Oct 24, 2011

A great unwelcoming

The disagreement over the new Roman Catholic Missal is set up like this: concerns about theology vs. pastoral concerns.

There's a great middle of Catholics who don't care or are unaware of the pending changes, and then two sides, one supporting and one opposing the new Missal, which will replace the Missal put in place by Vatican II. This is how the sides have been constructed. This is how news accounts of the upcoming changes have presented the disagreement, and how the sides of the disagreement each present themselves.

An illustration from the new Roman Catholic Missal
Bishop Donald Trautman takes the pastoral side, for example, arguing:
"[T]he translation of the new Missal has intentionally employed a 'sacred language,' which tends to be remote from everyday speech and frequently not understandable.... While the translated texts of the new Missal must be accurate and faithful to the Latin original, they must also be intelligible, proclaimable, and grammatically correct. Regrettably the new translation fails in this regard.
"Did Jesus ever speak to the people of his day in words beyond their comprehension?"
Anthony Esolen, in First Things, takes the other side, accusing the translators of the currently in-use English-language Missal of Orwellianisms, and of producing a "thin, pedestrian, and often misleading version" of Catholic prayers. Esolen writes:
"They ignored the poetry. They severed thought from thought. They rendered concrete words, or abstract words with concrete substrates, as generalities. They eliminated most of the sense of the sacred. They quietly filed words like 'grace' down the memory hole. They muffled the word of God. They did not translate .... Those Catholics who grumble about the new translation without looking at the Latin have no idea how much has been lost to us English speakers these last forty years." (Emphasis original).
As US Today summarized:
"Much of the debate within the church is over whether the changes, ordered by the Vatican to achieve more literal translations from the Latin, are good or bad.

"Proponents say the new version is a more precise reflection of the original Latin. They say it is richer in its poetry, more reverent in its references to God and fuller in its allusions to the Bible and church creeds.

"Critics ... call the new version rigidly literal -- difficult for priests to recite and lay people to understand."
This positioning of the sides, however, doesn't explain some of the changes.

It also might obscure the deeper argument going on, the struggle which is the context for the new missal.

The new Missal, for example, contains a different translation of the Nicean creed, so that English-speaking Catholics will now use the word "consubstantial" to describe the relationship of Jesus and the Father. This replaces the current phrasing, "of one Being." This fits the way the two sides of the debate are positioned: the theological side says "consubstantial" is a more accurate translation from the Latin, and is more nuanced, and a better expression of the doctrine; the other side says priests and laypeople alike are going to stumble over the word and struggle with it, and the belief is being made less clear by the use of the weird word.

One might have thought the two sides could just compromise with the phrasing used by Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians, saying, "of one substance" (this is, after all, the definition of "consubstantial"), but, nevertheless, the two sides make sense with regards to the re-phrasing of the creed.

However, the new Missal also re-introduces a prayer of penitence. Before receiving communion, starting next month, Catholics will say, "my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault," hitting themselves in the chest three times as they say it. This is the mea culpa, a classic Christian confession of sin, a taking-on of responsibility for the death of Jesus.

It doesn't seem like this change can be explained by the paradigm set-up to explain the sides supporting and opposing the new Missal. It can't be argued, surely, that modern people just won't understand the words here. It's not confusing; it's pretty simple. In the same way, though, this change isn't an "improved translation," since the phrase just doesn't exist in the current English-language Mass, nor can it really be argued that this is a theological subtlety and nuance not present in the Vatican II version of the Mass.

This change doesn't fit the set-up explaining the disagreement.

It makes more sense, however, if we think of the new Missal in the context of Pope Benedict XVI's repeated arguments that it would be better to have a smaller, more pure church. The mea culpa isn't hard to understand, but does represent the kind of devotion that's off-putting to many moderate Catholics, and is exactly the kind of practice many of the more conservative Catholics in America feel is absolutely vital to Catholic purity.

Benedict's attacks on secularism have gotten more attention, but he's also consistently pushed for a more rigid orthodoxy, a more rigorous Catholicism, and seems to want a "winnowing" of the church.

In Germany, just recently, for example, he criticized "believers who's life of faith is 'routine,' and who regard the Church merely as an institution." He called for a renewal of faith, which, in the context of the speech, seemed to mean an increased stridency in opposition to liberalization and secularity.

As far back as 1997, he was talking about the Church becoming, again, like a little mustard seed, a "little community of believers."

The Vatican Insider noted that making this happen has been a main goal for the Pope: "From the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict XVI's focus, has been on pushing Christians who say they are Catholic not to be more Catholic but truly Catholic."

Given this context -- and it is Benedict who asked for the new Missal -- I have to wonder if those who have pastoral concerns about the new Missal aren't missing the point. Bishop Trautman and others worry the changes will be difficult for American Catholics, but that doesn't seem to be an unintended consequence as much as it is the actual intention of the thing. However refined this Missal is, in its theology, its poetry, it's also a great unwelcoming. The new Missal a signal, it seems to me, that being Catholic should be hard, Catholic language should be odd to the modern ear, unweildy to the tongue, and that the Church will be, now, less open, less accepting, less accommodating than it has been for the last half-century.

The Missal's difficulty is perhaps better understood as purposefully off-putting to the Catholics that conservative Catholics would like to see less of. The changes may make the Mass more Latin, and give it more poetry, more theological depth, but it's also designed to keep some people out of church, to purify, in Benedict's terms, and constrict the church to the so-called "good Catholics."

It's the same move one sees with talk of church dress codes. To object that imposing such standards might make some feel unwelcome is to completely miss that this, is, actually, the goal.

Update: Bryan Cones, at U.S. Catholic, suggests, interestingly, that the real issue with the Missal is whether it even really matters:
"The big question left unanswered--even unasked--is whether these translations will make any difference in the lives of the faithful; my suspicion is that the answer is no, which is why 75 percent of US Catholics haven't bothered to disturb themselves about it."