Friday, July 07, 2006

A brief look at liturgical language

Today, Catholic World News linked to a story relating to the recent statements of an American Bishop who was trying to explain the matter of re-translating the Roman Missal and some confusion about the CNS wording that a "new order of Mass" was being put out.

A couple of his comments seemed worth commenting upon and exploring here, not out of a desire to attack him (he was being fairly even-handed in many regards), but out of a desire to flesh out the matter of liturgical language, its variations and its formative importance.

The statement of the bishop in question:

"The question is not what do we say [in the Mass], but how do we say it. As Bishops, we would never presume to change meaning. Rather, we struggle to express the truths held worldwide by Roman Catholics in a way that will be authentically understood by American Catholics who speak their own brand of English. The challenge is to return to the authenticity of the past in a way that can be understood today."

As regards the question of "their own brand of English", I quote from the Bishop of Leeds speech prior to the vote:

"There is an International Standard English, which we encounter when we buy a piece of equipment with instructions in many languages and only one English version.

"Research on regional variation in English tends to show that the common ground among the regions is far greater than differences between them. English is still a single language. One of the leading linguistic scholars of our time, David Crystal, has written this: It is difficult to predict the shape of international English in the twenty-first century. But it seems likely that more rather than less standardization will result . . . "

It seems to me there is an over-emphasis (on the part of a number of bishops) upon local cultural variations and inculturation as a principle is being taken to excess. "American English" is not even so universal as that to the American nation. One can think of particular expressions in the Southeast as compared to the Southwest or Northeast for example. Further, one could break such considerations things down to particular racial groups or even economic groups. When the principle of inculturation is taken to an excess, matters very quickly get down to the level of the absurd.

Liturgiam Authenticam outlines a more balanced approach to the matter of the vernacular:

"Within the liturgical sphere, moreover, a distinction necessarily arises between languages and dialects. In particular, dialects that do not support common academic and cultural formation cannot be taken into full liturgical use, since they lack that stability and breadth that would be required for their being liturgical languages on a broader scale. In any event, the number of individual liturgical languages is not to be increased too greatly. This latter is necessary so that a certain unity of language may be fostered within the boundaries of one and the same nation."

The root, most basic form of English language is still quite universal; thus there is no need for such variations. Further to this, there is a need to develop a greater sense of a "liturgical English" if you will, something of a sacred character and with a strong cultural and literary association worthy to be the vehicle of the liturgical texts: "a clear distinction is to be made also between those languages, on the one hand, that are used universally in the territory for pastoral communication, and those, on the other hand, that are to be used in the Sacred Liturgy. (Liturgiam Authenticam). The sacred liturgy is not an everyday act and as such, its actions and language ought also to be representative of that unique character is some fashion.

One issue that has arisen with regards comprehension doesn't pertain to regional expression so much as to technical expressions. By that I mean the language of theology -- words like consubstantial or even, incarnate. This has been discussed ad nauseam so suffice it to say the following: it seems that there needs to be a greater sense of the teaching role of the liturgy, and also a greater sense of what does and does not constitute and overly technical vocabulary. Some words are the possession of a highly formed theological vocabulary, whereas others, while less used, are still understandable. There must be a balance between comprehensibility and over-simplification or the "dumbing down" of the sacred liturgy.

"Even if expressions should be avoided which hinder comprehension because of their excessively unusual or awkward nature, the liturgical texts should be considered as the voice of the Church at prayer, rather than of only particular congregations or individuals; thus, they should be free of an overly servile adherence to prevailing modes of expression. If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities."

"Since the liturgical books of the Roman Rite contain many fundamental words of the theological and spiritual tradition of the Roman Church, every effort must be made to preserve this system of vocabulary rather than substituting other words that are alien to the liturgical and catechetical usage of the people of God in a given cultural and ecclesial context."
(Liturgiam Authenticam)

Finally (and this is primarily the point which I wished to address) as to question of the "how" and the "what". The bishop in question is of course going after the idea that in this process of re-translation we are ultimately saying the same things and merely modifying how we are saying them. In some cases this is true of course, but in others, while it might even be technically the case, this assertion does seem to gloss over the importance of language and how it can affect and form our understanding. Further, it perhaps fails to acknowledge that some of our English liturgical language to date has been vague to say the least -- which hasn't been helpful and which is precisely one of the reasons why a re-translation is necessary.

Precisely how we say things can indeed effect what we at least believe we are saying, or how we come to understand what we are saying. I've spoke of this recently in my discussion of terms like "versus populum". We can see the Holy See advancing this principle as well when it discusses whom we can refer to as being "churches" as compared to "ecclesial communities". Language matters. So while I agree with the good bishop insofar as the principle of the permanency of the meaning and content goes, I think there is a greater importance and relationship between the "how" and the "what" than is perhaps being stated in his comment.

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