|ROME, 19 AUG. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Is there a Church document or scholarly treatise on "how" to
interpret liturgical laws and norms? In civil law there is something
known as "legal methods." This course and treatise contains a collection
of "maxims" or accepted rules and standards of interpretation when
reviewing cases or statutes. For example, I read in one of your
responses an interpretation of the meaning and use of the word "fitting"
as used in a particular liturgical norm. In civil law one could consult
an official text or case to provide a standard for interpreting the
term. Is that standard for interpretation discussed or defined anywhere
either by the Church or by scholars? This seems to go to the heart of
many challenges with interpreting Church norms.
S.M., Westfield, Indiana
A: Although the Church’s canon law was first codified only in 1917, the
codification reflected a long legal tradition eventually rooted in Roman
Thus, expert canon lawyers are able to drink from a deep wellspring of
traditional interpretations in stating the meaning of laws. Most
canonists will claim that doubts regarding the objective meaning of a
law are fairly rare.
They do occur, however, and are usually clarified over time by an
authentic interpretation promulgated by the legislative authority, by a
new law that further clarifies the question at hand, or by development
in canonical doctrine until a consensus is reached among the
practitioners of the craft.
The Holy See has a special body dedicated to the authentic
interpretation of laws. Its first decision regarding the 1983 Code of
Canon Law dealt with the meaning of the word “iterum” (which can mean
either "again" or "a second time") in Canon 917 which refers to
reception of Communion. The decision fell on “a second time” as to how
often one may receive Communion in one day.
All but the most essential aspects of liturgical law are found outside
the Code of Canon Law and have never been completely codified into a
Within liturgical law we must distinguish between laws applicable to the
ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman rite.
The rites of the extraordinary form are meticulously determined, a
factor which endows this form with a particular beauty, reverence and
spiritual force when celebrated with due care.
Over four centuries this rite generated a considerable body of
jurisprudence gathered together in the volumes of authentic decrees of
the former Congregation of Rites. Fortunately, this series of complex
laws were frequently digested by sedulous scholars into descriptive
manuals for use of priests and masters of ceremonies. Two of the best of
these have been republished: A. Fortescue and J.B. O’Connell’s “The
Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described,” updated by Father Alcuin Reid,
OSB, and the even more complete Italian “Compendio di Liturgia Pratica,”
by L. Trimelloni.
The interpretation of the norms of the ordinary form presents some
particular difficulties. The rite’s relative youth (at least as regards
its rubrics) means that there is little in the way of historical
jurisprudence that could clarify any doubtful passages.
There is also the difficulty that in general the rubrics quite
deliberately eschew detailed descriptions of the rites so as to leave a
certain degree of flexibility. For example, both the extraordinary and
ordinary forms indicate that the priest pray with hands extended, but
the latter rite makes no determination as to distance and position of
the hands, leaving this up to the discretion of the celebrant.
Also, the existence of official translations can sometimes make
interpretation difficult especially when translations vary the meaning
of a text, even among countries sharing the same language. We saw this
discrepancy in a recent column (Dec. 4, 2007) when some liturgists
interpreted the English translation of the introduction to the
lectionary to conclude that the Alleluia is omitted if not sung, an
inference absent from the original Latin and other modern translations.
Unlike the liturgy, canon law has no official translations and only the
Latin text may be used for legal purposes.
Another factor is the involvement of other instances of liturgical
legislation besides the Holy See, such as legitimate customs and
bishops’ conferences. The conferences may propose particular adaptations
for their countries requiring approval from the Holy See before becoming
particular law. They may also publish other documents such as guidelines
on certain liturgical questions which, while not strictly legally
binding, in practice become a legal point of reference.
In spite of these difficulties liturgical interpretation is not
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments sometimes makes
authentic interpretations of the liturgical texts. For example, it
declared that No. 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in
stating that a celebrant's facing the people seemed “more desirable,”
did not constitute a legal obligation.
Such authentic interpretations throw light on the mind of the legislator
regarding similar texts and so help in resolving disputed points. In
some cases historical decision regarding the extraordinary form are
still useful in understanding the present form.
Another means is to examine the use of a particular word throughout the
official documents so as to gauge its overall sense. Compared to civil
law the totality of liturgical ordinances constitutes a relatively small
corpus, and this makes such comparisons fairly easy.
Finally, again unlike much civil law, liturgical law is actually
designed to be clearly understood by non-experts and so it actually
means what it says based on a literal reading. Therefore priests,
deacons, sacristans and other liturgical actors are absolved of the need
for a law degree in preparing for Mass.
The difficulty in liturgical law is not usually in the understanding but
in the faith, love and will to carry it out.
* * *
Follow-up: Interpreting Liturgical Norms [9-2-2008]
Related to our commentary on the interpretation of liturgical laws (see
Aug. 19) there were other questions regarding legal documents. A reader
from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, asked:
"Is 'Liturgiam Authenticam' a doctrine of the Church, or just a changing
opinion of the Vatican bureaucrats?
"After hearing so much about how 'Liturgiam Authenticam' called for a
return to authentic liturgy and banned inclusive language, I was very
much surprised that Pope Benedict XVI approved a revision of the
Byzantine Mass that uses inclusive language. I was reading on their Web
site at byzcath.org about people upset because Christ no longer becomes
'man' but becomes 'like us' and how words like 'mankind' are changed to
'all of us.' They also seem to have made positive changes to improve the
Byzantine liturgy and make it more like the Roman Mass.
"What does this mean for regular Catholics? Was this reworking of the
translation of the Roman Catholic Mass to be more authentic that we've
been hearing about, all for nothing? If not, how can some Catholics have
one standard and other Catholics have a totally different standard? Can
a pope change this type of doctrine whenever he wants? I'm surprised at
this because I thought Pope Benedict XVI was going to keep 'Liturgiam
First of all, "Liturgiam Authenticam" is neither the mere opinion of
some officials nor, strictly speaking, a doctrinal document. It is an
"instruction," a technical legal document that establishes binding rules
regarding how to translate liturgical texts from Latin into any other
It is an authoritative document because it was expressly approved by the
Pope as a law of the Church, and its provisions can only be abrogated or
modified by another similar document duly approved by the present or a
future pontiff. Thus far no such document has been published, and the
norms of "Liturgiam Authenticam" are being rigorously applied for the
translation of the liturgy into English and other modern languages.
Proof of this is the new, much improved English translation of the
ordinary of the Mass that was recently approved by the Holy See. It is
hoped that Catholics will be able to hear it in their parishes within
two years or so, once the translation and approval of the entire missal
As we said, it is not a doctrinal document as such, although its
provisions do touch upon some doctrinal questions such as the need to
preserve certain theological nuances in translations. Thus, for example,
after the document was published it became necessary for translators to
avoid some uses of so-called inclusive language in English which could
obscure the Christological references in some Old Testament or
The document did not condemn the use of inclusive language per se,
although this style could be considered as inflicting cruel and unusual
punishment upon the syntax of the English tongue.
Second, "Liturgiam Authenticam" is a document that refers exclusively to
the Latin liturgy. Therefore its norms have no legal force with respect
to the translation of any Eastern liturgy. An Eastern translator would
be wise to take its common-sense provisos into account but would not be
legally bound to do so.
According to Canon 657.2 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches,
the authority that approves the translation of texts for liturgical use
in those Eastern Churches that have patriarchs or major archbishops is
the principal authority of each respective Church. All that he is
required to do is to send a report to the Holy See.
Therefore it is possible (but not certain) that the translations of the
Byzantine liturgy that reportedly upset some members of the faithful
were actually never revised in Rome at all.
It is almost certain that they were not revised by the Congregation for
Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the Vatican dicastery that issued "Liturgiam
Authenticam," as this congregation deals almost exclusively with the
A reader from Dublin, Ireland, asked: "Now that the new General
Instruction of the Roman Missal has been published, does this mean that
adaptations approved to the old GIRM are abrogated? Specifically, some
issues related to posture were the subject of approved adaptations here
in Ireland; are these now done away with unless and until the bishops
apply again for the same permissions? Liturgists I have consulted here
are divided over the question, and we wish to start teaching people how
to behave at Mass as there is widespread confusion and multiple
practices on place."
I would say that the answer is yes and that any special permission would
have to be asked for again.
If we see the example of the approval of the translation of the new GIRM
in the United States, we can get an idea of the process involved. The
U.S. bishops presented two documents to the Holy See: the translation of
the GIRM and a request for approved adaptations for use in the United
The Holy See approved most of the proposed adaptations and modified some
others. It also stipulated that rather than publishing them as a
separate document, they were to be incorporated into the text of the
As a result, some articles of the GIRM for use in the U.S. have the
translation from the Latin and then an indication of the approved
adaptation with the phrase: "In the dioceses of the United States …"
This would also be the likely procedure involved if the bishops in
Ireland had wished to incorporate any former or new adaptations when
approving the translation.
* * *
Clarification: Byzantine Rite [9-9-2008]
With respect to our Sept. 2 follow-up on "Interpreting Liturgical
Norms," a Byzantine-rite deacon offered the following clarifications to
some assertions contained in the question that prompted the response.
The substance of the response remains unvaried, but I believe these
clarifications are warranted.
"First, your correspondent was quoting from the ByzCath Web site as if
it were an official Web site. It is not, it is a private site and does
not have any official standing in our Metropolitan Church.
"Second, the Creed does not have Christ 'becoming like us,' since that
would dilute the Christological truth of that statement. Instead, the
approved translation says 'and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and
the Virgin Mary, and became man.' (This text was promulgated by the
Metropolitan Basil on Jan. 6, 2007. The initial approval was given by
the Apostolic See in 2001. Churches sui juris that are not headed
by partriarchs or major archbishops may revise their liturgical texts;
the Apostolic See must approve those changes before they are
"Finally, the changes were not made to make our liturgy 'more like the
Roman Mass,' but rather less like it and more like our authentic
tradition. Just as the Roman tradition has 'Liturgiam Authenticam,' the
Byzantine tradition has 'Instruction for Applying the Liturgical
Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.' One of the
principles set forth in that document is that when our practices deviate
from those of our Orthodox brothers, then we should conform to the
Orthodox tradition. This is to witness to the fullness of faith found
within the Catholic tradition."