Eamon Duffy on the Mass translation of 2011

Controversy over liturgy, like many political debates today, is severely afflicted by the genetic fallacy, the notion that an argument can be evaluated simply by knowing the identity of the person making it, or the place in which it is published. Hence, it is all too easy to assume that any argument published here in Pray Tell is necessarily “ultra liberal”, or that any post on Rorate Caeli is “ultra conservative”.

Many who argue about the 2011 Mass translation go a step further, claiming that anyone who criticizes it is really pursuing a “liberal” agenda or seeks to avoid what the Latin really says because he or she is afraid of those conclusions, is a sexual libertine, etc.

This is why it is encouraging to find scholars whose historical and philological credentials are impeccable and who are, broadly speaking, “conservative” in their liturgical views. Peter Jeffery is such a scholar; he values the older form of Mass and has spent his life studying chant and ancient Church music. Yet Jeffery’s analysis of Liturgiam Authenticam reveals its faults, in a way immune to accusations that he is a “liberal” with an agenda.

Now, Eamon Duffy, the distinguished Cambridge historian who wrote The Stripping of the Altars, has weighed in on the decision of the Bishops of England and Wales to avoid undertaking a revision of the 2011, despite Pope Francis giving episcopal conferences permission to act. His critique is in The Tablet; at least for some time, non-subscribers can read it simply by first registering with the site and then clicking here.

He describes the 2011 translation as

larded with latinate technical terms – “compunction”, “conciliation”, “participation”, “supplication”, “consubstantial”, “prevenient”, “sustenance”, “oblation”, “laud” – for all of which there are far more user-friendly English equivalents.

He notes that it “bizarrely attempts to replicate the complex grammatical structures of Latin. The result is protracted sentences with multiple subordinate clauses, hard for priests to proclaim and for congregations to follow.”

Duffy accurately spots that the 2011

embodies the theories on translation set out in Liturgiam Authenticam, a profoundly untraditional text. It not only represented a rupture with world-wide post-conciliar developments in the liturgy, but in the interests of a tendentious argument it oversimplified the untidy plurality of the liturgical past. Revealingly, its 86 footnotes contain only two references to anything written before 1947, one of those a citation from Aquinas which distorted his meaning by taking it out of context.

To be sure, Duffy also speaks of the superiority of the translation that every English-speaking bishops’ conference in the world approved in 1998. It

retained what was best in the texts in use since the 1970s, while providing dignified and accurate versions of prayers which had earlier been paraphrased or shoddily rendered. But it also succeeded in producing texts that sounded natural in English, rather than slavishly replicating the verbal patterns peculiar to Latin. That cut no ice in Benedict XVI’s Rome: the bishops were browbeaten into accepting the suppression of their own admirable Missal.

We can debate whether the bishops of England and Wales should have acted, or whether the 1998 is the best translation to turn to, or even to use as the foundation for a revision of the 2011. But Jeffery and Duffy have ably demonstrated the idiocy of Liturgiam Authenticam, not on ideological grounds but on the basis of historical and literary scholarship.

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2 comments

  1. Prevenient is a particularly difficult word, since it reminds people of prevent. And not many of us would be comfortable understanding what ‘Prevent the little children who come to me, and let them not’ was intended to mean. [Prevent meaning go before, precede, lead; and let as in my passport in which Her Brittanic Majesty insists that I should pass ‘without let or hindrance’]

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