Disambiguating the “quod” clause in GIRM section 299

You will see two conflicting claims made about the continued use of Latin in the Catholic Church.  The first is that it is difficult to understand, a source of mystery:

In the Eastern tradition, the mystery of God’s Otherness is expressed by a large part of the service being done behind a wall of icons and a series of veils. The people still actively participate, but they do so fully aware that the God they are worshipping is not immediately accessible to them. In the West, the function of icons and veils is taken in part by language. It emphasizes the mystery and the transcendence of a God who, despite His closeness to us, is still always beyond our reach.

(Christopher Smith, in New Liturgical Movement, 28 November 2007)

The second is that Latin is clear and precise, not subject to the ambiguities and changes of sense of modern languages, and therefore ideal for expressing Church teaching and law.

It is hardly new news that strong claims of both types have from time to time been made by people who know relatively little Latin. A priest theologian observing the Second Vatican Council later commented that “It was not uncommon that glowing panegyrics in favour of Latin were themselves delivered in laboured pidgin Latin, while the most forceful advocates of the vernacular could express themselves in classical Latin.” (Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, as reported in the Western Catholic Reporter 29 October 2012)

In this note, I want to address the second claim: that Latin is generally clear and unambiguous. In many cases, it is not.

I will use a recently-debated text as an example: section 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). In Latin the GIRM is titled Institutio Generalis Missale Romanum; in French, Présentation Générale du Missel Roman [sic, rather than “Romain”; this from the Vatican website]; and in Italian it is Ordinamento Generale del Messale Romano.

The Latin is supposed to be the definitive text. The first sentence reads:

Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.

The first part of the sentence, through possit, is relatively straightforward. On its own, it means: The main altar should be erected away from the wall, so that it is easy to walk around it and to use it for a celebration facing the people.

But then there’s the notorious quod clause; on its own, this simply means: “this is desirable wherever it is possible.” But what does “this” (quod) refer to? Exactly what is desirable wherever it is possible?

Some have read the clause as referring to celebration facing the people – and in fact the official English translation could be interpreted this way:

The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.

Of course this sentence is itself ambiguous. Just what does the “which” refer to?  Most English readers would interpret it as referring strictly to celebration facing the people.

But, as a number of commentators have pointed out over the years, if quod is a relative pronoun, then the Latin text doesn’t support this reading. In Latin, the pronoun introducing a relative clause should have the same gender as the thing that the clause expands on or explains. In this case, Quod is neuter, and celebratio feminine.

This leaves several other possibilities. One is that the quod expands only on the first part of the sentence. The whole thing would then mean, roughly: The main altar should be built apart from the wall (this is desirable wherever it is possible), in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people.

Here, the “desirability” extends only to separation from the wall. The only thing desired is that it is possible to walk around the altar whilst incensing it; this could take place in either form of the Mass. Read in this way, the rubric maintains a studied neutrality about celebration facing the people.

A second possibility is that quod expands on the things that are to be made possible (possit), i.e. circumiri (walking around the altar) and celebratio … peragi (celebration facing the people). In less ambiguous English this would read: The principal altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people. These two things are desirable whenever it is possible to provide for them. In this reading, the rubric recommends celebration facing the people, though it does not mandate it.

A third reading is close to the second: here quod is not a relative pronoun at all but a conjunction meaning, roughly, “because”. And in this case, the relative clause could refer only to the celebration, since the conjunction doesn’t change in gender. So it could read: The principal altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, because celebration facing the people is desirable whenever it is possible.

And a fourth reading, again taking quod as a conjunction: The principal altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, because these things are desirable whenever it is possible.

And there may be a fifth, and a sixth.

I think that the first reading is the least likely, more for logical than grammatical reasons. First, the “desirability” of the separation of the altar is already established by the subjunctive exstruatur, which means, more or less, “let it be built”, or “it should be built”.  There is no need to add that this is desirable whenever it is possible, unless the authors are using poetic repetition – “it is really, really a good thing if you build the altar away from the wall.”  This seems unlikely in a rubric, though not impossible.

Second, the separation is being recommended for a purpose: so that it is possible to walk around the altar and to celebrate Mass facing the people. It would seem bizarre for the purpose not to be included in the recommendation. An analogous expression in English would be: “Dentists recommend that you brush your teeth twice a day so as to keep them white and to avoid cavities.” Would we really assert that the dentists only care about the brushing, and not about the cavities?

Nonetheless the sentence is ambiguous, both in English and in Latin. The French translators hewed closer to the first reading: Il convient, partout où c’est possible, que l’autel soit érigé à une distance du mur qui permette d´en faire aisément le tour et d´y célébrer face au peuple.

Literally, “It is convenient wherever possible for the altar to be built at a distance from the wall; this makes it easy to walk around it and to celebrate at it facing the people.”

The Italians preserved the ambiguity of the Latin by putting the quod clause at the end:  L’altare sia costruito staccato dalla parete, per potervi facilmente girare intorno e celebrare rivolti verso il popolo: la qual cosa è conveniente realizzare ovunque sia possibile.

This means “The altar should be built apart from the wall, to make it easy to walk around it and to celebrate facing the people; this is desirable wherever it is possible.”

On 25 September 2000, the Congregation for Divine Worship clarified that “the word expedit does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum [detached from the wall] and to the celebration versus populum [toward the people].” This seems to reinforce one of the latter readings, especially when the letter from the Congregation adds that the rubric “reaffirms that the position toward the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier.”

The ambiguity remains. Relying solely on the Latin, there is no way to work out conclusively “what the rubric really says.” Despite claims that it is inherently clear and precise, Latin, like every language, is easy to write in ambiguous terms. And perhaps this is desirable wherever it is possible.

* * *

Acknowledgements.  I found recent comments by Pray Tell reader Shaughn Casey, a Latin teacher, helpful in formulating this note, and also Paul Ford’s 2012 posting, “Mass Facing the People: A Defense.”






  1. Good, thorough assessment. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting here. I must admit it’s a bit of an exasperating rubric because there are a thousand ways the Latin might have been written more clearly.

    1. @Shaughn Casey:
      Thanks, Shaughn.

      I wonder whether the compilers really wanted to write more clearly. Imagine a harassed but ambitious secretary, toiling away in the Congregation of Rites. He has been assigned to draft rubrics following the work of the Consilium. In the office in one corner of the building, there’s a highly conservative cardinal. In the office on the opposite corner, a progressive bishop.

      Would he seek maximum clarity? Or constructive ambiguity?

      Just a thought experiment.

  2. May I ask the origin of the second part, after the quod?
    The first part seems to come from Instruction on implementing liturgical norms:
    Consilium (of Sacred Congregation of Rites) – September 26, 1964
    paragraph 91:
    91. The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there.
    That appears to indicate that celebration facing the people should be permitted or even facilitated and may implicitly be seen as encouraged. I do not see anywhere a more explicit text on which way the priest should face and we are thus left inferring it from this text and the rubrics which refer to the priest turning to face the people.
    It seems to me that the overall instruction or guidance could be clearer.

    1. @Peter Haydon:
      Peter, it’s from the Latin version of the GIRM; strangely, I couldn’t find this on the Vatican website, but there is a version available on the Oremus site. The Latin GIRM (Institutio Generalis Missale Romanum) shows up in printed and PDF versions of the 2002 Roman Missal in Latin, and I checked the Oremus quote against this.

      The compilers of the GIRM (IGMR) drew from Inter Oecumenici, the document you cite, and they footnoted this. They added the quod expedit clause. Shaughn, in an earlier comment, wondered whether the rubric writers used a bit of Classical high art in “separating” the quod clause from the altar. This suggests that, far from Classical elegance, we are looking at a simple stitching together of two related thoughts.

      1. @Jonathan Day:
        Thank you Jonathan. Yes, but my question was to ask where the authors of GIRM got the part after the quod from. Did they just add it on their own initiative or did they draw it from an earlier source? In earlier discussions I see that the desirability of the priest facing in one way or another has been discussed. I do not have much to add to that discussion. The authors might have drawn from an earlier source that would provide context, explanation and perhaps authority for their assertion.
        Any ideas?

      2. @Jonathan Day:
        Thank you Jonathan

        Yes it would be good to know the source of this.
        I observe that in the instruction the text is in the section:
        Chapter V. Designing Churches and Altars to Facilitate Active Participation of the Faithful

        Now I would expect instructions about how Mass is to be said to be in the section:
        Chapter II. Mystery of the Eucharist
        I. ORDO MISSAE (SC art. 50)

        What I have to say is not about the instruction but about the way it is issued.

        First I think that GIRM is not the place to justify all the instructions, rather to set them out clearly. So I think that the “quod” clause here is in the wrong document.

        Second I think that instructions should be in their proper place. Here, if it is a directive or recommendation about how Mass should be said, it is in the wrong chapter. I draw a parallel to the footnotes causing consternation in Amoris Laetitia and the apparent use by Pope Benedict of the term “Hermeneutic of Continuity” itself, I recall, being just in a footnote. These are not the place to present new thinking.

        Similarly if Cardinal Sarah were issuing a recommendation to the whole Church the London conference was the wrong place to do so. I take it thus as merely a suggestion to those present at the conference or who were following the proceedings.

        As a general rule the authorities should issue clear instructions so as to avoid uncertainty as to their validity and meaning. Think how we are all expected to know the civil law, ignorance not being an excuse, so it must be accessible and clear. Surely Church authorities have a responsibility to give clear instructions. I am not confident that this paragraph of GIRM achieves this.

  3. “The ambiguity remains. Relying solely on the Latin, there is no way to work out conclusively “what the rubric really says.””

    Luckily the Vatican has made it quite clear, as has tradition. The GIRM shouldn’t be read in a vacuum, and considering that most of our worship as Catholics has been ad orientem, AND the fact that the CDW clarified, it seems fairly clear….

    Of course, it can also be said that perhaps this rubric was intentionally written in an unclear manner. You use this as a case to say that latin isn’t clear. Not the case. Latin is perfectly clear. It’s unclearly written latin that’s the problem.

    1. @Ben Yanke:
      To the extent that the CDW clarified the rubric, it reinforced the priority of celebration facing the people.

      As quoted in Oremus, hardly a liturgically “progressive” source, the CDW said that expedit (“it is desirable”) refers both to the altar being separated from the wall and to celebration facing the people. More than a few “trad” quotes of the CDW “clarification” leave out that last part.

      Did I ever say that “Latin isn’t clear”? No. I wrote that Latin is no less inherently ambiguous than most languages. It can be written clearly … or not. So I agree with your last sentence.

      Engaging in these discussions from a polemical stance very rarely leads to individual or mutual understanding. There are better ways to play.

  4. I think it would be a fair guess that the rubric in question is actually a translation of a French original — which is quite clear and unambiguous and straightforward — most of the “principals of celebration” (rubrics) for the revision went through that process.

  5. So, the rubric raises a few questions for me.

    1) The rubric refers only to the high altar. Are side altars and altars in lady chapels affected by this rubric?

    2) The high altar should be built away from the wall. No big deal so far. Should high altars already in existence be ripped down and replaced, or left gathering dust, or left intact and used?

    3) If the rubric leaves room for both ad orientem and versus populum worship, why not declare a Peace of Westphalia of sorts and let parishes that want ad orientem have it without persecution, and let parishes that want versus populum have it without persecution? Or is this more appropriately handled at the diocesan level?

    1. @Shaughn Casey:
      Shaughn asked whether these liturgical decisions ought to be handled at the diocesan level. I know next to nothing about canon law.

      But I think it’s clear from very ancient sources that the bishop was at first the liturgical leader of his diocese, and that separate parishes emerged to accommodate the growth of the Church, as an extension of the bishop’s liturgical leadership rather than as independent entities.

      The idea that parish priests can be “liberated” from the liturgical guidance of their bishop — this is how Summorum Pontificum has often been presented — seems to me profoundly anti-traditional. On that basis I don’t see the problem with what Cardinal Nichols in Westminster said about celebrations in his diocese.

  6. I finally figured it out. Cardinal Sarah was just trying to help Pope Francis make Anglicans and Lutherans more comfortable in receiving communion at Roman Catholic Eucharistic celebrations. Since Catholics already kneel from the first epiclesis to the mysterium fidei, his comments must be for Lutherans and Anglicans who still regularly kneel at communion rails to receive communion, and who still experience in many churches fixed “east” altars with the presiding minister – and everyone – facing the same direction (aka ad orientem) Pope Francis just wants us to feel more welcome, especially since we are now divided by a common liturgical language.

  7. To add to the confusion, in the original 1969 GIRM, the sentence in question was in paragraph number 262. In the 1969 version it read: “Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit.” In 2000, when the revised GIRM was published (prior to the publication of the complete 3rd ed. of the Missale Romanum), the text read (now no. 299) “Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.”, thus adding the new clause. Then when the complete Missale Romanum was published in 2002, the “maius” after “Altare” was dropped. Between 1969 and 2002, the Dedication of a Church and an Altar was published, which states that there should be only one altar in a church (Cpt IV, no 7), so it was logical to drop the “maius.”

    In the context of these progressive emendations of this sentence, the earliest version seems to permit celebration “versus populum,” but the fact that the last clause was added in 2000 seems to suggest that “versus populum” should be normal, otherwise (it seems) there would be no reason to add the final clause.

    1. @Dennis C Smolarski, SJ:

      I would have reached a different conclusion that you did based on the history of this article.

      The original article substantially repeats the prevailing legislation at the time. It was already a requirement, for some centuries, that the main altar (side altars only if possible) had to be built apart from the wall allowing a circumbulation by the consecrator – however, as this included structures like a reredos, it did not necessarily permit celebrations facing the people. Thus, the new stipulation for the structure being built so as to allow Mass facing the people.

      It would seem logical to me that the 2000 IGMR added the idea of “desirable whenever possible” in line with its emphasis, evinced elsewhere (e.g. 303), on preserving older structures. Interpretations of the older IGMR could have justified a large number of renovations, even to artistic structures. But 2000/2 adds a number of clarifications on preservations, applying some things only to new churches, etc.

      Thus, in my reading, one would paraphrase the intent of the addition as “the main altar should be built apart from the wall……but only whenever possible (and thus older structures that do not conform to this need not be removed or altered)”

      I suspect that then the term “maius” was removed in the final draft for internal consistency since the IGMR itself does give preference to the idea of “one altar” (cf. 303) and had already removed the paragraphs about the side altars, etc. They probably had overlooked the “maius” earlier.

    1. @Linda Daily:
      Uhm, it has to do with how his followers get along with each other and resolve their conflicts, and it involves an interpretation of what his message and revelation means for their worship of him. It’s several removes from the center of the Gospel, I grant – but it’s related nonetheless.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        Of course, I understand your point and Pray Tell’s purpose. I also believe this type of inside baseball is what inspires many to leave the Catholic church for a more simplified/simplistic fundamentalism. We all play a part in building up and/or tearing down the Body, and should be mindful of this.

  8. I would suggest the intention has always been celebration facing the people. Logic is the best interpreter of the text. Constructing a free standing altar was not simply an architectural archaism nor for the glory of incense. Indeed it is a truism that when the bishops returned from Vatican II churches were reordered according to the intended logic of celebration facing the people. Otherwise one has to affirm an immediate global misunderstanding on the part of all bishops? Silliness.

  9. Thank you for breaking this open further.

    I’m wondering if in the original post whether in the paragraph beginning “A second possibility is that quod …” that the last clause should read, “though it does not mandate it”?

  10. “Disambiguating the “quod” clause in GIRM section 299″…there’s your problem right there.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      I nearly always learn something from you. In a good way. Please don’t worry about being off-topic or even wrong. You have a healthy dose of epistemic humility even with your erudition. Would that we all had both.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        Thank you Karl. I’m the same Jordan as I was at seven years old, able to read the NYT but without anyone to discuss topics. At nine, I tried to discuss Tiananmen with an adult at a barbecue. My parents were mortified. Thus the timidity. 😉

  11. “On 25 September 2000, the Congregation for Divine Worship clarified that “the word expedit does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum [detached from the wall] and to the celebration versus populum [toward the people].””

    Perhaps, I’m missing something. You have a clarificatory letter from the appropriate Vatican office. Wherein, then, lies the continued “ambiguity”?

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