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Vatican rejects obscuring male, female terms in translations

Thursday, May 10, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In what amounts to a victory for Catholic conservatives the Vatican has laid down new rules that repudiate the efforts of U.S. bishops to provide liturgical and biblical texts that are more friendly to women.

The new rules -- called "Authentic Liturgy" -- favor literal translations of the original Latin, Greek and Hebrew texts and strongly discourage rendering the word traditionally translated as "man" into "humanity" or "men and women" as is sometimes done.

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Text of the Vatican document


The document also asserts Vatican control over a translation committee that English-speaking bishops rely on for liturgical texts. Some conservatives have accused the committee of injecting feminism into the liturgy.

Liturgical texts should not be "overly servile" to "prevailing modes of expression," the document said, adding that if church language differs from everyday speech, it becomes special and memorable.

U.S. bishops have never advocated gender-neutral terms for God or Jesus. But in 1990 they adopted principles that called for gender-inclusive references to mixed groups of human beings. "Brothers" could become "brothers and sisters." Singular pronouns could be made plural so that "Let him who has ears listen" could become "Let those who have ears listen."

In fact, over the past five to 10 years, English-language translations of the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II have stopped using the collective term "man" and changed it to "men and women."

But the rules have not been clear until now and a logjam of liturgical documents that the Vatican had declined to approve has built up over the last 10 years.

"It is now our hope and expectation that there will be a much quicker approval of liturgical texts," said Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops."

But Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, who led the fight for gender-inclusive language several years ago, was not pleased.

"I would have preferred that there would have been consultation on the document with the different bishops' conferences throughout the world. There was no consultation that I know of," he said.

The document centralizes the translation process in Rome, rather than allowing bishops to make decisions about what works best in their own languages and cultures, he said.

Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, who has been a strong advocate of many gender-inclusive translation principles that the new document -- called Liturgiam Authenticam in Latin -- rejects, was in Rome and could not be reached for comment.

The chairman of the bishops' Committee on Liturgy, Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., said the guidelines were consistent with what the Vatican congregation has been saying for years.

"It does not break any substantially new ground. It repeats the guiding criterion of literalness," said Lipscomb, who emphasized that he spoke only for himself since his committee had not discussed it.

The document replaces all previous missives on liturgical translation, except for one released by the same office in 1994. It was issued Tuesday, while nearly all of the Vatican press corps was in Malta.

The document rejects two translations now in use at Mass. The proper response to "The Lord be with you" must be "And with your spirit," not "And also with you." The congregation must begin the creed with "I believe" not "We believe."

Lipscomb viewed those as minor changes and said he could not speculate on how long it would take to implement them. The document says that previously approved texts can be used for now, but there must be a plan to overhaul them.

The document says it "envisions and seeks to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal." It also aims to "provide stability in the life of the church."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, the Jesuit editor of the Catholic magazine America, believes it is likely to achieve the opposite.

"They just threw out 30 years of practice, and all of the other norms, and put this in instead. I think it's a disaster," said Reese, who weighs in on the moderately liberal side of church issues.

"There are some right-wing Catholics who have complained to Rome and who have done an end run around the bishops' conference. I think there is some real paranoia in the Vatican about radical feminists somehow taking over the church, so that anything that looks like it's responding to the concerns of women about inclusive language, they see as dangerous."

One of those conservative activists is the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit and editor of Ignatius Press.

Fessio has led the fight against inclusive language and some other contemporary translations.

"It's being said by some that this is Rome interfering with the U.S. bishops and the scholars in the United States. But ... the fact is that there are bishops who have differing views and scholars who have differing views. When that happens, Rome is a proper forum for a decision between the competing views."

Many points in the document echo past criticisms that the Vatican made of proposed English texts. For instance, it says that Latin capitalization of significant religious words should be retained. In 1998 the bishops were told that they must capitalize words such as "Blood" and "Passion" in texts that refer to Jesus.

The document also warns, "In particular: to be avoided is the systematic resort to imprudent solutions such as a mechanical substitution of words, the transition from the singular to the plural, the splitting of a unitary collective term into masculine and feminine parts or the introduction of impersonal or abstract words."

Trautman believes it is more accurate to translate the Greek "brothers" as "brothers and sisters" when it means "Christians," because the original Greek word was not as gender-specific as the English. He disagreed with the argument that archaic language makes liturgy more compelling.

"We use inclusive language because it is the American idiom," he said. "Scripture is meant to be understood. When I talk to high school and college students, I don't believe they understand the broader interpretation of the word 'men' to be 'men and women.'"

Lipscomb believes the document makes some allowance for the development of new English ways to render gender-neutral terms for people from Latin, Hebrew and Greek into English. Some of the inclusive phrasing now in use has not worked well, Lipscomb said.

"The main thing they are saying is not to put in abstracts like 'humanity' or 'humankind,'" he said.

"I suspect there will be some new effort to capture this without the terribly awkward circumlocutions."

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