of a text is conveyed. In the translation, stylistic elements will therefore need to be chosen carefully so as to achieve, insofar as possible, the same effect in the translation as in the original text, precisely because the translator does not have the same freedom with regard to the ideas conveyed by the text. And, as occurred in many of the most venerable translations of the Bible from Saint Jerome right down to our own day, docility to the original text may result in constructions which stretch the limits of the receptor language, though these constructions should flow gracefully enough to become comprehensible, familiar, and beloved by those who hear them and pray them repeatedly.
The Holy See is no stranger to any culture, not only because she lives in communion with all of them, but because those who assist in her daily work come from every continent. She is seasoned in the practice of discernment between innovation that is likely to be fruitful and that which is not, and this discernment need not be construed as hostility toward an authentic and appropriate originality. She has her own wealth of experience with which to evaluate and facilitate the work of liturgical translation, and this experience is a resource which would be insufficiently utilized should her role be reduced to passing judgment on a finished product that might have been much better with her assistance. And, in the final analysis, she is the one most capable of determining whether translations faithfully transmit the content of the Latin prayers of the Roman Rite, precisely because those prayers are her own heritage, and her gift to each new generation of the faithful.
With a request for your kind publication of this response to the article of His Excellency, Bishop Trautman, and with every prayerful good wish, I am,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Jorge A. Card. Medina Estévez
Francesco Pio Tamburrino