Catholic World News

New papal document could re-ignite debate on liturgical translations

September 11, 2017

Pope Francis has amended the Code of Canon Law to give national bishops’ conferences the primary role in approving the translations of liturgical texts.

The motu proprio Magnum Principium, released on September 8, is consistent with the Pope’s push for decentralization of Church authority. By amending #838 of the Code of Canon Law, he removes the task for translation from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, giving the responsibility instead to individual episcopal conferences.

On paper, Magnum Principium involves only a minor shift in jurisdiction. But in practice the Pope’s move is likely to have considerable impact, possibly re-igniting the battles over translations that were fought with particular vigor in the English-speaking world in the 1990s.

The papal document was released shortly after Pope Francis declared that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II are “irreversible.” Although the Pope has not shown a great interest in discussion of the liturgy, the new motu proprio has been widely interpreted as a reversal of a trend toward ending liturgical experimentation: a trend that began under Pope John Paul II and was enthusiastically supported by Pope Benedict XVI.

In 2001, the Vatican released Liturgiam Authenticam, a document designed to provide guidelines for liturgical translations. That document—which called upon translators to adhere as closely as possible to the language of original Latin texts—remains in effect. However, the new papal document is already being hailed by critics of Liturgiam Authenticam as grounds for a reconsideration of the fundamental principles of translation, and for a fresh effort to provide new English-language translations for the liturgy.

Even under the terms of the motu proprio, the Vatican retains the authority to recognize new translations. However, national episcopal conferences are now charged with the responsibility to “faithfully prepare visions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.”

Pope Francis explains that the existing Vatican documents on liturgical translation “were and remain at the level of general guidelines and, as far as possible, must be followed by liturgical commissions as the most suitable instruments…” He writes that the liturgical texts in vernacular languages should approximate the Latin originals “for their elegance of style and the profundity of their conceptions with the aim of nourishing the faith.”

In an explanatory note accompanying the papal document, Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, notes that the Vatican will continue to review and evaluated adaptations of liturgical rites. But for translations, he explained, his dicastery will “confirm” the decisions of the local bishops’ conferences. “Obviously,” the archbishop writes, “this presupposes a positive evaluation of the fidelity and congruence of the texts produced in respect to the typical editions on which the unity of the rite is founded, and, above all, taking account of the texts of greatest importance, in particular the sacramental formulae, the Eucharistic Prayers, the prayers of ordination, the Order of Mass and so on.”

It is noteworthy that Pope Francis called upon Archbishop Roche to provide the explanatory note, rather than giving that task to Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Cardinal Sarah, who has been an strong defender of traditional approaches to the liturgy, may have been bypassed in the preparation of the new document.

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