Translation Ambushed in a Curial Cubbyhole

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998 | Go to article overview

Translation Ambushed in a Curial Cubbyhole


The notion that the people should be central to liturgy, "the work of the church," is at the core of the liturgical movement affirmed by the Second Vatican Council that has flourished ever since.

That concept is not some novel idea developed as part of a "liberal" agenda in recent years. Rather it is the sense Of the council, understood deeply by those most involved in developing its thought. The centrality of the people of God was one of the more radical shifts in ecclesiology to come out of the council, and perhaps that is why it has come under such severe attack three decades later.

The word attack may seem a bit heavy-handed, but what else can be said of the revelations in John Allen's account (see page 3) of a group that met behind closed doors in the Vatican to bowdlerize the inclusive-language biblical translations that scholars, liturgists and the majority of the U.S. bishops had painstakingly produced and approved over a number of years?

Since the council, inclusive language has become important because it lends credibility to an idea central to liturgical reform -- that all the people of God, not just men, should hear themselves addressed in worship.

In another sense, of course, inclusive language is about fairness. Women are excluded and marginalized in many ways, and the church should not be complicit in that mistreatment. Call it fidelity to the gospel or just common decency, but the church's public speech should not consign anyone to second-class status.

These seem simple enough principles. When applied to translating the Bible, they also result in a remarkable degree of linguistic accuracy. The ancient languages of scripture -- Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek -- usually address both genders, even when specifically masculine terms are used. Even the maleness of God is far less pronounced in these languages than it is in many English translations. The new lectionary's version of the Psalms, for example, uses scores of masculine pronouns for Gad that do not appear in the Hebrew original.

Yet for the opponents of inclusive language, the issues run deeper. They worry that if the words of scripture can be vetted to suit whatever ideology is in fashion, then is anything sacred? Is there any deposit of faith left beneath the shifting sands of a given era's tastes? Moreover, some fear a slippery slope: If the church caves in on inclusive language, women's ordination cannot be far behind.

These are legitimate issues to discuss, and everyone was led to believe that processes and commissions were already in place to carry out such conversations.

But that is not what happened. The U.S. bishops were not invited to send a delegation of their best and brightest Bible scholars and liturgists, along with the bishops who had been involved with the lectionary from the beginning, to negotiate with Vatican officials as decisions were made.

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