What translation guidelines for official vernacular versions of Roman Rite liturgical texts in English are presently in force?

Pope Francis recently promulgated an apostolic letter issued motu proprio, entitled Magnum Principium, on the role of territorial bishops’ conferences in creating and approving vernacular translations of Roman Rite liturgical books. As I read the letter (and I am quite open to correction from those whose specialty is liturgical law) the new text changes canon 838 in the present Code of Canon Law in order to clarify the respective roles of territorial bishops’ conferences and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments [hereafter CDWDS] in bringing forth vernacular translations of Roman Rite liturgical books for the future (i.e., from the time that Magnum Principium was promulgated [3 September 2017] and brought into force [1 October 2017]). Its concerns are not retrospective, i.e, translations such as the Roman Missal 2010/2011, having been okayed both by the territorial bishops’ conferences and the CDWDS, remain in force.

In a short preface to the actual change in the Code of Canon Law, Pope Francis contexualized his legislative act in terms of attending to the good the faithful might derive from vernacular translations of Roman Rite liturgical texts as well as the development of various vernaculars as liturgical languages able to communicate fully and faithfully what the Latin text articulates: “The goal of the translation of liturgical texts and of biblical texts for the Liturgy of the Word is to announce the word of salvation to the faithful in obedience to the faith and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord. For this purpose it is necessary to communicate to a given people using its own language all that the Church intended to communicate to other people through the Latin language…. Without doubt, attention must be paid to the benefit and good of the faithful, nor must the right and duty of Episcopal Conferences be forgotten who…must ensure and establish that, while the character of each language is safeguarded, the sense of the original test is fully and faithfully rendered and that even after adaptations the translated liturgical books always illuminate the unity of the Roman Rite.”

Rita Ferrone has been especially helpful in showing how the papal reflections in Magnum Principium seem to reaffirm at least parts of the approach to liturgical translation articulated by the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy in Comme le prevoit, issued 25 January 1969. As is well known, that document technically guided vernacular liturgical translation from the early 1970s until Liturgiam Authenticam was issued on 28 March 2001. (Gerald O’Collins’ Lost in Translation makes it clear that for a period of some years before it was formally issued, the principles Liturgiam Authenticam would articulate appeared to be used to reject a number of vernacular liturgical translations.) In 2001 as well for the English-speaking world, the CDWDS created the Vox Clara Committee to assist the Congregation in considering English-language liturgical texts. Vox Clara in turn created a translation manual intended only for English vernacular liturgical translations called the “Ratio Translationis for the English Language” approved 5-7 July 2005 by the CDWDS.

In the light of this situation I would simply like to know: What documents presently guide official English vernacular translations now and will for the foreseeable future? One might assume that Liturgiam Authenticam and the “Ratio Translationis” remain the guiding documents, except the quality of what following those guidelines has produced (e.g., the Roman Missal 2010/2011) is highly disputed (frankly, as was the translation generated under Comme le prevoit). The papal remarks in issuing Magnum Principium seem to suggest a re-evaluation if not a restoration of Comme le prevoit, but there has been no formal repudiation of Liturgiam Authenticam or the “Ratio Translationis”. It is unclear to me if various territorial bishops’ conferences have the right (or the interest or the will) to produce a set of guidelines for vernacular translation for their own territory. Doing so might create an unfortunate situation where English vernacular liturgical translations would vary widely from conference to conference, causing confusion for travelers attending Mass in various parts of the world. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) continues its work of proposing English vernacular liturgical translations to the territorial bishops’ conferences who are then free to accept, reject or modify these proposals for use in their own territory. Does ICEL have yet another set of translation guidelines that might be formally recognized and employed?

My concern is fairly simple. There are a number of translations “in the pipeline” for approval by territorial bishops’ conferences. Presumably all of these translations have been made according to the principles articulated in Liturgiam Authenticam and the “Ratio Translationis.” Since the guidelines proposed in these documents are under dispute, what new sets of guidelines might we expect, who would formulate them, and what do the bishops’ conferences want to do with the translations guided by Liturgicam Authenticam and the “Ratio Translationis” still to be proposed?


  1. The CDWDS has indicated that further clarifications and guidelines will be issued early in the new year. I think we need to be patient and wait for those developments. All will be revealed in time.

  2. What translation guidelines are presently in force? Well, those of Liturgiam authenticam, with the required reinterpretation of what that document has to say about the confirmatio and recognitio, as per Magnum principium. Archbishop Roche’s commentary would seem to have answered this question some time ago.

    I appreciate it isn’t the answer that a vocal minority of people want to hear. But the norms in LA haven’t been superseded or abrogated. Moreover, there’s nothing in the Pope’s short preface in MP that is incompatible with LA when the whole of LA is read. Like Fr O’Collins’s massively disappointing book, this is yet more sound and fury.

    1. Maybe so, Matthew – but I don’t think anyone knows for sure at this point. I’m deciding to be cautious in predicting what comes next or what the coming clarification from CDW might say. Prediction is dangerous business.

      And I suppose my personal hopes are affecting my analysis, but I do find it rather hard to believe that Pope Francis has done and said everything he has so far, including generous quoting of Comme le prevoit but not Liturgiam authenticam, because his intent is … to keep everything possible in LA but do a minor adjustment to the approval process. It’s possible, but not likely. And for sure it’s not certain, as you seem to think.

      But as I say, prediction is tricky business, so I don’t claim to know.


      1. Fr Ruff: I do find it rather hard to believe that Pope Francis has done and said everything he has so far, including generous quoting of Comme le prevoit but not Liturgiam authenticam, because his intent is … to keep everything possible in LA but do a minor adjustment to the approval process.

        Yet that is the current situation. And Fr Joncas’s question was what translation guidelines are currently in force, the answer to which is fairly obvious.

        As you say, prediction is a tricky business, but I’m really not sure that all this nudge-nudge-wink-wink-this-is-what-the-Pope-really-means talk is getting anyone anywhere. If the Pope had wanted to completely abrogate LA, then he could have just done so motu proprio. That Pope Francis chose not to do this, given some of the drastic centralisation that has taken place in his papacy (e.g. this Rescriptum), is surely just as important as the apparent quotations of Comme le prévoit in MP.

    2. “I appreciate it isn’t the answer that a vocal minority of people want to hear.”

      I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that the members of faithful who have been hurt by LA are a “minority.” Mass attendance continues to decline at a possibly greater rate since the imposition of LA as people seek “relevant, meaningful” celebrations elsewhere, or simply join the Church of the Nones.

      1. Allen, if you look at polling, recent declines in mass attendance have had much more to do with sex abuse scandals, financial mismanagement, and church leaders not adequately addressing societal issues, than RM 2010. RM 2010 annoyed a lot of people at first (myself included), but I know very few people who continue to grumble about it, and I don’t know a single person who straight up left the church over it.

      2. As we learned in Communications 101, much of communication is subliminal. The fact that poll respondents don’t cite the Vox Clara product as a primary reason for their non-attendance does not matter. It is common sense that an invented pseudo-language which is remote, non-engaging and in some cases bizarre is alienating.

      3. Well, that’s a great example of assuming your conclusion. It may work for you, but if you actually expect it to persuade those who have yet to be persuaded, it won’t take you far.

  3. I don’t think that having different translations in different territories should cause confusion as long as the translations are clearly understandable. That would be progressfrom our present situation.

  4. Regardless of what new guidelines CDWDS issues in the near future, I really hope that English language bishops’ conferences remain committed to working though ICEL. It’s pretty incredible that whether one attends mass in Capetown, London, Auckland, or Minneapolis that the same exact Egnlish text is prayed (minus the Lectionary), and I’ve experienced this personally in my travels across the Anglosphere.

    It would be tragic if this textual unity were lost, since individual conferences now have more of an ability to go there own way if they’re not sufficiently pleased with the outcome. Recent statements from the bishops of New Zealand in particular lead me to think that this is at least possible. I get that this sort of language group-wide textual unity never really existed in the first place in say the Spanish-speaking world, but I hope English speaking bishops recognize this unique spiritual blessing enough to not want arbitrarily ditch it if things get tense. Much as I dislike proposals to go back to RM 1998, I would much rather pray RM 1998 if everyone did than if we were the only one that didn’t. Unity matters.

  5. There was other guidance issued between Comme le prevoit and Liturgicam authenticam. For example the following from Varietates legitimae “the content of the texts of the Latin typical edition is to be preserved; at the same time the translations must be understandable to participants (cf. above No. 39), suitable for proclamation and singing” VL#53 –
    ‘Which in our case we have not got’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *