Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Vatican said it and it was done

From his writings and from his example of his papacy, it is clear that Benedict XVI's approach to leadership is different from what his critics expected. He resists the imposition model and prefers a manner of governing that might be said to accord with a 19th century Catholic liberal perspective – one found in the works of, for example, John Henry Cardinal Newman: theologically orthodox but eschewing of the temporal power and the authoritarian mode it represents.

Summorum Pontificum is an example: it imposed nothing but rather removed restrictions to tradition. And this approach, rooted in faith, has accomplished wonderful things for the Church, to be point that we are truly living in times of renaissance of best of what is beautiful and true.

And yet there are times when decisive action is called for, even that which prohibits in no uncertain terms. A case in point is the letter issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on June 29, 2008.

"By directive of the Holy Father," it began, "in accord with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this Congregation…deems it convenient to communicate to the Bishops' Conferences the following as regards the translation and the pronunciation, in a liturgical setting, of the Divine Name signified in the sacred tetragrammaton, along with a number of directives."

It begins by explaining that the importance of integrity and accuracy in translations. It cites Liturgiam authenticam concerning the tetragrammaton rendered in Latin as Dominus. It is an "immemorial tradition" not to pronounce the God of Israel's proper name, written with four consonants of the Hebrew alphabet YHWH. This practice in "recent years" has "crept in."

The text continues to cite St. Paul in this regard that "God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name," and he continues to say that "Jesus Christ is Lord." Other biblical cases are cited, with the conclusion that "from the beginning" the "sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated."

The letter concludes with some of the most decisive language I've read from the Vatican in modern times:

"In liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers the name of God in the form of the tetragrammaton YHWH is neither to be used or pronounced."

And that, as they say, was that.

What did not happen is also striking. There were no special meetings or press conferences. There were no committees set up to study the questions for years and years. The directive was not preceded by public hearings or debates. There were no protests following the ruling. It just happened – and quickly.

The US Bishops published the letter. The mainline Catholic publishers announced that they would pull music that used the word – and we all know which songs those are. They apologized that they had already gone ahead and print their missalletes without having made the change, but promises to make it next time around.

Meanwhile, the "National Association of Pastoral Musicians" has issued the following: "Last month the Vatican issued directives that the Hebrew name of God, usually rendered as Yahweh, is not to be pronounced in the prayers, readings, or songs of the liturgy. The new norms are based on long-standing Jewish and Christian traditions of not pronouncing the divine name and of substituting 'the Lord' wherever it occurs in the biblical text. Publishers will be removing or changing song texts making use of the name, but pastoral musicians should immediately refrain from using these texts until appropriate changes have been made."

Immediately refrain! Those are very strong words. We are not used to such words, not now and not as long as I can remember. What's more, we are not really used to such compliance. The usual tactic taken in the United States is to find loopholes in Vatican directives to permit the status quo to persist. One can usually find them. But not this time. The ruling was plain and clear and admitted no exceptions.

And, it was effective. And fast. There might still be some parishes that are using the offending songs but it is because they have yet to get the word. Mostly it is not outright disobedience at work. Among those who have heard, the rule has been obedience without question. How rare indeed! And why? Precision of language, brevity of exposition, and decisiveness of the directive.

As someone who thinks of himself as a 19th century liberal, I find this rather refreshing in many ways. Perhaps this is not a model for dealing with all issues. It is not a rule or a principle or an all-encompassing strategy. Nonetheless, there comes a time for decisive, non-nuanced edicts, particularly as regards the liturgy, particularly in our times of continued liturgical upheaval.

One point against this style of management is that it can produce a backlash that is worse than the problem the edict solved. There doesn't seems to be a risk of that this time. On the contrary, everyone I know is grateful for the clarification and to be done with all the bureaucratic and diplomatic processes that seem to cloud decision making. Sometimes, it is unavoidable: action must be taken. I suspect that there are many other issues to which this event can serve as a model for the future.

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