WASHINGTON — When Pope Francis altered the sensitive process of approving liturgical translations with the Sept. 9 release of his apostolic letter Magnum Principium (The Great Principle), some headlines predicted a return to the “liturgy wars” of the late 20th century.

But Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), quickly directed members to withhold all public comment on Magnum Principium until the relevant U.S. bishops’ committees could study the document.

And even after Pope Francis and Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, appeared to clash over the scope of the changes introduced in Magnum Principium, the USCCB took its time to issue its own judgment.

Finally, toward the close of 2017, the conference leadership signaled that the practical outcome of Magnum Principium, which the Pope issued motu proprio (of his own accord), would be limited in the U.S, at least for the present.

“Implications of Magnum Principium for Liturgical Translations,” a seven-point memo developed by the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship and the USCCB Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, concludes that the papal document does not mandate a reassessment of previous translations approved by the U.S. bishops. The memo also makes clear that the motu proprio, while requiring changes to the process of approving texts submitted by bishops’ conferences, does not constitute a break with Liturgiam Authenticam, Pope St. John Paul II’s 2001 instruction that called for a more literal and faithful translation of Latin texts than had been the case in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

“The motu proprio is not retroactive and … approved translations remain in force,” read the first statement in the memo, which was published in the December 2017 newsletter of the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship.

And contrary to some speculation that the bishops might reconsider approved translations of the Roman Missal, the report affirmed the conference’s “right to propose revisions to the translation of the missal,” but signaled that such a process would be laborious and unlikely.

“If the conference were to vote to proceed with a revision,” it stated, “including an agreement as to the scope and budget for such a project, this would then require either a change to the current strategic plan or its inclusion in a future strategic plan.”

Of equal significance, the USCCB memo rejected any suggestion that Liturgiam Authenticam was no longer relevant.

Magnum Principium makes it clear that new liturgical translations must be ‘faithful’ to the Latin text,” the memo continued.

“[T]he principles of translation outlined in the instruction [Liturgiam Authenticam] remain in force, although the responsibility to determine what is appropriate and possible in the local vernacular falls more clearly on the local episcopal conference.”


Archbishop Cordileone

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, told the Register that Pope Francis’ decision to limit the Holy See’s involvement in the translation process will, in the case of English-speaking countries, put more weight on the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), which was formed in 1963 and will continue to prepare the translations for the bishops’ review.

“The Holy See will be less actively involved in the exercise of its authority with regard to approving translations of liturgical texts prepared by conferences of bishops,” said Archbishop Cordileone.

“For English-speaking countries, the relationship with ICEL will be more important. ICEL will still coordinate the work of the member bishops’ conferences in translating liturgical texts, but the member conferences will now have more latitude to make their own modifications.

“Practically speaking, that would be the most notable difference.”

Father Andrew Menke, the executive director of the USCCB Secretariat of Divine Worship, echoed this assessment, while adopting a cautious tone.

“It seems that the bishops can expect that the collaboration with the Holy See in the approval process for liturgical translations will be smoother and easier, though on a practical level there shouldn’t be significant changes in the actual translation process,” Father Menke told the Register.

When Magnum Principium was released in September, canonists highlighted an important change in the process: Now, the Holy See will simply confirm or reject a proposed liturgical translation, once it has been approved by the relevant bishops’ conference with a two-thirds majority.

In contrast, Liturgiam Authenticam directed the bishops’ conferences to submit the proposed texts for the Holy See’s recognitio — a comprehensive process of review that could involve a staggered series of submissions from the conferences and corrections generated by Rome.

Magnum Principium altered Canon 838, which now reads as follows: “It pertains to the conferences of bishops to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See” (3).

The other modified passage, in Canon 838 (2), affirms the Holy See’s right to “recognize adaptations approved by conferences of bishops according to the norm of law and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.”

Liturgical adaptations involve proposed introduction of specific cultural gestures or actions into the liturgy, and for the U.S., this could involve services designed for ethnic communities.


The Memo’s Context

The USCCB’s memo was attributed to Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, and Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, then chairman of the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, both of whom issued a joint response to Magnum Principium in a letter dated Nov. 3, 2017, and presented at the U.S. bishops’ meeting that month in Baltimore.

The memo was designed to formally clarify the practical impact of Magnum Principium on the U.S.-based translation process, following the document’s release and the very public debate it set off at the highest levels of the Holy See.

While initial news reports on Magnum Principium suggested that the Pope had effectively reversed Liturgiam Authenticam, a subsequent commentary linked to Cardinal Sarah challenged that assertion.

Meanwhile, press reports raised questions about the fact that another official document — designed to clarify the intent of the motu proprio and released by the Holy See at the same time — was signed by Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, not Cardinal Sarah.

Then, in a letter dated Oct. 15, Pope Francis publicly rebuked the prefect, rejecting comments about the motu proprio that were attributed to the prefect.

In his letter, the Pope said that bishops’ conferences had now been given the faculty of “judging the goodness and consistency of one and the other term in the translations from the original, in dialogue with the Holy See.”

The USCCB memo based its own conclusion on the documents released by the Holy See: Magnum Principium itself; Archbishop Roche’s commentary, described by the Holy See as a “key to reading the motu proprio”; the Pope’s Oct. 15 letter to Cardinal Sarah; and, finally, a letter issued by Montfort Missionary Father Corrado Maggioni, undersecretary of the Congregation of Divine Worship, and sent to the presidents of all the conferences of bishops.

Dated Sept. 26, 2017, Father Maggioni’s letter echoed the Pope’s wishes for “a constant collaboration full of mutual respect, vigilance and creativity.” However, Father Maggioni also stressed that “the new norms … underscore the grave task of fidelity in translating texts for liturgical prayer that belongs to the bishops, who must guarantee the unity of the Church that celebrates the mystery of Christ.”


Seeking ‘Faithful’ Translations

The USCCB report incorporated Father Maggioni’s letter in full. Its prominence communicated that the U.S. bishops share the Pope’s desire for a fruitful dialogue between the Holy See and their conferences, as well as a commitment to the “faithful” translation of liturgical texts.

Liturgiam Authenticam emphasized the need for fidelity to the Latin, along with the need to make the translation intelligible” in the vernacular language, said Archbishop Cordileone.

With Magnum Principium, the insertion of the term fideliter, in Canon 838 (3), “was important for the Holy See, since it will not be actively involved with the bishops’ conferences in preparing liturgical translations,” said the San Francisco archbishop.

“This means that the bishops’ conferences will have to exercise extra caution when overseeing the translation of liturgical texts to make sure the translation faithfully conforms to the Latin text.”

For now, those who specialize in liturgical matters are waiting to see how the new translation process plays out over the next couple of years.

“It may take time for the opinions and questions to settle before we find out what it means,” Chris Carstens, editor of Adoremus Bulletin, a publication dedicated to the renewal of traditional liturgy, told the Register. “The clarifications from Rome were confusing.”

That said, analysts were quick to point out that the “Order of Baptism of Children,” the first text submitted to the U.S. bishops following the release of the Pope’s motu proprio, was promptly approved by them during their November assembly. “After hearing the report of the two committees on the impact of Magnum Principium, the full body of bishops immediately voted their approval of the new translation of the ‘Order of Baptism of Children,’ even though that translation was prepared before Magnum Principium was issued,” said Father Menke.


What’s in Store

Looking ahead, U.S. Church leaders and experts suggest that the long-term impact of Pope Francis’ motu proprio will hinge on the work of the ICEL and its relationship to the USCCB and the 10 other full members of the commission, including Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Scotland and South Africa.

Father Maggioni’s letter underscored the Holy See’s ongoing support for a unified approach to English translations when possible, and the ICEL will play a pivotal role in sustaining that goal. Down the road, some English-speaking bishops’ conferences could decide to part ways with the ICEL and choose not to use its translations.

But Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar for canonical services in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, believes the USCCB’s relationship with the ICEL will have staying power. “I do not anticipate a break in the relationship,” Father Fox told the Register. “It has a long history.” Then, he issued one caveat: “What could disrupt the relationship would be a more fundamental break because of ideological perspectives diverging.”

Archbishop Cordielone, for his part, predicted that the liturgical translations now in use across the United States will likely remain unchallenged for many decades to come.

But, eventually, a push to revise the translations will come “because language evolves and changes,” he said, while adding that he expected no such action “within our lifetime.”

“As long as we have liturgy in the vernacular, we will always have issues with liturgical translations,” he concluded. “This will not change until the Lord returns.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.