Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mass Deception

You may say, “Why should I care about the new English translation of the Mass, I’m not a Catholic!” Regardless of your personal beliefs the spiritual and social significance of this translation cannot be brushed aside. Regardless of how you “feel” about this translation, the Mass, Catholicism, or religion in general, 25% of the U.S. population is Catholic.

Those numbers are augmented by the numbers of Catholics in other English speaking countries worldwide (e.g. Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, etc). Prayers that people recite every week seep into the depths of their psyche. They affect how they think, how they act, and how they vote; therefore, this new translation will affect you personally and our society as well.

“Out of the mouths of babes” is an old adage that aptly describes the insights of a young Latinist and his comments on the new English translation of the Roman Missal. Erik Baker is a sixteen-year-old child prodigy who, having taken every Latin course offered at the high school level, is currently doing course work at Northwestern University. Erik also happens to be Catholic and so, when the new translation of the Roman Missal, that is much more faithful to the original Latin, became public he was eager to read it.

Erik’s astutely captures the “Why” of these uniform changes throughout the English-speaking world. Here are some of his insights in a nutshell; the new translation will slowly and subtly effectively reprograms churchgoers in the following ways:

• It destroys the communal and egalitarian nature of the Mass.
• Rather than an act of communion through which the churchgoer relates to God, it becomes an individualistic act through which the churchgoer relates to "experts" in Rome.
• The notion that only “moral” (as defined by those experts in Rome) or Christian people deserve peace and our prayers.
• Faith becomes something of the individual, by the individual, for the individual -- ironically, a very Protestant idea. Catholicism is supposed to value unity and togetherness.
• It might aim to promote humility, but inevitably it fosters guilt instead. It promotes a vision of human nature as overwhelmingly and inexorably sinful-- a vision more in line with the heretical Janesenist doctrine of centuries past than Catholic dogma.

Here is a full reprint from an article by Erik in the National Catholic Reporter

On the revised Roman missal

By Erik Baker

It's definitely a better translation. That's probably the biggest misconception that critics of the recent revision of the General Roman Missal have. They perceive the new translation as some sort of conservative formalization of the text that is only ostensibly more faithful to the Latin. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Though there are some changes that really are no better, and certainly tend towards archaic jargon, the vast majority of the dramatic shifts -- especially to the Confiteor, the Gloria, and the Nicene Creed -- are certainly far more accurate.

In fact, looking over the Latin, it’s quite clear that the former translation didn't even attempt to be literal. So the question clearly isn't "is it a better translation," if "better" is defined in terms of accuracy vis-à-vis the Latin. The question is "is a more accurate translation desirable?" For many that question will seem like a no-brainer. Of course we want to stay as close to the Latin as possible. And yet, I think it's valuable to use these changes as an opportunity to examine the value of the Latin Mass and ultimately the nature of the Mass itself. I think that the conclusions might be startling.

Let's start at the beginning. The first major change is to the Confiteor, the prayer used in most forms of the Penitential Rite. The new translation translates the adverb "nimis" as "greatly", so that it now reads "I have greatly sinned." It's certainly a dramatic change, but one that's grounded in the Latin. In fact, the word "nimis" means something more than "greatly"; it actually connotes the idea of "excessiveness". The other change is that the Latin "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" is now translated "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." This is pretty much a literal translation. So the Latin is solid.

The problem, though, is that the Latin itself seems to be hyperbolically critical of humanity. It might aim to promote humility, but inevitably it fosters guilt instead. It promotes a vision of human nature as overwhelmingly and inexorably sinful-- a vision more in line with the heretical Janesenist doctrine of centuries past than Catholic dogma.

An apologist of the translation reminds us that "the guiding principle of the new translation is a closer adherence to the Latin--not a sharper critique of our virtue." But this makes absolutely no sense. Who cares what the "guiding principle" was? The end result is that the Latin is more condemnatory for no discernible reason. And there is no scriptural grounding for this “sharper critique” either-- the first appearance of the prayer is in 1100 AD, over a millennium after Christ.

The next major change is to the Gloria. Most of the changes are innocuous enough, but there's one at the beginning of the prayer that seems bizarre to me. The familiar "and peace to his people on earth" is changed to "on earth peace to people of good will." Not only is the latter far more awkward in English, but there's also a problematic sentiment implicit in the new phrase. Why are we only praying that people "of good will" receive peace? This seems to say that people who are without "good will" are not deserving of peace.
But what is "good will"? It seems to me that it could either mean "good" in the virtuous sense of the word, or, more specifically, Catholic. In either case, it expresses a profoundly anti-Christian sentiment. The notion that only moral or Christian people deserve peace and our prayers is anathema to everything Jesus ever taught. There is simply no sound reason for abandoning "love your enemies" simply because it’s closer to the Latin. The original Greek text recognizes this, and expresses "goodwill to all people." Ironically, the Latin is then actually a mistranslation of the Greek. This just highlights the fact that the possibility of human error doesn’t disappear when writing church texts. It’s hard to see what inherent reason we have for respecting this highly fallible process.

Finally, I think the changes to the Nicene Creed merit some discussion. As before, all of them have good grounding in the Latin, but it's the Latin that's problematic. The first is the fact that all of the "believe"s are in the first person. This destroys the sense of communal vision found in the "we believe" of the previous translation. Faith becomes something of the individual, by the individual, for the individual -- ironically, a very Protestant idea. Catholicism is supposed to value unity and togetherness.

Furthermore, there are two bizarre translations of particular words in the Latin that sound awkward and even obscure: "consubstantial" and "was incarnate." The former is a translation of the word "consubstantialem" in the Latin, so it certainly resembles the Latin the most. But does that make it a better translation? Surely not. The first rule that every Latin translator learns is that often Latin words may look like certain long, rare English words -- but comprehensibility matters more. The same applies to "was incarnate." The whole reason why an English translation is used in the first place is so people can actually understand the Mass. For the average churchgoer "consubstantial" is no more comprehensible than "consubstantialem.” Ridiculous words defeat the point of a translation in the first place.

Ultimately, the whole affair just begs the question of why the Latin Mass has any particular spiritual significance. It's certainly not Scripture, and it's often just an amalgamation of various communal prayers used throughout Europe for several centuries. In fact, many early bishops would write their own Masses or translations to best fit their community's needs. And that's the essence of Mass. The reason why we come to Mass in the first place rather than just praying by ourselves is the interaction with others that has spiritual importance. In the Mass the people become the Body of Christ, conceived as the organic whole Paul writes about in the famous passage from 1 Corinthians: “for the body is not one member, but many.”

The problem with the new translation and indeed the notion of a codified Latin Mass at all is that it destroys the communal and egalitarian nature of the act. Rather than an act of communion through which the churchgoer relates to God, it becomes an individualistic act through which the churchgoer relates to "experts" in Rome. It sets certain people above others in terms of their knowledge of a dead language and of dogma -- concerns that clearly distract from the message of God. If the Mass has any meaning, it must be grounded in communal concerns and vision-- not an effort to include as many four-syllable words as possible.

Some of my own observations:

The two things that I find most striking about this article are the brilliance and passion of Erik. Beyond his technical knowledge of Latin, his theological insights are both profound and exceptional for someone of his young age and experience.

Let me say that many years ago I heard about the new English translation of the Roman Missal. Frankly, I thought it was long overdue. Every Sunday I celebrated Mass in both English and Spanish language. The Spanish translation of the Mass is far more poetic, natural and beautiful than the English translation that has just been discarded. No one, at least from a literary point of view, will mourn the passing of the previous translation. However, while what replaces it may be more polished it reminds me of a quip from a poisoner, “You put the arsenic in the cake, not in the brussel sprouts, after all it doesn’t work if the victim doesn’t eat it.”

Having come from Cuba I had relatives who lived and died under a totalitarian regime, I grew up very attuned to the impact of ideology in people’s daily lives. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Stalinist era movies, for example, is that the protagonists all tend to die. What remains is “The State, The Revolution.” Stalin couldn’t have done a better job re-writing the Mass than Benedict XVI. The re-written Mass makes the churchgoer feel that he/she is part of something greater than him/herself, something to which he/she should be completely submissive and that will be here, long after he/she is gone and forgotten. Utopias, atheist or theist, are bigger than lives. Apparently that the Gospel is lost in the translation is a small price to pay for all that power and glory.


Philip Lowe, Jr. said...

I very much agree with much of the critique provided in this post by you and Erik. In addition to the points about the Mass parts themselves, the one text they totally destroyed is the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil. They even changed "risen from the grave" to "raised from the underworld."

JCF said...

In my Episcopal tradition (Book of Common Prayer, 1979), we have Rite I and Rite II.

In Rite I, the greeting of the people to the priest is "And with thy spirit."

...the difference is, I believe, that people KNOW the language is archaic. If that's what you prefer, you can probably find a parish using it. But more commonly at the early (less well-attended) service.

And that's the thing. Rite I is an OPTION, NOT an imposed mandate!

Every once in a great while, I enjoy Rite I. It makes me think.

But week in/week out, My Daily Bread, give me Rite II: "The Lord be with you." "And also with you!"

[How does "of one being with" NOT accurately translate "consubstantialem"? English is still PREDOMINANTLY Anglo-Saxon! The Vatican has forgotten this. :-X]

P.S. Never knew you were Cuban, Geoff! (Such a Celtic name!)

FDeF said...

The best explanation I have read about the new Latin Mass (as I no longer frequent the Church). It actually sounds very much like the first English Mass when it was first introduced. The more colloquial English Mass that we used for a long time was understandable but not necessarily eloquent. This new translation seems to be two steps backward and, well, I am not surprised.

Father Geoff said...

Dear JCF,

In his essay Eric correctly points out that in antiquity liturgies organically developed out of local communities. In medieval Europe, for example, Spain and Portugal used the Mozarabic Rite, France used the Gallican Rite and England the Sarum Rite. The ancient Patriarchal Sees each developed their own Rites. Some of these are still exist as liturgies in the Orthodox and various Eastern Churches. Essentially, all of these contain a liturgy of the Word modeled on Jewish worship and a liturgy of the Eucharist.

In the West, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) suppressed the various western Rites and replaced them with the Roman Rite. At Vatican II there was a move towards acculturation of the liturgy. This followed naturally with the replacement of Latin by the various vernacular languages. With the imposition of this new Missal, there seems to be what many fear is a reversal of the movement towards the ancient practice of local organic liturgies. This instead is replaced with a homogenized centralized liturgical format that, as Erik points out, is the product of experts in Rome.

Personally, I like the new translation “and with your spirit” far better than the previous, “and also with you.” Not because it is more faithful to the Latin, but because it underscores the fact the each of us are primarily spiritual beings. Our physicality is what is transitory. That does not diminish or in anyway negate our physical reality. However, taken to its logical conclusions the fact that each of us is an immortal spirit should serve to place our current physical reality in a greater context. Hopefully, that serves to view each other, as well as our life decisions, with greater sensitivity and charity.

Yes, I was born in Cuba and this significantly shaped my childhood and young adult development. I allude to this in the last posting. Nationality/culture is one of the components that shapes our identity. My Mom tells me, “When I lived in Cuba, I was called a Spaniard. When I flew to America, I instantly became a Cuban. Now, when I visit Spain, I am called an American.”

Lynn said...

Maybe the Bishops like the new confiteor, since "my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault" doesn't constantly remind them of the recent sex scandal like saying "what I have failed to do."

Tal said...

I certainly agree that the move to a technically more perfect translation without vibrancy of language and community is a beggar's bargain. While the Latin deserves respect, I also agree that it shouldn't be driving the show (although unlike Erik, I don't think the Latin should be so easily ignored as a mere historical footnote). Ultimately, the language of the Mass must recognize the present, but in so doing, shouldn't ignore the importance of dignity and beauty to worship (the great sin of the US version of the Mass). So I prefer the new Mass. It generally hits the right notes, although its certainly not perfect and probably could benefit from one more hard edit.

Unlike Erik, I think the new text makes the right call on "I believe." I understand the preference for "We believe," but both the Latin ("Credo") and Greek ("Pisteuo") translate directly as "I believe." Because that's what the Church Councils wrote, that's what we should say. "I believe" is also an important, personal affirmation of faith. No hiding in the crowd. You have to take responsibility. Also, I think it wrong to say there is no sense of community in the revised Creed. It's emphasized in the very body of the Mass, when recited by all. As such, the revised Creed balances the communal with the individual.

I also disagree with Erik when he brands "consubstantial" as "ridiculous" or "bizarre." While the vernacular should generally be favored, when it doesn't have an adequate way to express a concept, then the right word, even if not in common parlance, should be used. And here, I think "consubstantial" is the right word, because the vernacular has nothing equivalent to "consubstantialem" (which is the precise equivalent of "homoousion" as used in the original Greek form of the Creed). "Consubstantialem," like "consubstantial," means the "same nature, essence or quality." Further, the phrase presently used in place of "consubstantialem"--"one in being"--is both a poor translation of the Latin/Greek and open to unorthodox implications. Other than "consubstantial," there is no single other word in the English language that accurately mirrors "consubstantialem-homoousion."

Also, even if one were to agree with Erik on "consubstantial," there's still the issue of what the Creed means when it talks about the nature of Christ to God, as God? The underlying theology is complicated and subtle, developed over centuries, and still controversial between the first churches. I think "consubstantial" neatly puts a bow around it. Ultimately, Erik's point is that "consubstantial" is difficult. But then the Creed is difficult. Avoiding "consubstantial" doesn't do much to resolve the theological challenge posed to the believer. It does, however, make the text more accurate. And so I think again, is preferable to any of the vernacular formulations I've seen.

On an historical note, the Council of Trent didn't extinguish the Mozarabic, Ambrosian and other truly ancient Western rites (all rites in use 200 years or more before the Council were preserved). But the Council did bar later innovations, which were generally added to the Roman rite by various communities; complicated ornaments and rituals the cluttered the Mass. The Council of Trent (probably with a nod to Luther and other reformers--although they'd never have admitted it) brought uniformity and simplicity to the Mass, emphasizing the community of the whole Church. This began a shift away from empty ritual and towards the Word and Sacraments. Vatican II in many ways completed Trent's work.

Anyway, thanks for the article Fr. Geoff. This was a fun one.

Father Geoff said...

Dear Tal,

It is always a delight to read your comments. Yes, technically the Mezoarbic Rite still exists in a handful of Spanish churches; however, it has been practically suppressed.

Rat-biter said...

"The familiar "and peace to his people on earth" is changed to "on earth peace to people of good will." Not only is the latter far more awkward in English, but there's also a problematic sentiment implicit in the new phrase. Why are we only praying that people "of good will" receive peace? This seems to say that people who are without "good will" are not deserving of peace."

## The text behind all this is Luke 2.14. The phrase in the Greek means "peace on earth to men of His good will" - it is *not* talking of human good will. The "GW" is the GW of *God* - it is not a Divine "best wishes", but the saving purpose of God; & this purpose is expressed by the Father's gift of Jesus to men.

The problem is that the Latin text is a literal rendering of a Greek text which is using a Semuitic turn of expression - the Latin text does not do justice to the Evangelist's theology, so neither does the English translation of the Latin. The Latin of the liturgical text is accurate as rendering of the Greek words & Greek grammar - but it misses the meaning of the Semitic thought behind the Greek. And the same applies to the English translation of the Latin.

The upshot of all this is, that the older translation of the English renders the thought of the Evangelist more faithfully than the Latin does. It is more faithful to the thought in Luke 2.14, though less faithful to the Latin words that render Luke 2.14

The question is, what is to be the basis for the translation of the Latin liturgical text: the Latin, or the Greek ? The English varies according to the choice made.

I hope that makes sense.