A deeply flawed decision

TOM MAGILL questions the Scottish bishops’ choice of the English Standard Version as the biblical text for the new catholic lectionary.

The English Standard Version of the bible, a translation published by a group of Evangelical American scholars in 2001, has been chosen by the Scottish bishops, following the English and Indian Conferences of bishops, as the text for the new Lectionary for Catholic Liturgy. This decision has already drawn criticism regarding the adequacy of the translation and its appropriateness for use as a Catholic liturgical text. In particular, the conscious choice of the translators to reject inclusive language has been considered by some as reason enough to object to the use of this translation in the Catholic Church. In this essay, I would like to move beyond these particular critiques, necessary though they are, to reflect on the choice in light of our Catholic understanding of Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium.



The early Church understood the importance of drawing up a scriptural canon, a closed and authoritative list of the books considered to be divinely inspired. They understood that these books both emerged from the believing communities and in turn formed the faith and life of those communities. This process involved selecting certain texts and rejecting others. The insight of the early church was that this canon was necessary for community identity and the unity necessary to bind the diverse communities together in one faith. The canon thus became a benchmark for belonging. To add to it or take away from it was to damage identity and unity.


Martin Luther profoundly understood these insights regarding the canon’s role in fostering unity, identity and belonging. In this light, it is no accident that he chose to reformulate the canon of Scripture in order to clearly demarcate the churches of the Reform from the Roman Catholic Church. By rejecting what he called the Apocrypha, later known as the Deuterocanonicals in the Catholic Church, he created a new foundational text. From that moment there were Catholic bibles and Protestant bibles and the respective translations would reflect the different theologies, ecclesiologies and self-understandings of the divided churches. It is important to note that these differences are not superficial since all translators bring to the task in hand their own world view, presuppositions and theological horizons which are then reflected in the translated text. For instance, it is doubtful that the translators of the ESV would acknowledge what Pope Francis calls the ‘distinctively sacramental character’ of the proclaimed Word of God’.


Recent scholarship has revived interest in the study of the canon and its place in the interpretation of the Scriptures. It views the canon as ‘a prism through which light from the different aspects of the Christian life is refracted’ and looks at the meaning which the overall text – in its final form – has  for the community which uses it. The canon thus becomes the context in which every individual part of scripture is read and interpreted. This approach is a valiant attempt to wrest control of the interpretation of Scripture from the academy back to the believing communities for which these texts were written. ‘The words which compose the text draw their meaning from the context and setting in which they are meant to be read.’ This approach highlights, perhaps unknowingly, that the different canons within the Christian churches will influence greatly the translation and interpretation of the component parts of the canon—the context and setting in which the words are read will seep into the act of translation. Consequently, because of their different canons, Protestant and Catholic bibles are quite different texts. Adding the Catholic Deuterocanonical books to the ESV, or emending a word here or there, does not make of it a Catholic edition, far less a Catholic bible. The influence of the canon on the translation is too great and too deep and will resist emendation and addition. It is fair to say, then, that what is being offered for Catholic liturgical use is a Protestant version of the Scriptures.



The Second Vatican Council made clear that Christ crucified and Risen is the one source of Revelation, the ‘divine wellspring’ making up a single ‘deposit of Faith’ entrusted to the Church. Both Scripture and Tradition flow from this divine wellspring which is the eternal Word of God, Christ the Lord (Dei Verbum 9, 10). Indeed, Scripture itself is part of Tradition. This understanding is quite different from the understanding of the Evangelical translators of the ESV who would hold to the reformation principle of ‘Scripture alone.’ Consequently, the ecclesial dimension of the Scriptures has no role to play in in their translation process. Catholic understanding, by contrast, gives the believing community a vital role in the production, reception and handing on of these sacred texts. Absent these elements, we have a translation which does not reflect Catholic belief and practice. Scripture must be read and indeed translated in the tradition of the Church.


There is, moreover, the whole question of Tradition and traditions, to use the terminology of Yves Congar. We as a Church are entrusted with the Tradition which is the Father’s Eternal Word, Christ crucified and risen. This Tradition then manifests itself, or fails to do so, in the various traditions of the Church, one of the most important of which is the Bible and its various translations. Just as the Bible itself, so too do these translations emerge out of specific ecclesial traditions. Up to now, we have been graced with and rooted in the tradition of Catholic translations from, for instance, the Jerusalem Bible, through Knox, the Confraternity-Challoner-Douai-Rheims to the Vulgate itself. It is desperately sad that we will now leave that tradition and the pastoral continuity it offered. Pope Francis reminds us:


‘We frequently risk separating sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition, without understanding that together they are the one source of Revelation. The written character of the former takes nothing away from its being fully a living word; in the same way, the Church’s living Tradition, which continually hands that word down over the centuries from one generation to the next, possesses that sacred book as the “supreme rule of her faith” (Dei Verbum 21)’.



The process through which the Episcopal Conference decided to choose the ESV for liturgical use must be reflected upon. Pope Francis has placed synodality squarely at the centre of Church life. Indeed, that is the topic for next year’s Synod of Bishops. The Holy Father reminds us that synodality demands accompaniment, prayer and discernment by the whole People of God led by the Holy Spirit, and that the magisterial teaching of the Church emerges from this. Synodality applied to the whole People of God may sound new but in fact is entirely consistent with the teaching of Vatican II:


The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, [cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27] cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” [Cf. 1 Cor. 10: 17] they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth’ (Lumen Gentium 12).


 In light of this, it must be asked the extent to which the People of God in Scotland were involved in this decision. Was a body of laity and clergy representing our church at the heart of this process? Were women part of the consultation? To what extent were individuals with expertise in the bible and theology asked to contribute? Were scholars versed in English literature invited to evaluate the quality of the translation? Magisterium without synodality becomes more akin to Philip Pullman’s magisterium in Dark Materials than to our Catholic understanding.


Moeover, any changes to the text of the ESV which the Editorial Board of the Catholic conferences of bishops suggest will be around changes of americanisms, ‘hot’ words and neuralgic verses. It is important to repeat that these changes do not make a Catholic bible out of the ESV. The text will remain shot through with Evangelical suppositions and theology. But the end result will be, apart from the addition of the Deuterocanonicals, a few dozen changes at most. Of much more significance is the giving over to an Evangelical publishing house the final say in what is put into our Lectionary. Even with a Catholic Imprimatur, the ESV remains the intellectual property of the publishers. This is a derogation of magisterial authority for which I find no precedent.


Bishop Hugh Gilbert, announcing the choice of the ESV for Catholic liturgy, explained that the choice of the ESV was based on its accuracy, dignity, facility of proclamation and accessibility. Most of that statement can be questioned.  More importantly, however, it is noteworthy that the bishop does not reference any theological and ecclesiological reflection by the Conference in their choice of this translation. Had the bishops proceeded in a synodal fashion, this would have been flagged up immediately. 


Bishop Gilbert also expressed the hope that this translation would ‘shape thought and culture in our changing times’. It is also essential to recognise that thought and culture also shape the translated text—there is a two-way street. In this instance, the most important thought and culture should be Catholic. Here a deeper grasp of the philosophy of translation is called for. It appears that the over-riding consideration driving the choice of the ESV was simply a limited literary one, attracted by its claim to be based on word for word equivalence. Translation is much, much more than that. Pope Francis writes:


‘The goal of the translation of liturgical texts and of biblical texts for the Liturgy of the Word is to announce the word of salvation to the faithful in obedience to the faith and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord … While 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, nevertheless some particular terms must also be considered in the context of the entire Catholic faith because each translation of texts must be congruent with sound doctrine’.


 In the light of the above, I would argue that as a Catholic community, we should have access in our liturgy to a translation of the Bible which comes from within our Church, is chosen by our Church and received by our Church. Every contemporary bible for use in Liturgy must emerge from within the believing community and reflect the age-old adage lex orandi, lex credendi. The lack of any theological and ecclesiological reflection in the Conference’s choice of the English Standard Version as the text for our Lectionary fatally undermines that choice. 


Tom Magill is parish priest of St Athanasius, Carluke.  He is a former lecturer in Scripture at Chesters College and the University of Glasgow. He was awarded a PhD for his dissertation on St Mark’s Gospel.  


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.