Magnum Principium


A Scottish bishop who served for many years on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) welcomes Pope Francis’ decision to change the criteria for liturgical translation.

In an article for the May issue of Open House earlier this year, I speculated on the prospect of some papal relief for those who find the present translation of the Missal disappointing and burdensome. I wrote:-

‘There are some who have welcomed the new Missal translation as having a dignity worthy of the subject and an accuracy the need for which cannot be gainsaid.  Others argue that the art of translation lies not in reproducing each word and every element of syntax, sentence construction and punctuation of the language ex quo but which, avoiding mere paraphrase, respects the ‘ethos’ of the ‘receiving’ language.  Moreover, since the fundamental reason for the reform of the liturgy is to make it more intelligible to its users, it seems perverse to make the wording less easy for those concerned, clergy as well as laity, to grasp as they read or listen.

‘It would be good to know whether the authorities (Pope Francis, the Congregation for Divine Worship, the bishops’ conferences) have any likelihood of doing anything.  There are some hopeful indications for those who would like change…’

The answer to that enquiry has arrived much sooner than expected and with a response very favourable to those hoping for change.  An Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis (motu proprio, that is ‘on his own responsibility’) announces the decision to move the norms of good liturgical translation away from the criteria demanded by a Vatican document of 2001 called Liturgiam authenticam (criteria which are followed strictly by the Missal in present use) to the criteria followed by responsible scholars who recognise that good translation from Latin to a modern language cannot be achieved by slavish adherence to a word-for-word rendering of the Latin text.  As the Letter states: ‘Fidelity cannot always be judged by individual words but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act and according to its literary genre’.

The pope explains, in the very title and opening sentence of his decree, the reason for this fundamental change: ‘The great principle (Magnum Principium), established by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, according to which liturgical prayer be accommodated to the comprehension of the people so that it might be understood, required…’ [stress added].

There is one other important correction which the papal Letter brings to our notice.  It concerns the official approval which a liturgical text translated from the Latin must have before it can be used in the celebration of the liturgy.  Until now the right and duty to give such approval was understood (by the Holy See) to belong to the Holy See.  Many people, including liturgical scholars and experts, questioned that claim.  The correct interpretation was made more difficult to discover due to the use in various official documents of a number of different words (probare, adpropare, recognoscere, confirmare).  What is the exact meaning of these words?  Are any of them synonyms?  Do they state the right and duty of the Holy See (i.e., the Congregation for Divine Worship) or of a diocesan bishop/a conference of bishops?

Pope Francis’ Letter clarifies the correct answer to these questions.  An official explanatory note attached to the document states the following: ‘The “confirmatio” is an authoritative act by which the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments ratifies the approval of the Bishops, leaving the responsibility of translation, understood to be faithful, to the doctrinal and pastoral ‘munus’ of the Conferences of Bishops.  In brief, the “confirmation”, ordinarily granted based on trust and confidence, supposes a positive evaluation of the faithfulness and congruence of the texts produced with respect to the typical Latin text.’  [Here I append two notes: ‘munus’  means ‘the proper and official duty’; ‘typical’ here means ‘official and authoritative’].

Thus the claim hitherto made by the Congregation to be the arbiters responsible for a detailed and full assessment of translations of liturgical texts and a judgment of their worthiness is shown to be exaggerated and a wrongful usurpation of the responsibility of bishops’ conferences.  The Apostolic Letter, however, uses eirenic language to explain this teaching and to clarify what until now has been a very confused and disputed state of affairs.

The unfortunate result of the Vatican Congregation’s now superseded insistence, of course, has been the imposition, at considerable financial cost to parishes and to many individuals, of an English translation which is defective and second-rate (to put it no lower).  It is an inferior text inadequate for the task of allowing the worshipping community to participate as fully as possible and an embarrassing vehicle for expressing our prayers to God.

Our bishops have a decision to make – to retain our present Missal or to change.  The latter option would require some courage since people have become used to the wording, and especially the responses, of the Missal now in use; moreover a considerable amount of money was spent in buying copies of the Missal.  Nor any chance of refunds on grounds of false and misleading information, either.

An interesting point.  At a weekday Mass recently in a parish of Galloway diocese I explained the options to the congregation: ‘change’ (because nothing but the best for our worship of God and for the fullest participation of all present) or ‘don’t change’ (because we’re just recovering from the previous change; and more expense not wanted).  Deliberately, I did not watch as the people voted, lest they be put off by my desire to see how they voted.  There were thirty adults present. The result: 19 for change; 11 against.

I end with the proposal (here slightly expanded) with which I finished the article of last May.  Has the time for the 1998 translation, approved by all the English-speaking bishops’ conferences but banned by the Congregation for Divine Worship under the leadership of Cardinal Medina Estévez (a non-English speaker), now arrived?  Although the 1998 version needs some updating, mainly to include Masses for those made saints in the last twenty years,  it would be a great deal easier to resuscitate it than to embark on yet another translation. Is that not the road ahead that merits some serious consideration?

  1. A final irreverent thought. Don’t you think that there is a somewhat Brexit character to this matter of the Missal translation? The options, the choice to be made, the growing awareness that, lacking details, the wrong choice was made, the increasing disdain for Theresa May and her leadership.  Ah, well!  Who would want to be a bishop these days?!                                 

Maurice Taylor is Bishop Emeritus of Galloway Diocese.  He was a member of the Episcopal Board of ICEL for over ten years, where he represented Scotland, and chaired the Commission from 1997-2002. His latest book, Thoughts on the Sunday Gospels, is available from price £10 including post and packing.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.