Are we looking at leeway in liturgical language?

The Sept. 9 announcement of the motu proprio Magnum Principium, changing canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law, has not generated a shortage of comments and commentaries, not in the least on social media. Some bluntly said that the new English translation of the Roman Missal can simply be substituted with the old translation. That is not how the new canon 838 reads. Others believed that Pope Francis moved the authority to approve translations of liturgical texts into the vernacular completely to episcopal conferences. That too is incorrect.

It is therefore important to clarify a few elementary points to avoid further confusion. Of course the text of the motu proprio is the first point of reference. However, a letter by Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, gives some background to understand the revision, and another unsigned text — probably also from Archbishop Roche — sheds some further light on the canon.

Not a revolution

First of all, the new or revised canon does not have the force of law yet: such will happen on Oct. 1. Until such moment, the current version of the canon still applies. That is a basic principle of law. Moreover, when the new canon obtains the force of law, it is a utopia to think that we would see a new English translation of the Roman Missal. From a merely economic point of view, such is simply not realistic.

Canon 838 has four paragraphs. Only two of them are changed. Some have interpreted these changes as a decentralization of Church authority, moving some authority in liturgical matters away from the Apostolic See and entrusting that to episcopal conferences. But is that truly the case? And is the process now becoming much easier?

Let us be clear: The intervention of the Apostolic See on translations of liturgical books in the vernacular does not disappear. That would have been a revolution. What happens instead is this. In the second paragraph of the original canon, the reference to translations of liturgical books into the vernacular disappears. The revised second paragraph still holds that the Apostolic See orders the sacred liturgy and publishes liturgical books. Any adaptations approved by episcopal conferences according to the norm of law still require recognitio of the Apostolic See.

In other words, nothing changes with regard to that point, and the same standard of review continues to apply for these actions. In addition, the Apostolic See is to continue to exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.

Roles and responsibilities

The third paragraph of the revised canon deals now exclusively with translations of liturgical books into the vernacular. The changes go both ways. Episcopal conferences are to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books into the vernacular. The addition of the word “faithfully” is new, and is a clear reference to the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam (the 2001 Vatican document guiding liturgical translations), as was confirmed by Archbishop Roche. That requirement was not included in the earlier version of canon 838 §3.

How then does the role of the Apostolic See in the process of realizing translations of liturgical books into the vernacular change? The wording “review of the Apostolic See” is now replaced with “approval of the Apostolic See.” The document signed by Archbishop Roche attempts to clarify this: the role of the Apostolic See is not to be considered as an alternative in the process of translation, but it is an act by which the competent dicastery, having positively evaluated the fidelity and congruence of the texts that are produced in the vernacular. In plain language: the role of the Apostolic See is not to intervene during the translation process and to impose translations, but to evaluate the work after it is done and to intervene if necessary by not giving the approval.

Realistic expectations

Can we just go back to the old English translation of the Roman Missal after the motu proprio Magnum Principium, as some have suggested? The answer is no: the new English translation of the Roman Missal, approved in 2011, was duly promulgated and is the norm, thereby abrogating any previous translations. The new canon clearly states that it pertains to episcopal conferences to prepare translations of liturgical texts in the vernacular and that it is for Rome to confirm such translations. The old translation is gone, and would have to go through another approval process before it can be used again.

When it comes to sacred liturgy, only the Apostolic See, episcopal conferences, and the diocesan bishop have authority according to the norm of law. Pastors and other priests need to follow the properly approved liturgical books and have no right per canon 838 to change the liturgy. The people of God has the right to expect that.

Kurt Martens is doctor in canon law and ordinary professor at the School of Canon Law of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.