A Nail in the Coffin of Liturgiam Authenticam

The Italian journal La Civiltà Cattolica, well known for publishing views and perspectives which reflect those of the Holy Father, has dedicated the lead story of its current issue to the subject of liturgical translations. The article incisively presents Liturgiam authenticam as a detour from the foundational principles of the Second Vatican Council, and praises Pope Francis’s recent motu proprio, Magnum principium, for putting the Church back on course. It also situates, correctly, Comme le Prevoit as one of the “great instructions” flowing from the Council.

The article is entitled «MAGNUM PRINCIPIUM» E L’INCULTURAZIONE LITURGICA NEL SOLCO DEL CONCILIO, “Magnum Principium and Liturgical Inculturation on the Path of the Council.” Fr. Cesare Giraudo SJ, distinguished professor emeritus of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, is the author of the article. Among his other accomplishments, Fr. Giraudo was one of the scholars closely involved in the landmark ecumenical decision, under Pope Saint John Paul II, to approve the validity of the ancient Anaphora of Addai and Mari, practiced by the Assyrian Church of the East.

The full article (in Italian) is available to subscribers only, but below is the abstract in English translation, followed by some extracts (rendered in English by Matthew Sherry) that were taken from the full article and published today in Sandro Magister’s blog.

Anyone reading that blog should take care to note that Mr. Magister’s hostile evaluation of the Pope’s intentions (a “comprehensive plan to make the Church evolve from monolithic to federated”) is not borne out by the facts. The article speaks of “subsidiarity”—which is something totally different, and a far more applicable concept for understanding what the Pope has done.

Magister does, however, correctly assess the close connection between this publication and Pope Francis’s own views and program, in general. Therefore, the article merits our attention as an indication of the direction the Holy See is moving. Is this article another nail in the coffin of Liturgicam authenticam? Time will tell, but it certainly seems so.


It is indeed a “great principle” that the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium proclaimed in Article 36, which conceded to the individual liturgical assemblies the right to speak with God in their own language. This problem had already been confronted and successfully resolved in the middle of the ninth century by Saints Cyril and Methodius, who listed liturgical language among the goods of which nobody can be deprived.

In Italy, the first who dared to put in the hands of the Christian people a translation of all the prayers of the Mass, including the canon, was Lodovico Antonio Muratori in his book The Regulated Devotion of Christians, published in 1747. Yet it is necessary to recognize that there is still a great gap between putting the text of the Mass in the hands of the people in the vernacular, and actually adopting these vernacular languages for the celebration of Mass. By filling that gap, the Second Vatican Council in the liturgical constitution responded positively to a long-felt desire. Let us say immediately that at the level of reception, from the early years, there has intervened a frivolity of conduct that has not seldom blunted the goodness of the conciliar purpose.

Now with the Motu proprio Magnum Principium, Pope Francis, concerned to redefine the relationship between the Apostolic See and the Bishops’ Conferences on a matter that is particularly delicate and arouses strong feelings, has returned to the conferences “the right and the responsibility” (ius et munus) for the translation of liturgical books. In order to do this, he was obliged to realign Canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law, and related documents, with the Council’s norms.

Moreover, who is better able to judge their conformity with the original texts than the Episcopal Conferences, each of which oversees the panel of experts who drafted the translations? Furthermore, every translation by its very nature is already an interpretation. Pure, aseptic translation does not exist. Those who claim that this is a possibility will sooner or later end up encountering formulations that do not translate but betray the original.

Following the promulgation of the Motu Proprio Magnum Principium, which was accompanied by a note and an explanatory comment, a letter to the Pontiff written by Cardinal Robert Sarah concerning Magnum Principium appeared in a number of press organs. In it, he ended up presenting the new practice as a reaffirmation of the old state of affairs. In the face of this erroneous interpretation, the Pontiff was forced to act in the same way, i.e., publicly. Now that the changes have been clarified, liturgical inculturation will certainly benefit from this measure regarding translation, intended to infuse new blood into the Church’s patrimony of prayer.

Some extracts which appeared in Sandro Magister’s blog

With the creation of the “Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de sacra Liturgia,” set up by Paul VI with the Motu Proprio “Sacram Liturgiam” of January 25, 1964, the liturgical reform, setting off on a path marked out by the first great instructions: “Inter oecumenici” (1964), “Tres abhinc annos” (1967), “Comme le prévoit” (1969), and “Liturgicæ instaurationes” (1970). Although later, for ideological reasons, the instruction “Comme le prévoit,” meaning the letter from Cardinal Lercaro to the presidents of the episcopal conferences on the translation of liturgical texts, was not taken into account among the great instructions, it remains such, and as such must be understood. […]

The first great instructions were later joined by two more from the congregation for divine worship: “Varietates legitimæ” (1994) and “Liturgiam authenticam” (2001).

This last above all has been systematically presented as a normative point of reference – as the subtitles say – not only “on the use of vernacular languages in the publication of the books of the Roman liturgy,” but also “for the right implementation of the constitution on the sacred liturgy.” […]

What to say about the instruction “Liturgiam authenticam”? […] Obviously, the person most qualified to evaluate the directives contained in it is the expert on liturgy, theology, and pastoral practice. […]

The liturgist does not conceal his perplexity when he notes, for example, that the notion of “liturgical reform” is entrusted, in the whole instruction, to six parsimonious occurrences of the expression “instauratio liturgica.” And the question arises: why shroud with such modesty that ecclesial event of such great proportions which was the liturgical reform desired by Vatican II and prudently managed by Paul VI himself? And why so much emphasis, in relation to the admittedly necessary verification, on a centralization that risks damaging the role of the episcopal conferences and of mortifying the dignity of the local Churches? […]

Reading and rereading “Liturgiam authenticam,” perhaps more than one person will have wondered if the end of the line had truly come for the management of the vernacular languages in the editions of liturgical books.

But the recent motu proprio “Magnum principium” has offered an important and clear response. […] Pope Francis has decided that he had to intervene to streamline procedures that an excessive polarization over the notion of “recognitio” had brought to a point of stagnation, but above all to give back to the territorial episcopal conferences those responsibilities in liturgical matters that had been unduly taken away from them. […]

While before the congregation had authority over the “recognitio” of liturgical translations, previously elaborated by the episcopal conferences, which went through the exacting sieve of “Liturgiam authenticam,” from now on all the authority over translations is being restored to the episcopal conferences, which are going back to being the authoritative and only guarantors of their fidelity. […]

You can read the whole thing here.


  1. And ICEL has additional texts in preparation, including The Liturgy of the Hours. ICEL has received no instruction, to my knowledge, to use principles of translation other than those enunciated in Liturgiam authenticam.

    Just my personal opinion for what it’s worth, but would it have made more sense to issue Magnum Principium along with a revision (not simply canonical) of LA or a new Instruction on translation principles and adaptations totally replacing it? There is reason to believe that one or other such document is in preparation. For now, it’s like waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

    1. It might have made sense to do these together, but it would take an immense amount of time. CDWDS managed to delay issuing the simple amendment to the Washing of the Feet for a year. It would certainly make sense to point out to ICEL that Varietates legitimæ calls for ” … the translations must be understandable to participants, suitable for proclamation and singing, …”. My observation suggests that the current Missal does not chant well!

  2. I was surprised that at the US bishops meeting there was no expression of thanks to Pope Francis for the motu proprio since it restores to the conferences the authority for liturgical texts in the vernacular given to them by the Council (SC, 36,4). No doubt Cardinal DiNardo had already written to the pope to express the bishops’ gratitude, but a public reading of his letter would have heightened the bishops’ appreciation.

      1. Haha, Cardinal George was the most adamant promoter of the new translation and Bishop Trautman was mocked for resisting it. Magnum Principium is a huge loss of face for US Bishops.

  3. Slowly, but surely, Papa Francisco returns us to the principles of the Great Council.
    Viva Papa Francisco!
    Viva Vatican II!

    1. This kind of characterization, implicit or explicit, of L.A. as contrary to Vatican II is not helpful. VII did not call for the splitting of the Roman Rite into different rites for different languages, nor for the dis-inculturation of our rites, their dis-adaptation for Catholic communities outside of mission lands with centuries-old liturgical and devotional cultures.

      L.A. was released because translations being produced–especially by ICEL–were ritually and theologically divergent from the normative Roman Rite and not returning to it in their revisions, and because translation was being used as space for ideological projects. Recall the Vatican’s response to the proposed “translation” of the ordination rite.

      Synodality and collegiality are good, yes, but at what cost? There are higher goods. VII explicitly called for the unity of the Roman Rite to be maintained. Should it be broken for the sake of collegiality? Should the faithful be deprived of the authentic Roman Rite for the sake of collegiality? Should the heritage of the Church be thrown out or hidden away in translations for the sake of collegiality? That serves some purpose, but not the principles of the Council!

      1. One hopes, in short, that the restored collegiality serves a good end and isn’t used as cover to re-fight old battles or return the quality of translations or the general state of affairs to the conditions that caused LA to be put forth in the first place. Requiring almost word-for-word translation and centralizing authority in Rome was very strong medicine and like all harsh remedies should be used sparingly.

      2. Ben, these justifications you are offering are no justification of Liturgiam authenticam. They are merely “points to be considered” in what could, should, and was, an ongoing discussion of how to make our translations better.

        There were problems with the old translations. I said this at the time, to the bishops I advised during the process of preparation for the 1998 translation. Everybody I know acknowledges this, including the old staff of ICEL, who were working together, systematically, in an open process, to make improvements. Everybody who today thinks LA is poison — including Peter Jeffery and Andrea Grillo, who have been some of the most high profile and outspoken critics of the instruction, and many others — agrees the older translation was not perfect, and there were problems.

        But, as Grillo has trenchantly observed, the cure is worse than the disease. The system had a mechanism for improvement, and it was working. Instead of working with the very system that could have helped to make better translations, this all was thrown out and a secretive and authoritarian system was put in its place. A prudent regard for the receptor language was thrown out. Concerns for intelligibilty were thrown out. In a mad scramble to exterminate inclusive language, prudent regard for culture and realism about the inevitability of linguistic change was thrown out.

        You are claiming that ideology was at work in the former translations. But ideology is rampant in the latter as well — only it’s one particular brand of ideology, which may be the kind you like! Here are some examples of this ideology: The superiority of neo-Tridentist centralization as a mechanism for fostering unity. Control being necessary because the local bishops cannot be trusted without tight supervision from Rome. The ideology that regards fustian language as “more holy” and is not bothered by language that is both erroneous and risible. This ideology is, yes, opposed to Vatican II.

      3. So sad to notice what seems to be your stagnant idea & fixed attitude.
        I plead you to prayerfully ponder on what the Holy Father Francis has written & open your mind to see how implementing this will nourish the faithful.

  4. It will be slow, I am sure! Alas.
    “Likewise I order that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments modify its own “Regulations” on the basis of the new discipline and help the Episcopal Conferences to fulfil their task as well as working to promote ever more the liturgical life of the Latin Church.” Plenty of scope for delay.
    and “Episcopal Conferences … must ensure and establish that, while the character of each language is safeguarded, the sense of the original text is fully and faithfully rendered and that even after adaptations the translated liturgical books always illuminate the unity of the Roman Rite.” Plenty of scope for argument

  5. I was disappointed that Archbishop Wilton Gregory seemed to be saying to the conference that since the Rite of Baptism was so far down the road, and as there wasn’t a great deal of difference between it and the first edition, it would be OK for the conference to approve it. A lost opportunity, alas.

  6. Why is everyone reading Magnum principium as if it were requiring a return to the principles of Comme le prévoit? Who should have primary responsibility for translations and how those translations should be made are two separate questions. If Magnum principium gives that primary responsibility to the bishops’ conferences, then should not those conferences be free to chose for themselves between the principles of Comme le prévoit and Liturgiam authenticam? Would not the reissuing of a new version of Comme le prévoit contradict the freedom given in Magnum principium? Which is it, do the bishops have the freedom to decide on questions of translations, or should Rome dictate the manner in which translations should be made?

    1. The point is that Liturgiam authenticam is so didactic and prescriptive that it restricts the bishops’ freedom to prepare translations in their own languages. It presupposes that Rome has the final say on translations, and its prescriptions are built on that foundation. The Pope has now said, “No, the freedom to prepare translations is based on the conciliar decision, SC 36, 4.”

      Comme le prevoit, with 36, 4 in mind, said to the conferences here are some general considerations, get on with it. (CLP is 11 pages; LA, 48 pages). Should CLP be repeated in every particular? Probably not. A half-century has passed since its issuance. New insights based on that long experience can be brought to bear in the form of some new considerations that again recognize that translation is an art, not a science. It’s possible that some points of CLP would be retained, but new points added. CLP is pastoral and encouraging in tone; LA, legalistic and suspicious.

      Some bishops at Vatican II wanted the authority for the final say on translations to be given to Rome, and so the conciliar commission on the liturgy put the matter to a vote. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the conferences having the final say. (Since I don’t have the Acta Synodalia at hand, I can’t give precise numbers.) But 36, 4, as we know reads: “Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the competent ecclesiastical authority already mentioned.” (See, SC, 22,2)

  7. Yes, Liturgiam Authenticam — described by the eminent historian Peter Jeffery as “the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation” — is flawed from one end to the other and must go.

    There may be a case for keeping the poorly-executed 2011 English translation; parishes have already spent a lot of money buying books and a lot of time on catechesis on the merits of “and with your spirit” as opposed to “and also with you”, etc. To change now could be expensive and perhaps pastorally unwise.

    It is as though we have been given a translation based on an extremely faulty Latin grammar and dictionary. Keep the translation, perhaps, and quietly help congregations cope with its problems.

    But toss the grammar and dictionary in the bin, without delay. Keeping them around will lead to more bad translations.

  8. If I may say so, one commenter’s “haha”, while perhaps understandable, is something we’d all be well-advised to resist the temptation to express . Among the values that Magnum Principium promotes is a spirit of collaboration and trust between bishops’ conferences and the Holy See. Stoking the fires of the liturgy wars seems contrary to that spirit.

    The US bishops’ approval of the translation of the rite of infant baptism, with the liturgy of the hours very possibly queued up behind it, illustrates that perfect alignment between and among the various parties and stakeholders to translation may be more a matter of everlasting striving than quick attainment. Meanwhile, we have to work toward, not ideological victory, but rather unity, no matter how tentative and unsatisfactory. Negotiation and compromise seem the order of the day, as necessary corollaries of collaboration and trust.

    1. I agree with Jim P. here. There is no call for mockery or glee. Pope Francis’s leadership calls for kindness as well as respect and working together. We do well to follow his lead at every level.

      1. Joe,
        The bishops are cooperating by exercising the authority granted to them in Magnum principium. This goes to the point of my earlier comment: Magnum principium was a decentralization of power, not a repudiation of the principles of Liturgiam authenticam. It gave the bishops the authority to stay with MR2011 if they so chose. And thus it seems that they have so chosen.

  9. The Litugiam Authenticam was brought through to exercise a language control from the highest level. Translators cringe when they see the guidelines except for those who have desired a return to the Latin.

    Latin is a user friendly language to a precious powerful few. It is not a user friendly language when it is not understood. It should be asked of the Bishops’ conference to work as hard as they can to give the faithful a prayer translated by people whose native tongue is that language.

    I find the clumsiest Collects to be those in Advent. What a great time of year to reflect on the importance of language when connecting with God.

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