Liturgiam Authenticam and the New Vulgate

The story is told of the Irish woman, 40 years married and the mother of seven, who left church after hearing a sermon from a young priest on marriage and motherhood and remarked, "Sure and I wish I knew as little about it as he does." Having spent the last 17 years working on Bible translation and revision, I was reminded of these words when I read the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus’s column on "Bible Babel" (First Things, May 2001). He is unhappy that "English-speaking Christians have largely lost a common biblical vocabulary as a consequence of the proliferation of translations" and refers to an earlier column in which he wrote that if he had the authority, "everybody would use the Revised Standard Version." Father Neuhaus can perhaps take heart, for help is on the way—or will be, if a recent document from the Congregation for Divine Worship, Liturgiam Authenticam ("Authentic Liturgy"), is implemented. The result, however, would not be the imposition of the RSV, but of still another Bible translation, one that might resemble the Douay-Rheims.

Liturgiam Authenticam is not to be taken lightly. If implemented, it would have a serious impact in at least three areas: ecclesiology, inculturation and biblical scholarship. Gravest would be the ecclesial impact. What does such an arbitrary exercise of authority by a Roman office over conferences of bishops imply for collegiality? The earlier move of the Congregation for Divine Worship to impose its authority over the International Commission for English in the Liturgy would reduce conferences’ control over their own liturgies; this new document lays the foundation for Vatican micromanagement of almost every aspect of liturgical texts. After being forced to accept a Lectionary quite different from one they had approved, and after being forced to withdraw the imprimatur from the ICEL psalter, many bishops may be wondering what new medicine is in store if they swallow this latest pill. And one wonders how the Orthodox and Protestants will regard the idea of rapprochement with a church given to such authoritarianism as is evidenced in Liturgiam Authenticam.


Difficulties for inculturation can be seen in the rejection of inclusive language. The arguments of the document seem intended to contradict explicitly the Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use composed by the bishops’ Joint Committee on Inclusive Language (J.C.I.L.), adopted and promulgated by the N.C.C.B. in 1990. The American bishops said, for example: "Words such as men, sons, brothers...forefathers...which once were understood as inclusive generic terms, today are often understood as referring only to males" (J.C.I.L. Criteria, No. 18). So also the bishops quite accurately stated that "words such as adam, anthropos and homo" in the original languages actually denote human beings rather than only males and direct that "English terms that are not gender-specific, such as person, people...should be used in translating these words" (No. 19).

Liturgiam Authenticam, on the other hand, says, "In many languages there exist nouns and pronouns denoting both genders...together in a single term. The insistence that such usage should be changed is not necessarily to be regarded as the effect or the manifestation of an authentic development of the language as such" (No. 30). As if to underline its refusal to accept any "development of the language as such," the English translation of Liturgiam Authenticam gives "man’s intellect" in translation of hominis intellectum (No. 28) and "equality of all men" for aequalitatem omnium hominum (No. 29).

Much has already been written on inclusive language, and there is no need to pursue the matter here. The primary interest of this article is the impact of Liturgiam Authenticam on biblical scholarship, an impact that could be substantial and certainly deleterious.

Liturgiam Authenticam mandates that Bible translations conform to the Nova Vulgata, the New Vulgate, in many ways. Nova Vulgata is a revision of a critical edition (produced by the monks of San Girolamo in Rome) of St. Jerome’s Vulgate, but with correction of many of the Vulgate’s errors by reference to the original languages. Liturgiam Authenticam quite properly says that Scripture texts should be translated from the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek (No. 24), but it also introduces quite a number of restrictions and determinations as to the translation of specific terms (Nos. 30, 31a-g, 43). Still to come is a ratio translationis (guide to translations), which is to apply the principles "in closer detail, including a list of vernacular words to be equated with their Latin counterparts" (No. 9). Literal translation is commended, even when the result may sound odd, because "it should be borne in mind that a literal translation of terms which may initially sound odd...may for this very reason provoke inquisitiveness in the hearer and provide an occasion for catechesis" (No. 43).

Liturgiam Authenticam admonishes us that "in translating biblical passages where seemingly inelegant words or expressions are used, a hasty tendency to sanitize [Latin: abstergendi] this characteristic be avoided" (No. 27). But the Nova Vulgata itself seems to be rather inconsistent in this. Thus, in the several places where there is reference to destroying every male, the Vulgate rendered the Hebrew as mingens ad parietem ("who pisses against the wall"). Nova Vulgata now has quidquid masculini sexus ("any of the male sex"—1 Sam. 25:21, 34; 1 Kgs. 14:10; 16:11; 21:21; 2 Kgs. 9:8). On the other hand, where the Vulgate had expressions such as sicut immunditiam menstruatae (" like the uncleanness of a menstruous woman"), the Nova Vulgata has retained the same or a similar expression (Isa. 30:22; Ezek. 18:6; 22:10; 36:16; Lam. 1:17; Bar. 6:28[27]). Only in Isa. 64:6[5] has the expression been softened from pannus menstruatae to pannus inquinatus, "polluted rag"). Apparently the p-word is to be "sanitized" but the m-word is to be retained.

In addition, Hebrew and Greek have a whole series of terms for inner body parts that are normally translated with English terms evocative of the emotions they are intended to express ("heart," "breast," etc.), whereas Nova Vulgata, following the Vulgate, fairly regularly uses viscera for all but leb ("heart"). Since Liturgiam Authenticam mandates a literal translation, especially with regard to body parts (cf. No. 43), should we expect a return to "her bowels were moved upon her child" (1 Kgs. 3:26) or references to the "bowels of commiseration" (Phil. 2:1) of the Douay-Rheims?

The most serious implications of Liturgiam Authenticam for biblical studies have to do with textual criticism. Liturgiam Authenticam mandates that "the liturgical translation must be prepared in accordance with the same manuscript tradition that the Nova Vulgata has followed." Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, had provided a whole section on the importance of textual criticism, i.e., the employment of every means to establish as exactly as possible the original texts in the original languages (No. 17-22). In this section the pope also explained the sense in which the Council of Trent declared the Vulgate to be "authentic," a sense still often misrepresented and misunderstood today. The authors of Liturgiam Authenticam seem determined to confer upon the Nova Vulgata an authority that the original Vulgate never had.

Textual criticism requires that Scripture scholars seek out the best manuscript traditions available. This involves, among other things, an ongoing evaluation of the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of which are still being published. For every biblical scholar and serious student, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia is a familiar tool that provides a critical edition of the Leningrad Codex of the Hebrew text, along with an apparatus that lists relevant variant readings from other Hebrew manuscripts, including those from Qumran, the early translations (Septuagint, Syriac, Vulgate, Vetus Latina [Old Latin]) and other resources. Whereas Nova Vulgata is set in concrete as of 1979, the work of textual criticism by such imposing scholars as P. W. Skehan, Eugene Ulrich, Joseph Ziegler, Moshe Goshen-Gottstein, Frank Cross, Emanuel Tov and others continues.

To suggest that all these rich resources should now be abandoned in favor of the textual tradition followed by Nova Vulgata is unthinkable. Although Nova Vulgata is a great improvement over the Vulgate and corrects many of its errors, in terms of textual criticism it is a very imperfect work. In a letter to The Tablet (5/26), the Rev. John Fitzsimmons, former chair of the Advisory Committee of ICEL’s episcopal board, wrote, "From a biblical scholar’s point of view, which is what I am by profession, to be told that all matters of textual doubt must be resolved by reference to the Neo-Vulgate is risible as well as insulting." This can be easily documented from scholarly reviews of Nova Vulgata.

The Book of Sirach (also called Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus), one of the deuterocanonical books, provides an example. In producing the Vulgate, St. Jerome did little with the deuterocanonical books, because he thought that only the books of the Hebrew Bible were inspired. Although he included the deuterocanonical books in the Vulgate at the insistence of church authority, he took no pains with them. The case of the Book of Tobit is well known. He claimed to have translated it in one night. The reference to three nights of abstinence from intercourse for Tobiah and Sarah (8:4-5) was probably his own invention; it hardly concurs with Raguel’s digging a grave and hastily filling it in when the couple were found safe on their wedding night.

For Sirach St. Jerome put into the Vulgate "the Old Latin (Vetus Latina), of which Alexander A. Di Lella, O.F.M., an authority on Sirach, has written: the Old Latin of Sirach has more doublets, variants, glosses, and interpolations than any other book of the Latin Bible" and "offers abundant difficulties of its own, viz., double and even triple renderings, additions, transpositions, Christian reworkings, and a few omissions as well" (The Wisdom of Ben Sira, 1987, pp. 57 and 60). Yet this is the text Nova Vulgata basically follows for Sirach and that Liturgiam Authenticam would impose for the Lectionary (and for the Bible generally speaking). Many of these expansions are, indeed, already found in the new Lectionary.

The program proposed by Liturgiam Authenticam is unthinkable, because it would result in the isolation of Catholic biblical scholars from the mainstream of biblical scholarship. It would mean that Catholic scholars could no longer collaborate with others in biblical projects, for such a restrictive, unscholarly procedure could never be acceptable. What would happen in practice is that Catholic biblical scholarship would become less Catholic, because it would be impossible to submit to such restrictions and still qualify as scholarship.

The most poorly conceived proposal of Liturgiam Authenticam, and the most unrealistic, is that there should be only one Bible translation in use, one that conforms to the rules laid down in Liturgiam Authenticam: "in every territory there should exist only one approved translation," the one used in the liturgy, which is also to be used for private study and reading, so that it will be possible for the faithful to commit to memory at least significant passages (No. 36). From what has preceded, it is clear that a Bible produced à la Liturgiam Authenticam would be a poor product and that its imposition for general use would compound the mischief. And to think that such a translation would become the one in general use is unrealistic.

Father Neuhaus wants to impose the Revised Standard Version on everyone, and his column quoted another view favoring the King James Version. For many years K.J.V. was far and away the best seller, but of late the New International Version heads the field. Before the new Lectionary was approved, Catholic parishes had a choice among Lectionariesthe New American Bible, the Jerusalem Bible or the R.S.V.and more than 90 percent of them chose the N.A.B. Those who teach Scripture would not use a Bible dependent on the poor text-critical principles proposed by Liturgiam Authenticam. In addition, in our culture the Internet has become an important medium for communicating biblical texts. De gustibus non est disputandum is a well-known axiom, and Father Neuhaus’s preference for the R.S.V. is defensible. Liturgiam Authenticam’s desire to make one text fit all tastes is not.

The earliest record of the exercise of church authority has the Apostles proclaim: "It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden other than that which is necessary" (Acts 15:29). Is this not a wise course also today?

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11 years 10 months ago
I support the contention of the biblical scholar Joseph Jensen, O.S.B., (8/13) that current Vatican attempts to micromanage biblical translations (and thus biblical scholarship) with the flawed “Rosetta Stone” of the Nova Vulgata is insulting and risible. It is risible even to me, a 64-year-old layperson who has just finished two semesters of Hebrew at the local Quaker seminary, just to challenge myself. I not only learned beginning Hebrew, I also learned to use Hermeneutika’s computerized Bible Works 4, which enables me to view biblical passages not only in Hebrew and Greek, but also in 20 other languages and 64 translations. I can compare the various English translations I have chosen, side by side with the Hebrew text. And I can also highlight each Hebrew word, review meanings of the word and how it is parsed and weigh the virtues of the various English translations. If Hermeneutika ever adds official translations of the Nova Vulgata to the program, even novices like myself will be able to compare the quality of the translations and also assess limitations, like those pointed out by Father Jensen and his fellow scholars. I think it is a bit late now for the Vatican to attempt, by academic compromise, to cloister Catholics from a multidimensional faith, experienced in competent biblical scholarship and emerging technology.

11 years 10 months ago
Thank you for the scholarly and insightful article by Joseph Jensen, O.S.B., in which he convincingly illustrates how ill advised are some of the directives of Liturgiam Authenticam, especially the demand that Bible translations conform to the Latin New Vulgate (8/13). But will his voice be heard? One of the frequently quoted requirements from this new document is that the Creed be translated in the singular from the Latin, Credo in unum Deum; but the original Greek of the Creed, as formulated by the first two ecumenical councils of the church during the fourth century, is clearly in the plural. It would seem that a document that insists on literal translations would require that the Creed be translated from its original language, in the plural, as “We believe in one God.” It is the Latin translation, not the English translation we now employ, that is not literal.

There is a further principle to be observed. When the Creed is part of a baptismal commitment or when it is the abjuration of heresy, it is properly expressed in the singular; but as a liturgical text to be proclaimed by the initiated faithful, it is properly in the plural. It would seem that this document requires close scrutiny and interpretation, especially by the diocesan bishops, who are “the governors, promoters, and guardians of the entire liturgical life in the church committed to them” (“Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church,” No. 15, which is quoted verbatim by Canon 835).

11 years 10 months ago
Joseph Jensen, O.S.B., writes (8/13) that if Liturgiam Authenticam is implemented “it would have a serious impact in at least three areas: ecclesiology, inculturation and biblical scholarship.” He then gives a devastating demonstration of the last of these. I hope others come forward to speak of the ecclesiological implications of this document, and I would hope those trained in canon law would be among them. As for inculturation, this must be addressed by liturgists, by poets, by those whose profession is translation and by other scholars who know what makes language “work,” especially ritual language. Those concerned with ecumenism and with justice should add their voices, for Liturgiam Authenticam treads heavily in these areas too.

11 years 10 months ago
“Liturgiam Authenticam and the New Vulgate” (8/13) by Joseph Jensen, O.S.B., secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association in the United States, together with press reports of the letter from Richard Clifford, S.J, to all the U.S. bishops were interesting indeed. But in one respect they were in error. The absolutely splendid edition of the Vulgate produced by the Benedictines of St. Jerome’s Monastery (now combined with the Stuttgart revisions) is not the Nova Vulgata.

That distinction is reserved for the version produced by the commission under the presidency of Edward Schick, Bishop of Fulda, in response to the request of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council for a new critical edition of the Psalter using the vocabulary of the church Fathers (Sacrosanctum Concilium IV, 91).

This commission was formed by Pope Paul VI in 1964 and began working during the council. The next year, on Nov. 29, 1965, the Pope’s motu proprio extended the revision to the whole Vulgate. The first drafts were published in 1970 by the Vatican Press, and a full edition in 1979. Incidentally, the text was not “frozen in 1979.” Kurt Aland, the great text critic of Stuttgart, produced four editions of the Neo-Vulgate between 1984 and 1992, and in the preface of Sept. 30, 1983, he thanks Bishop Schick for sending him the lists of changes made in the text since the edition of 1979. Apparently some in the C.B.A. do not know as much about the Bible as we had always assumed.


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