The day before yesterday, October 22, a decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was approved. It comes as a detailed clarification of the content of the Motu Proprio Magnum Principium of 2017. It is a matter of reestablishing a correct relationship between different levels of ecclesial life:
- between Latin and spoken languages,
- between the liturgical text and episcopal conferences,
- between episcopal conferences and Roman congregations [i.e., Vatican offices].
This document cannot be understood if we do not recall what has happened in the last twenty years: the claim to settle the conflicts of interpretation regarding the translation of liturgical texts with a unilaterally deductive logic. Seeing spoken languages as translations from Latin and the skills of the bishops as irrelevant to the Congregations had led to the inevitable outcome: new translations were either blocked or, if approved, created embarrassment. This depended on a double blind spot into which we had unthinkingly slipped: the idea that in the liturgy the spoken languages were a concession. And that the true competence in every language belonged only to the Roman See. This reading, wary of modern languages because it is nostalgic for a Catholic universality identified with the Latin language, was confident that it could be faithful to tradition only on two conditions: first, that Latin remained the language of experience, and second, that Rome could control the passage from Latin (on which it remains objectively strong) to any other language. By controlling the source, universality and peace seemed assured. But the design was egregiously naive and without much chance of success.
In reality, the Second Vatican Council had already understood, in an irreversible way, that things are less linear and much more complex. Let’s try to state it in a few points:
- The experience of faith is not lived and is no longer immediately expressed in Latin. This has been true for some centuries, but it became evident, even in Rome, from the moment when Latin is no longer anyone’s mother tongue. As a technical language, Latin has lost the symbolic and metaphorical layers that are proper to living languages. Since it is no longer spoken by children, mothers, comedians, and poets, it has departed from primary use. It can be used, but only as a technical language. But the liturgy is not a technique!
- This means that we experience faith first of all in languages other than Latin. Which thus become the source of our expression, as well as of our experience. For this, the versions of Latin texts in modern languages must not only recognize the strength of Latin as the source language, but also the strength of the languages spoken as target languages.
- This also changes the ecclesial competences. The first competence of synthesis cannot be the Roman one, but the local one, where the synthesis between Latin and the spoken language is experienced “materno more” and “paterno sensu.” The claim to control the use of English from Rome in Australia or Kenya or New Zealand lost sight of the logic of languages and of the experience of faith on the experiential and expressive level.
- For this reason the “authentic liturgy” can only be the faithful one. But fidelity must be carefully evaluated on three different levels, which intersect and must never allow one level to override the others. This is stated this in an exemplary way in four articles of the very recent decree (nos. 20-23). I give them here in full:
20. Can. 838, § 3 requires the Episcopal Conferences to “faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages”. The adverb faithfully implies a threefold fidelity: firstly to the original text, secondly to the particular language into which it is translated and finally to the comprehension of the text by the addressees who are introduced to the vocabulary of biblical revelation and liturgical tradition.
21. Faithfulness above all to the original text, i.e. in Latin, found in the typical liturgical books of the Roman Rite. Since this is a translation it is to be understood that the Latin text always serves as a reference point in case of doubt as to the correct meaning. Secondly, it cannot be ruled out that a version of the liturgical texts in a more widespread language already confirmed by the Apostolic See can also be used as an interpretative aid.
22. Faithfulness then to the language into which the translation is made, since each language has its own characteristics. The accuracy of the translation consists in combining respect for the character of each language while rendering “the meaning of the original Latin text … fully and faithfully”.
23. Finally, fidelity to comprehension of the text on the part of the addressees and to their “spiritual needs”, bearing in mind that “because the liturgical text is a ritual sign it is a means of oral communication”. The work of translation also requires that attention be paid to different literary genres (presidential prayers, acclamations, hymns, monitions, etc.) as well as to the fact that there are texts intended for proclamation, for listening to, for choral recitation. It is evident that liturgical language – the terms, elements and signs – needs to be explained in catechesis in the light of Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition.
This triple fidelity illustrates well the goal, which is the active participation of the people in the act of worship. In fact, the work of translation looks not only to the past, but also and above all to the future. This is emphasized very carefully in no. 13:
13. The preparation of the translation of liturgical books presupposes an evaluative framework that first of all takes into account the language, its characteristics and its diffusion, with an eye to the near future of its use, beginning with its use by younger generations. The adoption of vernacular languages in the liturgy must, among other things, take into account that the fundamental criterion is the participation of the people in the liturgical celebrations and not other types of considerations, such as social issues or issues related to identity.
It is here that the role that the “magnum principium” [great principle] comes into play in guiding the work of translation. As formulated in the 2017 document, it is now stated clearly at no. 19:
- Indeed, “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. While 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, nevertheless some particular terms must also be considered in the context of the entire Catholic faith because each translation of texts must be congruent with sound doctrine”. 
The principle of dynamic translation indicates precisely the historical condition of the Latin language. It is a source, but it is situated. And the correlation between Latin and spoken languages is not a simple operation, but a complex one, because it is not univocal, but bi-univocal. Latin allows us to understand English, but English allows us to understand Latin. To respect this complexity, an articulated regulation of different competences is needed. This is the fundamental intent of the Decree, which in a far-sighted way unlocks a situation that was paralyzed. Because the ideological reading of the last 20 years asked Latin to be what it has not been for centuries, and it asked the spoken languages not to be what they had become for centuries – places of experience and primary expression of the Paschal Mystery. That is, they have an authority that Latin must take into account. The new Decree offers in detail the administrative and structural form of this important recognition.
Andrea Grillo teaches liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.
Reprinted in translation with permission from Munera.