Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Responding to Magnum Principium, to anti-Catholicism, to the Belgian brothers’ defiance

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 13, 2017

In a busy week of news, a few thoughts on:

  1. How the US bishops should respond to the motu proprio
  2. Anti-Catholicism in the Senate
  3. The Belgian brothers’ challenge to the Pope

How the US bishops should respond to the motu proprio

Now that the nation’s episcopal conference has primary control over liturgical translations, thanks to the new motu proprio Magnum Principium, here’s what prudent American bishops should do:


The new papal document released this week could have enormous implications. It’s no mistake that secular outlets like the New York Times, which ordinarily take no interest whatsoever in the language of the liturgy, recognized the importance of the motu proprio. Magnum Principium could cause another round of heated debates, disrupting the life of Catholic communities that are only now recovering from the “language wars” of the 1990s. The secular media outlets might welcome feuds within the Catholic Church. The disputes make news; they provide good sport for spectators. But the costs—measured in terms of disturbing the peace within the parishes—would be prohibitive.

The mainstream media are not alone in their enthusiasm for the potential changes wrought by Magnum Principium, of course. “Progressive” Catholics lost the arguments of the 1990s, and have been spoiling for another chance. Pope Francis has made it possible to renew the battles, but he has not made it mandatory. The nation’s bishops will decide whether or not to re-open Pandora’s Box.

Over the past 50 years the Catholic laity have been battered repeatedly by precipitous changes in the Mass. Again and again liturgists have instituted their pet projects—sometimes authorized, sometimes not—without consulting the ordinary faithful. Most Catholics would probably prefer to change the liturgy in one way or another—nobody is happy with the current situation—but above all the ordinary parishioner wants stability. The faithful do not want tinkering and fine-tuning; they want the Eternal Sacrifice. Still less do they want another era of intramural fighting; they want to worship in peace.

American Catholics are only now growing accustomed to the latest English-language translations, which replaced the wretched “dynamic equivalence” approach with a more faithful rendition. Like any human effort, this translation is imperfect. Budding wordsmiths can pick out phrases that might be translated more fluently. In some cases perhaps they are right—although in many cases it seems clear that the most impatient liturgists are working to “dumb down” the translation, robbing the language of its dignity.

There will always be imperfections in any translation. There will always be translators looking for work, and publishers spotting an opportunity to promote a new set of liturgical texts. So there will always be an influential lobby, urging bishops to correct the translation—and then to correct that translation a few years later. Wise bishops should realize that whenever they satisfy that lobby, the lay faithful will pay the price: not just the price of printing new books, but the price of disruption—the price of finding the liturgy unfamiliar yet again.

Moreover, while he gave the national bishops’ conferences the authority to supervise new translations, Pope Francis did not give them any reason to plunge into the task. On the contrary, he stated in Magnum Principium that the existing Vatican instructions on translation “were and remain at the level of general guidelines and, as far as possible, must be followed by liturgical commissions…” So if translators honestly wish to follow the Pope’s instructions, they should prepare any new English-language text in line with the principles set forth in Liturgiam Authenticam. But that document, issued in 2001 to conclude the last episode of the “language wars,” was the inspiration for the current English-language liturgical translations.

So unless the US bishops prefer change for the sake of change—which would really mean disruption for the sake of disruption—the best thing to do after Magnum Principium is nothing at all.

Anti-Catholicism in the Senate

While “progressive” liturgists threaten to shift us back to the “language wars” of the 1990s, a few members of the US Senate reached even further into the past this week, calling up the ghosts of an old-fashioned anti-Catholicism in their questioning of Notre Dame law professor Amy Barrett. Senator Dianne Feinstein found it worrisome that in an address to graduating law students in 2006, Barrett had said that the ultimate goal in life should be “building the Kingdom of God.” Feinstein captured most of the public attention (and unintentionally coined a wonderful new phrase) by telling Barrett: “The dogma lives loudly within you.” But in my view Senator Dick Durbin was guilty of a greater offense when he questioned Barrett, asking her whether she considered herself an “orthodox” Catholic. (It emerged that Durbin does not like Catholics who describe themselves as “orthodox”—perhaps understandably, in light of his own professed views.)

Feinstein’s anti-Catholicism was unmistakable, and drew just rebukes from many editorial writers. She was questioning whether a believing Catholic was fit for judicial office. But Durbin—who calls himself a Catholic—was going one step further, implying that some Catholics might make good judges, while others would not. Isn’t that clearly the sort of “religious test” that the Constitution prohibits?

To put things in perspective, Barrett was under fire because the Alliance for Justice, a liberal lobbying group, had dug out an old article in which the professor said that Catholic jurists should oppose the death penalty. In that same article, she and co-author John Garvey argued that if a Catholic judge found it impossible to reconcile his faith with a law mandating capital punishment, he should recuse himself and not hear the case. But that was not sufficient reassurance for the Alliance for Justice. A spokeswoman for the group said that a judge who recused herself would be “putting faith ahead of the law.”

How could anyone assert that a judge was letting her faith influence her decision, when she chose not to participate in a decision? At first glance the stand taken by the Alliance for Justice appears completely irrational. But maybe it does make sense, in a perverse way. The group’s goal is not merely to ensure that people in positions of authority do not interfere with the liberal agenda; that’s not enough. The people in power must invariably endorse the liberal agenda. Dissent—even silent dissent—is not acceptable. Everyone knew what St. Thomas More thought of King Henry’s marriage, although he did not make a public statement on the subject.

The Belgian brothers’ challenge to the Pope

This week, everyone knows what the Belgian Brothers of Charity think about euthanasia. In direct defiance of an order from the Pope, as well as from their religious superior, the Brothers have announced that they will continue to allow doctors to euthanize patients at the psychiatric hospitals they administer.

The hospitals made a preposterous argument that their stand, allowing for the deliberate killing of humans, is compatible with the teachings of the Church. If that public statement is allowed to stand unchallenged—if the Brothers of Charity are not hit with prompt disciplinary action—then it seems that any group could make any claim about the Catholic faith. The results would make the “language wars” seem by comparison a mild drawing-room discussion.

Pope Francis had already instructed the Belgian brothers hospitals to change their policy, and given them until the end of August to comply. August ended and September began before the Holy Father, returning from his trip to Colombia, was greeted by this show of defiance. As the ultimate guardian of the integrity of the faith, he must respond.

As a Roman summer comes to a close, the pace of work picks up sharply at the Vatican. Decisions and appointments that were delayed by summer vacations are announced; new initiatives (like Magnum Principium) are launched. We can safely expect more intriguing stories in the week to come.

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.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.