Monday, July 17, 2006

A Better Way to Change Catholic Liturgical Language

The National Catholic Reporter’s 6/30/06 edition had an editorial, “Jarring history of the liturgy wars,” on upcoming changes to the liturgical English that Catholics in the United States have used for over three decades. NCR made some helpful suggestions on ways the changes could be implemented more constructively. I would like to second theirs, and add a few of my own.

The U.S. bishops resisted Vatican pressure for the changes for nearly a decade—for a time even pushing in the opposite direction, by trying to make some of the established language more gender inclusive. This June, however, the bishops voted 179 to 29 in favor of the changes, which are designed to make the English mass a more slavishly literal translation of the existing Latin text. In so doing, the bishops abandoned not only gender-inclusiveness but also some English translations that had made more sense to American ears than the Vatican-favored replacements.

For perspective, it needs to be noted that the language to be replaced was hardly the epitome of English liturgical usage in the first place. In considering more inclusive language, for instance, the bishops recognized that some changes to the language were desirable. The problem is that familiar words that American congregations are used to reciting in unison are being disrupted needlessly, for no really good reason and generally with no real gain. Meanwhile, language that would benefit from change is left in place.

The ho-hum character of many of the changes is quite obvious:

When the celebrant says “The Lord be with you” (an almost literal translation of the Latin “Dominus vobiscum”), does it ultimately make much difference whether the people say “And also with you” (the current English response) or “And with your spirit” (a more word-by-word rendering of the Latin “Et cum spiritu tuo”)?

In reciting the Profession of Faith (i.e., the Creed adopted by the Council of Nicea), is it all that material whether the congregation calls God the creator “of all things seen and unseen” (now) or “of all things visible and invisible” (planned)?

Is it really that earth-shaking whether before sharing the eucharist the people say “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” (now) or “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” (the planned substitute, which is closer to the biblical quotation but also more clumsy)?

There is one Vatican-favored translation which the bishops declined. Yet the challenge seems puny and inconsequential. What difference does it make, at another point in the Profession of Faith, whether the people describe Jesus as “one in Being with the Father” (now) or as “consubstantial with the Father” (planned)? “Consubstantial” won’t significantly increase the level of real orthodoxy in the pews. More to the point: being and substance have been problematic terms in philosophy for centuries. Theologically the more pressing need is to re-think them, rather than to decide how best to translate them from Latin.

It seems the only real point to the changes is to make conservative Catholics feel like they are being more loyal to the doctrinal conservatives in Rome. The most conservative feel that the Latin mass was hijacked—and made Protestant—when it was reworded (into four official eucharistic prayers for grown-ups rather than one) and offered in a few hundred local languages, including English. When the official church relegated the old Tridentine mass (the Latin mass crafted by the Council of Trent) to very occasional times and places—and decided that the celebrant should face the congregation instead of the wall of the church building where the reserved eucharist was housed—the most conservative felt betrayal, loss and pain. They feel the tables were finally turned when conservative bishops appointed under John Paul II took actions to reverse much of Vatican II in local dioceses. They will greet the new liturgical language as more vindication for how isolated, excluded and powerless they were made to feel in the decades after Vatican II. To those who do not like these changes or who did not get the changes they wanted, they will say—gleefully—“Now you know how it feels.”

They have a point, although like everything else, it works only within limits. The point can be raised in addressing how liturgical changes were conceived and implemented during and after Vatican II. And it can be raised in connection with the upcoming changes. The point is invoked by the question: Is it crucial to the identity and survival of the church that its liturgical language and practice be as identical as possible around the globe? The answer is yes, and no.

The answer is yes, insofar as identity is a function of repetition. Part of the Catholic identity is guaranteed by normative liturgical language and practice repeated weekly and in many places daily throughout the world. If there is going to be a Roman Catholic Church, there must be normative liturgical language which congregations expect celebrants to lead them in following. If the Catholic bishops of the world conclude, as they did at Vatican II, that liturgical reforms are needed, the reforms had to be treated as normative and implemented as normative after the Council. And if the reforms are normative, then language and practices which go counter to the reforms cannot be officially encouraged—whether the focus is on language and practices which Vatican II decided were no longer productive, or on the authority of the Vatican II bishops to make such decisions. But does normative liturgical language and practice absolutely prohibit every instance of non-normative language and practice?

Considering the way Vatican II’s liturgical changes were implemented, we should be able to say that the answer is no. Had more accommodation been made of the replaced language and practice—so that, for instance, more times and places were set aside for the Tridentine mass to be celebrated for those who just couldn’t stomach the new eucharistic prayers—then perhaps there would not be so many disaffected, vengeful Catholic conservatives now.

As it was, some questionable paraliturgical practices cherished by conservative Catholics were allowed to continue. The conservatives stuck with them and, when more conservative bishops were again in vogue, sought to mandate them with a vengeance.

Take, for example, practices related to “Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament” and the related “Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.” Both focus on veneration of consecrated bread leftover from the mass as a visible embodiment of Jesus himself. For years before and after Vatican II, liturgical experts expressed the concern that these practices seriously distorted the theology of Jesus’ real presence in the eucharist. In classes in Catholic theology schools, the sardonic remark often heard from professors about such veneration was that it is easier to believe that the bread is Jesus, than to believe it is bread!

The point was that placing the consecrated host in a monstrance, exposing it on an altar and using the monstrance in Benediction to give the congregation a blessing (regarded by some as more potent than a blessing without the monstrance) did little to advance a genuine theology of real presence. The Catholic theologians were emphatic that the real presence of the Risen Lord was accomplished by the congregation’s sharing of the bread (and wine) as Jesus bid them to do in his memory. Reserving some of consecrated bread to bring to the sick was a legitimate extension of that sharing. But separately venerating leftover consecrated bread as a visible religious object apart from the mass was regarded as a corruption. The evidence was also quite strong that the practices tended to go hand-in-hand with a “Jesus and me” spirituality which left out the local Catholic community as another essential embodiment of Jesus’ presence. Yet the practices remained available in official texts.

What all this illustrates is that, when the church decides it is time to reform liturgical language and practice, it has a variety of ways it can deal with disfavored language and practice. It can and should rule out language and practices it finds to be destructive of Christian community or charity, the church’s mission to the world or the church’s Catholic identity. It can and should allow times and places where previously approved language and practice that are not destructive of those things can still be enjoyed by those who find them meaningful. And its judgments about which departures are allowable and which are not may have to be revised over time.

And, with a view to the future, the church can and should allow times and places where those who want to propose new liturgical language and practice (meeting the same criteria just specified) can propose them and try them with willing congregations, to learn if it might add value eventually to offer them as additional normative options down the road. After Vatican II, for example, liturgical experts faithful to the history of the Catholic liturgy offered experimental eucharistic prayers that followed the structure of the approved ones but offered language that many small congregations found more beautiful and more inspirational than the official language. Over the years it became so officially disfavored for a celebrant to try such prayers that it is almost impossible to find any place where such activity will not be reported to and forbidden by the local conservative bishop. That leaves the Catholic Church in the ironic position of having to look to other Christian churches to develop and try better liturgical language and practice.

The proposal, then, is that even as it adopts new normative liturgical language from time to time, the Catholic Church would benefit from finding ways to accommodate exceptions. So long as they are not destructive of other virtues the church aspires to embody and promote, these exceptions should include previous normative language that has been surpassed and new experimental language that can lead to new normative language in the future. So long as the normative language is being repeated thousands of times a month in many tongues around the globe, there is little danger of its normativity being challenged. If the new official texts are all that their proponents believe them to be, they should yield abundant good fruit and endure. They should cause preference for their predecessors to diminish over time. And they should be implemented with the understanding that, like their predecessors, they may be improvable, and one of the primary sources for such improvements should be the lived experiences of Catholic communities.

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