Survey says: Split persists over new translation

To the traditional list of “marks” of the Church — one, holy, catholic, apostolic — experience over the past half-century suggests it may be time to add one more: split over the liturgy. If it does nothing else, a new study provides an update illustrating that.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Church-related research agency at Georgetown University, opposition to the new English translation of the Mass that existed among some priests before it went into effect in 2011 still persists.

But the same survey suggests that although many pastors are cool to the translation, lay parish leaders generally favor it. Of the 444 clergy respondents — 421 diocesan or religious order priests and 13 permanent deacons — 52 percent say they “don’t like” the new texts. Among the 75 “lay” leaders — who included 57 women and 18 men — 59 percent like them.

Early response

In a Twitter comment, CARA also recalled an earlier survey finding that 84 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly agreed the translation was a good thing (47 percent “strongly” agreed). Among those who seldom or never attend Mass, 63 percent agreed (4 percent “strongly”). That earlier poll was conducted in September 2012, with the translation in use a little less than a year.

The research agency pointed out that in its new survey of parish leaders (overwhelmingly priests), 42 percent of the respondents said they like the new translation.

The new findings are part of an ongoing CARA project surveying attitudes in U.S. parishes. Questions in the latest survey about the translation of the Mass were commissioned by a client with a particular interest in the translation issue — the School of Theology-Seminary of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The manner in which the survey was conducted indicates the limited scope of its findings. Of the 6,000 randomly selected parishes to which CARA last fall sent invitations for the pastor or other parish leader to participate, only 539 sent responses — a 10 percent response rate among functioning parishes, with a sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percent.

More importantly, the 421 priests who answered CARA’s questions make up a notably small fraction of the approximately 39,000 priests in the country. All of them, furthermore, are “parish leaders” — pastors, that is. CARA puts the sampling error for them at plus or minus 4.6 percent.

Adding context

History sheds some additional light on the responses. The project of preparing a new English translation of the Mass was opposed from the start by some priests and liturgists, many of them active in the years immediately after Vatican II when vernacular translations of the Mass first came into use. Having labored back then to win acceptance for the new liturgy, the critics were apparently distressed at the prospect of having their handiwork undone 40 years later.

When queried, CARA said data from the new survey exist to show whether a priest-respondent was active in the post-Vatican II era or was ordained some time after that. But the research agency said it couldn’t release that information without its client’s OK.

As for the “lay parish leaders,” the survey counts religious sisters and religious brothers as “lay” — correct in terms of canon law (which divides members of the Church into two basic categories, clerics and non-clerics or laity), but is hardly what most people mean when they speak of the laity. The very small number of respondents in this category — only 75 — causes the sampling error to shoot up to a hefty plus or minus 11.3 percent. In practical terms, what all this means is these survey findings, though undoubtedly indicators of continuing disagreement over liturgy translations, can’t be taken as reliable measures of the extent of the disagreement. Vatican II in its constitution on the liturgy gave its blessing to at least some use of vernacular languages in the Mass and other rites, but after the council this was soon expanded in English-speaking countries to the almost universal use of English. The English translation of the Latin text of the Mass that was introduced in 1970 is now widely viewed as a hurry-up job leaving much to be desired.

Text translation

The translation of liturgical texts for English-speaking countries is handled by a group called the International Commission on English in the Liturgy with headquarters in Washington, D.C. ICEL translations are subject to approval by the national conferences of bishops and, ultimately, the Holy See.

In May 2001 the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a document titled Liturgiam Authenticam (“Authentic Liturgy”) setting out new, significantly different norms for the translation of the Church’s Latin-language liturgy texts into vernacular languages including English. The idea was to stick closer to the Latin while aiming for a more elevated, spiritual tone.

“The translation of the liturgical texts is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately,” the document said.

Insights on the thinking that lay behind Liturgiam Authenticam were offered last February at a symposium in Rome by Cardinal George Pell. The cardinal is a member of the eight-member Council of Cardinals established by Pope Francis as his special advisors and heads the new Secretariat for the Economy created by the pope to oversee Vatican finances. He also has headed Vox Clara, a group that assists the Vatican’s liturgy congregation with English translations.

Speaking of the post-Vatican II translations as a whole, not just the English ones, Cardinal Pell said: “Vague, imprecise, ideological, and at times quirky translations that astonishingly moved away from biblical language have for almost two generations hindered effective catechesis in some important language areas. Beautiful and ancient prayers that are a synthesis of the spiritual doctrine and teaching of the Fathers of the Church, with deep biblical roots, were lost to view, and this in the middle of an unprecedented religious crisis.”

“How very sad,” he added.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.