27 October 2009

Catholics are too stupid to get it

Bishop Donald Trautman thinks Catholics are too stupid to understand most of the new English translation of the Roman Missal:

"The vast majority of God's people in the assembly are not familiar with words of the new missal like 'ineffable,' 'consubstantial,' 'incarnate,' 'inviolate,' 'oblation,' 'ignominy,' 'precursor,' 'suffused' and 'unvanquished.' The vocabulary is not readily understandable by the average Catholic," Bishop Trautman said.

Here's a radical idea:  let's do what the Church has been doing for 2,000 years--let's teach the faith and not assume that our people are inherently unable to learn!  A bulletin insert should do the trick.   In arguing against what he thinks of as liturgical elitism, the good bishop exposes himself as a cultural elitist.  This is the sort of condescension we've come to expect from the progressive wing of the Church. 

"'The (Second Vatican Council's) Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy stipulated vernacular language, not sacred language,' he added. 'Did Jesus ever speak to the people of his day in words beyond their comprehension? Did Jesus ever use terms or expressions beyond his hearer's understanding?'"

If I'm not mistaken the gospels are jam packed with examples of Jesus doing just that--teaching and preaching ideas that baffled people, especially those who followed him closely.  The disciples are constantly misunderstanding his teaching.  Large numbers walked away from his Bread of Life discourse in John because they didn't get what he was saying.  He himself admits that his parables are meant to be understood only by those who "see and hear."   "Vernacular" certainly means "everyday language," but are we to believe that the Council Fathers intend for us to constantly re-translate the Mass to keep up with the ever-shifting trends in the language?  English is an incredibly dynamic language!  Of course, what the bishop fears is that the sacred language of the new translation will become the vernacular of the Church's liturgy.  Can't have all that transcendent mumbo-jumbo pointing us toward God, ya know?

"'Since [the Nicene Creed] is a creedal prayer recited by the entire assembly in unison, the use of "we" emphasized the unity of the assembly in praying this together as one body. Changing the plural form of "we"to "I" in the Nicene Creed goes against all ecumenical agreements regarding common prayer texts,' he said."

So, if I'm understanding the argument here, we only get the communal sense of the Creed if we start the prayer with "we."  Does reciting the prayer together fail to demonstrate the communal nature of the prayer?  Does starting the Pledge of Allegiance with "I" undermine its communal nature?  I have no objection to "we," but the bishop's argument here seems specious.  And I'll start worrying about conforming Roman Catholic liturgical practice to ecumenical  agreements when our non-Catholic brothers and sisters start worrying about conforming their doctrine and practice to ours.  Women bishops, anyone?  Communion for pets?

"The new translation asks God to 'give kind admittance to your kingdom,' which Bishop Trautman called "a dull lackluster expression which reminds one of a ticket-taker at the door. ... The first text reflects a pleading, passionate heart and the latter text a formality -- cold and insipid."

And the concluding prayer from yesterday's Mass ended with "May this Eucharist have an effect in our lives."  An "effect"?  Like giving us the measles?  Or causing excessive gas?  Or increasing male pattern baldness?  All of these are effects of causes.  Talk about insipid.  I'll confess right now:  I didn't conclude yesterday's Mass with the appointed prayer.  I flipped the page and used the prayer from the 31st Sunday.  

What the good bishop fails to understand, or willfully refuses to acknowledge, is that the Mass is a time and place apart from the market, the family room, the corner pub.  Instead of urging Catholics to take the sacred out into the world, he's pushing the Church to bring the world into the Church.  This is reverse evangelization.  Of course, the new translation will be clunky at times and it will use words that normal people don't hear everyday.  A little education will go a long way toward fixing these problems.  

The other element here that everyday Catholics aren't aware of is the theological differences between the 1970 translation and the new one.*  The 1970 translation renders most of the Latin in such a way that emphasizes human effort in achieving salvation and holiness.  God's work in us is minimized, if not outright eliminated.  The 1970 English missal has been credibly accused of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, ancient heresies that teach we achieve redemption/holiness by our efforts alone, or with little help from God.  The ideological effort, of course, is aimed at "building community down here" rather than leading us to become a Church that prays up there. 

The 1970 missal is deeply flawed.  The new translation will be deeply flawed.  Language is simply incapable of adequately expressing the fullness of God's glory.  That's a given.  But what do we need our prayers to do?  Remind us that we live in a fallen world?  Or lift us to the One who created us and redeemed us?

Thankfully, Bishop Trautman lost this fight. 

*I read a draft of the new translation while studying at Blackfriars, Oxford in 2003-4.  It is not as ridiculously ponderous as the good bishop would have us believe.


  1. I wish we'd stop TALKING about the new translation and get on with making the change and go forward.

    as it is my poor autistic 5 yr old says a mixed up version of the creed at rosaries every night because he's confusing the "rosary" creed with the "Mass" creed. (creed = affirmation of faith..."I believe in God..")

    for example. What's the next line after "He will come again to judge the living and the dead"

    All those words that are mentioned in this post will require much teaching to youngun's....but so does every third or 4th word in our prayers now so get on with it.

  2. Anonymous6:07 AM

    Traduttore, traditore.

  3. About the new translation... could I be so bold as to plug my book on the subject? It's a mystagogical catechesis on the Mass, using the new translation as its starting point.

    I'd even be happy to send a free copy your way, Fr. Philip, since you're always begging for stuff anyway! ;)


  4. When I was in RCIA a few years back I remember finding it very off putting that so much of what we were presented with seemed to be "dumbed down" so that there was no possible way anyone over the age of 4 could miss the point (I think the claim was that it was actually 7th grade level, but I think most seventh graders could give the definition of the word "temptation" and that was one that they seemed to think would be over our heads).

    The Bishop doesn't seem to understand that people learn new words by hearing them and finding out what they mean!

  5. tizoc8:22 PM

    "Words are the source of misunderstanding" - the FOX, Le Petit Prince

  6. Anonymous9:02 PM

    Fr. Philip, since you've seen the new translation, I have to ask.

    Were there major changes to the wording of the Creed besides changing "we" to "I"?

    I had thought not but discussion with family members is making me wonder.



  7. Monika, yes, lots of changes...the 1970 trans tends to eliminate superlative address, so, e.g. "Our Most Holy and Blessed Lord" becomes "Lord."

    The 70 trans tends to downplay our dependence on God, making some of the prayers sound Pelagian. The new trans does a better job of keeping humility front and center.

    That's just a few!

  8. Cam - just want to say that I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. Contemporary catechetical efforts are breathtakingly and disappointingly simplified. This is first of all an insult to the intelligence, interest, and discipline of the average Catholic, whatever his age may be. The truth is that your run-of-the-mill Catholic is absolutely capable of the fascination, devotion, and disciplined study that would spur him to excel in his exploration of our magnificent Tradition. Some arrogant fools seem to think the rest of us are a lot of uninspired idiots. Besides this, we really should have more respect for ourselves, our Church, and our Master than to tolerate to half-baked catechetical programs. I think we are corporately culpable for our laxity in this regard.

    Moreover, this is a terrible time to offer our neophytes catechetical fluff. At a time when the secular world is attacking on all sides the credibility of religious belief, why would we fail to show our catechumens the profundity, mystery, and beauty of our Faith? Why would we fail to show them how our Faith synthesizes so many spheres of inquiry? Why would we fail to show them that, contrary to the empty claims of the secular culture, religious belief, particularly Catholic religious belief, is indeed respectable and worthwhile? This is not the time to screw this thing up!

    This topic of catechesis strikes me as critical, as it involves things like - well, gee, let's see, here - the quality and depth of the relationship of each believer with God and His Church; the ability of each believer to assist in the task of building the Kingdom of God; and the commission to spread the Good News. We ought to be catechetically on point in every age and place. I just cannot comprehend why we would fail to firmly establish a strong, consistent, and rigorous tradition of religious education.

    The situation reminds me of my cousin, who recently (and frighteningly) contracted the swine flu. He was whining to my Aunt Nancy that he didn't feel like drinking water, which of course he constantly needs to do to thwart the illness. My grandmother said, "Well, what are we going to do, force a funnel down his throat?" Nancy opposed this sentiment and, God bless her, made my cousin read a recent article about a young girl who died three days after she was diagnosed with swine flu. Patrick hasn't stopped drinking water since. Thank God! And I think we're in a similar situation: we are like Patrick in the sense that we don't get that we're facing something serious - ultimately, the forces of Hell. We, like Patrick, need helping getting it. And we, like Patrick, need to start drinking our water. Hell can never vanquish Christ's Church, but it claims souls every day.

    I hope my lengthy post doesn't put anybody off - Cam mentioned a subject that's always sure to put me on a rant!

  9. "The vast majority of God's people in the assembly are not familiar with words of the new missal like 'ineffable,' 'consubstantial,' 'incarnate,' 'inviolate,' 'oblation,' 'ignominy,' 'precursor,' 'suffused' and 'unvanquished.' The vocabulary is not readily understandable by the average Catholic," Bishop Trautman said.

    Can anyone say 'Dictionary'? I spent a lot of time around some pretty smart adults while growing up. One day they became impatient with my constant asking after the meaning of certain words. They told me to get a dictionary. I mowed 3 lawns, then mom took me downtown so I could buy one. I wore it out in less than 2 years. My latest one is worn out, and in two pieces. I'm going to head off to the used book store and find another. I prefer the older ones, as they have words that aren't used much these days.