Search Google for ‘liturgical abuse’ and you will find hundreds of blogposts, tracts and pamphlets decrying ‘rampant liturgical abuse’. The following, from Fr Zuhlsdorf’s blog, is not unusual. Another blogger reports a Mass celebrated by an elderly priest:
His liturgical abuse was not accidental and merely an expression of a kind of misplaced enthusiasm, but it was, like the sexual abuse scandal in the Church, very deliberate, specific and precise.
And Fr Z adds, in boldfaced red letters:
Get that? It is, in some – many? – cases calculated. It is predatory. It preys on innocence and trust. It twists what is good and true and beautiful. It is psychologically unstable and immature. It is probably not curable. It must be extirpated.
On this blog, Andrew Cameron-Mowat commented on the Synod of Bishops’ recent Circular Letter on the Ritual Exchange of the Gift of Peace at Mass. He said, very sensibly: “I would never use the word ‘abuse’ unless it referred to some notorious act of disrepect.”
In a comment on the same post, Dominic McManus OP noted that ‘abuses’ is “a word … freighted with lots of baggage in the contemporary mileu.”
Indeed it is. It is a very strong statement to put ‘liturgical abuse’ on a par with ‘sexual abuse’ or ‘child abuse’. I started to wonder whether this was not a result of another mistranslation from the Latin, rather as gestus profani was misrendered as ‘profane gestures’ in the English translation of the Circular Letter.
What follows is based mostly on reference sources (e.g. Lewis and Short, the Oxford English Dictionary, Whitaker, etc) and some common sense. I welcome counterexamples and corrections.
Abusus is from the verb abutor. In classical Latin this had several possible senses. A neutral-to-positive one was ‘using up’ or ‘spending’, as when Cicero wrote sumus enim multi … parati … abuti tecum hoc otio, “here are several of us … all ready to spend our vacation with you” (De Republica 1).
A more negative sense was ‘wasting’, or ‘misuse’. But it was usually applied to things like time or the attention of a court or patience, as when Cicero shouted at Catiline, Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra, “how much longer will you abuse our patience?” (In Catilinam, 1).
It could also be used to refer to misuse of a word; in fact Cicero criticises an orator who “calls a mind ‘minute’ instead of ‘little’ and misuses words that are near to others in sense”: ut cum minutum dicimus animum pro parvo; et abutimur verbis propinquis (Orator, 27). Precisely, Mr Cicero.
But abutor and abusus don’t seem to refer to murders, sexual abuses or other horrible crimes. An abusus wasn’t a mere peccadillo, but neither was it a vitium (crime), a scelus (wickedness, evil deed) or a facinus (outrage).
The English use started out closer to the Latin, but quickly developed a more negative sense. Hence Thomas Cromwell, in 1536, sounded very much like Fr Z when he called for “Th extirpacion abolicion and extinguishment of suche abuses errours and enormyties.”
In 1843 J.S. Mill wrote of the “abuse of language” and in 1787 John Wesley noted that “Distilled liquors have their use, but are infinitely overbalanced by the abuse of them.” Examples of ‘abuse’ referring to sexual violation appear in the mid-16th century.
Today, of course, ‘abuse’ typically has a deeply negative connotation: we speak of the abuse of animals, or of children, or of drugs or alcohol. In non-churchy English, an ‘abuse’ is far stronger than a Latin abusus.
As further evidence for this last claim, look at the Bishops’ Circular letter itself. It uses an expression that reappears in Latin ecclesiastical documents: necesse erit … ut quidam abusus vitent, translating this as “It will be necessary to avoid such abuses as …”.
A far better translation would be ‘misuses’ or ‘errors’. In 1706 the Sacred Congregation of Rites ruled on the whether laypeople could the passion in Holy Week: tamquam abusus reprobatur, “such erroneous practices are forbidden”.
Here is Redemptionis Sacramentum, section 55:
In some places there has existed an abuse by which the Priest breaks the host at the time of the consecration in the Holy Mass. This abuse is contrary to the tradition of the Church. It is reprobated and is to be corrected with haste. (Alicubi invaluit abusus, quo tempore consecrationis in sanctae Missae celebratione Sacerdos hostiam frangit. Qui abusus contra Ecclesiae traditionem fit. Reprobandus est urgentiusque corrigendus.)
My point is simple: a speaker of contemporary English would not ‘reprobate’ first-degree murder or child abuse, or demand that it be ‘corrected’. If the liturgical errors were serious enough to be labelled ‘abuses’, they wouldn’t have to be avoided, reprobated or corrected.
By the way, ‘reprobate’, as a verb, shows up in several dictionaries as obsolete or archaic, and is given meanings like ‘express or feel disapproval of’: “His neighbours reprobated his method of proceeding” (1787).
The liturgical ‘abuses’ are to be corrected precisely because they are errors, misuses, not gross crimes.
In the context of liturgy, ‘abuse’ is a poor translation of Latin abusus. It is a linguistic misuse.
Pondering these translation errors leads me to state a maxim about liturgical writing and translation. I know I have broken it myself, but am nonetheless happy to proclaim it:
If someone writing about liturgy regularly slips into Latin (“the priest is alter Christus”) or Latinate words (“prescind”, “advert”, “reprobate”, “diriment”, “liceity”), then beware! He or she probably hasn’t taken the time to work out what the words really mean, or at least what they originally meant.
It cannot be said too often: Liturgiam Authenticam, and the mentality that created it, have served the Church very poorly.