He summed up his translation [ICEL] philosophy
this way: “You can think of it as walking down a road,” Harbert said. “On
one side is fidelity, on the other usability. The challenge always is to
try to narrow the gap.”
|One of the nastiest
and most protracted disputes in the English-speaking Catholic world may
be nearing its endgame. At a July 29-August 1 meeting in Ottawa, the bishops
who govern the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, known
as ICEL, installed a new leadership team. It seems likely to be compatible
with the traditionalist approach to translation insisted upon by the Congregation
for Divine Worship under Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez,
perhaps closing what has been a long-festering divide between ICEL, the
congregation, and their respective supporters in Catholic public opinion.
Taking the place of Scottish
Bishop Maurice Taylor, who as chair of ICEL has strongly defended the agency
against Roman criticism, will be the coadjutor bishop of Leeds in England,
Arthur Roche. Replacing John Page as executive secretary will be Fr. Bruce
Harbert, a convert from Anglicanism with a background in patristics, medieval
languages and English, who over the years has voiced some criticism of
ICEL. Harbert, also an Englishman, will move to Washington, D.C., and take
over Sept. 9.
Though largely unknown
to the wider world, the translation agency has been a lightning rod inside
Its “dynamic equivalency”
approach, which allows translators to take some liberties with Latin originals
in order to render texts meaningful in contemporary English, strikes defenders
as consistent with Paul VI’s vision of prayer and worship in a “living
language.” Others, however, fault ICEL for covertly grinding a series of
ideological and theological axes under the rubric of “inculturation.” These
include feminism, anti-clericalism and a bias against the transcendent.
Hence when ICEL translations omit the names of the orders of angels, for
example, or scour some traditional pious language (“Peter” instead of always
“Saint Peter”), pro-ICEL observers see decisions in favor of relevance;
anti-ICEL folk sense hidden agendas.
With the appointment
of Medina to head the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1998, Vatican
policy shifted decisively in favor of the critics. Medina has called for
a much more literal approach, sticking closely to the Latin, and has claimed
a greater role for his congregation in overseeing ICEL’s work.
The crackdown has enraged
some who see ICEL as a prime example of “collegiality,” or cooperation
among bishops, that Rome should leave alone. Hence ICEL has been sucked
into the larger debate within Catholicism over how power ought to be allocated
and exercised — roughly speaking, the question of centralization versus
The controversy has at
times been intensely personal. Taylor spoke to the bitterness in a strongly
worded farewell statement, issued as the new leadership team was announced.
“The members of ICEL’s
Episcopal Board have in effect been judged to be irresponsible in the liturgical
texts that they have approved over the years. The bishops of the English-speaking
conferences, voting by large majorities to approve the vernacular liturgical
texts prepared by ICEL, have been similarly judged. And the labors of all
those faithful and dedicated priests, religious, and laypeople who over
the years devoted many hours of their lives to the work of ICEL have been
called into question.
“The impression is given,
and indeed is seemingly fostered by some, that ICEL is a recalcitrant group
of people, uncooperative, even disobedient. This is mistaken and untrue.
One is tempted to suspect that, no matter what ICEL does, its work will
always be criticized by some because their minds are made up that the mixed
commission is incorrigible and unworthy of continued existence.
“I feel that if I were
to remain silent all of this I would be a party to unfair, and even unjust,
damage to people’s reputations. And let’s try to be charitable as well
as truthful. John Page, Peter Finn, the associate secretary, and the other
four members of the ICEL Secretariat staff do not deserve to be pilloried
as they have been,” Taylor wrote.
One asset ICEL has always
lacked is an all-important defender among the cardinals, someone with political
throw-weight in Rome. Scotland’s Tom Winning was moving into this role,
but his unexpected death from a heart attack in June 2001 took him out
of the picture. The lone cardinal on the ICEL board now is Francis George
of Chicago, whose own thinking, while admittedly complex, has often led
him to sympathize with the critics.
English newspapers such
as the Catholic Herald have attributed the appointments of Roche
and Harbert to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster. In Harbert’s
case, however, it’s clear that he was also known to George. Harbert served
as a visiting faculty member for the winter quarter of 2001-2002 at George’s
liturgical institute at Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago.
With Harbert, ICEL’s
work will be directed by a noted scholar and linguist who is basically
comfortable with Medina’s philosophy. When I reached him by phone on August
9, Harbert told me that he felt the controversial document on translation
principles put out by the congregation, Liturgiam Authenticam, is
a “courageous document on texts.”
“It’s not easy to write
prescriptively on language,” Harbert said, “but I thought it did so very
well. The time had come when some guidance had to be given.”
The comment is in line
with the drift of Harbert’s liturgical thinking over the years. In a 1996
article in New Blackfriars, for example, Harbert described ICEL
as “something of a tyranny, which individual bishops’ conferences are in
effect powerless to resist.” He described ICEL translations of some of
the collects, or prayers, for the Mass as “unmemorable,” flawed by a “cuddle-factor”
of excessive emphasis on the heart as opposed to the mind, and revealing
a “propensity towards Pelagianism” by stressing what humans do rather than
what God does.
Yet Harbert described
himself in our interview as “not really a politician,” and said that he
believes it is “entirely inappropriate that the liturgy should be a battlefield.”
He also struck certain notes that do suggest an independence of outlook.
He said, for example,
that Liturgiam Authenticam “has not spoken the last word” on the
masculine pronoun “man,” the use, or avoidance, of which in many liturgical
settings has become symbolic of attitudes towards wider gender issues in
the church. Harbert said the issue would require “much study,” especially
from Hebrew scholars.
Further, Harbert said
that much of the work on the new Roman Missal, the prayer book for the
Mass, performed by ICEL is good and should be maintained. “To start with
a clean sheet would be unrealistic,” he said.
Harbert also said about
Authenticam that he distinguishes between what it says on language,
liturgy and texts, and what it says about “ecclesiastical structures” —
suggesting that he is sensitive to the issues of collegiality and power
relations surrounding ICEL.
He summed up his translation
philosophy this way: “You can think of it as walking down a road,” Harbert
said. “On one side is fidelity, on the other usability. The challenge always
is to try to narrow the gap.”
Harbert, who converted
to the Roman Catholic church at the age of 23 (in 1966), said he did so
because he had come to realize that “Christ founded one church.” He said
that he told the ICEL bishops that when he was 17, he studied Latin and
Greek in the English public school system, as well as classical music.
He went to Salzburg, Austria, on vacation and heard Mozart’s music, Latin,
and Christianity all functioning together, and it produced a sense of “continuity”
that eventually helped lead him into the Catholic church.
Harbert said he did not
apply for the ICEL job, but was put forward by the bishops of England and
Wales. Yet he said he “feels privileged,” since the transition from Latin
into the vernacular languages is a transition in church history perhaps
rivaled only by the move from Greek to Latin. English is important, he
said, because in many ways it is becoming the “new Latin” — the church’s
default common language,
“We have a fresh start,”
Harbert said. “I hope we’ll manage to produce something worthy.”
* * *
I referred last week
to speculation about the possibility that John Paul might resign in Poland
during his Aug. 16-19 trip there, which will already be underway as this
column is published. These rumors, which have the pope moving into a Carmelite
monastery to pass the rest of his days, bubbled up in sketchy reports in
the German and Polish press, citing unnamed “Vatican sources.”
(Let me just say as an
aside that if all the secret “Vatican sources” cited in reckless stories
such as these actually existed, Vatican City would be the most densely
populated place on earth. Many such “sources” are just figments of a reporter’s
For a change of pace,
here’s a Vatican source with a name, rank and serial number: Monsignor
Renato Boccardo, chief organizer for papal journeys. I visited Boccardo
in his office in the Secretariat of State on Tuesday, August 13, and asked
about the rumors that John Paul will exit the stage.
“I can deny this officially
and completely,” Boccardo said. “The pope will return to Rome at 6:30 p.m.
on August 19, exactly as planned. He will not stay in Poland.”
Boccardo confirmed, in
fact, that preparation for other trips is underway. A visit to Croatia
is “semi-official,” awaiting the completion of work in the Congregation
of Saints on two people John Paul wants to canonize while in the country.
A trip to Manila in January for an international meeting on the family
is also under consideration.
I expressed some skepticism
about Manila, given that a possible trip to Australia last year had been
scrubbed because it was deemed too taxing. Boccardo pointed out that getting
to Manila would take a mere 13 hours in a plane, while Australia would
have meant between 20 and 24, and would involve fewer time changes.
Moreover, Boccardo said,
much depends on how the pope is doing at the time of the trip. If he’s
especially fragile, then a long journey is especially problematic. As the
recent swing through Canada, Guatemala and Mexico illustrates, however,
there are still periods in which he’s up to the challenge.
I’ll include more of
my conversation with Boccardo another time. For now, I can debunk one other
rumor about the Polish trip, which is that a special squadron of 100 doctors
has been dragooned because the pope’s health is so precarious. In fact,
Boccardo said, John Paul will be accompanied by the same two doctors who
always travel with him, and on the ground in Poland there will be the same
small medical team standing by that’s always present when heads of state
arrive. No special units have been formed, no plans hatched beyond routine
Where did the papers
that published the 100 doctors story get their information? “Vatican sources,”
* * *
When I heard that Cambridge
church historian John Pollard was in Rome last week, I jumped at the chance
to invite him to coffee. I had thoroughly enjoyed his 1999 book The
Unknown Pope, about Benedict XV, and word had it that he’s nearing
completion of a new project on Vatican finances. I was eager to hear the
tale, given Pollard’s reputation as a meticulous, balanced scholar.
His new book, which he
plans to deliver early next year, concerns the financial situation of the
Holy See from 1870, which marks the fall of the papal states and hence
the end of the pope’s temporal power, to the end of the Second World War.
Pollard told me that
several points struck him in his research.
The first is how Vatican
investing policy seemed to take shape almost completely isolated from the
developing social teaching of the pontiffs that policy is supposed to serve.
Pollard said he saw this during the reign of Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical
Rerum Novarum launched modern Catholic social doctrine, and especially
under Pius XI, whose denunciations of “anonymous capitalism” reflected
the post-1929 Wall Street Crash mood of global unrest.
Yet even as Pius was
decrying the features of an economic system that seemed to prioritize the
accumulation of capital over human suffering, his aides were playing the
global currency, bond and stock markets with the proceeds of the 1929 Lateran
Pacts with Mussolini. In terms of investment aims and strategies, Pollard
said, there was very little to distinguish the Vatican from other states
or large corporations.
Second, Pollard said
the rise of modern Vatican finances is closely linked with the cult of
personality that surrounds the modern papacy. Prior to 1870, he argues,
there was no special devotion to the pope or the papacy. For most Catholics,
the pope was a rather abstract and unknown figure. After the collapse of
the Papal States, however, the pope became the lonely “prisoner of the
Vatican,” and an appeal was launched across the Catholic world for “Peter’s
Pence” — a special collection to support the papacy. This, Pollard feels,
helped create a new psychology in which Catholics are much more focused
on the person of the pope. Thus a device born in a moment of papal weakness
fueled the rise of the 19th and 20th century “imperial papacy.”
Third, Pollard said his
review of Vatican finances also confirmed just how important the U.S. church
has been for the financial viability of the Vatican. At one stage in the
early 20th century, he said, Americans were providing about $1 million
in what was at the time a $6 million annual Vatican budget. American prelates
such as Chicago’s George Mundelein and New York’s Francis Spellman were
demi-gods for their ability to deliver dollars.
Pollard said he wants
to wait to finish his project until January, when the Vatican will unseal
some 640 files from the papacy of Pius XI (1922-1939). Although normally
the Vatican opens all the files of a given papacy together, in this case
the Pius XI material will be made available ahead of schedule, as part
of an effort to respond to questions about the role of the Catholic Church
in the Second World War.
When those files become
available, Pollard said, we can look forward to a spate of quick Pius XI
biographies. While that’s an intriguing prospect, I myself am looking forward
with greater anticipation to Pollard’s own book on the dollars and cents
details of recent Vatican history.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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Kansas City, MO 64111