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We are Not Morons

June 22nd, 2007
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Here is a, typically, excellent op-ed piece by the Roman Catholic layman George Weigel, expressing his opinion about a Roman Catholic bishop’s protest of the new forthcoming improvements to the English translations currently used here in America of the Mass. If you have ever been to an American Roman Catholic Mass you may have noticed the horrendously poor English phrasings. The same would hold true for the approved English translation of the Bible as well, but for now the issue is the Mass. What I found helpful in this op-ed piece is how Weigel’s comments also pertain to any pastor or congregation, in any denomination, offering up their own "home-brewed" liturgies. I’ve noticed, time and again, how horrendously bad these things are. Weigel hits the nail on the head.

Writing in the May 21 issue of America, Bishop Donald W.
Trautman of Erie, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the
Liturgy, called the lay people of the Church to the barricades, urging
us to “speak up!” in response to the new translations of Mass texts
being developed by the International Commission on English in the
Liturgy. I’d like to take the bishop on his generous invitation, even
if my remarks may not be precisely the kind he intended to provoke.

Bishop Trautman worries that the new translations are just, well,
too darn much for “John and Mary Catholic,” whose participation in
Sunday Mass will, he suggests, be impaired by a translation of the
Creed that describes the Son as “consubstantial with the Father” and
“incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” But that’s hardly the end of it. Will
“John and Mary Catholic,” Bishop Trautman asks, “understand these words
from the various new Collects: ‘sullied,’ ‘unfeigned,’ ‘ineffable,’
‘gibbet,’ ‘wrought,’ ‘thwart’?” What will “John and Mary Catholic” make
of the Collect for June 27, which hails St. Cyril of Alexandria as “an
unvanquished champion of the divine motherhood”? Can they grasp the
depiction of St. John of God on March 8 as “suffused…with the spirit
of mercy”?

My hunch is that they’ll do just fine. “John and Mary Catholic,” in
these United States, are among the best-educated Catholics in history.
In my rather typical parish, “John and Mary” can understand legal
contracts, Russian novels, architectural plans, IRS forms, the Atlantic Monthly, columns by George F. Will, the calculations necessary to compute an Earned Run Average, their children’s math homework, the Federal Register, New England Journal of Medicine articles on osteoporosis therapies, the fine print of their pension plans, and Sports Illustrated
stories on the Cover-2 Defense; they’re not going to come unglued over
“unfeigned” or “consubstantial” or “thwart.” In a word, they’re not
morons.

John and Mary are also smart enough to have figured out that the
present translation of the first Collect for Trinity Sunday is heresy
(it’s addressed to the Father, who’s informed later in the prayer that
he is “one God in three Persons”). Having read Paul’s letter to Titus,
John and Mary may wonder why, at each Mass, the translators Bishop
Trautman evidently prefers have transformed a theological fact (“our
blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior,
Jesus Christ” [Titus 2.13]) into an emotional condition (“…as we wait
in joyful hope for the coming of our savior…”). And no matter what
Latin John and Mary may have forgotten — or never learned — they’ve
been scratching their heads for forty years over how “Et cum spiritu
tuo” became the supremely clunky “And also with you.” The list could be
multiplied ad infinitum and ad nauseam — phrases John and Mary Catholic readily understand.
A witty, post-Vatican II Anglican convert to Catholicism was once asked
what he missed most about his former ecclesiastical home. “The Mass in
English,” he immediately replied. Bishop Trautman is clearly a man of
intelligence and learning, so it’s all the more puzzling why he seems
to defend the indefensible. For how can anyone with a sense of the
majesty of the English language defend the See-Spot/See-Spot-Run
vocabulary and syntax the new ICEL translations are intended to
replace?

Are there clunkers in the new translations? Undoubtedly. But will
ICEL’s attempt to restore the sacral vocabulary and linguistic rhythms
of the Roman Rite to Catholic worship within the Anglosphere destroy
our ability to pray as a community? Please; we’re not morons. I’d even
venture the guess that prayers translated with far more fidelity to the
Latin originals will be a step toward a deeper, more prayerful
encounter with what Bishop Trautman rightly calls “the greatest gift of
God, the Eucharist.”

Bishop Trautman would likely agree that, as a general principle,
“pastoral” doesn’t mean “dumbed-down.” Yet that’s precisely the
strategy many professional liturgists have advocated in the
post-Vatican II translation wars. I, for one, am grateful that they’ve
lost the argument.
  Because we’re not morons, and we shouldn’t be treated as such.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy
Center in Washington, D.C. Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver
Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.
Phone: 303-715-3215.

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