Friday, September 07, 2007

The Canadian Lectionary: Spin vs. Reality

There has been a variety of reporting on the new Canadian lectionary out there in the media and then the internet. It seemed that a clarification and dissection is in order about this to separate spin from reality.

The present Canadian lectionary uses the NRSV translation, which was permitted on a provisional, interim basis for what must be called pragmatic reasons (i.e. within Canada they seemingly jumped the gun by printing and using it within a liturgical context). Rome then required this to be resolved within a specified time period.

The NRSV translation selectively employs inclusive language -- so while it will typically retain "He" in reference to God the Father, it eliminates references to "men", "mankind" even at times when the reference is as regards an individual man or group of men. More substantially, it even replaces "Son of Man" with other substitutes; "gender-neutral" substitutes. For example, in Daniel 7:13, the reference to seeing the Son of Man is changed to seeing "a human being":

Revised Standard Version (RSV) translation: I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man"

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation: "As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being"

This is clearly a problem not only as regards accuracy in translation, but also theologically from a Christological point of view. (A more detailed analysis of the problems in the present Canadian NRSV lectionary can be found in the October 1995 edition of a Canadian Catholic periodical, Catholic Insight, in an article, Sixty-Four Shadows of Man in the NRSV by Thaddeus W. Pruss.)

The first thing to make clear is that the NRSV lectionary presently used in Canada has not in fact been given the recognitio as some have thought (or even seem to have suggested). Whether intentionally or not, The Catholic Register article did not make this point clear. Moreover, while the Canadian Conference of Bishops states that "most of the Lectionary text has not been altered..." this does not so clearly represent the fact that a decent number of changes would have been required -- based upon information I have from the CCCB itself -- to make the Canadian lectionary "clearer or more accurate" as they put it. (See CCCB site) Indeed, if one did a "word-count" it may not be the majority of words in the biblical text, but that doesn't mean there aren't a significant number of changes nonetheless.

After a couple of us in Canada inquired to the Canadian Conference of Bishops (CCCB) in 2005 or 2006, we learnt from them that they were given a choice:

1. Abandon the NRSV and use an already approved liturgical edition in the English language

2. Modify the NRSV, using Vatican given guidelines for revising it, and then submit the revisions for the recognitio.

The CCCB had chosen option number 2. A secretary to the liturgy office of the CCCB sent a copy of the actual guidelines that Rome had sent to the Canadian Conference of Bishops about this very matter -- a document I am still trying to re-locate.

There were a number of guidelines given and required, but one stands out from memory as pertains to all this matter of inclusive language: the only "inclusivizing" that would be deemed permissable** was if it was as regards a reference to a group of men and women. (And the CCCB's own "Backgrounder" touches upon this.)

Obviously, the NRSV itself goes much further than this, and so while the changes are made to seem minor in The Catholic Register article and by the CCCB statement itself, they are quite a bit more significant than they are seemingly suggesting -- a hollow "victory" if that is indeed how it is being viewed by some.

In a sense, one could say that what has been allowed is not the NRSV, but a revision based upon the NRSV as the starting point.

**What I noted about this being permissable is also an important point as regards the seeming matter of spin. In the CCCB's "Backgrounder" on this revised lectionary, the CCCB does make it sound as though Rome has actually mandated this selective "inclusivization" in biblical translation (which again might make it appear as a pro-inclusive-language 'victory'):

"In May 2003, representatives from the CCCB and the Holy See met and agreed on a set of principles according to which the revision of the Lectionary would proceed. These principles, while giving preference to the NRSV text, made provision for changes deemed necessary for reasons of clarity of language and of conformity to the original Greek or Hebrew. When the original language was clearly intended to include both males and females, the translation was to be inclusive; when the original language was clearly meant to be gender specific, this was to be respected in the translation."

Using "was to be" as in "the translation was to be inclusive" takes on the form of a Vatican command about what ought to be, or should be, or what the Holy See actually mandated or required. Of course, none of this is reconciliable with the Vatican's actual statements on inclusive language and the far-reaching principles of those that advocate and lobby for it, nor the reality that the Holy See has not made such a statement, nor required this in other English language lectionary translations. Moreover, my recollection of the very same principles they refer to was one of "permissability" about a particular context and certainly not one of mandate or principle. So to speak of what "was to be" does not do full service to the reality of the situation and paints a principle which I propose does not actually exist.

As regards the situation which led to this, in Canada, and in the recent Catholic Register article, it has been portrayed by many of pro-inclusive-language bent that this situation arose effectively at the fault of Rome, rather than the Church in Canada, who, it is suggested, had given permission and then changed their mind. However, I would point folks to the March 1996 edition of The Adoremus Bulletin which includes this analysis of the situation: Confusion about Scripture Translations for Liturgical Use: A Status Report. I shall leave that to speak for itself.

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