Pope pushes decentralization on translation of liturgical texts
Rome: In a move likely to generate special reaction in the English-speaking Catholic world, Pope Francis on Saturday made a series of amendments to Church law governing liturgical translation, the net effect of which is to shift a considerable share of the power away from the Vatican and to local bishops’ conferences.
More broadly, the new legal document is likely to be taken as one of Pope Francis’s strongest moves yet in terms of fostering greater collegiality in the Catholic Church, meaning shared decision-making between local churches and Rome.
It’s also likely to be seen as at least a partial reversal of a 2001 Vatican instruction called Liturgiam Authenticam, issued under St. Pope John Paul II, which both ratified a more activist role for Rome in taking control of the translation process. However, Francis was careful to insist that the basic principle in Liturgiam Authenticam, of ensuring that translations into the vernacular languages are faithful to the Latin original, remains in force.
Issued in the form of a motu proprio, meaning a legal document issued under the pope’s personal authority, “Magnum Principium” represents, at least indirectly, Francis’s response to what has been one of the most contentious issues in English-speaking Catholic life over the last twenty years: Who should decide how Catholic worship sounds in English?
For much of the 1990s and 2000s, debates over liturgical translation were the hot-button topic par excellence in English-speaking Catholic conversation.
At one level, it was a debate over substance: Should translations veer more in the direction of adopting the contemporary idiom in English, to make them more accessible – a principle formally known as “dynamic equivalence” to the Latin original – or should they stick as close as possible to that Latin, in order to make them universal and timeless?
For the most part, due in large measure to Vatican intervention, those tensions were resolved in favor of universality.
At another level, it was a debate over process: Should the decisions be made by the local bishops, who know the realities in their backyard best, or in Rome, which ultimately has the responsibility for preserving the unity of Catholic worship?
In effect, what Francis did on Saturday was to deliver a victory for the side of the local bishops. That step is in keeping with what the pope had described as “a sound decentralization” in the Church.
“It is not advisable for the pope,” Francis has said, “to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory.”
In a set of amendments to canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law, Francis specified that from here on, the Vatican will still have the authority to say “yes” or “no” to a proposed translation, but it won’t have any real role at the final stage of the translation process itself. No longer would the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments be submitting extensive lists of proposed amendments; it will confirm, or not, the results at the end.