Vatican says 'no' to NRSV translation - 'Inclusive language' setback

Vatican says 'no' to NRSV translation - 'Inclusive language' setback

Michael Gilchrist

The Vatican has now barred use of the 'inclusive' New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation of the Bible for Scripture readings during Masses in English-speaking countries. This is despite the fact that NRSV lectionaries have already been approved by a number of episcopal conferences. The latest episode highlights yet again (as with planned changes to the Lord's Prayer) how fragmented the reformed liturgy has become since Vatican II.

Late last year a Catholic News Service report revealed that on October 25 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had announced a ban on use of the 'inclusive' New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation of the Bible in Catholic liturgical and catechetical texts. This decision underlined the Holy See's apparently increased awareness of the theological implications inherent in revised vernacular translations.

Archbishop Agnelo of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments stated that the decision had been made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which reversed what the Worship Congregation had earlier approved in April 1992, in confirming a 1991 decision of the U.S. Bishops' Conference.

Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained that problems with the NRSV text were partly inclusive language and partly the need for consistency in the Church's liturgical and catechetical language: "We can have these new translations, but at the same time the Church's official language in liturgy and catechetics has to preserve some continuity."

Recent years have seen increasing pressures to have the words used during Mass and in other areas of Church life conform to the secular concept of 'inclusiveness'. The lobbying for such language changes seems to have been largely from 'inside' via strategically placed feminists, experts and bureaucrats rather than from any groups genuinely representative of the Church's grass-roots.

Of late, however, this movement has suffered set-backs.

The initial 'inclusive' English language draft of the new Catechism was held over for two years by Rome, pending revisions to the text, while ICEL's new proposals for an 'inclusive' version of the liturgy failed to win majority support from the U.S. Bishops.

The Vatican reversal came at a particularly awkward time since new lectionaries utilising the NRSV translation of the Bible had already been approved by several bishops' conferences. The Canadian Bishops, for example, have had three volumes of a four-volume NRSV-based Lectionary in print and in use throughout Canada since 1992.

Australia had not acted so quickly, but was moving in a similar direction at the time of the Vatican announcement.

A report in the Australian bishops' Conference Bulletin (August 1993, p.5) was headed "New Lectionary for Australia":

"Australia is to publish its own Lectionary using the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible (instead of the Jerusalem Bible) for the readings but retaining the Grail Psalms in a revised edition.

"The NRSV has already been approved for liturgical use in Australia. It has been adopted by Canada and the USA for new Lectionaries and is widely recommended by Scripture scholars. It will probably be used for most of the Scripture quotations in the Catechism. It is an ecumenical version, commonly used for public proclamation in the Anglican and Uniting Churches in Australia."

At their most recent conference the Australian bishops decided to put this move on hold as a result of the Vatican decision. Individual dioceses, however, had already taken various 'inclusive' initiatives in the liturgy, e.g., Adelaide had earlier implemented some of ICEL's latest draft proposals, which are now unlikely to be approved by Rome. The Review of the Rockhampton diocese (October 1994) published an up-date of its Diocesan Liturgical Commission's activities, notably distribution of "a diocesan policy, endorsed by Bishop Brian [Heenan], on the use of inclusive language."

This policy was spelt out in the bulletin (November 5/6, 1994) of one Rockhampton parish, St Vincent's, Wandal. This indicated that 'inclusive language' had been used "informally for the last four years" via the new As One Voice hymnal and in anticipation of the new Lectionary using the NRSV translation. The latter involved such changes as "Peace to men of goodwill" becoming "Peace among those whom he favours" and offending words such as "him" and "mankind" becoming "people", "them", "humankind" or "humanity."

Understandably, the Vatican action has not been well received in some quarters.

The Executive Board of the Catholic Biblical Association (which has a membership of 1,800 Scripture scholars around the world) called upon the U.S. Bishops to respond strongly to the "demeaning" Vatican action. The Board's letter said this action impinged "directly on the pastoral efforts made by the American hierarchy" and raised questions as to the fitness of the U.S. Bishops' Conference to "determine what is doctrinally sound and pastorally appropriate."

Idiom and culture

"Pastorally appropriate," may well include the efforts of some bishops to placate the relatively few but well-placed feminists whom they appear to consider representative of Catholic women as a whole.

The chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Liturgy, Bishop Trautman, commented that "inclusive language is a necessity in our American idiom and culture today. It is necessary in Scripture, in the liturgy and in catechetics." He hoped that more "dialogue" would occur between the scholars and the Vatican. (The question remains as to whether secular "idiom and culture" should be a major factor in Catholic worship.)

Closer to home, Brisbane's Catholic Leader (13 November) reported that the National Liturgical Commission's Executive Secretary, Fr Tom Elich of Brisbane, was "dismayed" at the Vatican decision. He declared that the "implications of the ban are very serious for Catholic biblical scholarship, for ecumenical relations between Churches, as well as for the production of suitable liturgical books."

As with the wording of the Lord's Prayer, progress in ecumenism also looms large among those seeking to make the liturgy 'inclusive'. Given the remoteness of major ecumenical advances, not least due to the introduction of women's ordination in a few non-Catholic Churches, some ecumenists may need to clutch at 'inclusive' straws.

Meanwhile, the practising remnant will be the last to know about what is happening to the liturgy despite talk of a "people's Church". And as their patience at the incessant meddling with the Mass wears thin, more of them may vote with their feet.

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