Motu proprio-gate: the upside

Let’s compare the old and the newly-decreed forms of canon 838.

The old:

Can. 838 – §1 The ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy depends solely upon the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and, as provided by law, that of the diocesan Bishop.

§2. It is the prerogative of the Apostolic See to regulate the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, to publish liturgical books and review their vernacular translations, and to be watchful that liturgical regulations are everywhere faithfully observed.

§3. It pertains to Episcopal Conferences to prepare vernacular translations of liturgical books, with appropriate adaptations as allowed by the books themselves and, with the prior review of the Holy See, to publish these translations.

§4. Within the limits of his competence, it belongs to the diocesan Bishop to lay  down for the Church entrusted to his care, liturgical regulations which are binding  on all.


The new (using Rorate Caeli’s translation):

Can. 838 – §1. The ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy depends solely upon the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and, as provided by law, that of the diocesan Bishop.

§2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books, recognise adaptations approved by the Episcopal Conference according to the norm of law, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.

§3. It pertains to the Episcopal Conferences to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.

§4. Within the limits of his competence, it belongs to the diocesan Bishop to lay down in the Church entrusted to his care, liturgical regulations which are binding on all.

The changes are in §2 and §3. The Holy See no longer acts to review vernacular translations but only to recognise adaptations approved by bishops’ conferences. This is a more passive role for the Holy See.

The bishops’ conferences, however, must prepare any new vernacular books “faithfully” [ie, in fidelity to the Latin original one presumes]. Whereas before the “prior review of the Holy See” was necessary for lawful publication, now publication must occur after “confirmation” by the Holy See.

While the role of the Holy See is much reduced, and far more passive, nevertheless the inclusion of “faithfully” may be the saving grace. A prefect for Divine Worship, allowed to act freely and responsibly, might well decide that a particular translation is not faithful to the Latin original, and so deny confirmation.

This would require the particular bishops’ conference to go back to the drawing board and prepare a new translation. In the case of the current translation it was ICEL and Vox Clara who were charged with that burden. Since the burdens of cost and time would fall on the bishops’ conferences they might find it more efficient to propose only those translations that would fare well under a reasonable test of fidelity to the Latin original.

Since the 1970 translation of the Missal was vastly unfaithful to the Latin original, it would seem that if it were put forward under the new arrangements, it would likely fail. As to the 1998 translation, well that is another story. The meaning of “suitably accommodated within defined limits” remains to be unpacked. Accommodated to what? Local society and culture? The nature and rhythm of the language in question?

It would seem that while the pope is decentralising responsibility for vernacular translations, he is introducing an explicit requirement that they be faithful, and placing on the bishops’ the burden of cost and time in making new translations.

Given this new shift of burden, many conferences may well decide the time is not right to revisit the Missal. The cost to parishes and religious houses in buying yet more new missals would itself be a factor against any revision.

However, the Lectionary is still a live topic for some conferences. Live, too, are the texts for the administration of some sacraments, like Holy Orders. The current one, as it stands in English, is woeful. Will the English and Welsh bishops propose their own? That could be interesting, either in a good way or in the Chinese-curse way.

There is some scope for hope.

Join the Conversation

  1. The change from “translations” to “versions” seems significant and dangerous and who “defines the limits”? Where will we be in ten years time!?

  2. It seems to me a change more in procedure than in substance; it is important to notice – together with the adverb ‘fideliter’ – how repeatedly the new formula insist about the necessity for the local translation to adhaere to the unique original text safeguarded from the Vatican authority and to ask to the authority the permission for every adaptation, together with the final control.

    1. It is the opening line that is most worrying in many respects. It contains the highly dubious claim that the great principle of the council fathers was that the liturgy be adapted to the comprehension of the people. It would seem that this is a greater principle than fideliter in the process of translation. And to what exactly does fidelity refer? Faithful to the Latin or faithful to the “great principle”? Pax!


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