Criticism? Impossible

Author: Susan Benofy

Criticism? Impossible

by Susan Benofy

In the Fall of 1962, with the Second Vatican Council still in session, several English-speaking bishops met in Rome to discuss the production of the vernacular translations that they anticipated would be authorized by the Council. The bishops envisioned a committee which would produce uniform translations for all the English-speaking countries. Their talks led to the formation of the International Committee (later, Commission) on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).

In 1967, ICEL produced its first official English translation of a liturgical text, the Roman Canon (known today as Eucharistic Prayer I). The translation provoked considerable controversy, however; and in view of ICEL's current revision of the Sacramentary, it is worth considering the 1967 controversy in some detail.

Extensive coverage of the proposed translation was carried in the , a Catholic periodical published in London. The fact that some of the authors of these articles were members of the ICEL Advisory Board makes them especially interesting. One of the authors, H. P. R. Finberg, a professor of local history at the University of Leicester, had collaborated on the translation of the Mass for , originally published in England in 1949 and in the US by Sheed and Ward in 1953.

Shortly after it was announced that Rome had approved the English- speaking bishops' request to have the Canon said in the vernacular, Finberg published a proposed translation in a article, "The Canon of the Mass: An Alternate English Version." Although Finberg himself was a strong advocate of retaining "Thee" for addressing God, his version used "You"-to satisfy the preference of the American hierarchy who originally requested the translation, he explained. While Finberg subscribes to the principle of simplicity of vocabulary his version contains such phrases as "we make our humble petition"; "Mary, the glorious ever-Virgin Mother of God"; "these gifts, this entire sacrificial offering"; "He . . . took bread into his holy and worshipful hands." Finberg says he had offered this translation to his colleagues on the board "as an alternative to the American draft they already have before them."

In November 1967, another article by Finberg, , considers the English version which ICEL had just published. He disapproved of many aspects of ICEL's offering. He summarized a letter of Cardinal Lercaro, president of the , insisting that the translation must be complete and even literal, taking the Canon "without mutilation or simplification of any kind," and cited explanations in ICEL's notes accompanying the translation which he thought gave inadequate justification for various omissions. For example, ICEL's version of the Canon of the Mass begins, "We come to you Father . . ." Finberg quoted ICEL's explanation: "is here intended to embrace the sense of suppliance." Finberg asked: "But does it? This is surely more than most people will read into a not very pregnant word."

Finberg also complained that expressions which convey the concept of a hierarchical universe "are either softened or excised." He concluded: "The truth is that, consciously or unconsciously, the translators have bowed to the influence of critics who find much of the Roman Canon repugnant to the contemporary mind."

Two weeks later the featured an unsigned front-page editorial entitled "," which began by stating that the vernacular liturgy "serves an invaluable pastoral purpose today" and that there should be no real conflict between those who support Latin and those who support the vernacular. However, it was the author's belief that both sides have been "betrayed" by the ICEL Canon. He supported Finberg's criticism, which he calls "measured and moderate" but also "devastating" in its effect. The editorial quoted part of ICEL's own statement, taking issue with its assertion that the translation of the Canon "has already achieved a considerable measure of success" [apparently by being accepted by most English-speaking conferences), and said it is "highly debatable" whether the assertions that the ICEL translation "accurately conveys the sense of the original and combines dignity with simplicity of language."

The editorial went on:

Nobody who studies it line by line with the original can fail to notice that it is a prime example of that "desacralization" against which the Pope has warned the Church. The ancient and venerable text of the Roman Canon has been mutilated beyond recognition.

The editorial ended with a plea to the bishops to reconsider, since the Consilium has not yet given final approval to the ICEL text.

ICEI rewrites history

How did ICEL react to this criticism? Consider some excerpts from their official report to the English-speaking episcopal conferences, as they were carried in a news release issued by the US Catholic Conference on February 12, 1968:

In general, in those countries which have already put the text into use, the translation has received overwhelming approval from lay and cleric, peritus, and man in the street .... Certain objections to the translation are more frequently heard, though in fact they are small. In general the notes cover these objections and it is important to refer to them ....

This reaction illustrates ICEL's ability to ignore criticism, including official disapproval. In fact, by the time ICEL's official report appeared in print, it had already been announced that the ICEL Canon would not be approved in its original form and would have to be revised. This announcement appeared, for example, in the Tablet on January 6, 1968. Opinion in Rome of ICEL's premier work, apparently, had been no more favorable than in London.

Even today, an account of the history of ICEL by its current executive secretary, John Page, mentions that the provisional ICEL Canon issued in 1967 was "generally applauded," although he acknowledges there were some critics. The only indication that Rome actually ICEL's original version is a bland statement that in 1968 "a slightly revised form of Eucharistic Prayer I was sent to the conferences of bishops." Even more striking in its censorship of the controversy is the following statement from a 1995 article by a founding member of ICEL, Msgr. Frederick R. McManus:

ICEL's first major translation was the Roman Canon, now called Eucharistic Prayer I. The text was accompanied by full notes explaining the reasons for what had been done, and it received formal approbation by the conferences of bishops and confirmation by the Apostolic See.

The suppression of all reference to official disapproval of past ICEL texts is especially significant in this article, which reviews ICEL's history in the context of a defense against the criticism of its current revision of the Sacramentary. Of this criticism, McManus says:

The outcry was that of a minority. Generally these seemed to be good people but people who were really and radically dissatisfied with the Second Vatican Council more than with liturgical texts .... The complaints were usually poorly informed, often overwrought in their generalized criticisms and their goals: first, word-for-word, mechanistic translations and, second, exclusive rather than inclusive language.

He adds: ". . . ICEL has adequately responded to even the most ill-founded complaints . . ." As usual, this claim to have answered critics was made without even any summary of the arguments that were offered, let alone specific reference to published accounts of any such answers.

Who rejects the Council?

Also characteristic of ICEL, and equally lacking in documentation, is the charge that its critics generally reject the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. A similar charge was made as early as 1967 (in the midst of a controversy on the ICEL canon text) by Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan of Atlanta, one of the founding bishops of ICEL and then the chairman of the American bishops' Committee on the Liturgy. His biographer records that he said of cardinals opposing his proposal that one of them "had simply repealed in his mind the documents of Vatican II . . ."

Since ICEL has regularly questioned the motives and the mindset of its critics, it is interesting to note who supported ICEL's Canon, and what views of the Second Vatican Council and the reform of the liturgy they held. Let us begin with the two sources quoted above in ICEL's own report.

The first quote was from , a liturgy journal published by the Benedictine monks at St. John's, Collegeville, which had long advocated use of the vernacular. an 1967 the editor was Father Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, a member of the ICEL advisory board; Father Frederick McManus was listed among its associate editors.) In this article Father Aelred Tegels, OSB, charged that the "most violent" critics of the ICEL text are a small minority "fundamentally opposed to any English canon." But he also acknowledged the existence of another group of critics, who "simply do not like the Roman Canon, at least in its present form." He was much gentler in his treatment of these critics, perhaps because he could be numbered among them. Else where in the article Tegels wrote, "No doubt we shall all soon be persuaded that we need new texts for the eucharistic prayer." And a year later, he wrote that they offered "welcome relief from the major deficiencies of the Roman Canon."

The ICEL report's second approving quote is from a letter in the written by Tad Guzie, SJ, of St. Edmund's House in Cambridge. Like Tegels, Guzie seemed to be basically dissatisfied with the traditional Roman rite. In a 1974 book he insisted that the liturgical changes since the Council deemphasize the consideration of the Eucharist as an object (in the old rite) in favor of what he considers the primary symbol, the Eucharist as action (in the new rite). In his view the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was no longer "an objectified physical presence" but "a way of symbolizing the connection between our action and the Lord whose victory it celebrates."

Clearly, those whom ICEL singles out as representative of its supporters actually serve to validate Professor Finberg's charge that ICEL has been influenced by "critics who find much of the Roman Canon repugnant to the contemporary mind." Similar views have been expressed by members of ICEL's own Advisory Board and secretariat.

Since ICEL members themselves acknowledge that their agenda for the reform of the Roman liturgy is much more "radical" than that explicitly authorized by the Second Vatican Council, it is ironic that critics are so often charged with rejecting the Council when they ask for accurate translations of liturgical texts and authentic implementation of the actual Council documents. Even directives from official Vatican sources which call for the elimination of abuses, or interpret the Council differently from ICEL have been called "a loss of nerve." (Thus did Msgr. McManus refer to a 1970 decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship, in an article published in the July 1980 issue of .) Apparently in the minds of many of its members, only ICEL knows what the Council intended; and anyone who does not agree with ICEL- even a bishop-is rejecting the Council. An incident recounted in Godfrey Diekmann's biography illustrates this attitude. In the late 1950s St. John's Abbey in Collegeville built a new abbey church. Its design, in which Diekmann was involved, was decidedly "contemporary." Father Andrew Greeley visited the abbey, and Diekmann showed him the model, enthusiastically pointing out all its advanced features.

Greeley asked the perhaps not too innocent question: "But Godfrey, what if it is not the architectural wave of the future?" Godfrey stopped dead in his tracks, frowned as though this thought had never occurred to him, and then waved his hand: "Impossible!"

If ICEL members see it as the liturgical wave of the future, this may account for why criticism of any kind-from grumbling in the pews to detailed theological critiques from bishops-is so easy to brush aside. Perhaps criticism of ICEL's agenda is thought to be not only misguided or in error, but as- "Impossible!"

Susan Benofy works with Women for Faith and Family. This article is excerpted from a longer report which will appear in the Adoremus Bulletin.

This article appeared in the August-September 1996 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061. Published monthly except bimonthly August/September at $39.95 per year.