Magnum Principium: Why the Fuss?

Not unreasonably, some people in social media are at a loss as to why there is such a fuss about the change to canon law, and so liturgical law, in the pope’s just-released motu proprio, Magnum Principium. After all, it is just a change to an obscure canon, #838, that 99% of Catholics have never heard of, let alone read. Surely allowing bishops’ conferences to choose their own translations of liturgical books is sensible, and no big deal?

Well, yes and no. It should not be a big deal, all things being equal. However, in the current context of post-conciliar liturgical reform it is a potentially retrograde step that presages strife and turmoil.

As with any change to Church law, one must ask: Why the change? Why now? At whose behest is it made? What is its endgame, as it were? In other words, what is the context?

The remote context is Vatican II’s conception of collegiality. In a nutshell, collegiality is the doctrine that the entire order of bishops, in communion with the pope and never without the pope, exercises supreme and full power in the Church. An ecumenical council is perhaps the highest example of collegiality. The post-conciliar Synods of Bishops held every few years in Rome to address specific topics are another example.

A more contentious application of collegiality is the erection of bishops’ conferences, usually along national lines. The idea is that they make decisions appropriate to their particular local circumstances. The theory is not objectionable. In practice it has all too often seen principled individual bishops coerced into conforming to the decisions of the conference at large on particular hot topics. It can become the tyranny of the majority. When it does so, it violates the ancient doctrine that a bishop is supreme in his own diocese, subject to the pope of course. The bishops’ conferences often find themselves too concerned with public opinion, or the dictates of the establishment, or the demands of secular dogmatism. One would think that united the bishops would be stronger. In practice a handful of stronger and more assertive personalities dominate and get their own way. The same process can be seen in parish councils. The result is that an individual bishop, who may disagree with the collective decision, feels the pressure to conform, not to break ranks lest the conference look divided (which it often is), and so the freedom of the bishop in his own diocese, an ancient principle, is compromised.

As to the matter of liturgical translation, one would have to have been on Mars for the last few decades not to know that this has been an explosive topic. The trite, doctrine-light banalities of the 1970 English translation pleased very few. In 1998 a new translation was proposed. Rightly or wrongly it was rejected by the Apostolic See. The translation was certainly a vast improvement on 1970, and was not without its felicities. However it seemed to accommodate too many secularising influences. Its rejection caused a furore, the bitterness of which can still be seen at times. ICEL, in conjunction with a special commission called Vox Clara, produced a new translation which came into force at the end of 2011. It had a more sacral register to its language, which meant at times that the language preferred theological precision to lyricism in the translation of the Latin original. It eschewed inclusive language, returned the vocabulary of sin, repentance, judgment and grace to the English version of the Missal, which were always present in the Latin original. Some prayers were little more than doctrinaire paraphrases. If you look at my series of Missal Moments in 2011 and 2012 you will find many examples.

The 1998-ers were generally implacably opposed to the 2011 translation. Now they have their chance to turn the tables. If they can browbeat a conference into submission, once again we might see theology-lite, secular-friendly liturgical texts again. Since Pope Francis has now defined the responsibilities such that a particular conference can choose its own translation in the first instance, and merely submit it for papal approval, if the pope is, like this one, keen on decentralisation and on inclusivity, the return of flawed translations is now a live issue again.

So, even though we have been told not engage in culture wars, the stage has been set for a renewal of them. Will the German Church, for example, perhaps the most secularised in the Catholic world, push for a translation that is not only inclusive male and female, but also of the transgendered and whatever other new categories have emerged in the last few years? What individual bishop would dare resist? In this pontificate we have seen more than one bishop sacked by the pope when that bishop lost the support of his bishops’ conference.

Thus today’s decree lays the groundwork for a turning back of the clock to the 1960s, 70s and 80s, fanning the dying embers of yesterday’s conflicts and obsessions. The 1960s gave adolescents a voice, and the Church in many places chose not only to hear it but accommodate it, as though the young had some special insight into God, doctrine, liturgy and morality. The last few years have seen the Church reorient itself back to listening to scripture and tradition rather than the raucous, ignorant voice of a adolescent secular society, ever demanding to be indulged, ever demanding change. The liturgy had been one of the most obvious victims of this phenomenon.

The Sacrifice of the Cross? Is there to be a renewal in this approach to the liturgy: let’s do it our own way?

Yesterday’s rebellious youth are today’s rebellious old-age pensioners. Their rebellion is still the same as decades ago, and they seem not to smell the stench of its decaying flesh. Today’s youth can be just as rebellious, but more subtly so. What we are seeing is that many of them, and perhaps most of those who actually go to Mass and take an active part in the life of the Church, are rebelling against these geriatric rebels. They recognise more value in a solemn Mass with Gregorian chant, than a coffee-table liturgy with guitars and kumbayas. These youth are not afraid to be countercultural, and are happy to centre their identity on the traditional and timeless elements of the Faith.

This motu proprio has the potential, and it is a real one, to disenfranchise these young Catholics, and some of us middle-aged ones as well, and plunge is back into the secular slime from which we had slowly but surely been emerging. What a shame, to put it mildly, if the potential proves to be the reality.

Another factor, not unrelated to what is above, is the papal desire to emasculate the curia in the name of collegiality. The Holy Office has been neutered, and we rarely hear of it now. The Congregation for Worship has now seems to have been emasculated too, potentially reduced to a mere rubber stamp of bishops’ conferences liturgical decisions. All it does is transfer power from a handful of prelates in the Vatican to a handful of prelates in the provinces, who will be far more susceptible to local pressure and coercion. The curia exists to carry out the papal will; it enables the pope’s duty to defend the faith and confirm the brethren in truth and unity. They will find it even harder now to carry out this mission.

Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. To be a mere rubber stamp for bishops’ conferences?

In an excess of distress and negativity, I did find myself thinking that Pope Benedict XVI, of such happy memory, has, in running from the wolves, left us to face them ourselves. This is a harsh judgment, and one which a calmer frame of mind does not admit. Yet we are seeing his liturgical legacy deconstructed before our eyes, much as St John Paul II’s moral legacy is being deconstructed. This is not to assert that this is Pope Francis’ actual intention. Intended or not, it appears to be the reality.

On the upside, the argument for a Latin liturgy is even stronger and more pressing. This would be in full accord with the express will of the Second Vatican Council. Pastoral necessity pretty much demands a return to Latin, to protect the liturgy from secularisation.

However, even more acute will be the attraction to the Extraordinary Form, which stands apart so clearly from our secular society and its fleeting fads and totalitarian dogmas, much as it has since the time of St Gregory the Great, 1500-odd years ago, and even further back to be realistic. In all those many centuries of marked, often violent, social and technological change, the Mass stood solid and stable, a secure sanctuary for man to meet God in a changing world. As the Carthusian monks put it, Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis—The Cross stands firm while the world spins. And what is the Mass but the saving Cross made present in our here and now.

Let’s pray all my fears prove unfounded. How happy, for once, I would be to be wrong.


UPDATE: A little further reflection here.

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  1. I did not leave the Protestant State Church to have the Catholic Church behave the same way. If the present Pope keeps on this way I am tempted to wonder why I bothered. Do I get any time off Purgatory for putting up with the disaster that has been the mis-interpretation of Vatican II?

  2. Francis’s trashing of the legacies of his two infinitely superior predecessors verges on the criminal.

  3. Brilliant post. As one who has spent the last several decades struggling to free himself from the ‘secular slime’ and decaying detritus which has littered the liturgical scene for the past half century, I salute you!

  4. While the current translation makes a great many improvements, I believe you’re being unjustly constrained in saying, “which meant at times that the language preferred theological precision to lyricism in the translation of the Latin original”

    There are, unfortunately, many latinisms in the current translation that do nothing but impose latin word-order and grammer in English. For instance, today we pray in the collect, “Grant, Lord God, that we, your servants, may rejoice in unfailing health of mind and body.”

    I challenge you to find a native English speaker who would construct a sentance like this in spoken English. The fact is that English grammer is much simpler (whereas Latin is more regular). As my Latin professor put it, “If they’d turned this translation in to me as a translation, I would have flunked them.”

    It may be a beautiful transliteration, it may be a vast improvement over the previous attempts, but it’s not perfect, and I believe we’re better off being honest about the strengths and limitations of the things that we love.

    1. To a point I agree with you, but only to a point. Where I part company is with the concept that liturgical English should be of the same register as daily “street” English. Cranmer got it right in his Prayer Book: his English is dignified and hieratic, not colloquial—it is not how the man on the Clapham dogcart spoke day to day. The example you gave sounds lovely when it is pronounced properly and with care. And that is the point: many clergy had got used to entering into Mass without preparing the Missal beyond moving the ribbons. When the priest prepares and pronounces the prayers with care and according to their sense, the new Missal can sound very fine indeed, and vastly better than the previous effort which was a blight on liturgical history. Pax!

      1. The problem is that when the MR3 translation was being done, the English speaking Church had no stylists of the caliber of Cranmer or the Caroline divines, in no small part because such stylists are virtually nonexistent. Heretics they may have been; but they had true literary ability. Alas, out of the entire Anglophone Catholic world, only the Ordinariate missal has some of the benefit of that legacy (likewise, they have recourse to the RSV lectionary rather than the banal NAB version).

        MR3 is much more accurate in transmitting the sense of the Latin text of the Pauline missal. It’s also rather clunky in many places.

        1. Style light and content rich is the better than content light style rich. The 1970 missal was light on both, and its demise was too long in coming.

  5. “The [1998 ICEL] translation was certainly a vast improvement on 1970, and was not without its felicities.”

    Not least of which was truckloads of inclusive language.

    Which was a key reason why CDW resoundingly rejected it.

  6. Dear Fr. Hugh,
    I loved this article! You bring so many good points. For example: “In practice a handful of stronger and more assertive personalities dominate and get their own way. The same process can be seen in parish councils.” I am afraid that I don’t have a very high regard for bishops which is not good for my soul but it is from experience but that’s all by the by. I enjoyed your article so much not only because I agree whole heartedly with what you say but you say it so lyrically!

    1. Well, thank you. Probably most of us have had personal, or heard of friends having, experiences with bishops that are not wonderful, and certainly with entire conferences. But there are many more individual bishops who are fine chaps doing their best to balance often conflicting forces. Their task would be a lot easier of they knew they would get vigorous support from the Church, lay and clerical. Pax!


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