|After months of delay, aggravated by sharp controversy, the English
translation of the Universal Catechism is ready for production.
Well over a year ago, in November 1992, the first approved editions
of the Catechism of the Catholic Church began to appear in
French bookstores. Just a few weeks later Cardinal Bernard Law of
Boston, the chairman of the committee charged with translating the Catechism into English, promised his fellow bishops in the
United States that they would see an approved English-language version
within a matter of weeks. American publishers immediately began
accepting orders for the Catechism, telling buyers that they
could expect delivery sometime in March 1993.
But the weeks of waiting dragged on, the English-language Catechism did not appear. Instead, American Catholics heard
reports that the translation effort had bogged down in controversies
that the original translation provided by Cardinal Law's
committee had encountered heavy opposition.
Finally, late last year, the logjam broke. In January 1994 the final,
approved translation crossed the Atlantic from Rome to the waiting
typesetters in Washington. Within a few weeks, the Catechism
really will be available to English-speaking readers.
But what caused the delay, and how has the controversy been resolved?
To answer those questions, Catholic World Report sought out
Msgr. Michael Wrenn
the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Manhattan,
special consultant for religious education to Cardinal John O'Connor,
author of Catechisms and Controversies (Ignatius Press,
1991), and himself a veteran translator
who has taken a keen interest in the production of the Catechism.
Even as we speak, here in mid-January, the typesetters are finally
setting to work on an approved English translation of the Catechism. Is our information correct?
MSGR MICHAEL WRENN: Yes. As understand it, the translation has been
approved. Now it is just a matter of pushing the project through the
normal stages of production and publication.
How can you explain the long delay?
WRENN: Part of the challenge in any translation is to render the
original in language which matches the ordinary usage of the people who
will be reading that translation. In this case that is a particularly
complicated task, because the Catechism will be read in 26
different countries where English is spoken; each of those countries has
its own idioms, its own linguistic peculiarities.
To put it very simply, the original translation just wasn't good
enough. Keep in mind that this is a project that has occupied some of
the finest theologians in the Church for several years; a committee of
bishops had been working on the Catechism for seven years,
to be exact. And the result is what the Holy Father has called "a
precious, splendid, profound, and timely gift for all." For such an
important project, only an excellent translation will do. And the
original translation, which was substantially finished more than a year
ago, was anything but excellent.
By now thanks to a number of stories that
have appeared in various Catholic publications it is an open secret that the
translation was held up in Rome by the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith, the CDF. Cardinal Ratzinger and his advisers agreed that
there were serious doctrinal problems with the translation as it stood.
At their annual meeting in June, the American bishops issued a
statement urging the Vatican to speed up the process, and produce an
authorized English translation as quickly as possible. Is it fair to
blame the Vatican for the long delay?
WRENN: The Vatican and Pope John Paul in particular wants very badly for this Catechism to be
available to the Catholic people as soon as possible. If you have any
doubts on that score, you have only to notice that the Spanish, German,
and Italian translations have been available for some time now, along
with the French original. Believe me; no one at the Vatican has a vested
interest in keeping this resource away from the people.
On the other hand, no one at the Vatican is prepared to accept a
second-rate translation, simply for the sake of expediency. Remember
that the last "universal" "Catechism" appeared some
400 years ago. This new Catechism could be the definitive
expression of the truths of our faith for generations. So it is far, far
better to have a sound, reliable translation now, even if it means an
extra few months of waiting and a bit of embarrassment.
And again, needless to say, if the Vatican and the CDF had been
satisfied that the original translation was acceptable, it would have
been approved for publication immediately. The fault lies not with the
Vatican, but with the product they received.
You together with Kenneth Whitehead recently (November 1993) published an
essay in Crisis magazine, in which you claimed to have found
"hundreds" of errors in the original translation. Was that a
WRENN: Oh, no. Unfortunately it was quite accurate. Of course some of
these errors are more serious than others. But the translation was
riddled with flaws.
And that is terribly disappointing, for two reasons. First, as we
asked in that Crisis article, "why not get things
right?" The Church in the United States has considerable resources,
and this is a terribly important project. We can afford the best
possible translation, and there is no shortage of talented people
willing to contribute their skills toward the effort. There is
absolutely no reason to be satisfied with errors, even if they involve
relatively minor points.
Second and still more unfortunately quite a
few of the errors were not minor points. There are places where elements
have been dropped from the French original, places where new elements
have mysteriously appeared, and quite a few places where the
"error" in translation turns out to be something a bit more
serious than a simple mistake places where a careful reader can see
a theological bias at work.
By all accounts, the most persistent problem of that sort involved
the use of "inclusive language" the effort to eliminate masculine
WRENN: Exactly. Feminist ideology insists that when we speak of
"mankind" we leave women out of the picture although the ordinary dictionary
defines "man" as representing first a member of the human race
and only second or third or fourth a male adult. The translation took
extraordinary liberties with the text in order to avoid criticism on
these ideological grounds.
The Catechism was originally prepared in the French
language, which uses the word "l'homme" in very much the same
way that the English language has traditionally used the word
"man" as a generic word that can be used to
designate a member of the species, or else a male individual. So when
"l'homme" is not translated as "man," we know
immediately that something is afoot.
As it turns out, that situation arises three times within the very
first paragraph of the Catechism itself. If the original translation had
been approved, we would have been taught that God created "the
human race," that God is "close to us," and that God
"gathers the human race." In each case, the French uses the
word "l'homme," "man."
And that's only the first paragraph! I'm sure that your readers can
understand how the problem is magnified when it recurs over several
hundred pages. And anyone who reads Catholic World Report can appreciate
that the problem of inclusive language is not simply a matter of style,
or of being "politically correct."
This is not just a question of dictionary definitions, which can
change as English usage changes. God became incarnate not as a
genderless "human being," but as a male, a "man" by
any definition you choose. That fact dominates all of our faith, and all
of the Scriptures. Even the Old Testament, guided by the Holy Spirit,
refers continually to the Messiah in masculine imagery. And the Lord
Jesus taught us to address the Almighty as "Our Father." We
are all fallible beings, subject to human limitations, and none of us
can claim to understand every nuance in the Sacred Scriptures. We simply
do not have the right to change the clear meaning of the words.
Now keep in mind that I am concentrating just on the theological
problems of the translation. Anyone who hews to the "inclusive
language" line will also produce some horribly awkward English
phrases. But that is another matter.
The Catechism makes frequent references to Church traditions,
especially in the documents of Vatican II. Those documents are readily
available in English translation. Where "inclusive language"
is concerned, did the Catechism rely on the same
WRENN: No, it did not; and that is another clear indication of the
theological bias at work in this translation. The citations from Vatican
II (not to mention the other sources) did not match the translations
that are currently available.
But the "inclusive language" dispute was not the only
theological dispute involved in the translation.
WRENN: No. Let me cite just a few of the examples that Ken Whitehead
and I mentioned in our Crisis article. Anyone with even a
rudimentary understanding of the French language knows that "le
plus pure" means "purest," or perhaps "the most
pure;" it was translated as "supreme." And even someone
who has never studied French at all should be able to understand that
"solicitude" does not mean "service,"
"services" does not mean "ministries," and
"schismes" does not mean simply "divisions;" all of
those words could be translated more accurately by using their English
Or let me cite an entirely different sort of problem. The translation
avoided the use of the word "sacred." It avoided any reference
to "Holy Mother Church." It avoided the word
"obedience." Instead of "mortal" or
"grave" sin, the translation refers to "serious" sin
a concept that has a very special
meaning in some theological circles.
I could continue at some length, but I think the point is clear. On
some issues this translation offered an inaccurate rendition of
authentic Catholic teaching; on other issues it offered its own new and
unauthorized version of that Catholic tradition.
But a number of scholars who had access to the original translation and you were among them brought these
errors to the attention of Vatican officials. Is that how the process
WRENN: Well, yes, that would be a simplified version of what
happened. After a great deal of discussion, back and forth, the CDF
concluded that this translation simply could not be certified as
representing the authentic teachings of the Catechism.
In any case, those disputes are now behind us, and we shall soon see
an approved version of the Catechism in English. Are you
satisfied with the result?
WRENN: "Satisfied" is a weak word. Let me refer again to
the words of the Holy Father: that this is "a precious, splendid,
profound, and timely gift for all."
But is it fair to assume that, just as you were unhappy with the
original translation, others might be unhappy with the translation that
appears on the bookshelves a few weeks from now?
WRENN: Certainly there will be some people who are dissatisfied with
the Catechism because it does not support their own
theological theories. A catechism is not intended to support different
theories; it is intended to promulgate the truths that have been
established by Catholic tradition and confirmed by the Magisterium.
Still, to be realistic, I don't think that the principal line of
attack against this Catechism will involve questions of
translation. Now that the text is settled, and the actual books will
soon appear, we are already seeing the development of another line of
attack. Critics in the US and in other English-speaking countries are
suggesting that while the Catechism might be a very good
thing, it is not intended for mass consumption that the Catechism is a
document only for specialists, not for ordinary Catholics.
From that point it is only a short additional step to suggest that
really, people should not read the Catechism itself; they
should read only what these self-styled experts "say" about
That approach is diametrically opposed to the instructions of Pope
John Paul. In April of last year, he pointed out: "The new Catechism is given to the pastors and the faithful because,
like every genuine catechism, it serves to educate people in the faith
which the Catholic Church professes and proclaims. However, it is a gift
for all: in fact it is addressed to all and must reach everyone."
If that statement leaves any questions about the Pope's intent and it shouldn't listen to what he said to a group of
American bishops a few weeks later: "I pray that the Church in the
United States will recognize in the Catechism an
authoritative guide to sound and vibrant preaching, an invaluable
resource for parish adult formation programs, a basic text for the upper
grades of Catholic high schools, colleges, and universities."
In short, this is not a document for specialists, or for researchers,
or for interpreters. This is a catechism in the ordinary sense of that
term, which most people readily understand; it is a book that Catholics
of all descriptions should read, and own, and digest.
So even when the Catechism appears in an approved English
translation, the battle will not be over?
WRENN: Not at all; it may just be beginning. Already I have seen at
least one Commentary on the Catechism that
thoroughly misleads readers on a number of important points. On some
crucial points, in fact, it is nothing short of heretical. If Catholic
readers are seduced into reading such a Commentary rather
than the Catechism itself, it will be a terrible scandal.
Are you thinking of a specific commentary a specific publication?
WRENN: Oh, yes indeed. The Liturgical Press, together with Geoffrey
Chapman, have announced the impending publication of a book called A Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church a series of essays edited by Michael
Walsh. I have had the opportunity to read these essays, and they are
very, very poor.
There are a few decent essays in the book, but one's overwhelming
reaction is to wonder how these few sensible people became associated
with the remainder of the blackguards involved in this process.
Even the advertising flyer which I saw and which called my attention to this
new book indicates that the purpose of the book
is to challenge the Catechism, not to support it. That
advertisement asks of the Catechism, "how well does it
represent the faith which it is meant to encapsulate?" Of course it
would be easy to ask, "How well do the authors of these essays
represent the faith." The answer is, not at all well.
The Catechism is the work of the authentic teaching
Magisterium: the work of a group of bishops, whose work was constantly
reviewed by their brother bishops and finally promulgated by the Holy
Father. Imagine the arrogance of theologians who think that they should
"enter into critical dialogue" with the Magisterium, and
relate the "strengths and weaknesses" of Church teaching! Yet
that is precisely what the publishers boast the Walsh Commentary will do. This
Commentary is really a
pre-emptive strike against the Catechism an effort by theological dissenters to
undermine the teachings of the Catholic Church. So as I have said, if
this sort of critical commentary reaches a wide public audience if ordinary Catholic people read the
commentaries rather than the Catechism itself that will be both a tragedy and a