In rebuke to Cardinal Sarah, Pope contradicts himself

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 23, 2017

Once again Pope Francis has announced a change in canon law—without making a change in canon law.

In his letter to Cardinal Sarah, made public on October 22, the Pope says that some provisions of Liturgiam Authenticam “have been abrogated,” and the entire 2001 document “must be carefully reconceived.” No one questions the authority of the Pope to amend or even annul a previous Vatican document. But in fact he has not amended or annulled Liturgiam Authenticam. On the contrary, in his latest document on liturgical translations, he announced that existing Vatican instructions “were and remain at the level of general guidelines and, as far as possible, must be followed by liturgical commissions as the most suitable instruments…”

So the Pope is telling translators that they must follow the guidance of Liturgiam Authenticam, but some parts of that document (he does not identify which parts) have been abrogated and the whole thing needs to be reconceived. Then what guidance can they reliably draw from the Vatican instruction? Not much; they’re on their own.

To be fair, in his letter to Cardinal Sarah the Pope does propose his own threefold test for liturgical translations:

  1. They must be faithful, he says, to the Latin original. Good; that’s the key lesson of Liturgiam Authenticam.
  2. Next they must be faithful to the language into which they are being translated. That’s an awkward construction, but it seems to mean that a translation into English should be rendered in graceful, grammatical English. Fine.
  3. Finally, the Pope says that the translation must be faithful to the understanding of the audience. Here the papal “guideline” provides no guidance at all. Our understanding of a text is shaped by the translation. We—the readers or listeners—cannot possibly know whether the translator has been faithful to our understanding, unless we know the original language and check the translation ourselves. We can only know that the translator is faithful to his own understanding; we’re at his mercy.

Liturgiam Authenticam gave lay Catholics the confidence that in any new liturgical translation, we were hearing a close approximation of the text prepared and approved by the universal Church—not merely a “dynamic equivalent” that represents what some ambitious translator(s) thought we should draw out of the text. Has that confidence now been abrogated?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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