Music of the Week — June 17, 2007
Setting the Agenda for the Catholic Blogosphere

Sunday Night Journal — June 17, 2007

Hey, Bishop, Leave Those Texts Alone

I knew fairly soon after I became a Catholic twenty-five years ago that I was not going to be the sort who takes a great interest in the intramural affairs of the Church. Vatican politics, the niceties of liturgical rubrics, canon law: none of that interests me very much, and in the three or four years that I’ve been producing this web site, I can’t recall saying anything about them. My attention is turned outward, toward the culture at large, which is, I think, as it should be for a layman. I do, however, precisely in that role as layman, care a great deal about the music and language of the liturgy, because it is they which surround and, in a sense, mediate the great Sacrament to me. I can live—I have been living—with these mediating artifacts being drab and even irritating, but I can’t participate fully, as we are supposed to do, in the liturgy if I’m being distracted and annoyed by them; I can only brace myself and hang on.

I’ve never acquired the habit of deference to clergy, and particularly to bishops, but I try to maintain a decent level of respect, and I don’t like to speak harshly in public of a bishop. That intention has been powerfully tested by the recent article in America by Bishop Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, in which he not only denounces the new liturgical translations but calls upon the faithful to resist them, while simultaneously insulting our intelligence. The article is accessible only to subscribers at America’s site, but can be read here at the web site of the Erie diocese. I have started to write about this on two occasions and stopped because I was becoming intemperate. I’ll now try again.

The substance of the bishop’s complaint is simply appalling. To address it thoroughly would require a magazine article, at least, so I’ll limit myself to two points:

  • He believes that lay Catholics—John and Mary Catholic, as he patronizingly describes us—cannot understand English words such as “sullied” and “thwart,” or a phrase such as “incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” To fully grasp his low opinion of our reading comprehension, you need to read the entire America piece. Among other things, it’s a striking revelation of an odd rift I’ve noticed before in the progressive Catholic mind: on the one hand, we’ve been told for decades that the modern Catholic is intelligent and educated and will not sit still for the antiquated devotional practices and simple answers to moral questions that contented his illiterate ancestors. But this only seems to apply when the case is being made for a progressive innovation; otherwise, that same modern Catholic is treated like a somewhat simple-minded child, to be protected from anything difficult, either to comprehend or to do. How many times has a lay Catholic objecting to some progressive project been told that he has no business challenging professional theologians and liturgists?

  • He appears to have little or no use for, perhaps no perception of, any dimension of language except the purely denotative. Of the connotative, of the musical—in general, of the poetic, and of its possible role in the liturgy—he seems unconscious or indifferent. I believe this is a serious handicap for someone who serves as chairman of the bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy.

I suspect that these two points are indicative of some mistaken views about the liturgy: what it is meant to do, and how it does it. But I’m not going to try to sort that out; many volumes have been written about it, and I would have nothing new to add, and no expertise on which to draw. And I’m not qualified to judge whether the currently-used translations are sufficiently faithful to the Latin. Reportedly they are not. Certainly they are unattractive. I’ll go to what is, for me, the heart of the matter: the overly simplified, often clumsy, sometimes banal English currently found in both the liturgy and the scriptures has not been a help to my life as a Catholic. It has been an obstacle, a very serious obstacle. Of how many Catholics this is true, I can’t say, but I know for certain that I’m not the only one.

I’m not necessarily arguing for complexity in liturgical language, and certainly not complexity for its own sake, much less obscurity; simplicity can be poetic. But from the samples I’ve seen of the new translations that have so angered the bishop, they are much richer than what we now have, and although they may cause some initial confusion I don’t doubt that most Catholics can cope, and will soon benefit. You can only go so far in simplification before you begin to distort and omit. I believe it’s a mistake to interpret calls for clear and accessible liturgical language to mean that every sentence must be instantly and effortlessly understandable by someone with the comprehension, vocabulary, and attention span of a middle-schooler.

Bishop Trautman calls for the laity to write to the bishops’ committee and other authorities to voice our opinions on this matter. I think I will.

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