CONFUSION ABOUT SCRIPTURE TRANSLATIONS FOR LITURGICAL USE: A
Trendy Texts Cause Confusion---Can Consultations Resolve Controversy?
By Helen Hull Hitchcock
Several new revisions of Scripture texts have appeared recently. In the context of
controversy over translations of liturgical texts, people are understandably confused.
Many readers have expressed concern about whether the of the Bible is permitted for liturgical use. Even after Vatican confirmation of
this translation of the Bible was rescinded last year, some people say the NRSV is being
used at Mass in their parishes or dioceses.
The confusion over the NRSV is compounded because of a situation in the Canadian
After the letter from Archbishop Geraldo Agnelo, Secretary of the Congregation for
Divine Worship, was received by the presidents of English-speaking bishops'
conferences last year, the Canadian bishops asked for and received permission from the
Holy See for interim use of liturgical books incorporating the NRSV texts they had
already panted without proper authorization.
The permission to continue to use these unauthorized books was granted to the
, with the understanding that the Canadian bishops would
correct the books as soon as possible after the Holy See completes its examination of
Scripture translations proposed for liturgical use and authorizes texts for the English-
Catholics in the United States are further confused because some liturgical workbooks
printed in the U.S. have included the unauthorized NRSV lectionary readings printed
alongside the authorized readings from the . The NAB
translation was produced for the U.S. Bishops by its official agency, the Confraternity
of Christian Doctrine, for use in churches in the United States. This is the version that
appears in lectionaries and missalettes.
Two other translations are approved for liturgical use in America: the and the . Lectionaries based on
the Jerusalem Bible and RSV Catholic Edition have been approved for use in most
Adding to the confusion, a monthly publication printed in Toronto, , which prints all the Scripture readings for Sunday and daily Masses as well as
the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) using the unauthorized NRSV translation. This
book is being actively promoted in the United States.
Problems with NRSV
The NRSV translation of the Bible is problematical because of its insistent use of so-
called "inclusive" language. The NRSV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version
(RSV) produced by a Committee of translators under the mandate of the Division of
Education and Ministry of the National Council of Churches.
The translators' introduction to the NRSV reveals that "linguistic sexism" was a primary
motivation for undertaking this revision:
"During the last half a century since the publication of the RSV, many in the churches
have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from the inherent bias
of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the
Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text. The mandates
from the Division specified that, in references to men and women, masculine-oriented
language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that
reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture." (Introd. p xiii, xiv)
Although the NRSV translators deem theirs a "moderate" use of "horizontal inclusive
language," other scholars have criticized the translation. Among the defects noted in the
NRSV is the obscuring of the traditional Christological reading of the Psalms and other
Old Testament passages by substituting other words for "man," "Son of man," etc.
Approval withdrawn by the Holy See
In 1992, the American bishops approved the NRSV translation at the request of the
Bishops Committee on the Liturgy. It was then submitted to the Holy See for
confirmation as required by canon law, which was then given by the Congregation for
Divine Worship (CDW). In the light of the current controversy it is important to note
1) The CDW'S initial approval of the NRSV was given by a letter to the national
conferences, not by official decree;
2) The Holy See did not approve the NRSV as a for Mass (no lectionary
had been submitted for confirmation);
3) The Canadian bishops said they did not believe further approval by the Holy See of
a lectionary for
Mass based on the NRSV was required. (Earlier, in connection with changing from "This is the Word of the Lord," to "The Word of the Lord," the CDW had
said its formal approval was not required for such in translation.)
When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) became aware of the
problems with the NRSV, which involved and issues, not
merely matters of style, approval of the text had to be withdrawn. Like the initial
approval, rescinding of the approval was also given by letter (dated July 27, 1994), to
the presidents of the national conferences.
This letter from Archbishop Geraldo Agnelo, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine
Worship, was not made public until October 25, 1994. Cardinal-designate William
Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a formal
statement noting this action on November 1. This statement was published by the
Catholic News Service (the bishops' official news service) on that date, and was
subsequently published in , the bishops' official documentary publication
(November 10, 1994, Vol 24: No 22, p 376).
At the same time, and in the same July letter, the Holy See also approval for
of the (RNAB) Psalter. Both the RNAB
Psalter and New Testament had been given an imprimatur by Archbishop Daniel
Pilarczyk, and approved by the American bishops in 1991.
A new lectionary incorporating this revised translation had been produced and
submitted to the Holy See, but had never received the required confirmation. This
proposed American lectionary is, therefore, not approved.
Liturgists oppose Holy See
The reason for the NCCB'S delay in releasing the July letter rescinding permission for
these scripture translations has never been adequately explained. However, the conflict
over the translation of the Catechism and the current revisions of the Sacramentary
(Roman Missal prayers used for Mass) proposed by the [ICEL] has made it clear that some bishops are strong advocates
of inclusivizing all liturgical texts.
Also, the , a quasi-official arm of the
bishops' liturgy committee, had issued a "Resolution of Immediate Concern" at their
national meeting in October 1994 only days before the Vatican letter was made public.
The federation's resolution (RIC #2), expressed concern over the delay in approval from
Rome for the Lectionary based on the Revised NAB and stated: "we oppose any
revocation of the confirmation of the New Revised Standard Version" and "are
seriously concerned about the dangerous precedent that such a revocation would set."
The purpose of this revision of the New American Bible had been the same as the
NRSV. While the introduction to the RNAB New Testament acknowledges the
continuing controversy surrounding 'discrimination in language," and that
"participants in the debate hold mutually contradictory views," the new translation
reveals the same doctrinal and theological problems resulting from an attempt to
"genderneutralize" the language.
Rome Consultation and "Secret Norms"
Because of the increasing controversy over both the NRSV and the RNAB, and growing
concern over feminist influence on translation principles affecting all liturgical texts, a
consultation was held in Rome in January 1995.
Participants included representatives of the NCCB and theologians and scripture
scholars chosen by the Holy See. This consultation eventually resulted in the so-called
"secret norms" for translation issued last August by the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith. This document which has never been made public provides interim
guidelines for translation of scripture texts used in the liturgy.
These "secret norms" have been the subject of much speculation; but should probably
be considered an emergency measure to provide guidance for bishops in dealing with
revised texts now being produced in many language groups (including English), rather
than as a final replacement for the earlier translation principles, such as the
controversial statement, published in 1969.
This statement, prepared by a committee () formed after Vatican II to
implement the constitution on the liturgy, had advocated a "dynamic equivalency" (or
"free translation") approach to liturgical texts. This is the theory espoused by ICEL in its
proposed revisions of the Roman Missal. The theory has received sharp criticism in
Bishops on translation, forum
A further reason for the Holy See's decision to issue provisional translation norms may
have been the proposal by the U.S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy to adopt
, introduced at the June 1993 NCCB
meeting in New Orleans.
These proposed Guidelines, had they been adopted, would have given to "priest
celebrants and other presiding ministers" authority to improvise changes in order to
"inclusivize" liturgical texts (except the canon of the Mass and the Lectionary) without
the necessity of approval of either the NCCB or the Holy See. In fact, this BCL proposal
actually invoked the CDW's earlier comment on regarding "minor
changes" to justify improvising changes to official texts without requesting
The bishops, however, did approve the proposed "Guidelines" in 1993. Instead,
at their June 1994 meeting in San Diego, they appointed a committee to plan a forum
for consideration of the language issues affecting the principles of translation and the
composition of new liturgical texts.
This forum on vernacularization, still in the planning stages, would presumably
include bishops, scripture scholars, translators, theologians or others conversant with
the current controversy. It will almost certainly re-examine the NCCB's 1990 , which included [selections]
(The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, at their October 1994 meeting,
issued a resolution (RIC #1) complaining that the forum on vernacularization "has
subsequently been used by some as a tactic to delay the process of approval of the
segments of the Sacramentary.")
Other problem texts: revised Grail and ICEL Psalters
Also in November 1993, when a revised book of Psalms known as the Grail Psalter was
presented for the bishops' approval at the NCCB meeting, it A principal concern was the matter of the Psalms
references to Christ which are eliminated by "horizontal" inclusivization. (For example,
Psalm 1, "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly" is
traditionally understood to refer to Christ to all people; but this reading is
impossible if it is translated, "Happy are those...")
There is yet another translation of the Bible which is being strenuously promoted for
liturgical use, the . This version of the Psalms produced by a committee
of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) was published in July
1995 by Liturgy Training Publications of the Archdiocese of Chicago in two editions,
(all 150 Psalms) and .
Both these ICEL texts were expressly intended for liturgical use, and some religious
communities have already begun to use them. The ICEL. Psalter is the most extreme in
its commitment to feminist demands regarding language of any translation considered
Although this text was granted an imprimatur by Cardinal Keeler in January 1995, it
has never been submitted to the full body of bishops for their consideration or vote;
therefore, of course, it has never been submitted to the Holy See for approval.
A note on the title page of the ICEL Psalter acknowledges that "This translation is
offered for study and for comment by the International Commission on English in the
Liturgy." The ICEL Psalter is not approved for liturgical use in any manner whatsoever.
Where we stand now:
Neither the NRSV nor the RNAB are permitted for liturgical use in the churches of the
The liturgical use of the NRSV is permitted only in Canada where books had been
The ICEL Psalter may not be used in the liturgy.
At present, with the sole exception of the RSV Catholic Edition re-published in 1994 as
the , there are that
have not already been "gender neutered. Obviously, then, no new lectionaries can be
produced using any other translation until this anomalous situation can be resolved.
Evidently, most American bishops seem to want to introduce "gender-neutral"
language if this does not compromise doctrine and obscure meaning of Scripture and
liturgical texts. However, experience shows that this objective cannot be achieved. Even
changes on the so-called "horizontal" level create substantial problems affecting
doctrine and meaning.
"Man," when used in its generic or inclusive sense, with its multiple layers of meaning,
cannot be eliminated without destroying some of those layers--as was seen, for
example, in the controversy over "and became man" in the Creed.
Moreover, use of "inclusive language" actually all those who believe that
"inclusivism" does not proceed from a natural change in the language, but rather is an
innovation rooted in the ideology of feminism.
NCCB Statement on the Status of the NRSV and RNAB Texts
"Last week in Rome, Archbishop Geraldo Agnelo, secretary of the Congregation for
Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, confirmed that a letter addressed
to me on July 27, 1994, constituted the congregation's communication to us of the
withdrawal of the permission to use the New Revised Standard Version for liturgical
"An official of the congregation had informed Msgr. Robert N. Lynch, NCCB/USCC
general secretary, at a private meeting on Oct. 5, 1994, that the July letter was the
official response on the matter. Subsequent press coverage, however, seemed to
indicate to the conference's staff in Washington that perhaps a new letter had been
prepared and mailed.
"Because the July 27 letter did not bear the characteristics of a formal decree, my
presumption was that it was a continuation of correspondence that had begun earlier
last summer. Also, at the time of this correspondence, the preparation of the Revised
New American Bible (NAB) Lectionary was the more immediate concern for us in the
United States. Following receipt of correspondence from the Congregation for Divine
Worship, those working with the Revised NAB Lectionary in this country began
preparing a response to the observations received from the Holy See. These were
completed recently but have not been forwarded to the congregation.
"Last week in Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, kindly met with me and, following the review of the situation,
agreed that it would be very helpful if members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission
residing in Rome could meet with some of our bishops and scholars who are working
on the Revised NAB Lectionary to discuss and clarify principles for translation. It is in
the context of the review of the Revised NAB Lectionary that the confirmation of the
permission for liturgical use of the NAB Psalter has been withdrawn, as was also
indicated in the July 27 letter. Because of the foreseeable modifications in the Psalter,
permission was withdrawn so that two versions of the same psalter not be in use.
"The use of either the NRSV or the revised NAB for reading or Bible study is not at
issue. Both translations are properly approved for these purposes.
"What is at issue is liturgical use, the public proclamation of the Word of God in the
living tradition of the Catholic Church. One of the points which I believe the scholars
would want to discuss is the application of the apostolic constitution of April 25, 1969, and the decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship
and for the Discipline of the Sacraments issued on Jan. 21, 1981, as guides, especially
for liturgical translations.
"The continued collaboration between the congregations of the Holy See and the
committees of our conference should help us soon to have a Lectionary which will be
both faithful to the tradition of the Church and serve the urgent needs of our people for
a lectionary in the English currently used in our country."
CHRONOLOGY OF BIBLE TRANSLATIONS
1966: Revised Standard VersionCatholic Edition completed and published.
1970: New American Bible completed and published.
1975: ICEL is "committed to inclusive language", only two years after completion of
ICEL liturgical texts.
1986: Revised New Testament of the New American Bible completed and approved by
bishops; published 1987.
1989: New Revised Standard Version is completed; published 1990.
1990: November: American bishops approve "Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive
Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use."
1991: Revised NAB Psalter is completed and approved by bishops; published 1992.
NRSVCatholic [Edition is completed and approved by bishops in both the U.S. and
Canada; published 1992.
November: American bishops approve NRSV and RNAB Psalter for liturgical use and
submit it to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship.
1992: April: Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship sends letter to American bishops
approving the text of NRSV (No lectionary was submitted) and RNAB Psalter.
June, November: The American bishops approve a lectionary incorporating the RNAB
New Testament and Psalms and submit to Vatican for approval.
1993; June: "Interim Guidelines" for ad lib. "inclusivizing" some texts used in the liturgy
proposed for June NCCB meeting by Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy. They are not
November: Revised Grail Psalter incorporating feminist language is rejected by the
bishops at the NCCB meeting.
1994: June: English translation of the appears, after
delay of nearly two years because of "inclusive" problems. Vatican translation uses RSV
for Scripture passages (also a few NRSV citations unaffected by inclusivism).
June: Bishops appoint a committee to plan a forum on translations at NCCB meeting.
June: Ignatius Bible (RSVCatholic edition) re-published.
July 27: Congregation for Divine Worship rescinds approval of both NRSV and RNAB
by letter to bishops" conferences.
October 11: FDLC resolution at national meeting urges acceptance of NRSV, says
rejection by Vatican would set "dangerous precedent".
October 25: Vatican's withdrawal of approval from NRSV is revealed by Catholic News
Service; U.S. and Canadian conference officials at first deny receiving notice from the
November 1: Cardinal-designate Keeler, president of NCCB, issues statement on
1995: January: Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith holds consultation on
translations of Scripture and liturgical texts.
July: ICEL'S THE Psalter and Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer published by
Archdiocese of Chicago, Liturgical Training Publications, with Cardinal Keeler's
approval. Never voted on by NCCB; not approved for liturgical use.
August: Vatican (CDF) issues "secret norms" for translation.
September 5: Bishop Trautman of the BCL calls The New Testament and Psalms An
Inclusive Version, published by Oxford University Press and based on the NRSV an
"irresponsible translation that offends the doctrine of the Church and revealed truth..."
November: Report at NCCB meeting on progress with planning bishops' translation
Mrs. Hitchcock is director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of .
Taken from "Adoremus Bulletin" Vol I, No. 5, March 1996. To subscribe: Adoremus,
Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, P.O. Box 5858, Arlington, VA 22205,
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN