Peter Jeffery on Liturgiam authenticam

Chant historian Peter Jeffery is, in his own words, is “as conservative as one can get without rejecting Vatican II” (17). In 2004, four remarkable articles by him on the Vatican instruction on translation, Liturgiam authenticam [LA], appeared in the journal Worship. These articles were later reprinted in book form. Given the recent news about a small group from the Vox Clara Committee completely reworking the translations prepared by ICEL and submitted by the national bishops’ conferences, his words are eerily prophetic: “Liturgical scholars and translators are not afraid to have their work reviewed by Church authorities. What we fear is having it ‘revised’ by people who invoke Church Fathers they haven’t read, whose theories of language and culture were created ex nihilo, who cannot tell the New Vulgate from the old one.” We highly recommend Peter Jeffery’s book. Here, PrayTell offers an excerpt. Emphasis ours.

The readiness to see one’s own work examined and revised by others is an essential trait” for those working with liturgical texts, LA warns us (75). Who can deny it? The work requires, as LA says, both a “spirit of prayer” and “a rare degree of expertise.” The need for expertise is self-evident: the Christian liturgical tradition is as long as history, as wide as humanity, as complex as civilization. Nobody could ever know it all. But if the LA authors perceive a need to emphasize this, here is one more historical development they are unaware of: These days, anyone who has the scholarly competence to translate a liturgy is already accustomed to seeing her work examined, criticized, and improved by others. It is built into the academic workplace in a dozen ways, through the use of respondents and panel formats at conferences, peer review, promotion review, book reviews, review articles, and so on. Every year I am consulted by publishers, editors, universities, granting-making entities, and international cultural agencies for my opinion on other people’s work, and others are asked to judge mine by identical standards. Liturgical scholars and translators are not afraid to have their work reviewed by Church authorities. What we fear is having it “revised” by people who invoke Church Fathers they haven’t read, whose theories of language and culture were created ex nihilo, who cannot tell the New Vulgate from the old one.

But the most worrisome thing about LA is that what it lacks in factuality it makes up with naked aggression. It speaks words of power and control rather than cooperation and consultation, much less charity. Asserting a right to impose translations on episcopal conferences (104), or take charge of any translation that might be used in Rome itself (76) are the kind of thing I mean,… No less scary is the stipulation that everyone involved in liturgical translation, “including the experts,” are to be bound to confidentiality by contract (101). This will certainly insulate them from political pressure groups bent on twisting the translations, if there are any. But it will also insulate them from everyone else, including many people who, though not under contract, could have been helpful with Biblical language, theological terminology, the linguistics of the vernacular, as well what is “suitable for being set to music” (60). The translators and experts are, after all, performing a public service to the whole church, not a private service to the bishops or the Vatican. …

It is particularly embarrassing that all this muscular Christianity comes to us vested and mitred in the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation. But in a millennium when a Pope can apologize to the Jews, it is not too much to hope that the Dicastery, too, will find the courage to lead by example, and practice what it preaches on the matter of accepting correction. …

Liturgiam authenticam should be summarily withdrawn, on the grounds that it was released prematurely, before proper consultation with a sufficient number of experts had been completed. Then only the hard part will remain: what to do about the issues and tensions that produced it.

Peter Jeffery, Translating Tradition: A Chant Historian Reads Liturgiam Authenticam (Liturgical Press, 2005), 97-98, 100-101.

20 comments

  1. One could even say that LA does not need to be withdrawn since it has never been in force. In Canon Law, a law that has not been received by those at whom it is directed is deemed not to be in effect. With the furore that surrounded its publication, it is easy to state that in fact LA has never been received by the Church at large, even though small numbers of people have operated in accordance with it.

    I recall Cardinal Arinze maintaining disingenuously that, since LA was a universal law of the Church, the Congregation could not vary its provisions. He had conveniently forgotten that the document had been written by a member of his Congregation. It only became a universal law when the Pope signed it. Who else but the Congregation could edit it or supplement it, for heaven’s sake?!

  2. I don’t believe LA was signed by the Pope. Pope John Paul gave his consent to it’s issuance by the CDWDS. And it was given in forma commune, the lower form of consent, rather than in forma specific.

    I have heard a cardinal member of the Congregation say that the document was issued without consultation with the cardinal and bishop members of CDWDS. This is an anomaly.

    In any case, when was a successful translation ever done by following a rule book! Translation is an art, a conversation between two languages. When one of the languages in the dialogue is given so exalted a status that the other is reduced to being a pesky stepchild the whole effort will surely come to grief. The English language too has its proper genius and claims. High claims indeed! LA makes a nonsense of the conciliar decision in favor of the vernacular.

    1. If Comme le prevoit can be superseded, so can Liturgiam Authenticam. If’s probably the one thing that LA established over which there is no dipsute.

  3. Corrections: its FOR it’s; forma communi, forma specifica. The system in the computer always knows best. Or so it thinks.

  4. Only a third of the way through the book at this point, but already find his writing to be both frank of a most serious nature.

    He writes, “Inaccuracies, misrepresentations and contradictions so abound in LA that anyone who tried to obey it religiously would find himself hopelessly mired in absurdities, demonstrating fidelity to Roman tradition by doing and saying things that are neither Roman nor traditional” (pg 22).

    Such a statement is no small or incidental claim and only propels me to further reading!

  5. Any suggestion that LA has not been received seems clouded by the actions of the English speaking bishops’ conferences who’ve already implemented its stipulations in the revised translations they’ve approved and sent to the Holy See for recognitio.
    LA is a gift to the Church and a sign-of-the times. In a very real sense it is only now, after LA, that English speaking Catholics will get a completely vernacular liturgy because only now will they have a full translation of the Latin original.

    1. Robert, in all seriousness, do you say outrageous things because you really believe them or because you enjoy stirring up angry reactions? This, for example, is outrageous: “It is only now, after LA, that English speaking Catholics will get a completely vernacular liturgy…” Whether you like it or not, surely you must know that the Holy See approved Comme le prevoit, that our current English translations were done in accord with it, and that the Holy See approved all our current translations. Sounds like a “vernacular liturgy” to me. What are you after? Is this a game or a serious discussion?
      awr

      1. Comme le prevoit specifically asked for paraphrases and glosses of liturgical texts in vernacular “translation”. Surely the ICEL translators were obedient in following these instructions. I think what Robert is saying though is that the first vernacular texts were not really “vernacular translations” of the liturgy so much as they were “vernacular paraphrases” of it.

  6. I’ve always wanted to read Peter Jeffery’s critique in full. Fr., does he anywhere defend the current translation?

    1. Jeffrey – not that I recall, and I rather doubt it. He pretty much loathes most of what we’ve done liturgically since Vatican II, so I can only guess what he thinks of the current English text. But I’m only guessing – it’d be good to hear it from him.
      awr

      1. Long ago I wrote a series of articles for a now defunct publication ( (Catholic World Report) on the existing translation. Even with my rudimentary Latin knowledge (my co-author was a Latin scholar), I was amazed at the current translation, which struck me as a complete re-write with an agenda. So of course I welcomed another attempt, though I am disappointed with some aspects of what I’ve seen (contrary to the prevailing criticism, I see it as too low, not too high). But something tells me that I would have a hard time completely disagreeing with Jeffery’s criticism of LA. I also respect his honesty and integrity in calling it like he sees it.

  7. Peter Jeffrey writes,

    But in a millennium when a Pope can apologize to the Jews, it is not too much to hope that the Dicastery, too, will find the courage to lead by example, and practice what it preaches on the matter of accepting correction.

    I have not read Jeffrey’s book. I do not know the context of this statement. However, the following distinction should be recognized.

    The postconciliar Church’s rapprochement with the Jewish community is an extremely complex issue that spans theology (christology), ecclesiology, liturgy, exegesis, and socio-political history. The reparations of the Church for Jewish persecution pervade nearly every aspect of the Catholic experience. The Church’s “apology” for Jewish persecution is not just kind words. This “apology” is truly a call for an intense reformation that scrutinizes every bone of the Body of Christ.

    A refutation of a translation ideology and translation program does not approach Catholic attempts to ameliorate its relationship with Judaism. Sure, LA has polarized liturgical schools in the Church. Even those pleased with the LA ideology quibble over the translation quality. Even so, internal discussion of liturgical translation pales in comparison to the intricate rift that separates Catholicism and Judaism. A conflation of translation ideology with Catholic-Jewish relations grossly overestimates the importance of liturgy.

  8. I think Peter Jeffrey is not making a comparison between the treatment of the Jews and the philosophy of translations. I think he is talking about apologizing.

    We live with a Church that has a very hard time of ever admitting that it is wrong about anything, since it sees apologizing as a diminution of its God-given and unassailable authority. And yet, given the apology to the Jews and the reinstatement of Galileo, to mention but two, we might hope that this is a sign that Rome is starting to realize that apologies for something wrong can in fact lead to an increase rather than a decrease in stature.

    And, in a different sense, the same lack-of-bending-in-case-it-undermines-our-authority mindset is clear in LA, which never mentions Comme le Prévoit specifically, much less derogating it. Perhaps the author of LA thought no one would notice. More likely, however, is that he thought that mentioning it would be tantamount to legitimizing the Church’s own principles which had guided the work of translators during the previous 32 years, thus weakening his own arguments, shaky as indeed they already are.

    What an amazing Church we live in!

    1. Paul, do we know who the (principal) author of LA was? Did he ever defend, or justify, what he wrote, or answer Peter Jeffrey’s very serious and stinging criticisms?

      1. Scholars tell us that Anthony Ward SM, currently capo d’ufficio (i.e. number 3) at CDWDS, wrote it. The basis for this is an extended commentary on the document written by Ward. Stylistically the commentary and document were so similar that the scholars were able to conclude that Ward was the author of the document itself as well as the commentary.

        No, no one in CDWDS has ever responded to Peter Jeffrey’s criticisms. Rome does not do that sort of thing. They keep themselves immune from any interaction which might challenge their authority. If pressed, I imagine they might say that responding is beneath their dignity. More likely, however, is that they would pretend they had never seen Jeffrey’s articles.

  9. I notice that Peter Jeffrey also reminds his readers about “the scary stipulation that everyone involved in liturgical translation, including the experts, are to be bound by confidentiality by contract.” This secrecy, Jeffrey concludes, will insulate the translators “from everyone else, including many people who, though not under contract, could have been helpful with Biblical language, theological terminology, the lingusistics of the vernacular, as well as what is suitable for being set to music… Of course there is a role for confidentiality…but it is an abuse of confidentiality to use it to isolate the expert and control the content of her advice. Indeed, it renders superfluous the whole notion of ‘expertise.’” Summarizing the Liturgiam authenticam disaster, he says, “It is particularly embarrassing that all this muscular Christianity comes to us vested and mitred in the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation.”

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