Monks attend a Mass at the Sao Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Liberals in the Vatican are changing how Catholics pray. By order from Rome, many texts for English-language Masses will change the First Sunday of Advent, 2011. Some see this reform as an indication of Vatican conservatism and a return to worship-styles from the past, but the way the mandate is delivered is liberal: change by fiat from ecclesiastical elites with power over a centralized bureaucracy. The intended result will be a one-size-fits-all English translation discounting local differences. As U.S. politics suggests, liberalism imposes its decisions unilaterally from the top-down, in contrast with a conservative states’ rights approach.
Using these definitions, the centralization of the liturgy at the 16th century Council of Trent, was reform by liberalism. Facing the encroachments from Protestantism in all parts of the Christian world, in her wisdom the Catholic Church decided that uniformity was a protection against heresy. The II Vatican Council, in contrast, was a conservative council, devolving power of expression in the liturgy to local episcopal conferences and embracing cultural differences as manifestations of the richness of Catholicism.
While debate about liberalism or conservatism in the church may seem detached from Catholic America’s everyday problems, the way decisions are made in the church is often as important as what decisions are made. The procedures established by the II Vatican Council that gave responsibility over liturgy to the bishops of each nation, but these new changes will skip a step and impose uniformity on worship everywhere in the English-speaking world. The people in Brooklyn, New York are being given the same English texts as the Catholics in Sydney, Australia.
I have to question if this goal of English-language uniformity is worth the change or if it is even possible. There are real differences of pronunciation and vocabulary that make it virtually impossible to ever reach such uniformity, even if it were desirable. For the moment, let us forget the differences between “colour” and “color;” between “honour” and “honor.” As the old saw has it, England and America are separated by a common language; a saying even truer when we add the English of the Geiko Gecko and colonial English of places as far apart as Jamaica and India.
Take for instance, the rhyme in hymns: “again” and “train” rhyme only in British-style English. “Bloody” has a radically different meaning on different sides of the Atlantic. Even in the United States, “parking the car in Harvard yard” has a different ring in New England from the southerners who compare the difficulty in understanding to “yanking bacon from a bulldog.” And there is always a lurking double-entendre. A Youth Retreat Director once told me he always changed the 14th Station of the Way of the Cross to “Jesus is placed in the tomb,” because there was too much teenage giggling when he read the traditional title of “laid in the tomb.”
The point is that language is a living reality, constantly reacting to change and circumstance. Local control as ordered by Vatican II would force new translations to be screened for such missteps; but the new reforms were rammed through a meeting of the U.S. bishops that surrendered this right to the Vatican bureaucracy. To speed up the new translation, Rome took over writing the antiphons for the new liturgy without final review or canonical approval by the US bishops. When Bishop Donald W. Trautman objected, he was ruled “out of order,” leaving the perplexed bishop to state, “I do not see how an unnamed Vatican official can trump a doctrinal statement of the Second Vatican Council.”
The present trend centralizes of authority to a narrowing circle of Vatican officials isolated from direct pastoral contact with the Catholics affected by their decisions. Most Catholics in the pews are faithful, and will not question the motives for greater centralization in Rome. We are, after all, “faith-full.” However, there will come moments in which people will ask why familiar prayers are being changed and why the results sound strange. Because the “law of prayer is the law of belief” (lex orandi, lex credendi) the one-size-fits-all liberal mandate is more than word play; it is the exercise of power over the People of God.
Next Week: The Aesthetics of Latinized English