Liturgical Language, Divine Mystery and the Demands of the Gospel

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.


  1. Are “consubstantial” and “one in being with” really the same? I think I could argue that my coffee cup is one in being with other things on my desk. They are all “in being”. But they are not consubstantial.

    And you readily use “trinitarian” as though it were as simple as “red” or “blue”. But someone once taught you what that means.

    Let the pendulum swing!

    1. Context is everything. Is it really the case that someone reciting the Creed would think that all they are professing regarding Father and Son is that they both exist? I suppose that one could argue that “consubstantial” at least has the advantage that no one is going to fall into the illusion that they know what it means.

    2. Are “consubstantialem” and “consubstantial” the same thing? I think not. The Latin “substantia” – literally, that which stands under – is quite different than what most people today understand by “substance.” Since the rise of modern science, we can’t help but think of atoms and molecules.

      What would communicate to us, today, what the original Latin might have meant? I propose: “one in being.” It is more accurate at the level of modern day people’s understanding.

      I’m serious. I think “consubstantial” is dangerously inaccurate.


      1. I’ve sometimes thought “being of one essence with the Father” might work, since it draws in two possible English renderings of ousia. But this semester I asked my Freshmen what “essence” means and not one of the 30 was willing to venture an answer. So I made a joke about perfume and moved on.

      2. I like Fr. Paul Turner’s catechesis on Consubstantial. He says that the “Latin word ‘Consubstantialis’ means ‘having the same substance’ which is even more fundamental than ‘one in Being.’ ‘Consubstantial’ is a very unusual word. We don’t use it for anything else. But it is describing an very unusual thing–the nature of Jesus Christ. He is not like anything or anyone else.”

      3. Perhaps part of the problem is the tendency in the Western Church to see dogmatic statements as being positive rather than negative, as they tend to be understood in East.

        As a negative term, “consubstantial” would merely mean “not of different substance” and “not of similar substance.”

        This, obviously, doesn’t really address the point that, outside the context of a class in metaphysics, the term “substance”, is understood as a fancier way of saying “stuff”.

        Actually, “of the same stuff as Father” has a nice ring to it :).

        Also, this perhaps could be an occasion for broader liturgical use of the Apostle’s Creed.

      4. +JMJ+

        Many months ago, I provided an excerpt (condensed to fit the then-draconian character count of the comment box) from a book of mine in which I explain in a matter of two paragraphs what “substance” and “essence” (in consubstantial and homoousious) mean.

      5. Jeff,

        I agree that your catechesis on :”substance” is pretty good. The only problem is that it works better for what Aristotle calls “primary substance” (the concrete existing thing) than it does for “secondary substance” (the kind of thing that something is). Part of the difficulty with the term “substance” is that, even prior to the modern Lockean transformation of substance into “stuff,” there was the problem that, in the case of the Trinity, one needs a notion of “substance” that falls somewhere between primary and secondary substance, since the persons/hypostases of the Trinity are also “substances” (which, as you no doubt know, directly translates “hypostasis”) in the primary sense, and the idea of secondary substance gives you only the generic unity of members of a common genus (in the way that Tom, Dick and Harry are the same “substance”).

        My main point (apart from a futile display of pedantry) is that “consubstantial,” while it certainly can be explained, is not really any more “precise” than “one in being.” Both are, in any ultimate sense, failures.

      6. ‘Consubstantial’ is a very unusual word. We don’t use it for anything else.

        On the Simpsons, Lisa bemoaned divisions in the Church by citing how “It always comes down to TRAN-substantiation versus CON-substantiation.”

        The unfortunate part of this is that consubstantiation, used in the sense of consubstantial in the Creed, is probably more accurate than transubstantiation. But consubstantiation means something entirely different than consubstantial, and I am willing to bet that many will be confused by the two terms with the same root but different meanings. sigh.

        I prefer “one in being” as a better translation of the Greek original homoousia. Why would we translate a translation when we can translate the original?

  2. My experience as a priest for over forty years is that people in the assembly don’t really care whether “consubstantial” is the equivalent of “one in being with.” Priests don’t really care either. Maybe they should, but they don’t. Statistics tell us that the majority of people who stay away from the liturgy do so because of poor preaching and ritual they can’t relate too. Now we’re going for “sacral language” that makes the liturgy even more incomprehensible? People who make these decisions should spend some time in parishes.

  3. I think the majority of people who wanted the English translation to be elevated from the current 1973 were not thinking of the language being obscure or incomprehensible from the linguistic point of view. A few words like gibbet and consubstantial are fine and we can all add these to our vocabulary. But we were hoping for accuracy of translation and the appropriate theology of abasement before God, but developed within the context of good, modern English, similar to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Personally I have no problem with the translation of the Order of the Mass, but some of the orations I have seen are difficult to read, proclaim and understand from the point of view of good English. But just as Jesus says out loud when his apostles refused to stay awake with him in the Garden of Gethsemane and just as we said for the 1973 translation and evidently we’ll have to say for the 2010 translation, “It will have to do.” And perhaps that sums it up for us in our Catholic theology of self-abasement that when the Son of God looks at us and our efforts to honor and glorify Him, He shrugs His shoulders and says “It will have to do.” Unfortunately, this is sad but true not only for translations but for discipleship. But it gives us hope too. What we do before God, even if lacking, “will have to do” in God’s eyes. He’s not that much of a demanding perfectionist but offers a great deal of latitude to us poor miserable sinners.

  4. Fritz, I think your article is absolutely on the mark!! It’s one of the best arguments I have read regarding the missal mess!
    Perhaps we agree because I attended Loyola University (when it was just a college ) and I was married at Corpus Christi Church!!
    Thank you for sharing these thoughts!

  5. Thank you for this piece. As I have been following the new information it has become difficult for me to hash out how I feel and what I think about it all. Back when I first began paying attention to the forthcoming translation, I was excited about the possibility for richer text and prayers that actually said something meaningful. More and more I am finding the translations disappointing to my hopeful expectations and often times simply confusing in structure, syntax, and vocabulary.

    Your article expresses some of the difficulities I have with the apparent new translation. Thank you for illuminting a very relevant aspect of this issue.

  6. “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.”

    I agree that some of the more profound elements expressed in the Latin are blunted in the current translation, and are somewhat less blunted in the translation always-yet-to-come. While I am certain that we could use a healthy dose of genuine self-abasement before God, I would also like to point out that some of the words present in the Latin typical edition express a significantly higher estimation of human dignity than do the current or future English versions.

    My understanding of the Christmas morning collect, for example, is that it expresses, in Latin, the notion that God ‘considered it worthwhile to participate in our humanity.’ The current translation talks about ‘sharing in our weakness.’ The ‘Advent Missal’ (already here, and somehow not yet fully present) says ‘humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ I defintely prefer the second rendering, but want to point out that for some reason, in English, we too frequently equate ‘humanity’ with ‘weakness’ that God ‘humbles himself’ to share. The Latin does not, as far as I can tell, express anything in ‘qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus esse particeps,’ but that Christ ‘considered it worthewhile to participate in (‘share’ does seem better) our humanity.’ So, I do not aim to discourage any appropriate ‘self-abasement,’ but why interject it in a way that contradicts the ‘dignity of human nature’ actually expressed in the Latin?

    1. +JMJ+

      Yes, this Nativity collect (used in an abbreviated and amended form at the mingling of the water and wine in the chalice) is often misunderstood when “humbled” or “condescended” is used to translate fieri dignatus.

      Here is my own translation of this 7th century collect:

      O God,
      Who wonderfully created the worthiness of man’s nature,
      and have more wonderfully renewed it,
      grant, we beseech You,
      that we may be made partakers of Your Son Jesus Christ’s divinity
      Who deigned to become a partaker of our humanity.

      The first half of this Collect speaks of man’s creation and then of his redemption and sanctification in Christ. The second half considers the Incarnation (celebrated especially on the Solemnity of the Nativity) by which Christ deigned (condescended) to share our humanity, and which enables us to share in His divinity, in the eternal life of God. This was an act of humility (cf. Phil. 2:8) by the Son, Who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:7) But the Incarnation was not simply God lowering Himself to our level; He also deemed human nature worthy of Himself and desired to raise it to a more wondrous dignity than it first knew.

  7. Excellent point, Jeffery, and a corrective to the over-emphasis on abasement (which is not the real style of the Roman liturgy — there are occasional sober references to our badness — nobis quoque peccatoribus, domine non sum dignus, but on the whole we stand before God with joyful confidence.

    As to substantia is it a notoriously inadequate translation of ousia — Augustine says this clearly, and suggests essentia instead. There is a gamut of interpretations of the precise meaning of homoousion among the orthodox Nicene Fathers and the meaning of the term cannot be pinned down with absolute precision. Using ‘consubstantial’ in English make it sound as if learned doctors have determined the exact ontological relation of Father and Son, whereas ‘one in being’ better expresses the openness of credal doxology.

    1. My point about abasement was not made with particular reference to our badness. Even a “good person” (having just taught Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” I cannot but put this in scare quotes) should abase himself or herself before the infinite God of grace. It’s more about finite and infinite than it is about evil and good.

      My inexpert understanding is that the more extreme professions of sinfulness are not typically Roman (being Gallican imports). Still, in the Roman liturgy we do find frequent use of the language of deference — e.g. the habitual use of quaesumus and the frequent inclusion of phrases like da nobis tua gratia. It is this sort of language, which our current translation often passes over in silence, that I had in mind. I don’t think every quaesumus needs to be translated, but I do think the current translation is deficient in conveying this sense of deference.

      1. Some abasement is entirely proper, but enough is eventually enough. I seem to recall something about being as little children, and addressing the Father as “Abba”, which in modern English is best rendered “Daddy”. [Or was I reading a proscribed translation?]

        Small children don’t abase themselves, at all. Granting the distinction between childlike and childish, we should explicitly admit our status as lesser beings, but we maybe ought to stop before we sound too much like Dobby the house-elf. There is a great inconsistency in here: The God who loves us as a parent loves a child probably doesn’t seek/expect/desire us to grovel our way toward Him, beating ourselves and proclaiming how rotten we are. . .and human children who do such things are usually evaluated for mental illness, or their families investigated for abusing them.

      2. Lynn – that whole argument about “Abba” as the Aramaic form of “Daddy” is a misunderstanding by Jeremias which even he later retracted. Unfortunately, it was such a memorable and touching image that is has remained in the repertoire of teachers and homilists even til now. (Barr, James. 1988. “‘Abbā isn’t “daddy.” Journal of Theological Studies 39, no. 1: 28-47.)

  8. And as Paul introduces “Abba” in Romans 8 it is clear that it is a proud proclamation of the freedom of Sonship; we stand before the Father with confidence.

  9. OK, I type corrected and I will modify my use of that argument. Thanks to those who pointed me to good research.

    And, no, Fr. B, you didn’t say anything about ‘rottenness’; that was my word for the impression I get reading through these seemingly many abasements.

    Still, ‘Abba’ as a title of respect and admiration for the elder [I compress my sense of the article at aramaicdesigns], or a proclamation of Sonship doesn’t fit too well with an excess of abasement. That excess is my main point. Yes, it’s an opinion, it’s mine, and I’m sticking to it.

    1. I’m with you on self-abasement, Lynn. But perhaps that is because of the danger (which, as I see it, is huge) that self-abasement manifests itself as yet another gambit of the ego to take precedence over God.

      It was, indeed, the concern of spiritual directors of the old school. There is a lovely passage in Kristen Lavransdatter about a young nun who is tireless in penance and service and self-abasement, whom the mother abbess disciplines by having her be waited upon by others. The young nun dissolves in tears, realizing what she had done. There are oh so many ways we can end up refusing divine grace. It’s a novel, but what Sigrid Undset was describing is something real, I think.

      But in fairness to Fritz, his point is good and can be illustrated by other examples as well as by use of the language of self-abasement.

      1. I think you’ve hit it for me quite nicely, Rita. And I don’t want at all to be unfair to Fritz. My complaint has never been with him – he just commented on something that has bugged me for a while.

        I don’t mind admitting my smallness before the Almighty, but it seems pretty clear that we’re called to more of a relationship than that, and it just seems so wrong to constantly harp on the point. The story of the young nun is much on point. I think I shall have to go look for the book [probably not for a long while – today’s main activity is tidying the countless stacks of reading material not yet attended to….]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.