What to believe about the translation controversy?

A Pray Tell reader writes in with a question about the missal translation controversy. She received assurance from the diocesan liturgy office yesterday that everything is on track. The diocesan liturgy office said, among other things, that the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) in Rome incorporated the suggestions of national bishops’ conferences along with its own improvements, as it always does, to create the final approved text of the missal. The liturgy office went on to say that this final text is undergoing only minor editorial corrections – punctuation, standardization, that sort of thing – so that it is ready for press.

The reader wants to know how all this squares with the reporting of Pray Tell and other news sources.

First of all, Pray Tell stands 100% behind everything it has reported so far. We do our level best to convey the facts, and to report the truth with Christian honesty and integrity. In doing this we believe we are serving the Church and our Lord.

If anything Pray Tell reports is shown to be inaccurate, we will gladly and immediately correct it. We welcome any further information, including more leaks if they come, if this provides a clearer picture of the true story.

On to the issue at hand. There are two claims to pursue here: first, that the CDW’s granting of final approval (recognitio) was a routine procedure; second, that there is only one version of the final text, and any changes to it are minor.

1.  The CDW’s “Routine” Approval of the Final Text of the Missal

Some sources have claimed that the CDW produced the final text in an entirely unremarkable manner. The changes to the text made by the CDW result mostly from the suggestions or amendments submitted by national bishops’ conferences, but of course the CDW reserves the right to introduce its own improvements as well before granting recognitio (approval).

Last July Pray Tell broke the story that the final CDW text has some 10,000 changes compared to the text which the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) gave to the conferences for their submission (with any of their amendments) to Rome. This was substantiated when Pray Tell published four articles by “Xavier Rindfleisch” (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4) comparing the ICEL text and the CDW-approved text. It became apparent to everyone that massive changes, changes of the sort you would not expect to come from national conferences, had been made. Pray Tell has a copy of a letter not made public in which one senior official expresses his alarm to another senior official at the extent (10,000 is explicitly stated) and the poor quality of the changes in the CDW final version.

It would take some tricky mathematics to come up with thousands and thousands of amendments from the national conferences. We read in the online BCDW newsletter of November, 2009, for example, that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) proposed a total of 48 modifications to the Commons, 76 to the Proper of Saints, and 0 to the Supplement. This refers to three sections of the missal, out of ten sections in all. Other national conferences perhaps made similar numbers of suggestions, or perhaps fewer. Some of their suggestions may have coincided with those made by the USCCB. A Bishop from one country told me that his conference approved “whatever amendments the US made” – the Bishops didn’t even ask to see them before voting to ratify them! – because they would be buying their liturgical books anyway from the US. Some conferences are known to have offered no amendments to the ICEL text. At least one conference received the Order of Mass text with recognitio from Rome, though it had not yet submitted its text to Rome for approval!

It seems, then, that you can scrape together all possible amendments from national conferences and still probably have at least 8,000 or 9,000 changes left over. Pray Tell stands behind its report that someone or some group (we believe from Vox Clara) made massive changes of its own, with no consultation of national conferences, before the CDW approved the final text.

An internal report outlining the problems in the CDW final text was prepared by someone last summer, and it is leaked here. Excerpts from the CDW-approved text are leaked here – these are excerpts from the “Received Text” which officials of the CDW and Vox Clara presented to Pope Benedict XVI on April 28, 2010. All these leaks corroborate Pray Tell’s reporting.

As further corroboration, Pray Tell has this excerpt of an email from the person charged with doing the musical revisions made necessary by the massive textual changes in the CDW text. (It is ICEL’s policy to keep confidential the names of translators and composers.) This email was sent August 24, 2010, at 10:15 am.

I’m making good progress revising the chant settings of the prefaces but the situation is pretty bad, I’m discovering. In fact I was moved to shed tears this morning at how awful these texts are. We have B-cadences like “authority of Christ crucified” (Passion I), with two accents in a row. I see no acceptable solution, and all three of my solutions are awful. Then we have “in Christ is celebrated” (Passion II), which also cannot possibly work satisfactorily with that awful accent pattern on the final word.
I think I know the answer to this, but I’ll ask it anyway. Is there any way these wretched texts can be revised? Is there any possibility of appeal to the Roman authorities? …
I’m sure the revisers didn’t have music in mind at all, but their revisions which oftentimes don’t follow the syntax of the Latin, or add or omit words from the Latin, repeatedly make the musical setting difficult. If they had had the goal of wrecking the music (and I don’t think they did), they couldn’t have done so much better.

2. “Minor Editing” of the Final Text

Now that portions of the final text (the Received Text of April 28) have been leaked, anyone can easily verify any changes made to it. The final text of the Order of Mass (available here) has, for example, a different wording for “Through him, and with him, and in him…” than the April 28 Received Text – see leak #3, page 549 of the Received Text. Obviously the CDW made this change to the final text after April 28.

There is little doubt that the CDW will make, or already has made, further changes to the April 28 Received Text. These will not be minor editorial changes, but changes of wording to correct the problems in the final text. It will be easy for anyone to check, when the missal comes out, how many further changes have been made to the Received Text. Pray Tell has it on good word that the prefaces, examined in the leaked internal report and referred to in the above email of August 24, will appear with corrections to the “final” version of April 28.

One can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim in one breath that the leaked internal report is untrustworthy because it refers to an earlier final version, and then claim in the next breath that no substantial changes have been made or will be made to the final version.

The day we get our printed missals, we will not have forgotten about the leaked report. This report provides a very extensive list of specific problems in the Received Text. It will be easy to look up in our missals every single text mentioned in the report. There will be only two options: either our missal text has been changed to address the problem in the report, or it has not been changed. If the missal text has been changed, this will show that the final text indeed did undergo textual revision. If the missal text has not been changed, this will show that it is an unsatisfactory text because someone didn’t respond to the problem pointed out in the report.

So far the online reaction to the leaked Received Text has been roundly negative. We do not yet know how many of the problems in the final text approved by the CDW will be corrected before our missals get printed. But instead of hearing reassurances that there is only one final text and it is not changing, it would be far more reassuring to hear that the CDW is changing the final text it already approved.

I suppose we really don’t need to know who made the 10,000 changes, why they did it, or how the CDW ever came to approve such a thing. But a lot of folks sure are curious.

Let us hope for complete honesty from everyone involved. Eighth Commandment, and all that.


  1. You keep referring to a “CDF-approved” text. This threw me quite a bit, because I thought I had missed a whole other bureaucratic layer in the sausage-making. I was relieved to reread, and see that you used the acronym to refer to the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. I really appreciate your reporting here, and the wealth of information you provide, but you might want to update this, for fear of throwing off others.

    And please, keep the reports coming.

    1. OMG! Thanks for noticing. It should be CDW all the way through, and I’ve corrected it. I guess I have “CDF” in my mind because Cardinal Levada of the CDF presented a paper at the cardinals’ consistory yesterday. Apologies.

  2. I think the nail on the head hit you have, Father, end at the right.

    Bishop Serratelli’s hakuna matata statement of 11/18 is rather incredible — not to mention insulting to the people of God. (I really do wonder if someone botched up the translation of cura animarum along the way, such that the meaning is now unknown to the bishops. But I digress….)

    There needs to be a clear, unambiguous, unequivocating, nontergiversatory explanation of the process the translation went through, from the time that the CDW approved the text until the problems came to light; in other words, when and why further changes were made without consulting the conferences of bishops.

    The actual scope of the problem needs to be made clear: how many changes were made, how far do they diverge from LA and the Rationale Translationis?

    Even more necessary at this stage is a positive statement regarding the principles being used to evaluate each individual piece of euchology so as to guarantee consistency of translation (or correction). What is the plan for making the corrections, and who will be responsible for insuring that they are made?

  3. Fr. Unterseher,

    I suggest you not hold your breath waiting for any of those much-needed things. Purple isn’t really a good color for most people’s skin, at least not from the inside.

    The ‘hakuna matata’ remark is hilarious, even while being kind of sad, that the bishops don’t think anything of insulting the rest of us. Thank you!

    1. My concern, Lynn, is that even with the “leaked” report Areas of Difficulty in the Received Text of the Missal, the problems will not be fully identified and remedied in any systematic way — if, realistically, at all.

      I know its a bit of a pipe dream, but from my vantage point on the outside, it seems that until such a course is taken, there’s no hope for resolving the issues (“areas of difficulty”) successfully (or canonically for that matter).

      1. We need dreamers. I agree with you, though, it’s probably a pipe dream.

        Honest admission of a problem and a forthright discussion of fixing it, instead of assigning the blame [to the laity, usually] is simply not the Roman way. Funny, I never thought of the Mediterranean as ostrich territory, but sometimes it sure seems that way.

    1. It’s not that simple. Many here don’t understand the difference between grace and comfort. On another thread, we’ve heard about the people who ‘feel’ things, rather than understanding things that should have been taught them.

      “Oh dear, I wish that there were no unpleasantnesses in life; if only we could all do what we want and that everyone else would agree that we’re all seeking the same comfort equally….so we must be equal, and Jesus Christ was wrong. If he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh to the Father except through me.” He must have been mistaken. He didn’t realize how 21st-century man would improve on that. Hubris would no longer exist. We can all have our own way. There are no limits” So, if you want to be a surgeon, you don’t really need to follow surgeons. Go ahead and cut on all of us in a comfortable way.

      Oh, if only the Pope understood that there are no boundaries. Poor man.

      1. Mr. Douglas, who or what on earth are you responding to?

        Who has claimed on this blog that Jesus Christ was wrong, that they wish there were no unpleasantnesses in life, that we all should be able to do what we want, that we can all have our own way, that there are no boundaries?

        Or do you have your own system of logic which shows that anything which is not complete agreement with every Roman policy is all of the above?

        There are straw men, and then there is what you just wrote. I’m sorry, but this is simply ridiculous.


      2. Fr. Antohony, I want to answer you properly, but suddenly the end of the term and the holiday rush has overtaken me. Perhaps I’ll e-mail you after Thanksgiving. Maybe I’ve not expressed myself well, but there is certainly a grain of truth to what I’m saying. (I was responding to a cavalier treatment to Roma locuta est . . . )

        In any case, Happy Thanksgiving to you and to all.


  4. I’m a bit confused and am trying to reconcile Bp. Serratelli’s statement with what is reported here. I am assuming that the Areas of Difficulty memo (“AOD”), the XR articles and the leaked missal portions are based on the April 2010 text (i.e., the book shown at the ceremony with the Pope). I believe Fr. Ruff states as much in this post. If so, then based on Bp. Serratelli’s statement, apparently the issues in AOD were not addressed in changes between April and August. He said: “The critique that has circulated has necessarily failed to take into account the final version of the text, which incorporates some corrections issued by the Congregation since the transmittal of the full text to the English-speaking Conferences of Bishops in August 2010.” So Bp. Serratelli seems to be saying that the Areas of Difficulty issues have been addressed and cleared up since August. He also suggests that those changes have been completed before now, since he says there is currently a final text and only “minor” rather than substantive edits are being made at this point.

    It is all very curious and not very comforting. I would like to believe that the issues of AOD have already been addressed, and would be overjoyed if they are. However, it seems more realistic that efforts to address the numerous issues might take longer and that therefore substantive revisions are still ongoing, if indeed those issues are being addressed. It is possible that there is an element of public relations to Bp. Serratelli’s statement to calm people down while the authorities are proceeding in private to make the necessary corrections. I certainly have no idea what is going on, but I just hope and pray that, whenever and however, the Areas of Difficulty issues either have been or will be addressed before publication, and that we will in the end have an accurate and worthy text.

  5. I find this blogsite fascinating, because it tracks church history in the making with total exposure of all that is known about this one specific issue of the new translations. Rarely in history has an ecclesiastical contretemps been given such high-relief coverage. In olden days theologians would shoot off 600-page barrages at one another, clarifying controversies from every angle, but now the Internet permits a more powerful and vivid exhibition of events as they unfold, and can show up contradictions between various texts, statements and actions in an unanswerable way. Anthony Ruff, do not tire in this good work — it may mark a threshold in historical self-consciousness, transparency, accountability, democratic debate, and responsible self-critique in our Catholic culture.

  6. Sadly, this whole process just shows that people lie to get what they want through. People that have power abuse that power, I just hope we all keep in check the times where we can abuse our power too, since we all cry out (and rightly so from everything I’ve read in this case) against the power abuses in the missal translations (and the resulting ecclesiological problems.) This whole situation reminds me of reading Machiavelli in my political theory class. 😛

    1. Adam, you have nailed the problem precisely.

      It has been said on other blogs and probably here as well: the farce that has been so intricately documented here on Pray Tell is fundamentally an abuse of power.

      For those who wield this unbridled power the concepts of transparency and due process are foreign.

      Those who wanted put a stake through the heart of ICEL 1998 text needed only to prevent recognitio and then re-write the rules of translation (Liturgiam authenticam).

      Pope John Paul II was in his twilight years and these guys act as if they are the sovreign pontiff themselves. No accountability, no collegiality, just the unbridled exercise of power because they can.

      Shame on you hierarchs of the Catholic Church: shame on those who stamp on the necks of the national bishops’ conferences and shame on those bishops who lie supine and cower in the face of such Roman arrogance.

  7. “This whole situation reminds me of reading Machiavelli in my political theory class.”

    We have never before had anything like this full exposure of how our bishops behave. Since the issues are not imponderables of dogma but matters on which millions of English speakers can judge for themselves, the bishops’ irrational and immature attitudes are immediately transparent. The power-structures in operation between the Curia and the Bishops and between the bishops and the despised lower orders have also been powerfully lit up. The whole sorry debacle has been a cascade of epiphanies. It has shed unflattering light deep into the recesses of an episcopal leadership who are shown to be uncultured, lazy, unaccountable, casual about their most sacred duties, spineless cowards, and childishly convinced of their superior wisdom: ‘We are THE teachers… It’s not as if we’re in crisis…’ (Abp Timothy Dolan).

  8. Actually, the improbable machinations and skullduggeries of these power-freaks have paid off, in that the perpetrators are now poised to reap the fruit of their labors as the entire English-speaking Church takes up their text and recites it dutifully (something like the Russian crowd singing at the behest of guards with whips in Boris Godounov). The next round in the power game is that of the laity: will they be passive and supine, or will they try to react, and if they try to react will they give up soon, realizing how “powerless” they are? I suspect the hierarchy will “win” this second round too. The final result: a depletion of Catholic spiritual and communal life.

  9. She received assurance from the diocesan liturgy office yesterday that everything is on track. The diocesan liturgy office said, among other things, that the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) in Rome incorporated the suggestions of national bishops’ conferences along with its own improvements, as it always does, to create the final approved text of the missal.

    That diocesan liturgy office is deluding itself. What was the major change that both US and UK Conferences wanted made to the Order of Mass? Answer: the retention of “Christ has died” as an option for the memorial acclamation. So much for incorporating the suggestions of national bishops’ conferences.

    And on this very subject, I hear rumours that some publishers (none in the US that I know of, alas) are thinking of retaining the “Christ had died” acclamation in their hymnbooks, on the grounds that a proportion of their market is Anglicans who will continue to use that acclamation whether Roman Catholics do so or not.

    1. Interesting, Paul, interesting.

      This affects not only Anglicans/Episcopalians but Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians as well. While all of these denominations have (1) a denominational publishing house and (2) a denomination-wide authorized hymnal, most of the parishes in these traditions that I’m aware of also have one or bore “supplements” from GIA, OCP or WLP. If that acclamation goes away. . .

      Any way you look at it, publishers are going to take a hit over this.

      1. And it will cost them nothing to retain it, since, despite the fact that ICEL has always attempted to claim copyright in “Christ has died”, it was in fact already in use in the Anglican Churches a number of years before ICEL ‘appropriated’ it. I well remember my surprise when the faxed typescript of the ICEL 1969/70 Order of Mass first came through, and thinking “I’ve seen this before — it’s not theirs!”

        No one actually knows who wrote it, though rumours are rife (cf. conferences in Nairobi, etc), so it is effectively in the public domain. US publishers, of course, have been paying money for it to ICEL for years; some more enlightened publishers elsewhere haven’t.

        And, for the record, it’s by no means the only text that ICEL borrowed/stole around that time and claimed as their own. The days of Gerry Sigler as Executive Secretary were sadly marred by a lot of this sort of thing.

  10. I have been mesmerized by the developments on PrayTell on the translation of the upcoming Missal. Amen to Father O’Leary’s comments.

    This is clearly an internal matter: except for ecumenical partners watching with concern, the rest of the world could not care less in what words we pray the Mass. Additionally, none of the participants in this debacle actually want the revised Missal to fail. Everyone, I think, tries to go towards what they think is best for the church: ultimately the goal is the same for all. So, with little to no outside pressure, and with a common ultimate goal, it’s amazing to me how utterly the church has failed to come up with a good Missal.

    The evident conclusion, I think, is that the current church government needs structural reform.

    What is not clear is what comes next. Will the public revelations of incompetence have any consequences? How can we leverage our documented knowledge of all those missteps? It’s all good (in my view) to place discredit where it is due, but then what?

    Fr. Z’s suggestion: “Julius Caesar in his writings laid down important principles for the commander of troops. One of them is that you should leave an honorable escape route for your opponent. […] Even though the text is now theoretically finalized, the Congregation could quite honorably (quietly, discreetly) correct the mistakes made by the Congregation, pointed out in documents such as the “Areas of Difficulty”. I am afraid that he’s right: that’s what will be attempted. Another cover-up of sorts, in other words.

    This indirectly helps me understand the sexual abuse scandal. Mismanagement, power struggles and power abuses, solitary unwise decisions, all wrapped in secrecy, and general incompetence suffice to explain it.

  11. I am still confused about a lot. First, if the problem is one of transparency…i.e that there is deception to the point that nobody knows what is going on, then how is it that so many commenters and posters here seem so assured about what is going on, so long as it is something negative? There may be good reason to find Bp. Serratelli’s comments untruthful… if so then put the evidence out there, please. If that evidence is simply conjecture based on other “hearsay” type evidence, then it becomes an issue of who has more credibility. Think what you may about Bp. Serratelli, but if he were to put up testimony in court against the discovered testimony of an anonymous source, I would put the greater weight on the evidence from an identified credible person.

    Bp. Serratelli’s statement is only “ridiculous” or “insulting” if you accept as true those contrary statements which, at this point, there is little reason to believe other than agreement with one’s personal attitude towards the translation in the first place.

    Please don’t misunderstand… I’m not claiming that anybody here is intentionally formulating an opposition campaign… rather, I don’t see any strong evidence to accept as true the statements being made by either side. Serratelli can’t back up his position because of the inherent secrecy surrounding the process. Those crying foul can’t back up their claims either… all they have are unauthorized statements and spurious leaks that can’t be either proven or contradicted.

    When the ACTUAL translation is released and printed in the new missal and distributed, then we will know what was truth and what was absolute hogwash. Of course, if it ends up being the originally improved text with a few corrections and none of the dramatic changes that have been circulated, then the claim will be made that the Vatican backtracked and caved into the pressure being put on it. That too could be true….or not.

    1. Jeffrey – all very good questions.

      The problem is that the Church authorities are not transparent; rather, they are trying to operate in complete secrecy. But it’s not working for them – there have been too many trustworthy leaks.

      When I report on the missal mess, I don’t make things up, and I don’t guess what must have happened. I give you my word that I report only what I know to be true. I will swear on the Bible that the leaked 2010 text is authentic, and it is the version presented to the Pope on April 28.

      When our missal text comes, either it will be the Received Text, or it won’t be. In the first case, this will corroborate Pray Tell’s claim that the missal got hijacked from what the conferences submitted. In the second case, it will corroborate that the final text had to be revised before being issued, but the hijacking is still what happened. I predict it will be the second case. I have direct evidence that the Received Text was revised (somewhat) a couple weeks ago, but I honestly do not know whether it has since been revised further or un-revised.

      It would be good to ask the authorities whether the Received Text is the final version. Either it is or it isn’t.

      It would also be good to ask the authorities how it came about that something like the leaked report “Areas of Difficulty” ever became necessary.

      But I expect that we will not get a direct answer to either question, because the authorities obviously need to cover-up for the botched job of the CDW.

      Really, there is no other account of what happened which fits with the known facts.


  12. Father Anthony, the comments from your correspondent do not surprise me. From my contacts with our own diocesan director of liturgy, I am sure that he approves of whatever emerges as the Benedictine papacy’s revision of language. But even if he didn’t approve, I doubt if he would be willing to express this to me. He and his colleagues are charged with implementation starting next Advent; so I guess they would avoid undue controversy now. The bishops passed the buck to the CDW and don’t want to hear any more about it; that is fact.

    But then liturgy appeals to all our senses, not just our ears. Our earliest memories – and I include the bishops here – are of incense and a certain pageantry and a divinity dwelling in unapproachable language. So if the looks and smells and exotics seem to work, it might pass. But we don’t need catechesis to achieve that. And the central preface prayers will remain as irrelevant to the consciousness of many assemblies as they are now.

  13. Fr. Anthony;

    Again…. I want to be clear that I accuse nobody of making things up.

    Those who know me well understand my fascination with and tendency to reference films as examples and lessons. Although a turkey of a film in some respects, “Absence of Malice” (Paul Newman/ Sally Field) provides a useful tale about what happens when opposing sides both report “the truth” for different reasons. Same facts, but different interpretations. In the end, it turns out that a third party had manipulated both sides for his own reasons. Neither side knew and believed it was reporting the truth for its own reasons. In the end, nobody was lying but neither side was right.

    I’m just saying…

    1. Jeffrey – No problem. I enjoy your detective streak. And if there is a third party manipulating all of us…hmmm…

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