It all seemed so simple when Catholics prayed in Latin.
The priest said “Dominus Vobiscum,” (“The Lord be with you”). The people responded, “Et cum spiritu tuo” (“And with your spirit”). In between, some of them followed along in a book with the Latin and its translation side-by-side.
Nearly 40 years ago, however, at the behest of the Second Vatican Council, Catholics around the world started praying in their own languages in the interest of “full, conscious, and active participation” in worship. Ever since, their leaders have struggled with such thorny issues as the authenticity of translations from the Latin and their sensitivity and relevance to gender and modern culture.
Now the church is gearing up for yet another effort to refine its worship language.
Last week, the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship issued new guidelines for translating liturgical texts that include the handling of gender references as well as vocabulary, style, and syntax.
The document says the words of scripture and worship “are not intended primarily to be a sort of mirror of the interior dispositions of the faithful; rather, they express truths that transcend the limits of time and space.”
Translation, it says, is “not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language.”
Among other things, the document, known as Liturgiam Authenticam (Authentic Liturgy), reinforces the expression “Son of Man” when referring to Christ and insists that the term “fathers” retains its male identity when referring to biblical patriarchs and kings or church fathers.
When dealing with gender references, it recommends against “imprudent solutions” such as splitting a collective term like “mankind” into masculine and feminine parts.
The document, which takes effect immediately, is being welcomed by church loyalists, while progressives have condemned it as disastrous. Church officials, meanwhile, are trying to downplay its impact, saying its principles reflect discussions that have been going on for some time.
Helen Hull Hitchcock, who led an effort by three Catholic women's groups in 1989 to oppose ideologically motivated innovations of the liturgy and its texts, said she is pleased with the church's effort to see that the truth of the faith is being adequately conveyed in a way people can understand.
“We communicate by words and the church's truth is communicated by words and the words we use are very important,” said Mrs. Hitchcock, who also is on the executive committee of Adoremus, a group dedicated to authentic reform of the Catholic liturgy.
The Wanderer, a conservative Catholic newspaper, called it “the most important liturgical document issued by the Holy See since Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” The new guidelines are written in “remarkably blunt language,” the newspaper said, and assert that “liturgical disorders, innovations and abuses ... have impeded the renewal of the church as envisioned by the fathers at Vatican II.”
Mrs. Hitchcock said she hopes that the presence of a strong authoritative document on translation will help eliminate improvisations and the kinds of changes that sometimes have been made by applying correction fluid and a pencil to church lectionaries.
She said she has opposed efforts to make the church worship language more “inclusive” of women in part because she has always understood words like “man” and “mankind” to apply to all humanity when used in a collective way.
“Actually, I feel sort of insulted when people make circumlocutions to avoid offending me because I'm a woman instead of using the language naturally. I feel somehow I'm being excluded from the collective meaning of humanity.”
However, Linda Pieczynski of Call to Action, a progressive reform group, called Liturgiam Authenticam “a self-destructive act by the Vatican.”
“This document will further alienate women in the Catholic Church, especially those who feel called to liturgical roles and the priesthood,” Ms. Pieczynski said.
Call to Action supports the ordination of women, which is prohibited by the church.
But the Rev. James P. Moroney, executive director of the secretariat for the liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he does not think the document will affect inclusive-language lectionary texts that were approved earlier by the bishops' conference.
“This reaffirms the translations,” he said. “ ... I would challenge anyone to give me an example of any one of those principles approved by the bishops and confirmed by the Holy See being undone by this instruction.”
Father Moroney said, for example, the salutation in the letters of St. Paul that is now translated as “brothers and sisters” was approved by the American bishops and confirmed by the Holy See.
Likewise, he said he believes the document will allow the use of the word “ancestors” when it is clear that the text refers to both the fathers and mothers of the faith.
Father Moroney said Liturgiam Authenticam is the first church instruction on translation since 1968.
“I would daresay that if we took the 1968 instruction and compared it side-by-side to 2001, we would be hard-put to find anything [in the new one] that seems like a regression.”
Father Moroney said he doubts that people in the pew will notice a major difference after new translations are produced under the guidelines in the latest document.
“Hopefully, an improvement in translation is not something so jarring as to cause great consternation, but would be an experience that would gradually help people to come closer to what the meaning of the liturgical text really is.”
He said the document's complexity and highly technical subject matter make it prone to easy misrepresentation.
“It would be unfortunate if this document, which is subtle, nuanced, and very carefully presented, and the result of five years of input from bishops, episcopal conferences, and specialists, if it is cast in a political or power frame. Yet, that's the temptation, because it's hard to represent.”
Among the specific changes recommended are the translation of “et cum spiritu tuo” as “and with your spirit.” Although most major language groups, including French, Italian, and Spanish, say, “and with your spirit,” English-speaking Catholics now say, “and also with you.”
The document also recommends that “credo,” the beginning of the Nicene Creed, be translated as “I believe,” rather than “we believe,” as is now used.