Setting the Agenda for the Catholic Blogosphere
Just a Few More Things

Summing Up the Liturgy Discussion

Rather than try to respond directly to everything in the comments, I thought I'd try to hit it all at once.

A little background: I grew up Methodist, which is an offshoot of Anglicanism, and the Methodist service still carried a good bit of the old Book of Common Prayer language, which is, in general, the finest liturgical English ever written. Later I spent a couple of years in the Episcopal Church, right before becoming Catholic. I knew I was giving up a liturgy that was rich in both music and words for something that was decidedly not, and was prepared to make the best of it. But lemme tell you, the best has at times been pretty sad. It was like going from Shakespeare and Bach to the reading of the city council minutes punctuated by clunky renditions of John Denver songs.

Nevertheless, at this point in my life I'm over it. I've gone from frustration to something pretty close to despair to acceptance. It helps a lot that I now have access to the liturgy at the local cathedral, which has sublime music and a generally reverent atmosphere. The language still tends to pull the rug out from under things, especially some of the scripture readings ("no one gives one's life for oneself" or however that goes). But, to put it very brutally, I don't much care anymore. As I put it a while back in a letter to Daniel, it's a little--maybe a lot--like being in an unhappy marriage, where you quit expecting anything better. I can live with this and even be happy with it, especially if I can avoid some of the Glory and Praise songs that produce a visceral irritation in me.

So why did I bother writing this? Because Bishop Trautman's piece ticked me off--his condescension, his apparent tone-deafness to beauty in the liturgy, and his apparent persistence in the belief that the current liturgical situation is just peachy and is about to be ruined by the Vatican. It's not because I'm so wild about the new translations. I've only seen bits and pieces of them, and from what I've seen, they are richer than what we currently have. I agree with Ryan that they're not great poetry. However, they are conceptually richer and at least more varied verbally. And that brings me to what may be the most important thing here, something that I haven't addressed because I'm really not qualified.

We can agree or disagree about the aesthetics of the new translations. However, I've read over and over again that the ones in current use are simply not adequate as translations--that they simplify to the point of distortion. IF that's true, it constitutes for me a decisive argument in favor of the new translations. The texts of the liturgy represent the patrimony of over 1500 years of reflection. We have no business hacking this luxurious growth back to a few bare sticks just because we can't be bothered to learn a few new words or make a bit of effort. It requires vastly more brain power to operate a computer, evaluate high-definition TVs and surround-sound systems, or play a video game than it does to understand even the most complex of the samples of the new translations that I've seen so far. It's tooooo haarrrd is just not a complaint with which I'm going to sympathize. Here's a chance to use my newly-learned English/Australian word: stop whinging.

We can all agree that there is in theory some proper balance of simplicity and complexity. But to say that the use of, for instance, the word "suffused" (one of Bishop Trautman's example) errs on the latter side is just preposterous. I cannot avoid the suspicion, to which I alluded in the original piece and on which Robert Gotcher remarks in the very first comment below, that this is evidence of a mistaken view of the liturgy (and perhaps even of the faith itself) which is certainly very easily found in progressive Catholicism and which involves an exaggeration of the horizontal dimension.

Ryan says, "If I had to settle for simple translation versus a poor attempt at an overly literal translation, I would choose the former." I agree with that in principle. But I think what we have is a bad simple translation, and going to a translation which at least preserves the sense of the Latin may be a necessary start. We can't get to a really rich liturgical language just by wishing ourselves there, but we can slowly, over generations, polish and develop it. I don't see how progress of that sort can be made if radical simplification and lowest-common-denominator accessibility are the overriding goals.

From the moment I read the Bishop's letter I've been thinking about my high school Shakespeare class. I remember vividly my surprise at the way classmates whom I'd never suspected of having a serious thought, much less an interest in literature, responded to Shakespeare at the hands of a capable teacher. To this day I remember having an interesting conversation about Hamlet with the football player in the next row. We're underestimating John and Mary Catholic if we think they can't understand anything more complex than a simple declarative sentence.



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