Liturgical Coup Is a Lousy Way to Do Business

National Catholic Reporter
January 30, 2004

In a recent run of articles, NCR has celebrated the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document produced by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that called for reform of the liturgy. Those articles will continue in coming weeks, but it is appropriate to pause here to take note of the liturgical news that, in effect, signals just how far those who oppose the work of Vatican II have come in reforming the reform.

Last week, we reported that a new English translation of the Mass was nearing completion. Among the changes are phrases that restore the literal translation of the Latin so that, for instance, the now familiar response, “And also with you,” will be rendered in the pre-Vatican II formulation, “And also with your spirit.”

And so on.

To many a few words here and there are not worth getting upset about. But that misses the larger point. The implications go beyond a few words, to the very idea of church, how the church enacts reform and the degree of credibility given that authoritative gathering of the world’s bishops 40 years ago.

Five years ago, when our now Vatican writer John L. Allen Jr. first began to uncover exactly how the revisionists were attacking the reform, he discovered that a secretly appointed committee of 11 men -- no women included -- met quietly at the Vatican to overturn decades of work on translation, work that had been done under the approving mandate of Pope Paul VI.

Of those 11, only one held a graduate degree in scripture studies, two were not native English-speakers, one of the advisers was a graduate student and several had a history of objecting to inclusive-language translations, including two of the American archbishops and the lone scripture scholar. A rather poor representation of scholarship and pastoral sensitivities, given the dimensions of the English-speaking segment of the church.

“What has also become clear,” our story reported, “is that the elaborate consultative process used in developing English-language translations for nearly three decades meant little. Powers in Rome handpicked a small group of men who in two weeks undid work that had taken dozens of years.”

Is there still reason to celebrate liturgical renewal? Of course. Some things, attitudes particularly, will not change significantly. And some of the excesses of that reform, which needed to be changed, are being altered in the rollback of the reform.

The unfortunate thing is that the new translations, or the return to old translations, is being done in the style of the pre-Vatican II church, heavy-handed and at the whim of those in power.

Which leaves open a not inconsequential question: If the prayer of the community is left to the formulation of those who hold power, without consideration for the extensive and long work of a much wider community, what’s to stop another liturgical coup in the future, should the people and ideas in power change?

It’s a lousy way to do the church’s business -- and it doesn’t withstand the scrutiny of serious, adult, educated Catholics in the early 21st century.


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