The new translations of the Roman Missal will come to U.S. parishes on the first Sunday of Advent in 2011—translations that already have proved controversial. Since their shortcomings have been catalogued exhaustively in periodicals like America, there is no need to rehash them, except to recall that words like “ineffable” or sentences that run on for 88 words probably will not engage most parishioners. At this point it may be helpful to look at the situation from a different angle.
Since the time of Plato, the problem of politics has been to secure the place of justice in the city. The Catholic teaching that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity”(“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 40) gives some hope that justice might be attained. As a Catholic and a political theorist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the practice of Catholic faith can offer solutions to political problems.
Many imaginative ways of integrating Catholic faith into social and political life have emerged in the last two centuries. They culminated in a renewed awareness of something that might surprise people outside the Catholic Church: the role of liturgy. In the 20th century, scholars of liturgical reform offered the following syllogism: Pius X tells us that the liturgy is the indispensable source of the true Christian spirit. Pius XI says that the true Christian spirit is indispensable for social regeneration. Hence the conclusion: The liturgy is the indispensable basis of Christian social regeneration.
Such lofty propositions were brought to practical levels by men like Msgr. George Higgins (1916–2002), who put the connection between liturgy and social transformation to work in the labor movement. Monsignor Higgins, a Chicago priest who headed the bishops’ social action department for decades, was known as “the labor priests’ priest.” His mentor, the pioneer in U.S. social action and liturgical renewal, Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand (1897–1979), put the matter even more plainly: The Mass helps us “learn our oneness at the altar and to bring that oneness to the other relations of life.”
While the most important functions of the liturgy remain spiritual, other ways of thinking of liturgy are also important. Liturgy is “social” action, according to the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” of the Second Vatican Council, which also describes it as “the fountain from which all [the church’s] power flows”; liturgy “inspires the faithful to ‘become of one heart in love.’” For these reasons, the council promoted the laity’s “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy so that they may enjoy the “abundance of graces” available at Mass. Liturgy intensifies “the daily growth of Catholics in Christian living.” Full, conscious and active participation at Mass changes us; we can bring that change to the world.
The Altar and Daily Life
Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., of Denver, agrees. He recently described a “vocation of all Christian citizens” to “sanctify the world” through our actions. Catholics hear much from the bishops about the need for us to speak up in politics and about the evangelization of culture. Yet it is questionable whether such goals are served by an approach to liturgy (and, therefore, to social action shaped by Christian awareness) that purposefully seeks to separate what happens around the altar from what we Christians do in the rest of our daily lives. We should be aware of a danger: that the distance we create between liturgy and everyday life will widen, not shrink, the distance between Christian faith and the social order.
An instruction on the translation of the liturgy (“Liturgiam Authenticam,” issued by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship in 2001) criticized the vernacular translations in use as sometimes emphasizing “novelty or variety” over faithfulness to the tradition. This instruction, on which the new translations are based, identified a need for a liturgy spoken in a “sacral vernacular” different in “vocabulary, syntax and grammar” from “everyday speech.”
I am not defending the English translations in use today, which, in fairness, have deficiencies that deserve attention. But it is worth pointing out that those translations have brought two generations of lay people into a fuller awareness of what happens at Mass. To eschew the ordinary rhythms of spoken English because they are “prevailing modes of expression” or because people understand them readily seems unwise, especially considering that things spiritual may be lost. If parishioners are alienated from the action of the Mass by language that seems strange to them, then the church risks encouraging Catholics to isolate their faith from their lives at work, at school, at home and in the public square.
These translations are finished, the Holy See has approved them and they are coming to the parish. American bishops have plans to offer an “appropriate catechesis” to prepare the laity (which seems like an acknowledgment that there are problems with the new translations). Catholics must hope the bishops’ efforts succeed and pray that the bishops are aware of the potential social and political dangers of this liturgical transformation.
Catholics in the United States have spent a long time climbing out of a ghetto imposed by an immigrant past. It would be a shame if the coming approach to liturgy became a new ghetto of the church’s own choosing, one that encloses us in a language so precious that we hesitate to use it outside the church.