The Catholic Liturgical Controversy and Why We All Have A Stake In It

The New York Times of April 12, 2011 prepares the Roman Catholic communities of the English speaking world for a new translation of the mass. The maelstrom of charges and countercharges surrounding it illustrates how vital liturgy is in defining identity; at stake is a whole lot more than an ivory tower debate about the meaning of the Latin.

The “old” translation that the new one replaces followed a historic 1963 decision to authorize prayer in the vernacular in the first place. That ruling heralded a newly liberalized era for Roman Catholics. Among other things, it invited lay participation in a liturgy that had been dominated by priests; acknowledged the adverse impact of sexist language; broke down social distance between clergy and congregants; invited a new look at what united Christians rather than what separated them from each other; and abolished prayers that had fostered anti-Semitism.

The new translation heralds an equally significant shift in Catholic identity: a return of the Church to its conservative moorings.

Whereas Catholics now declare “Jesus Christ … one in being with the Father,” the new liturgy calls him “consubstantial with the father.” In the old liturgy, “he descended to the dead.” In the new one, “He descended into Hell.” In the old liturgy, the presider’s opening greeting, “The Lord be with you,” elicited the congregational response, “And also with you.” The new one has the people say, “And with your spirit.”

Critics of the proposed new liturgy charge it with (among other things) obfuscating meaning for everyday people (what’s “consubstantial”?); demanding word for word translation from the Latin at the expense of normative English word flow;  and actually missing the point of what the framers of the Latin would themselves have said if they had spoken twenty-first-century English. Advocates of change think the liturgy of the past forty or so years has twisted church doctrine and liberalized Catholic thinking to the point of encouraging moral laxity. The new texts are supposed to produce what the Vatican has labeled liturgiam authenticam, a liturgy that is “authentic.”

As an outsider, I have no legitimate standing in this internal debate. But as a liturgist, I know something about liturgical authenticity. It doesn’t exist.

We legitimately call a suspected Rembrandt or Ming vase “authentic” because we can compare them to a set of unarguably authentic specimens (the corpus of Rembrandt paintings or collections of undisputed Ming vases). When it comes to liturgical translations, however, there are no originals to point to. Nor can you point to the Latin, since it is precisely the meaning of the Latin that is at issue. The same is true of theology: what counts as authentic belief is what the argument is all about to start with.

Conservatives frequently use the word “authentic” to chide liberals for playing fast and free with “the real thing.” Using “authentic” that way is not, well, not “authentic.” It’s not the way “authentic” is authentically used.  By all means, let the Church do due diligence in debating what it wishes to pray, but not under the misleading rubric of authenticity.

The real issues are much deeper than a pseudo-debate on authenticity. What should Catholics believe about God, human nature, and the promise of salvation? What is the proper relationship between the laity and the clergy? Should Catholics be in communion with Protestants? What do Catholics believe about Jews?

How the church goes about deciding these deeper liturgical questions says a lot about who has power and who doesn’t. How hierarchical should the twenty-first century Church be? Who gets to weigh in on liturgical matters? Whose opinion counts and whose does not?

As a Jew, I have no say on Catholic doctrine, but I do have an interest in it. The whole world does. At stake is a great Church with a magnificent heritage. Under the impact of Vatican II, it apologized for anti-Semitism, and rejected its imperialistic past. It emerged from medieval triumphalism and sought common ground with others. Through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it has issued conscientious statements on matters of economic justice and human equality. We should hope that it remains a mighty force in the world, allying with good people everywhere in the fight for saving the planet, ending hunger, and achieving world harmony.

I don’t have to be Catholic to pray that the new translation does not further divide Catholics from others, or return the Catholic Church to the day when it thought Jews were damned, men counted more than women, and no one else had God’s truths. I hope the Church does not decide that “authenticity” to the Catholic past trumps possibility for the human future.

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3 responses to “The Catholic Liturgical Controversy and Why We All Have A Stake In It

  1. Pingback: A Culture of Convolution « God Didn't Say That

  2. Obviously a reflection of the Pope who was known for his conservative writings when he was just a Cardinal/Bishop. Clearly it impacts the Jewish world depending on what areas of their liturgy is changed if it relates to us.

  3. Pingback: Sunday Best: from Latin Star Wars to that Wednesday Last Supper

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