The nation's Catholic bishops will address many social controversies at their meeting in Baltimore this week. But the topic with the greatest potential for conflict among them is a new translation of the Mass.
They will vote on a pastoral letter on marriage that explains church opposition to artificial contraception, cohabitation and gay marriage. They are expected to approve an easy-to-read pamphlet explaining church opposition to technologies that aid conception. They're also updating directives on the tube-feeding of incapacitated people. While they may debate how best to make those points, they are points the bishops agree on.
What divides them is a new translation of the Mass that has been in the works for years. Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie has led the charge against what he sees as a "slavish" rendering of Latin into convoluted, ungrammatical English.
"American Catholics have every right to expect a translation of the new missal to follow the rules for English grammar. But this violates English syntax in the most egregious way," he said.
The bishops didn't write it. Rome requires one international committee to translate for each major language, and this text is intended to serve nations as diverse as Ireland and Pakistan. The bishops can propose amendments, but Vatican officials have final say over the text.
In 2001, the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments published Liturgiam Authenticam, new rules for translation. It stressed faithfulness to fourth-century Latin texts that were translations from Greek, Hebrew and other languages. It encouraged a special vocabulary for prayer that differed from everyday speech.
"Thus it may happen that a certain manner of speech which has come to be considered somewhat obsolete in daily usage may continue to be maintained in the liturgical context," it said.
Bishop Trautman, a biblical scholar and a past president of the bishops' committees on doctrine and liturgy, has been the most vocal critic of the resulting translations. The bishops have already approved most of the new Mass. The last few parts -- mostly prayers for saints days -- are now up for a vote.
Bishop Trautman's objections aren't to the most recent changes but to the tone of the entire translation. He wants the bishops to reject at least one set of translations this week, then send a high-level delegation to Rome to work out revisions throughout the Mass.
"This is our last chance to raise these issues and talk about them. But the parliamentary laws probably won't allow us to get at the heart of the issue [in Baltimore], because we can only discuss and debate the four items before us," he said.
In a recent lecture at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., he cited examples of mangled English.
A Lenten prayer says, "May we bring before you as the fruit of bodily penance a cheerful purity of mind."
A current Easter prayer says, "Almighty and eternal God, for the glory of your name fulfill the promise you made long ago to men and women of faith, to bless them with descendents forever. Increase your adopted children throughout the world, that your Church may see accomplished the salvation which those saints of old so firmly expected."
The new version is, "Almighty everlasting God, for the honor of your name, surpass what you pledged to the faith of the Patriarchs, and by sacred adoption increase the children of promise so that your Church may now see abundantly fulfilled what the holy ones of old never doubted would come to pass."
"If you just read them silently, it isn't so bad. But, if you read it out loud, it's hard to understand," Bishop Trautman said.
He already has lost arguments against changing the Nicene Creed's declaration that Jesus is "of one being with the Father" into "consubstantial with the Father." His focus now is on an issue that any parochial school student should understand: poor grammar and syntax.
Latin has sentences without subjects, so the literal translation has produced fragments rather than sentences. A "sentence" for Lent says, "Who, after he told the disciples of his coming death, manifested his glory to them on the holy mountain to show, as the law and the prophets also bear witness, that the path of suffering leads to the glory of the resurrection."
In the Nicene Creed, the current "we believe" will become "I believe." Bishop Trautman objects that the original Greek says "we believe." But his focus now is on the fact that "I believe" is said once at the beginning of the creed, without repeating it for each article of faith. When the U.S. bishops inserted three more "I believe" statements for clarity and good grammar, Vatican officials removed them.
The Vatican liturgy office is run by a Spaniard who speaks no English, although one of his top aides is American. Bishop Trautman noted that the new Spanish Mass has all the repetitions of "I believe" that were cut from the English Mass.
Not every bishop shares his concerns. The new Mass has strong defenders, such as Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, who believe it will introduce a new generation to a lost spiritual vocabulary. Others believe that the texts aren't bad enough to cause a crisis or that there are better ways of winning Vatican cooperation than lambasting the proposed prayers in public.
Bishop David Zubik said he respects Bishop Trautman's scholarship, but finds the new translations acceptable.
"This has been in discussion for the better part of a dozen years," he said. "You're never going to have a perfect package. ... I think some of the translations are beautiful. There are others that I might not particularly like, but I would have to say that I find the majority of them meaty, thought-provoking and coming from the heart."
Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphian who talks with bishops for his blog, "Whispers In the Loggia," said many who share Bishop Trautman's opinion believe his tactics may backfire.
"I'm not sure there will be a floor fight," he said. "Rome has shown a willingness, if the conference has passed the texts, to be considerate of amendments that the bishops want. That strategy of collaboration has a much better chance of working."
But Bishop Trautman believes it's irresponsible to approve prayers that people can't easily commit to heart. If these prayers are used in parishes, he said, "I think there will be fewer people coming to Eucharist."
He's been getting e-mails from Catholics dismayed at the examples they found on a Web site that the bishops set up to prepare Catholics for the new Mass: www.usccb.org/romanmissal.
"I've got Ph.D.s, monks, parish priests, everyone writing and asking me to please do something about this," he said.
"We need to stand up. We still have a chance."
Ann Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1416.