My impression, based on spending far too much time on the Internet, is that one of the arguments people make in favor both of Latin and of the forthcoming new English translation of the Mass is that the elevated, complex or just plain obscure nature of these linguistic forms is somehow better suited that plainer vernacular language for conveying a sense of “mystery” that is appropriate to the sacred liturgy. Thus, for example, Alfons Cardinal Stickler spoke of Latin as analogous to the iconostasis of the Eastern tradition, noting that “through the vulgar language the whole action of the liturgy might be profaned” (in Franz Breid, ed., Die heilige Liturgie (Steyr, Austria: Ennsthaler Verlag, 1997). The verbal incomprehensibility of Latin – or the obscurity of an English that hews as closely as possible to Latin – serves as a veil that mediates the incomprehensibility of God.
A variation on this argument is that a “demanding” linguistic register, whether in Latin or the vernacular, correlates to the demanding nature of the Gospel. If newcomers cannot immediately grasp an English liturgy because it uses Latinate vocabulary (such as “consubstantial”) or grammatical forms (such as long sentences with multiple dependent clauses), this is only appropriate. After all, Christianity is a faith that calls us to conversion, so that we come to see the world in a radically transformed way. We should not expect it to be “user-friendly,” and the difficulties posed by our liturgical language simply make clear that the Gospel is not a matter of cheap grace. One can sometimes get the impression that, for some, the linguistic challenges posed by the forthcoming English translation are well suited to the “smaller, purer” Church that they (mistakenly) think Pope Benedict is calling for.
These arguments, however, mis-locate the mystery and challenge of Christianity. God is, to be sure, incomprehensible – that is, it is impossible to wrap our minds around the mystery of God. But the incomprehensible mystery of God is not necessarily more manifest in difficult or obscure linguistic forms. In fact, sometimes the clearer our language about God is, the more manifest the mystery. The use of pseudo-English words like “consubstantial” does not convey the Trinitarian mystery any more powerfully than does relatively plain English such as “one in being with the Father.” Indeed, a term like “consubstantial” might lead hearers to think that the difficulty they have in comprehending the Creed is a matter of understanding the words, rather than the inherent difficulty of finite minds seeking to grasp the infinite communion of divine love that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is, of course, a place in the liturgy for language that is puzzling and strange. But this occurs when we slip into the realm of metaphor and image, language like “Lamb of God” or “begotten” or “seated at the right hand of the Father,” language that is more performative than it is informative. The inherent difficulty of this sort of language is a far cry from language that is made difficult by choice of archaic vocabulary and convoluted syntax.
Likewise, obscure linguistic forms are more likely to blunt the challenge of the Gospel rather than conveying it. The more clearly that people are told that when Christ calls us he bids us come and die, the more clearly they will understand the radical demands of discipleship. If people are going to turn away from Christ, saying “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”, let it be because they have understood what is being asked of them, not because they cannot pierce the “verbal iconostasis” behind which the teaching has been veiled.
I think that it is safe to say that all who care about the Gospel of Christ and its liturgical manifestation desire a liturgical language that conveys the mystery and demand of that Gospel as adequately as possible. What we must avoid is too superficial an understanding of the appropriate linguistic register for such a liturgical task. The chief fault of our current translation is not that it is too simple linguistically, but rather that it often blunts the truly radical elements of our faith by omitting difficult notions present in the Latin prayers, particularly notions of self-abasement before the God of grace. But in remedying this fault, we ought not to fall into a language that blunts these radical elements by wrapping them in obscure, “elevated” language. Let our liturgies speak clearly of the incomprehensible mystery of God.