Start the Presses

Author: Msgr. Wrenn


Msgr. Michael Wrenn

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 rhetorical flourish?

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 pronouns.

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 translations?

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 cognates.
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 evolved?

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 the Catechism.
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 scandal.

Taken from:
The February 1994 issue of