Liturgiam Authenticam 36 on Scripture Translations

by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

Currently the Catholic Church is in the process of revising the procedures for translating liturgical texts. Until recently, liturgical translation was governed by Liturgiam Authenticam , the  Fifth Instruction “For the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy  of the Second Vatican Council” which was promulgated in 2001. Last September Pope Francis promulgated motu proprio the document Magnum Principium  which modified Canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law. This modification to Canon Law also means that the whole manner of liturgical translation necessarily has to change. Most liturgists think that Liturgiam Authenticam  will have to be completely rewritten, and there are rumors that a committee is already working on the new document.

A few months ago I did a series of posts on the Catholic Bibles Blog about possibility of using the Revised New Jerusalem Bible as the basis of a new Lectionary in those countries which currently use the Jerusalem Bible in their lectionary. (Unfortunately the blog has subsequently closed down). At that time, there was some confusion among the readers of that blog on the possibility of using more than one translation in the liturgical books of a given territory.  I wrote a post trying to explain the issues and law involved.

I recently visited South Africa, a country where exceptions to the rules of Liturgiam Authentican had been granted to the bishops’ conference. So taking advantage of this visit to get more details of their permissions, and of the fact that Liturigam Authenticam itself is being revised, I decided that readers of PrayT ell might be interested in this updated version of my original post.

The crux of the matter is that Liturgiam Authenticam 36 states:

In order that the faithful may be able to commit to memory at least the more important texts of the Sacred Scriptures and be formed by them even in their private prayer, it is of the greatest importance that the translation of the Sacred Scriptures intended for liturgical use be characterized by a certain uniformity and stability, such that in every territory there should exist only one approved translation, which will be employed in all parts of the various liturgical books. This stability is especially to be desired in the translation of the Sacred Books of more frequent use, such as the Psalter, which is the fundamental prayer book of the Christian people. The Conferences of Bishops are strongly encouraged to provide for the commissioning and publication in their territories of an integral translation of the Sacred Scriptures intended for the private study and reading of the faithful, which corresponds in every part to the text that is used in the Sacred Liturgy.

This means that for liturgical purposes each bishops’ conference is allowed to use only one biblical translation per language used in the liturgy in their area.  For example, the bishops’ conference of Canada is welcome to have one Bible translation for their French lectionary and another for their English, but is not allowed to use both the New Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible and have two English language lectionaries simultaneously approved for their territory.

The limit of a single translation is a novelty of Liturgiam Authentiacam. Immediately after Vatican II, the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) in Rome approved multiple lectionaries for the same region. In the United States three lectionaries were approved: the Jerusalem Bible, the New American Bible and the Revised Standard Version. In Ireland, England & Wales and Scotland, the Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version were both approved.  I am not sure whether other Biblical translations were used in other regions. When the current US lectionary that uses an adaptation of a revision (of a revision) of the New American Bible was approved in 1998 and 2001 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops themselves withdrew permission to use the three older Lectionaries (JB, RSV and NAB 1st ed).

Liturgiam Authenticam’s mandate for a single translation was not retroactive.  But when any new liturgical book was approved in a region, permission to use any older translations was automatically withdrawn. However, while in Ireland the JB Lectionary is basically the only lectionary used at the parish level, the current JB lectionary pre-dates 2001, so the 1970 RSV lectionary is still approved for use The original recognitios are still in effect  (Prot. N. 1423/69 Hiberniae 25 October 1969) and (Prot. N. 1200/69 Angliae et Cambriae 24 October 1969).

From a technical point of view, the fact that the CDW has approved a lectionary for one region does not mean that that permission not carries to other countries. So if a RNJB Lectionary was approved in Ireland, technically it could not be used in a celebration in the U.S. This can be seen, for example, in the case of the RSV. Ignatius Press prepared a lectionary based on their own edition of the RSV (the Second Catholic Edition). This was approved as the lectionary in the Antilles. However many US parishes considered adopting it.  In the April 2006 edition of the Newsletter of the Committee on the Liturgy of the USCCB carried this clarification:

Approved Editions of the Lectioanry for Mass

The Secretariat has recently received many inquiries concerning the use of an edition of the Lectionary for Mass based on the Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures and available from Ignatius Press. This Lectionary has not been approved for use in the Dioceses of the United States of America. Only the New American Bible edition of the Lectionary for Mass, published in 1998 and 2001 may be used at celebration of the Liturgy in this country.

However, as the translation principles of Liturgiam Authenticam are being revised, it is possible that a bishops’ conference could ask for more than one biblical translation of the lectionary to be used at the same time. There is no way to know what the guidelines that replace Liturgiam Authenticam will say in this regard. I personally hope that they will allow the bishops to make a pastoral decision that best suits their region. It is also worth noting that the market forces of printing lectionaries, hand missals, devotional books, worship aids, etc. make it impractical to have too many editions in use in a given area.

At the end of the day, if the bishops ask for a particular liturgical book to be recognized, the CDW may well grant their request. This was the case even while Liturgiam Authenticam  was in full effect. In English-speaking Africa, liturgical books that use the Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible have both been recently approved. In South Africa, a 2012 edition of the RSV Lectionary has been published by Ignatius Press. This looks identical to the original 2006 Antilles’ edition (which has been subsequently adopted by the parishes of the three Ordinariates made up of former Anglican/Episcopalians), but the African edition uses the Revised Grail translation of the Psalms as opposed to the RSV version in the original, and also contains a section with the readings for the proper calendar of the various African countries that use it. This lectionary has received a 2012 recognitio from the Holy See for use in Ghana (Prot. N. 721/11/L), Kenya (Prot. N. 2/11/L), Lesotho (Prot. N. 308/11/L), Nigeria (Prot. N. 1006/10/L), South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland (Prot. N. 218/11/L) and Zimbabwe (Prot. N. 249/11/L).

However, in the same year the Holy See also gave many of the same countries recognitios to use the new 2009 edition of the Liturgy of the Hours, that uses the New American Bible  as its base text (although it also uses the Revised Grail Psalms). Kenya received its recognitio in 2009 (Prot. N. 103/06/L). Initially the translation was only approved for Kenya (you can find my review of the book here. However the second printing of 2012 contains the recognitios for other African nations, Ghana (Prot. N. 1014/10/L), Zimbabwe (Prot. N. 248/11/L) and South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland (Prot. N. 150/12/L).

Here in 2012, under Pope Benedict XVI, Liturgiam Autheticam 36’s mandate is disregarded in these liturgical books. Moreover the lectionary and the Liturgy of the Hours are liturgical books that are both almost entirely composed of scripture passages. This shows that even before Pope Francis said that Liturgiam Authenticam was no longer fit for purpose, during the time-period when many liturgists thought that the CDW was being very inflexible in their supervision of liturgical translation, it was still possible to have more than one Scripture translation in use in a given region.

In this particular case, there is a strong argument to be made for adopting a single biblical translation for use in the liturgy in a given area. But the bishops of these African nations believed that their people were better served by a combination of two translations. Hopefully this flexibility will be built upon in whatever document replaces Liturgiam Authenticam so that the local Church can be free to discern what best suits the needs of the worshiping communities in their area.

Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey and is a Lecturer in Systematic Theology in the Pontifical Universiy at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland. He has studied at Seton Hall University, the University of Notre Dame, and St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a Doctorate in Theology from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.




  1. I bought the NRJB , it is a beautiful translation but I am disappointed in the increased use of inclusive language eg Brothers and Sisters instead of Brothers in the Greek and the use of the plural where the NJB uses the singular to avoid the male pronoun, therefore it is not faithful to the original. I feel it is inflicting a political agenda on scripture. I doubt if Shakespeare’s language would be altered to inclusive language.

    1. Hi Marian
      I agree that Shakespeare shouldn’t be modified in the original English. However, what do we do with the parts that a regular native English speaker cannot understand? Language changes. When I studied Shakespeare in secondary school we used books that had a lot of explanatory notes. Most English speakers today wouldn’t be able to understand all of a Shakespeare play if they only heard it, as we hear the passages of Scripture at Mass. Additionally, the vast majority of us are not reading the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, we are using translations into some modern language. So the question isn’t one of changing the Bible, but of changing the translation into more understandable English. No translation will be perfect, some people will prefer one over another, however for liturgical purposes we need to select official versions.

    2. “Brothers and sisters” in the Lectionary is often not a translation of the Bible text (usually a NT Epistle) but rather an introductory phrase inserted by the Roman editors of the Lectionary to give the hearers context. Compare in this morning’s readings “Thus says the Lord God” and “Jesus said to his disciples.” Not a mistranslation of Scripture at all. (But sometimes I find them unhelpful.)

    3. I think “brothers and sisters” is a legitimate update to bring across the original meaning more accurately. It’s typically used for “brother” where it’s clear the speaker didn’t mean to address only males. “Men” and “brothers” are no longer heard as meaning “people,” but males only. A good translation will make the update where it’s appropriate and leave it in the masculine where men are meant. The older translation wasn’t done by sexist jerks (maybe some were, but not just because of this); they just understood the terms “men” and “brothers” differently than we do now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.