Interpreting Liturgical Norms

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Interpreting Liturgical Norms

ROME, 19 AUG. 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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 law.

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 single volume.

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 arbitrary.

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 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 Authenticam.'"

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 language.

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 is finished.

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 liturgical texts.

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 Latin liturgy.

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 States.

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 GIRM itself.

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 promulgated.)

"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."

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