Magnum Principium: A US Perspective

Pope Francis expands the U.S. bishops’ role in the preparation of liturgical translations, but canonists challenge the suggestion that Rome will rubber-stamp proposed text.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Santa Marta Chapel at the Vatican Sept. 18. The Holy Father’s Sept. 9 apostolic letter gives bishops’ conferences the
authority to approve changes to liturgical practices.
Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Santa Marta Chapel at the Vatican Sept. 18. The Holy Father’s Sept. 9 apostolic letter gives bishops’ conferences the authority to approve changes to liturgical practices. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON — Initial media reports on the release of an apostolic letter by Pope Francis touted the move to give more responsibility to bishops’ conferences as a “reversal” of his predecessors’ policies and a signal that the “decentralization” of the Roman Curia was gaining traction.

However, several U.S.-based canon lawyers contacted by the Register assert a more nuanced take on Magnum Principium, Pope Francis’ document, issued motu proprio (of the Pope’s own accord), Sept. 9. They also questioned whether its specific modification of Canon 838 would necessarily have any impact on the English-language translations that ground the celebration of the liturgy in the United States.

While Pope Francis has reduced the Holy See’s role in the translation process, the canonists note that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments still holds the authority to bar problematic translations — the central question, they note, is whether that power will be exercised.

“The change in Canon 838 seems to be a balanced change,” Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.

Martens also contends that it is “incorrect to state that Pope Francis decentralized the translation process and made the episcopal conferences competent. They were already competent to do so.”

“The role of the Apostolic See does not disappear,” he said. “What is clarified is that the Apostolic See intervenes at the end of the translation process and that the translation work is first done and coordinated by episcopal conferences.”

Canonists and Church watchers agree that the most important change is the new requirement that the Holy See confirm or reject the proposed liturgical translations after the bishops’ conference approves it with a two-thirds majority. Previously, Pope St. John Paul II’s 2001 instruction on liturgical translations, Liturgiam Authenticam, directed the bishops’ conferences to submit the proposed texts for the Holy See’s review or recognitio — a comprehensive process that could involve a staggered series of submissions from the conferences and corrections generated by Rome.

Canon 838 (§3) previously read as follows: “It pertains to the conferences of bishops to prepare and publish, after the prior review of the Holy See, translations of liturgical books in vernacular languages, adapted appropriately within the limits defined in the liturgical books themselves.”

It now reads: “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.”

The other modified passage in Canon 838 (§2) upholds 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.”

Adaptations refer to the proposed introduction of specific cultural gestures or actions into the liturgy, usually in mission lands, but also in other specific settings, such as U.S. liturgies expressly designed for ethnic communities.

Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, an assistant professor of canon law at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, said Rome “is signaling that it will take a less active role in the process of translations, but not adaptations.”

“Allowing ritual adaptations, like the rosary lasso commonly used in Hispanic and Filipino weddings, will still involve the recognition, as opposed to the confirmation, of the Holy See,” he told the Register.

Father Pietrzyk, an editor of The Angelicum, the scholarly journal of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, explained the distinction between the canonical terms used to provide a framework for the Holy See’s review of proposed translations under Liturgiam Authenticam, John Paul II’s 2001 instruction, and now under Pope Francis’ apostolic letter.

“In the canonical jurisprudence of the Apostolic See, both a recognition (recognitio) and a confirmation (confirmatio) imply that the approval of the Apostolic See is required,” said Father Pietrzyk. “The difference is that recognition has developed to mean a much more active involvement of the Apostolic See in the process of development, revision and approval.”

A confirmation, on the other hand, implies a much more limited role — just giving or denying approval, he added, in a reference to the term the motu proprio uses to define Rome’s new role in the approval of liturgical translations.

That said, he noted that a refusal to confirm a text “would still obligate the Apostolic See to provide at least a summary reason for the denial.”

Then, stepping back from the fine points of canon law, Father Pietrzyk made a larger point: What really matters now — as in the past — is not a small change to canon law, but “how actively involved the congregation will be going forward.”

Canonists also note that the motu proprio calls for bishops’ conferences “to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages.” The insertion of the word “faithfully,” they suggest, refers to a key priority of Liturgiam Authenticam and offers further assurance that Pope Francis does not seek to reverse, but confirm, that instruction’s guiding principles.

Further, analysts said that the publication of Magnum Principium would not disrupt the ongoing work of translating Latin liturgical texts into the English language.

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, formed in 1963, will continue to prepare the translations, and the bishops’ conferences will approve or amend them before they are submitted to Rome.

However, some specialists acknowledged that any decision to modify Canon 838 raises additional questions for canonists and Church leaders, because any change to the Code of Canon Law reflects a shift in the Church’s authoritative interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

“The Code of Canon Law looks at what the Second Vatican Council did, how it was implemented, and says, ‘This is the law,’” Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register, referencing the 1983 document of ecclesiastical laws that replaced the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Pope St. John Paul II stated in promulgating the law, “In a certain sense, this new code could be understood as a great effort to translate this same doctrine, that is, the conciliar ecclesiology, into canonical language.”

“The revised code approved by John Paul II foresaw changes to translations by Rome,” said Father Fox.

Now, Pope Francis has shifted the initial responsibility for liturgical translation from the Holy See to the bishops’ conferences. “Magnum Principium represents a different interpretation of the Second Vatican Council,” Fox added.

Indeed, after the document was published Sept. 9, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago underscored this point.

“Pope Francis is giving in this document an authoritative interpretation of the Council as it relates to the responsibilities of bishops for the liturgical life of the Church,” Cardinal Cupich told America magazine.

But if Magnum Principium is perceived as one element of a broader reinterpretation of the Council’s teaching on sacred worship, then it could spark more intense scrutiny beyond the ranks of canon lawyers and stir deep concern from Church leaders and liturgists who embrace Liturgiam Authenticam’s commitment to translations that hew closely to the original Latin text.

Father Fox expressed his strong hope that the motu proprio would not prompt a revival of the so-called “liturgy wars” and related conflicts over translations of the new Roman Missal. The updated translation of the missal was finally approved in 2010, after Rome scrapped an earlier text submitted by the English-speaking Churches.

 “At this point, I have more questions than comments,” Chris Carstens, editor of Adoremus Bulletin, dedicated to the renewal of traditional Liturgy, told the Register, as he pondered the ripple of effects of any change in Rome’s handling of proposed translations.

Carstens, who is also the director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, wants to better understand how the U.S. bishops’ expanded role would likely alter the translation process in the future, as national episcopal conferences within the English-speaking world reconsider language deemed more accessible to the faithful in specific countries.

In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council Fathers expressed their desire to “promote union” and “to adapt when possible to the needs of a particular people,” he said.

“The instruction Liturgicam Authenticam, while obviously looking to particular language groups, has a strong sense of unity, both in its principles and its translation process,” Carstens said. “In clarifying the role and responsibility of the bishops’ conferences, Magnum Principium emphasizes the Council’s aim of adaptation rather than union.”

The question now is how the bishops’ conferences will maintain a “healthy tension” between translations deemed more accessible to U.S. Catholics and “unity” within the entire Church, said Carstens.   

For now, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has delayed any official comment on Magnum Principium. And after the Register repeatedly contacted the USCCB for comment, the conference provided an emailed statement that said there would be no comment until Church leaders had sufficient time to “study the legislation enacted by Pope Francis.”

“This study will help the bishops understand the ways it might affect their procedures for the preparation and evaluation of liturgical texts,” read the statement signed by Father Andrew Menke, the executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship. “Until then, we aren’t in a position to offer any comments on the motu proprio or to speculate as to its ramifications.”

The initially cautious response from the U.S. bishops’ conference underscores an additional point: Magnum Principium will increase pressure on bishops’ conferences to resolve future translation disputes to secure the required level of consensus from the conference membership before submission of the translation to the Holy See.

While some analysts view the U.S. bishops as more united in their acceptance of Liturgiam Authenticam’s fidelity to the original Latin text than they were at the time of its publication, their expanded role in the translation process could generate fissures within the conference. The two-thirds majority now required to send a translation to the Holy See for final confirmation is a high bar.

“Some are of the view that the [prior approach] made it easier for bishops to approve documents, despite problems, because ‘Rome will fix it,’” said Father Pietrzyk. “Now they can’t rely on Rome to fix it, and I would guess that bishops will review the text more carefully before it goes to Rome.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.