After the Motu Proprio, Can Liturgiam Authenticam Stand?

By John Page

Despite the most welcome Motu Proprio, there are a number of serious loose ends yet to be dealt with. For one, Liturgiam authenticam with its accusatory and minatory tone must be replaced. Surely it is one of the cruelest documents issued by Rome in recent decades. It is also anti-ecumenical.

Among other matters, LA claims the right to erect (erigit) mixed commissions such as ICEL (LA,93). Sadly, the presidents of English-speaking conferences acquiesced in this power grab during a meeting in the Synod Hall in October 2003, under the presidency of Cardinal Arinze. This surrender occurred forty years (to the day, I believe) after ICEL’s founding in Rome by ten bishops’ conferences at the very heart of the Council, six weeks before the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Among many preposterous assertions, LA in no. 104 states: “For the good of the faithful, the Holy See reserves to itself the right to prepare translations in any language and to approve (approbandi) them.” Afterwards, for the purpose of obtaining the recognitio of the Holy See, the Conferences shall transmit the decree of approbation for its territory together with the text itself, in accordance with the norms of this Instruction and of the other requirements of the law.” Reading this, I don’t know whether I am on my head or my heels.

As of this moment Liturgiam authenticam remains the lex vigens. If the amendments to canon 838 are to be implemented, LA must be withdrawn. An interim document, guiding the work of translation and spelling out the conferences’ rights and those of the Apostolic See must be issued as soon as possible at a length of about 20 pages as opposed to LA’s 48.

Has anyone ever done a canonical study of the footnotes of LA? One of several (note 71) attached to the claim of the Apostolic See to erect the mixed commissions is really a stretch. Surely “juridic persons” such as pious confraternities are not in any way equivalent in law to episcopal conferences deciding to work together in a joint (or mixed) commission for a common purpose! (Canons cited in note 71: 94, 117, 120,)

The Pope’s preamble to the Motu Proprio, with its clear references to the 1969 Instruction on Liturgical Texts (which has the same authority as Comme le prevoit), could be built upon in a few pages. When the Motu Proprio says this “Because the liturgical text is a ritual sign it is a means of oral communication. However, for the believers who celebrate the sacred rites the word is also a mystery,” it is lifted nearly verbatim from the 1969 Instruction.

Approbatio, recognitio, confirmatio

A look at Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36. 3, 4 helps here. 36, 3 reads:

“Respecting such norms and also where applicable, consulting the bishops of nearby territories of the same language, the competent territorial, ecclesiastical authority mentioned in art art. 22, 2 is empowered to decide whether and to what extent the vernacular is to be used. The enactments of the competent authority are to be approved, that is confirmed by the Holy See.”

Here there is no mention of “adaptations.” Those are covered in arts. 37-40.

An aside: Msgr. Frederick McManus, peritus at the Council and a leader in U.S. liturgical renewal, often said to me that the bishops after the promulgation of SC had, with very few exceptions, no idea that the liturgy would soon be totally in the vernacular. But the limited vernacular was welcomed so strongly by priests and people that, acting on the request of conferences worldwide, Pope Paul VI in 1967 sanctioned a totally vernacular liturgy, removing the restrictions that had kept The Roman Canon and the sacramental forms for the Ordination Rites in Latin.

Sacrosanctum Concilium art. 36,4 reads,

“Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority already mentioned.”

No mention of the Apostolic See, no requirement for a confirmatio of a bishops’ conference’s approbatio. What brought about the change? Well, on 25 January 1964, several weeks after the Council Fathers had returned to their dioceses, Pope Paul VI issued Motu Proprio Sacram Liturgiam. Its author was Archbishop Pericle Felici, secretary of the Council.

No. IX of Sacram Liturgiam reads:

“To those bound to recite the Divine Office art. 101 of the Constitution grants the faculty …to use the vernacular instead of Latin. Therefore it seems advisable to make it clear that the various vernacular versions must be drawn up and approved by the competent, territorial ecclesiastical authority, as provided in art.36, 3 and 4; and that, as provided in art. 36, 3, the acts of the authority require due approval, that is confirmation of the Holy See.  … This is the course to be taken whenever any Latin liturgical text is translated into the vernacular by the authority already mentioned.” (emphasis supplied).”

But art 36, 4, which deals with translation of the liturgical texts, makes no mention of a confirmatio!! This, as described, by Archbishop Piero Marini, was one of the many instances of the Curia’s attempting to take back or mitigate what the Council had decided. (See Marini, A Challenging Reform, e.g. pages 19-29.)

The French bishops were apoplectic. Other bishops cried foul, including the Conference of Mexico and Cardinal Frings of Cologne. After all, when some bishops had objected to the lack of mention of the Apostolic See in the debate on SC 36, 4, a separate vote had been taken on it. It received overwhelming approval as it stood (2041 to 30, Marini, p. 27) . Because at base Sacram Liturgiam was supportive of the conciliar reform, Father Annibale Bugnini, secretary of the Consilium for the implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy, stepped into the growing furore. In an article in Osservatore Romano, he pointed out the strengths of Sacram Liturgiam and gave assurance that  No. IX of SL would always be applied by guaranteeing a collegial dialogue between the conferences and Rome when difficulties over texts approved by the conferences arose.

No. IX of Sacram Liturgiam remained. However in the late 60s and early 70s, Rome did not take a heavy-handed approach but for the most part entered into collegial dialogue with the conferences over translation matters. In many instances, the possibility for dialogue continued into the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. This was especially true when Cardinals Casoria (1981-1984), Martinez Somalo (1988- 1992), and Javierre (1992-1996) held the position of prefect. Also, in the late 1970s through mid-1980s, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Virgilio Noe’ and Monsignor (later Archbishop) Piero Marini were very respectful of the rights of the conferences as set out in SC, 36, 4. (After they had been promoted to other positions, the staff of the Congregation began gradually to show less respect for conciliar decisions, especially episcopal collegiality.)

I was present at meetings (Cardinal Casoria, prefect; Archbishop Hurley, chairman of ICEL) at the CDWDS in November 1981 when Pastoral Care of the Sick with few changes was allowed to go forward and in November 1988  when The Order of Christian Funerals (Cardinal Martinez Somalo, prefect; again, Archbishop Hurley, chairman), was given the go-ahead, with minimal changes. And in October 1995 (Cardinal Javierre, prefect; Archbishop Pilarczyk, chairman) when the cardinal prefect gave assurance that the revised Sacramentary, then nearing completion, would be judged according to the norms of the 1969 Instruction on the Translation of Liturgical Texts.

Eight months later Cardinal Javierre, having reached 75, was succeeded by the bishop of Valparaiso, Chile, Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez. Relying, among other centralizing resources, on the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law, which incorporated tout court into Canon 838 Sacram Liturgiam’s re-wording of SC, 36, 4, the changed attitude of the CDWDS was soon apparent. The rest is well-known. The new prefect and his staff were deaf to dialogue and urged on in that intransigence by bishops of several member conferences of ICEL.

John Page was a member of the staff of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy from 1972, and served as executive secretary of the Commission from 1980 to 2002.


  1. “Cruelest”…”minatory”…”preposterous”…”anti-ecumenical”…”must be replaced.”

    If this language were used by more conservative Catholics, there would apoplexy.

    Hyperbole like this serves no one.

    Those celebrating Magnum Principium…and, in the process, sometimes (if not often) openly trashing the legacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in favor of Paul VI and Francis…would do well to study pendulums.

    1. But what if it is the “cruelest”…”minatory”…”preposterous”…”anti-ecumenical”…and it ”must be replaced” ??

      Peter Jeffery wrote a book on the topic and provided scholarship to support everyone of those claims.

      Reality check: conservative Catholics regularly, daily say things like that , and three times more hyperbolic than that, and I don’t know that there’s lot of apoplexy.

      Strong conviction, strong criticism is legitimate – don’t try to dismiss it as “trashing.”


  2. You are 100% correct that some conservative (I use these crude labels for convenience only) Catholics use such language. It’s wrong for them too. But in a way it is almost expected from them, isn’t it? Which isn’t, of course, to say it’s fine…just that neither “side” should be doing it. I’d venture to say that “progressives” (again, crude label) used to be much better at taking the high road here.

    As for scholarship that supports the points…well, we both know we can find plenty of scholarship on both sides of the translation divide.

    My point remains, language like this…especially coupled with pieces like Reese’s recent call for shutting for extraordinary form liturgies…doesn’t help heal any liturgical divides. It worsens them. It contributes to the same echo chamber mentality that afflicts both sides.

  3. I can understand the frustration at having translations imposed from above, so in some ways the recent changes seem healthy.

    However, I don’t think the result will necessarily be what some of the ICEL folk would like. There seems to be quite widespread agreement that the new translation is far better than the old one, and nobody seems so want to buy new sets of missals and so on.

    We seem to have reached a happy medium; everyone concedes that the new translations are more accurate, and they’re obviously more churchy-sounding, but they’re hardly Cranmer and they don’t go as far as some traddies would like.

    I’m a Latin Mass fan myself, and I think we’ve got a healthier situation now that the Old Rite is more widely available; people who like it can go to it (though more Mass centres are needed), so we don’t need to try foisting Latin and ad orientem on people who don’t want it. But there was a clear need for a more worthy, accurate translation of the Novus Ordo, the work has been done, the money has been spent, and I don’t see the bishops reopening the issue.

  4. Let’s say that Liturgicam Authenticam is resended. The previous instruction was also found wanting for different reasons that were no less important — if not the instruction, at least the way it was implemented for the previous translation of the Sacramentary. The translated orations lacked the scriptural and patristic allusions that create depth to the liturgical text, etc. Just as the current translation lacks the poetic eloquence of which the English language is capable of expressing; so the former, made according to the previous norms, failed to express fully the depth of beauty and allusion and eloquence found in the Latin. Wouldn’t a new instruction have to be composed to create a balanced document that would allow a translation that is beautiful, poetic, faithful to Catholic doctrine, containing the scriptural and patristic allusions, and is not a dumbed down English version? Wouldn’t new guidelines be needed to assure that both people (and I hate to use political language) on the left and the right have their grievances addressed? Is there hope for compromise? Pretending that Liturgicam Authenticam was just not necessary or did not address any valid grievances would be disingenuous and solidify the liturgical divide.

    1. I would agree that something was necessary to address valid grievances, but that is not the same as saying that Liturgiam Authenticum was necessary. Just because something might be necessary to stop someone from having a heart attack, that doesn’t mean that they should be given rat poison (which will, it should be noted, indeed stop someone from having a heart attack).

    2. Many of us would say that ICEL’s effort with MR2 addressed the issues of “beautiful, poetic, faithful to Catholic doctrine, containing the scriptural and patristic allusions.” What many conservatives and a few progressives fail to realize is that the 1970/75 Missal was not a final product, by intent and design. They miss the good work done with the Pastoral Care rites, RCIA, and the OCF through the 80s.

      Don’t be hateful of political language. Politics is just a social interaction among people. Progressives, by definition, want to employ human disciplines like poetry, linguistics, acoustics, music, visual art, etc. to cooperate with a deeper fruitfulness of worship. Conservatives want to go with what works or what used to work for them. Each is needed to balance the extremes of unhinged forgetfulness of tradition–something that happens for both sides.

  5. I will comment only on the current wording of the Gloria, in English. For those who know anything about the rhythms of English, there are 4 basic feet: Iambic, trochaic, anapestic and dactylic. The monosyllabic foot is impossible to pronounce two juxtaposed accents with perfect smoothness. The best settings of music recognize the natural rhythm of the language. For months I struggled with setting the Gloria, and then finally sat down to analyze the rhythm of the first few sentences: Glory to God in the (2 dactyls) is fine. Then you get highest (2 monosyllabic, with a pause between) and on earth (anapestic) peace to people of good will (various ways to put the emphasis, including monosyllabic and trochaic. Difficult to fit without considerable stretching using slurs, or breaks using rests, but at least I understood what I was fighting against. I commend the composers who have tried so hard with this unwieldy translation. In Latin it may well have made sense, given they have extra feet which rarely if ever are seen in English: spondaic, amphibrachic, the paeon, the creti, tribrach, molossus, bacchius and antibaccius. My two favourites, which may well fit the current translation are the epitrite, and the pyrrhic. Please, can we have the next translation with some sense of English rhythm and poetry. (Information on feet from The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary by Frances Stillman (1966) Thames & Hudson.

  6. I want to thank you, John Page, for your thoughtful and prayerful work at ICEL during your term there. I also want to thank you for enlightening us all regarding translations and the events between 1990 and 2010. This is important historical fact to remember and record. I hear complaints regularly from priests and deacons about the bumpy translations in Roman Missal 2010 and experience the chaos when they do not practice the texts before liturgy. I am left wondering what it was that we just prayed. Many prefer to use the previous translation of the Exultet rather than the 2010 edition because of the loss of rich text and lack of flow with the edited form of chant with which we were left. Thank you, John, for participating fully, consciously, and actively in regard to the on-going need to clarify what we pray and how we pray. May God bless you in your continued ministry in the Church.

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