Lectionary's Intro, Psalter Vetoed; Little Resistance from U.S. Bishops

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, June 19, 1998 | Go to article overview

Lectionary's Intro, Psalter Vetoed; Little Resistance from U.S. Bishops


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


In moves widely seen as rebuffs to the international group responsible for translating liturgical texts into English, as well as to the U.S. bishops who have approved its work, the Vatican has demanded more than 400 changes to the introduction of the long-awaited new lectionary and asked that the imprimatur be lifted from a 1995 translation of the psalter.

That edition of the psalter, a collection of Old Testament psalms, had come under fire for its use of inclusive language such as avoiding masculine pronouns for God. Like the lectionary, it was translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, though technically it had never been approved for liturgical use in the United States.

In both cases, the U.S. bishops poised to accept the Vatican's demands, which were slated to be discussed during a closed-door session at the bishops' June 18-20 meeting in Pittsburgh.

A set of confidential doomlents obtained by NCR, including back-and-forth correspondence between ICEL and the U.S. bishops, staff documents from both groups and minutes from a meeting of the advisory committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, reveal the profound tensions bubbling beneath the surface of these sometimes, obscure debates. The tensions include those between Rome and ICEL, over differing philosophies about how to render Latin texts accessible in the vernacular; between the U.S. bishops and Rome, over the extent to which Rome should micro-manage the affairs of national bishops' conferences; and among the U.S. bishops themselves. Some bishops welcome the suppression of translations they see as reflecting theological and social agendas, especially feminism, while others resent Vatican mandates, particularly when they appear to have been influenced by conservative American liturgical groups.

Observers also suggest that the Vatican actions may foreshadow similar trouble for the ICEL translation of the new sacramentary (the collection of prayers used in the Mass), now making its way to Rome.

According to the minutes of a March 24 and 25 meeting of the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is the steering committee for the conference, the U.S. bishops may impose a moratorium on imprimaturs for all translations until they receive clarification from Rome on how to avoid future conflicts. Immediately that decision would affect the second edition of the contemporary English version of scripture, produced by the American Bible Society, currently awaiting approval from the bishops.

Open to challenge

Rome's demands have clearly irritated many prelates, who believe that they followed all of the Vatican's norms in giving approval to these texts. One bishop in the March 24 and 25 meeting argued that such actions are "demoralizing" to both ICEL and the American bishops, and that they leave the "pastoral responsibility and authority of the NCCB and the Holy See... open to challenge and ridicule."

On the removal of the psalter's imprimatur, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of the Cincinnati archdiocese said Rome's demand "tends to weaken the principle of solidarity and may cause some to question why the conference should cooperate on any matter if following the process the Holy See has prescribed is not good enough." Pilarczyk, a former liaison between ICEL and the bishops' conference, said that he would "never serve as censor again" had he played that role in the initial stages.

Nevertheless, Bishop Anthony Pilla of the Cleveland diocese, president of the NCCB, is quoted as telling the administrative committee that a "direct challenge" to Rome is "not winnable.' The Vatican "clearly has the authority to act as it did," he said. The consequences "would be grave if the conference gave the impression of being in opposition to, or even out of step with, the church's legitimate authority," the minutes record Pilla as saying.

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