The National Catholic Review
Nathan D. Mitchell
In Cardinal Medina’s letter replying to the article by Bishop Donald Trautman, "Rome and ICEL" (3/4), there are some things that are new and some that are true; but not everything that is new is true and not everything that is true is new. It is new, for example, when a Roman dicastery accustomed to secret deliberations chooses to reply to an American bishop in a public forum; it is not true that Cardinal Medina’s letter answers the questions raised by Bishop Trautman.

The bishop’s article asked candid questions about several neuralgic issues, among them these:

1. If the sacramentaries of other language groups (Italian, Polish, French, German, Spanish) contain original texts not previously found in any Latin editio typica, why is there "a strong prohibition against English original compositions?"

2. If ICEL’s advisors must have a Roman dicastery’s nihil obstat, wouldn’t this requirement demean the principle of episcopal collegiality and effectively rescind the competence of episcopal conferences to regulate the liturgy in their territories, as envisioned by the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" (No. 22, 2) and Inter Oecumenici (No. 22-31)? After all, a Roman dicastery is not an episcopal conference, and presumably the pope’s "supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered" ("Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," No. 22), applies quite as much to Vatican congregations as it does to ICEL or to any individual believer or bishop. In effect, the proposed requirement for ICEL advisors would impose on episcopal conferences the obligation of seeking a nihil obstat in order to do their own work.

3. If liturgical translation is more an art than a science, can any translation in any language (including the very Latin into which the early Roman Church’s Greek liturgy was translated) ever do "full and exact justice" to the nuances, tone, form, feeling and meaning of the original?

To these concerns and questions, Cardinal Medina’s letter offers assertions, not answers. And the assertions themselves are troublingcouched in traditional language, but suggesting innovations that seem difficult to reconcile with Catholic tradition and the magisterium. For example:

1. After affirming that the "substantial unity of the Roman Rite is not impeded but enriched by the fruitful interaction...with other cultures," the letter asserts, somewhat incoherently, that "while liturgical prayer can and should be allowed to be formed by culture, one must never lose sight of the far more important fact that it must be formative of culture." But this is a red herring. If liturgical texts are already formed by culture, then, from the get-go, a liturgical text is always a site where two cultures meet and converse. Neither party to the conversation is immune from culture. That is why the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its 1993 document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Part IV, B), clearly and wisely stated, "The theological principle of inculturation is the conviction of faith that the Word of God transcends the cultures in which it has found expression and has the capability of being spread in other cultures, in such a way as to be able to reach all human beings in the cultural context in which they live." Inculturation, far from being dangerous or divisive, is a divinely willed testament to the transcendence of God’s word. Expressed in one particular culture, the word reaches out in revelation to all other cultures within a diverse humanity. The word is simultaneously inculturated and transcendent. And this transcendence leads to inclusivity, to a "universalist stance" (as the commission put it) that promises God’s blessing to all through Abraham, a blessing extended to "all nations" through the Gospel. Can Cardinal Medina’s comments on the relation between liturgical prayer and cultures be reconciled with the theological principle enunciated by the Pontifical Biblical Commission?

2. The cardinal’s letter states that "the Holy See wishes to ensure that the Commission for liturgical translations [i.e., ICEL] be in service to the Bishops’ own mission rather than viewing itself instead as an independent agent for liturgical renewal." But how could ICEL view itself as an "independent agent for liturgical renewal?" It was created by bishops, is chaired by bishops, advised and monitored by bishops; its work is vetted by bishops from 11 English-speaking conferences that stretch around the globe. The idea that ICEL is an "independent agent for liturgical renewal" is sheer fantasy, mirage. What is in question here is not ICEL’s need for revised statutes (over time, most such groups find it necessary to revise their procedures) but the more fundamental issue identified by Bishop Trautman: the continued legitimacy of episcopal conferences and the collegial character of the episcopate itself. This collegiate character is not itself created by the pope or delegated from him; it is, rather, a feature of the episcopacy as a divinely willed institution. This is precisely what is stated in a very nuanced passage of the Second Vatican Council’s "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" (No. 22): The college of bishops, the council fathers wrote, "insofar as it is composed of many members, is the expression of the multifariousness and universality of the People of God; and of the unity of the flock of Christ, insofar as it is assembled under one head. In it the bishops, while loyally respecting the primacy and pre-eminence of their head, exercise their own proper authority for the good of the faithful, indeed even for the good of the whole Church, the organic structure and harmony of which are strengthened by the continued influence of the Holy Spirit." Implicitly, it would seem, an attack on the joint action of several combined episcopal conferences, acting in collaborative communion and not in isolation from the pope, is an attack upon the very principle of collegiality and, by extension, upon the episcopate itself as a divinely willed institution. ICEL is a straw dog; the real victims are bishops.

3. Bishop Trautman’s article emphasized the importance of a working relationship between episcopal conferences and the Holy See in matters liturgicala relationship that would safeguard "both the pastoral responsibilties of the episcopal conferences in caring for the prayer of the local church, and the role of the Holy See in overseeing the liturgical life of the church throughout the world." Cardinal Medina’s response states that "the work of translation should be deeply imbued with the realization that prayer can come from the heart only after it has been received as a gift from God, through the mediation of the Church." But this comment seems to reflect an ecclesiology where bishops (and their oversight in matters liturgical) have little or no place. Such an implicit ecclesiology may be seen in a 1992 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "On Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion" (later quoted in No. 12 of Apostolos Suos, the letter issued motu proprio in 1998 by Pope John Paul II on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences). There we read that the universal church "is not the result of the communion of the churches, but in its essential mystery it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular church."

It is a bit difficult to understand exactly how the "universal church" could be "a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular church," for it would then be an utterly disembodied church without members, without liturgies, without prayer or sacramentsand hence without bishops (or the need of them). Such an "ontologically and temporally prior reality" would be a "universal church" without a historywhich may help explain why we have witnessed, over the past few months, church authorities beleaguered by a need to "confess past sins" while insisting that even if its individual members are guilty, the "church itself" remains pure and sublimely innocent of history’s burdens. The pernicious effects of such an implicit ecclesiologywhen one attempts to apply it in practiceare self-evident.

Authority without answerability is meaningless. Fueled by fear, fantasy and misinformation, stalwarts in the Roman dicasteries seem to feel they can bully both bishops and believers into submission. To what end? For what purpose? This is a strange and violent strategy in a church whose Lord is a king without a kingdom, a "potentate" without power, a condemned man who went to his torture and death protesting the pretensions of secular princes who dreamt of a power they could never have. Perhaps it’s time for our church to abandon its pretense at secular power and to seek first the reign of God and its justice. Then, perhaps, the "liturgy wars" can cease.

Nathan D. Mitchell is associate director for research at the Center for Pastoral Liturgy, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind.

Nathan D. Mitchell is associate director for research at the Center for Pastoral Liturgy, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind.