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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ahaggard138528 - Oct. 25, 2017 1:11 AM ET USA

    Say what you mean and mean what you say Pope Francis. Why is every document that Francis produces able to be read in multiple different ways and Francis himself even says things that seem to contradict his own documents? Answer: Spirit of Vatican II speak. It doesn't matter what's written on the page, just make sure that it functions as a vehicle to push the radical progressive agenda.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 24, 2017 3:21 PM ET USA

    Confusion, confusion and more confusion, and under the cover of confusion many "progressive" liturgical actions can take place.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 24, 2017 11:47 AM ET USA

    The most recent re-translation of the Missal was prompted by a specific list of glaring and annoying discrepancies between Latin "Editio Typica" and the ICEL's text. That translation took a long time, much discussion, and it was fundamentally well justified. At present, it would not be easy for any Bishop to rationalize yet another radical re-translation, for this reason I'm not too worried. I think that the pre-Francis English translation will stay intact at least until the next Pope.

  • Posted by: Jerome - Oct. 24, 2017 9:52 AM ET USA

    Sigh. I wish this had come after the new translation of the Liturgy of the Hours had been completed. Now I kind of hope that translation will be abandoned.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Oct. 23, 2017 9:40 PM ET USA

    Once again we have vagueness and confusion replacing clarity and order. Dissident bishops will use this opening to alter the liturgy in their dioceses to suit their whims, as they exploited the mushy language of some of Vatican II's documents decades ago.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 23, 2017 4:36 PM ET USA

    The innovations occur under the same conditions. "They must remain faithful..." But somehow, with the passage of time, in the long-run, this crucial admonition proves ineffectual. Cardinal Sarah is faithful; he is also admonished (not the first time). It is inevitable; fidelity, in this milieu, inescapably leads to infidelity. It's been numerous decades now. If we don't see how this all works by now, we might reasonably (and justly) be described as a little slow on the uptake.