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Pope rebukes Cardinal Sarah, says rules changed on liturgical translations

October 23, 2017

Pope Francis has issued a stunning rebuke to Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, in a letter criticizing the cardinal’s interpretation of Magnum Principium, the recent papal document on liturgical translations.

Last week Cardinal Sarah circulated a commentary on the new document, which indicated that although the new papal document gives greater autonomy to episcopal conferences, the final translations of liturgical texts still require approval by his congregation. But in a letter to the cardinal, made public by the Vatican on October 22, the Pope says that Cardinal Sarah’s commentary “could give an erroneous impression that the level of involvement of the congregation remained unchanged.” The Pope stresses that Magnum Principium gives the individual bishops’ conferences “the faculty of judging the worth and coherence” of translations.

In his letter the Pope also rejects the idea, contained in the commentary that Cardinal Sarah had provided, that translations submitted by bishops’ conferences are still subject to rigorous Vatican study before approval. The Pope says that the Vatican should not have “a spirit of imposition on the bishops’ conferences.” Although his motu proprio indicates the need for Vatican confirmation of any translation, it “no longer supposes a detailed, word by word examination, except in obviously cases that can be presented to the bishops for further reflection.”

Magnum Principium, issued on October 1, had not defined the new role of the Vatican congregation in providing “recognition” and “confirmation” for translations prepared under the direction of episcopal conferences. The commentary circulated by Cardinal Sarah was evidently designed to help clarify the document. But Pope Francis indicates that the cardinal made erroneous assumptions about the thought behind the text.

The Pope’s letter also contradicts Cardinal Sarah’s claim that the Vatican’s existing norms for liturgical translations remain in force. Here the papal rebuke seems clearly to contradict the text of Magnum Principium, which states: “The criteria indicated 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...” But now the Pope writes that “one can no longer hold that translations must conform in every point to the norms of Liturgiam Authenticam as was done in the past.” In fact the Pope indicates for the first time, in his letter to the cardinal, that Liturgiam Authenticam, the landmark 2001 instruction on liturgical translations, “must be carefully reconceived,” and indeed that some aspects of the Vatican’s guidance for translators “have been abrogated.”

The Pope’s letter does not indicate which norms of Liturgiam Authenticam have been, or should be, changed. But he tells Cardinal Sarah that liturgical translations should be faithful to the Latin original, to the language into which they are being translated, and to the understanding of the people.

The Pope’s letter—a rare public rebuke to a top Vatican official—highlights the tensions that have arisen between the Pontiff and the African cardinal who heads the Vatican’s top liturgical office. Last year, after Cardinal Sarah had encouraged priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem, the Vatican had issued a pointed statement that no new liturgical norms had been approved. In this case Pope Francis has not only issued the criticism in his own name, but also instructed Cardinal Sarah to circulate his letter to the media outlets that had received his commentary last week.

Although the Pope ended his letter by thanking Cardinal Sarah for his service, both the tone and the content of the papal rebuke raise questions about the declining influence of the African cardinal within the Roman Curia. Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Sarah to his current post, for a term that will not expire until 2019. But—as the letter made public on October 22 clearly shows—the Pontiff has not consulted with the cardinal on major liturgical issues, nor has he let him know the details of his thoughts before issuing a new document. Magnum Principium was introduced to the public along with a commentary signed not by Cardinal Sarah but by his second-in-command at the Congregation for Divine Worship, Archbishop Arthur Roche.


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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 24, 2017 4:13 PM ET USA

    Silver lining fact: It would be much easier to protest lame-headed liturgy to the local ordinary. Fares are cheaper and people could put a great big hole in the next Diocesan financial appeal.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 24, 2017 10:56 AM ET USA

    In case of questionable translations or politically motivated liturgical translations, Catholics always could request the Holy See for final judgment. Moving that responsibility downward to freeze it at the level of local bishops deprives the faithful of their right to appeal their heartfelt concerns to the Vatican. It signifies little importance given by this particular Pope to Catholic unity and reverence in liturgical celebrations.

  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Oct. 24, 2017 10:06 AM ET USA

    I never expected that a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical (The King and I) would provide me with the safest, appropriate comment: "'tis a puzzlement!"

  • Posted by: ILM - Oct. 24, 2017 8:02 AM ET USA

    Jesus I trust in You.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Oct. 24, 2017 6:08 AM ET USA

    As always, I am praying for Cardinal Sarah. His faith is being tested by what I now believe is a renegade Pope.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Oct. 24, 2017 5:20 AM ET USA

    This a very poor and I might say, disrespectful, way to treat a member of your "staff". What would it have taken to do this privately, informing him ahead of time what your intentions are? I'm not seeing much charity in this situation.

  • Posted by: Elan - Oct. 23, 2017 10:13 PM ET USA

    How very sad. We need to remain inconstant prayer for the Church and our Pope.

  • Posted by: mrschips19308196 - Oct. 23, 2017 9:32 PM ET USA

    The impression, indeed, the facts,always seemed to state that even "bad"popes never said anything against faith or morals. Frankly, Pope Francis scares me.

  • Posted by: Gregory108 - Oct. 23, 2017 8:45 PM ET USA

    The Lord be with you! And also with you! :-)

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Oct. 23, 2017 7:02 PM ET USA

    Presumably, obvious cases for re-consideration wouldn’t be discovered without being preceded by a detailed analysis. It surely doesn’t do to analyze the Pope’s statement too closely. My impression is that it can be summed up as “We are seriously displeased.”

  • Posted by: brownjudith2930 - Oct. 23, 2017 6:31 PM ET USA

    May Our Lord Jesus give Cardinal Sarah the charity and humility to absorb such a high-handed rebuke from Pope Francis. Instructions in Liturgicam Authenticam were meant to confirm doctrine, but now those instructions must be 'reconceived' (Newspeak lingo).

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Oct. 23, 2017 6:20 PM ET USA

    So the Pope contradicts his own Moto Propio when he communicate with Cardinal Sarah, BUT he still can't communicate with the remaining authors of the Dubia. No wonder there is such confusion in the church when the Pope doesn't understand what he has written.

  • Posted by: Ken - Oct. 23, 2017 6:11 PM ET USA

    And the rend within the church grows ever wider.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Oct. 23, 2017 5:41 PM ET USA

    Years ago, a close relative said to me, "It's not enough that someone would want to serve the Church. They've got to punish you first." I bristled at the harshness of that maxim, but I'm beginning to think it's true for any orthodox servant under this Pope. It's not enough that Cardinal Sarah wants to serve the Church by insuring an authentic liturgy. Apparently, he must be punished for that. What a disgrace.