On Things Liturgical, The Gap Between Francis and Cardinal Sarah Just Got Wider

With Cardinal Sarah’s most recent statement on liturgical translation, it is safe to say that the gap between him and Pope Francis has just gotten a bit wider. Pope Francis’s recent Motu Proprio on translation, Magnum Principium, was seen by most commentators as a decentralization of the translation process, with most authority now devolved away from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship to bishops’ conferences.

But Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, issued yesterday a “humble contribution for a better and correct understanding of the Motu Proprio Magnum Principium.” In this piece, which appeared in the French Catholic journal L’Homme Nouveau, the cardinal argues that the Pope’s alteration of the Congregation’s translation authority to a last-step “confirmatio” of the work of bishops’ conferences does not mean that the Congregation simply rubber stamps their work. In his understanding, the Congregation retains the right to impose texts upon conferences as a condition for granting its confirmation.

Cardinal Sarah gives an example from the Creed:

“If the expression “consubstantialem Patri” is translated into French with: “de même nature que Père” (“of the same nature as the Father”), the Holy See can – and must (cf. no. 6) – impose the translation “consubstantiel au Père” (“consubstantial with the Father”), as a condition sine qua non of its confirmatio of the Roman Missal, in French as a whole.”

The cardinal claims that Pope Francis’s Motu Proprio does not lessen the authority of the 2001 Vatican instruction Liturgiam Authenticam. This is the document responsible for the 2011 Roman Missal text which even Abbot Cuthbert Johnson, a member of the Vatican translation commission “Vox Clara,” admitted is “a little abstruse and pretentious.” Sarah argues that the Motu Proprio brings about no significant change, with respect to Liturgiam Authenticam, concerning the standards to be imposed.

But as Rita Ferrone uncovered in a highly important articles that appeared in Commonweal this past week, the pope’s recent Motu Proprio mysteriously has buried within it something of a ticking time bomb, waiting to be discovered by textual sleuths. When Magnum Principium speaks of translation principles, it oftentimes paraphrases, or cites nearly word for word, the document Comme le Prévoit from 1969 –but with no footnote acknowledging the borrowing.

The 1969 document called for greater respect for local cultures and the inherent nature of vernacular languages than does Liturgiam authenticam (2001). The literalness called for by Liturgiam authenticam has resulted in the stilted and hard to understand translations of the 2011 Roman Missal which end up making it more difficult for the original meaning of the Latin texts to be grasped. Liturgiam authenticam had proclaimed itself to be a replacement for all earlier documents such as Comme le Prévoit, but Pope Francis obviously wants to put something of the spirit of that 1969 document back into play.

An example of Pope Francis’s reliance on Comme le Prévoit, Ferrone cites the following passages from Magnum Principium and Comme le Prévoit:

MP 7: “… Fidelity cannot always be judged by individual words but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act and according to its literary genre.”
CLP 6: “A faithful translation, therefore, cannot be judged on the basis of individual words: the total context of this specific act of communication must be kept in mind, as well as the literary form proper to the respective language.”

Andrea Grillo, professor of liturgy at the pontifical athaneum of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, is critical of Cardinal Sarah’s understanding of the pope’s recent Motu Proprio. In a commentary published yesterday he stated,

“By proposing a reading of the motu  proprio “Magnum Principium” which totally empowers him with every right, he [Cardinal Sarah] shows that he is now playing ‘offside’ with respect to the path the Church has formally resumed since October 1 in liturgical reform and translation.”

Grillo ties this to a tendency among some figures in the church during this papacy:

“For nearly five years, a small group of theologian, pastors, and officials tries to ‘immunize’ itself from the magisterium of Francis.”

As seen with other documents of Francis such as Evangelii Gaudium,  Laudato sii, and especially Amoris Laetitia, Grillo believes that this group empties documents of any significance.

Grillo charges that the Cardinal

“shows that he has not received the heart of the document at all and is totally disoriented about what the new task is.”

He asks rhetorically,

“Do we want the head of a Roman Congregation to be a prefect who seriously misunderstands papal texts, creates new conflicts with bishops’ conferences, … and declares himself, a fortiori, unavailable for the work of accompanying and of clarifying the new style which is needed?

*          *          *          *          *

Finding suitable liturgical translations has proven to be a long and difficult path for the English-speaking Catholic Church. One must hope that the differences in translation theory between a pope and a cardinal prefect, or between one pope and the next, are not simply contentious oppositions, but elements in a constructive and dynamic exchange.

As I recently wrote in response to a Pray Tell commenter:

I hope it’s not one boomerang effect after another, with translation jerking back and forth in successive papacies.

I’m hopeful it won’t be that. I think we all have to start thinking about the high ground that might unite us all, with texts that are broadly “accurate,” beautiful, worthy, inspiring, and good English whether original texts or based on Latin. I’m hopeful that we’ll never go back to 1974-type English texts, and that we’ll not lose all the good we gained with the 1998, 2008, and 2011 attempts at translation.

After all this rigamarole, the Christian must hope that something good awaits us all.



  1. Strange that Pope Francis has more than once called for frank and free speech, and yet some would seem to be calling for the exact opposite – indeed, for the removal from his prefecture of a cardinal who in the opinion of a professor of liturgy is not espousing the Franciscan position.

    Was it permissible to criticize Summorum Pontificum? Why is that document fair game for all manner of professional liturgist attacks, but Magnum Principium is a sacred document whose interpretation is outside the competence of the pope’s cardinal prefect for liturgy?

    Again, if there is to be peace in the Church…and surely the liturgy is the last place where it is seemly to be fighting…a start would be to avoid calling for the removal from office of people whose views do not accord with our own.

    1. Note, I didn’t call for the cardinal prefect’s removal, Grillo does. And this, not simply because his views are different than Grillo’s, but because Grillo’s theological assessment is that Sarah’s work is not helping the Church.

      I personally reject Cardinal Sarah’s interpretation of the motu proprio, not because he shouldn’t speak out, but because his arguments really don’t hold water.


      1. Agreed, not that a lay opinion matters much. Well known clerical liturgical committee members have quit over the gobbledygook verbage of the current GIRM.

    2. Hi Lee,

      I think you are missing the point here. No one is arguing that Sarah is not entitled to his views. But the CDW is part of the Pope’s cabinet, and implementing things that the Pope is interested in, and wants to give support to in the church — that is its job. If the Pope’s own appointed staff are unable to give support what he is calling for and doing, or they display that they don’t understand it, then they should not be in that position.

      I think Francis listens to a lot of viewpoints and then decides. He called a special commission to advise him on the translation question. They were not all of the same views, but they submitted their report and Francis decided what to do after listening. So I do not think this is a question of only listening to people who agree with you. But the Curia is something different. It’s not a representative assembly, it’s a body that is supposed to work for the Pope, not against him.

  2. So, perhaps the bishops’ conferences should direct that every parish (religious house, etc) keep two sets of liturgical texts, an LA set and a CP/MP set (say, the 1998 ICEL)? We could use whichever approach is favored by whoever is Pope at any given time.

    (Tongue not quite firmly in cheek.)

  3. Me thinks the Cardinal protests too much: “But Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, issued yesterday a “humble contribution for a better and correct understanding of the Motu Proprio Magnum Principium.”
    Humble? He seems to me to be arrogant here and not only in this statement but also about facing East, etc.

    1. The poor man just doesn’t get it. I don’t need Cardinal Sarah or any other prelate in Rome to tell me how to pray in my own language.

  4. If indeed “the pope’s recent Motu Proprio mysteriously has buried within it something of a ticking time bomb, waiting to be discovered by textual sleuths,” wouldn’t that seem to be a bit underhanded, even downright dishonest? Let his yes be yes and his no, no – ambiguity or lack of clear direction serves no one.

    1. Well to be sure, I am taking some journalistic license here in speculating about the motivation behind not citing the CLP passages. Maybe it was just carelessness – who knows?

    2. I think Francis used these unattributed quotations because he wanted to make these words his own, and to thus associate himself with the ideas of Paul VI and the instruction he approved in 1969. This is the instruction closest to the Council, with its hopes and expectations. Francis gave it new life in 2017. I am not going to speculate either carelessness or craftiness here. This is what he said; now we know its source. Let those who have ears, hear.

  5. Cardinal Sarah is a holy man and a courageous bishop who stood up to the brutal dictator Sékou Touré. He has a great heart for the poor. He is a priest of deep prayer and a very learned man who is steeped in the Scriptures. It is a shame that he is not accorded the respect he deserves.

    1. His personal character is one thing. The quality of his arguments is another. It is no disrespect to his person to critique his arguments.

    2. Then maybe he is unhappy in his post, or unhappy with all the flummery and trappings that go with his position. It might be a kindness to move him.

  6. Thank you – yep, the whole pendulum from one pope to another is a good point. Not unlike what we are living through with our dysfunctional US Federal Government e.g. Iran Treaty, Climate Change, PPACA, Taxes, DACA, immigration, foreign policies, etc. Do we forsake consistency; settled principles and decisions; and move forward – or do we die with polarizations?

  7. Hi,

    I really like this article. Do you think that we need to develop a coherent strategy of interpretation for such an approach to Francis’ statements/writings? For example, if we take him seriously when he says that he rejects the idea of a “reform of the reform” when it comes to liturgy don’t we also need to take him seriously when he states that he agrees with Benedict that all doctrinal development needs to be read through a “hermeneutic of continuity.” (Francis even says that this a beautiful phrase).

  8. I can’t understad: Cardinal Sarah says that the Holy See must change a translation of the Symbol like “de même nature que Père” (so, according to Sarah, it’s an incorrect translation). But, as a matter of fact, the new spanish translation (for Spain) is actually: “DE LA MISMA NATURALEZA DEL PADRE”. This new translation was approved by Sarah self in 2015, and contains his signature. Is there a semantic difference between the pair of terms “nature-consubstantiel” in french and the pair “naturaleza-consubstancial” in spanish,, so that “même nature” is a wrong translation of “consubstantialis” and “de la misma naturaleza” is a rightful one? I can’t find this difference.

    Has Sarah signed the new spanish translation without reading it? Or are his guidelines incoherent and chaotic by judging translations?

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