Letters to The Tablet, 17 September

Keen readers of this blog will note that letters to The Tablet from the 24 September issue have not been posted, even though those for 1 October have. So let us rectify the omission at once: click here.

One reason for the delay is that the longest letter published in the 24 September issue was from me. I was initially hesitant about self-publicity, and when Fr Anthony asked me to put the text up here, I wanted to publish a slightly fuller version. I was responding rather sharply to a piece by Fr Allen Morris (whom I don’t know), until recently secretary of the English and Welsh bishops’ liturgy office. On 17 September, he had written a letter defending against a critic what is said in a UK edition of the new texts, namely that the bishops had been overseeing their gestation for about 20 years. As readers of this blog will be aware, there are some controversial events being elided here. For Fr Morris, it was nevertheless all one process, even if it had taken some unexpected turns.

As I read this piece from the new-translation-free zone that, happily, is still the USA, it seemed to me that an answer was called for, and so I wrote as follows:

Fr Allen Morris (Letters, 17 September 2011), in connection with the discarded 1998 Missal translation, rightly reminds us that there is a difference between true episcopal consensus and majority canonical vote. He also implies, equally correctly, that one of the functions of Roman primacy is to promote true consensus. However, it is far from clear that these ideas can help us address the decidedly unconsensual situation in which we now find ourselves.

Fr Morris is effectively challenging the narrative current among the new translation’s critics. This account is bleak indeed. According to the chair of ICEL in the late 1990s, Bishop Maurice Taylor, all but one Anglophone episcopal conference voted overwhelmingly for the 1998 text, and even the US episcopate voted by a two-thirds majority in its favour. Subsequently Liturgiam authenticam appeared, written by a small circle of officials in the Congregation for Divine Worship, without even the episcopal members of that congregation being consulted. It was made clear to bishops’ conferences that if they did not approve the work of the reconstituted ICEL, Rome would insist on its imposition anyway. And then, after the conferences duly complied, even this work, done faithfully and consistently according to the conventions laid down, was hacked about, secretly, incompetently and arbitrarily, by officials in the CDW before the final text appeared.

Now, this account is only what is generally believed. If it is wrong, then someone in authority needs to set it right, because such a sad story seriously undermines any confidence that the disruption occasioned by a new text is for the better. But if the received story is substantially correct, then there is no meaningful sense in which we are dealing with an episcopal consensus about the new translation. It seems more promising to read the torrid history in terms of Rome, out of concern for Catholic unity, requiring local churches to change their translation policies. Precisely as Catholic Christians, we need to be sensitive to needs beyond our local experience. Central authority may properly call us to behave in ways we would not spontaneously choose of our own accord. There is a place for obedience to Rome’s authority and primacy.

I do not think this argument, in this context, an attractive or cogent one, but I can recognize its basic honesty, its coherence with Catholic tradition, and the sincerity of people like Cardinal Napier (Letters, 23 July) who believe in some version of it. Such a way of thinking might, if we work at things, help loyal Catholics attached to post-Conciliar norms negotiate their way through what initially seems an impossible trilemma: that between withdrawal from the Eucharist, public disobedience, and collusion with authority’s abuse.

If we are to work through the present liturgical tensions well, we need a catechesis couched not in ambiguous subtleties but in plain speaking. If even its advocates are squeamish about saying why the new translation is being visited upon us, something is seriously amiss.

This piece is, of course, compressed and coded. At least one distinguished and knowledgeable reader was worried that I had lurched into an uncharacteristic ultramontanism, and suggested to me that I was really stretching charity too far. The truth is that as a priest, I’ve got some responsibility for helping people cope with this situation, and indeed for trying to make things work—so I am clutching at straws to put the best possible interpretation on our predicament, in line with classic teaching on religious obedience.  And I do genuinely think that we Anglophones, with our economic and cultural power, need to be sensitive to how our ways of doing things play internationally.

I still have no real idea how I shall actually operate once I have no more escape from the new English texts. I have decided not to decide until it happens (a privilege open to me as a religious with an academic ministry), and I am enjoying working and worshipping with Spanish-speaking communities over here. But of one point I am certain: I’d rather stretch charity than pretend that our bishops, had they had any real say, would have landed us with anything like this new text. Such a claim is true only on the most empty readings of collegiality. Piety and loyalty should never be excuses for lying in public.

An afterthought: Is the US bishops’ decision to impose the new text in one fell swoop more or less prudent than their counterparts’ option to move in stages? Maybe I am moving in the wrong circles, but I am struck by how I’ve heard nothing about it in the parishes I have visited. Most people seem to be burying their heads in the sand.


  1. Thanks to Fr. Endean – and to Samuel J. Howard earlier today – for pointing out that one letter is not negative. I’ve changed the headline from “all negative” to “mostly negative.”

  2. It’s one thing to put the best possible interpretation on things – that sounds so Ignatius 🙂 – but how can we make an informed decision to do that if we’re never given the straightforward facts of the situation in the first place?

  3. Philip, I admire your sincere efforts to give every benefit of the doubt to those in authority, but it may well be that your friend is right and you are stretching charity too far. 🙂 Will someone in authority really pop up and explain all of this away? Is that even possible? We know the texts were altered. We have the before and after pictures. We know the bishops were pressured to ratify the texts they were given. We’ve read the transcripts of their meetings. We know L.A. came out of a shadow committee and was imposed without consultation. There’s no evidence to the contrary, and lots of witnesses to support this reading of the situation. These are facts.

    Second, I am pensive about this part too: “The truth is that as a priest, I’ve got some responsibility for helping people cope with this situation, and indeed for trying to make things work…” There are people on this blog that would insist you must do all you can to strive to make this succeed to the best, fullest and highest degree. The idealism of this view is laudable, but think about it. Real life isn’t like that. No one feels particularly like they’ve got to make it work when it comes to loads of things in the Church. People do what they can and then stop, and sometimes they do a little less than they can too; don’t imagine they don’t sit on their hands a fair bit when whatever is being asked feels unwise or unwieldy. I think it’s a mistake for a priest to take too much responsibility for how this thing turns out. It very well may break down spectacularly, and then we are going to need cool heads and warm hearts to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and find something reasonable to do next.

    1. I like this, particularly the second part, and many thanks to you, Rita–but I’m not sure one should be anything less than idealistic if one is not just coping with liturgy but rather presiding at it and having to lead it.

  4. Just wanted to note that both of the links in the 2nd paragraph here lead to the September 10 Tablet letters section — so there isn’t access to the text of the letter by Fr. Morris to which Fr. Endean was replying.

  5. “It very well may break down spectacularly.”

    I suspect the breakdown will begin with a drying up of the congregation’s responses. I wonder how many priests will recite the actual texts of the new translation with any conviction. I think we will see an even greater use of Eucharistic Prayer II, with judicious corrections; the Roman Canon will become a rarity.

  6. We have only just begun to face the problems. They will not go away with time and the expectation of the hierarchy in England and Wales that there will docile acceptance of this misuse of the English language.

    The silent prayer of the people may return as the only way of coming to terms with real difficulties. Remember pre-Vatican II when the priest “read” mass and we listened? Fr Endean’s option of using Spanish is fine in his particular situation. I have no problem with that. But for parish priests in mainly English speaking communities across the UK that is not an option. How will they manage?

    How sad that we have introduced a note of discord at a time when the Church needs to come together round the table of the Lord.

    There are so many other problems to face that demand our attention.
    Chris McDonnell UK

  7. [A remark in the margin : One of the reasons why the Spanish translation of the mass doesn’t jarr in some of the ways the new English version does, of course, is because Spanish is a more Latinate language, in vocabulary and in syntax ; and it accommodates rhetorical ‘elevation’ more readily. This is part of our problem, I suspect — only a small part of it, though!]

  8. I’m in the UK, and have now had five or six Masses with the new words. For the record, I find the experience jarring and the translation near-illiterate. The biggest difficulty I find, for myself, is that I must endure the words because I cannot separate myself from the Mass. I must go back, week after week, and endure it, for where else do I go to receive the body blood, soul and divinity of the risen, glorified Jesus Christ?

    Our priests are completely stuck, too. Their parishoners have the right to a proper Catholic Mass and, as much as we, priests and people, hate it, that is what they have to deliver. We are over a barrel, and we’re stuck with it for now and will remain so unless and until we can get something done about it.

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