Bishops Withdraw Imprimatur from Psalter

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998 | Go to article overview

Bishops Withdraw Imprimatur from Psalter


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


Acting on instructions from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the U.S. bishops have withdrawn their 1995 imprimatur for the Psalter, or collection of Old Testament psalms, translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

The decision had been expected since confidential minutes of an Administrative Committee meeting of the bishops' conference became public in June (NCR, June 19). In that closed-door session, the bishops discussed Rome's insistence that the imprimatur be lifted and decided that, even though canon law made no provision for such a demand, they would comply. Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the church's top doctrinal official.

An "imprimatur" is an official declaration by church authorities that a document is acceptable for publication.

The move may end any chance of the 1995 Psalter ever being approved for official church use. "I'd like to think it's redeemable," said Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., one of the bishops originally involved in approving the new Psalter. "But in my opinion, given what Rome is saying, we'll have to start over."

Privately, many critics say that the controversy illustrates the micromanagement in which Rome is willing to engage -- in this case, telling the U.S. bishops what English translation is best suited for their own use -- in order to combat what it sees as feminist contamination of the church.

"It's all about control, their [Rome's] fear of women's ordination and the whole feminist agenda," said one prelate, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Because the Psalter uses "inclusive language" principles, such as avoiding masculine pronouns for God, some persons on the Catholic right have accused the International Commission of being influenced by liberal pressure groups, including advocates of women's ordination.

An April 1996 letter from Ratzinger to Pilla appeared to echo this criticism. In that letter, Ratzinger refers to "an unacceptable manipulation of the texts of sacred scripture" in the Psalter.

The Psalter is used by religious communities and others in the church for daily prayer. Though the 1995 translation was approved only for study, not for "liturgical use," it quickly found wide acceptance in English-speaking communities because many regard older translations as inadequate for singing and chanting.

Gabe Huck, director of Liturgy Training Publications of Chicago, said the company has sold about 15,000 to 20,000 copies of the Psalter and an additional 30,000 copies of a version arranged for daily prayer. He said Liturgy Training will delete the imprimatur in future printings, but he does not expect a significant impact on sales.

Other sources said another concern for Rome, closely aligned with the inclusive language issue, is that a Psalter that eliminates masculine pronouns may undercut the so-called "messianic" reading of the psalms. Many in the church have traditionally interpreted some psalms as predictions of the coming of Jesus, a reading some see as more difficult in the International Commission's translation.

In his letter announcing the decision, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, president of the bishops' conference, strove to save face for those involved in approving the text. "The revocation of the imprimatur should in no way be perceived as a revocation of the judgment of the censors' opinions concerning the fidelity or accuracy of the text," he said, nor should it be seen as reflecting negatively on "the judgment of our bishops. …

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