The Catholic Biblical Association's reaction to Liturgiam Authenticam

The executive board of the Catholic Biblical Association of America (based at Catholic University of America) mailed the following letter (dated August 10, 2001) and critique of Liturgiam Authenticam to all U.S. bishops on August 13, 2001. A response to the criticism raised here regarding the use of the Nova Vulgata was published by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in November of 2001.

This letter is written at the instruction of the Executive Board of the Catholic Biblical Association of America to convey our concern relating to the document of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Liturgiam authenticam, issued in March of this year. Having studied this document in detail and having discussed our reactions to it, we conclude that although it contains much that is positive and beneficial to true liturgy, some of its provisions are sufficiently ill-advised as to be the likely occasion of embarrassment to the Church. And it is our considered opinion that the document can have a seriously detrimental impact on the reverence and love for as well as study and knowledge of the Bible in the Church.

Our main concerns have to do with the presentation of the Nova Vulgata as the model for Scripture translations in various ways and the provisions that translations conform to it, even to the point of requiring conformity to the Nova Vulgata in the tradition of original language manuscripts used for translation. Such procedure, and others mandated in the document, would produce an inferior product. The problem is compounded by the attempt to make the Bible translation so produced the only one in general use for Catholics in the given language.

The enclosed presentation, authored in large part by Fr. Richard Clifford, S.J., and endorsed by the members of the CBA Executive Board, will provide details for what is here summarized. We send you this letter and this document in order to convey our concerns and the reasons for them. We request that you and your fellow Bishops urge the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to review the scriptural provisions of Liturgiam authenticam, asking the Pontifical Biblical Commission to review them, in accord with the Motu Proprio of Pope Paul VI--since it does indeed set forth new provisions for the use of Scripture--as well as seeking counsel for Scripture scholarship worldwide.

With thanks for your kind attention to this request, I am,

Sincerely and respectfully yours in Christ,

Joseph Jensen, O.S.B.
Executive Secretary

Members of the CBA Executive Board:

Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., President
Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B., Vice President
Joseph Jensen, O.S.B., Executive Secretary
Lawrence E. Boadt, C.S.P., Treasurer
Richard J. Dillon, General Editor, CBQ
Christopher T. Begg, General Editor, OTA
Mark Stratton Smith, General Editor, CBQMS
Most Rev. Richard J. Sklba, Chair, Board of Trustees
Dennis C. Duling, Consultor
Corrine Patton, Consultor
Amy-Jill Levine, Consultor
Karen A. Barta, Consultor

To the Prelates of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Speaking in the name of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, we, the Executive Board of the CBA, wish to communicate to you our concerns relating to the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam (LA) issued in March 2001 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The CBA was called into existence in 1936 by Archbishop Edwin V. O'Hara, largely for the purpose of providing the Catholic Church in America with a proper translation of the Scriptures in English. Our Constitution identifies the CBA as founded for "the scientific study of the Bible . . . in conformity with the spirit and the instructions of the Catholic Church. . ." (Art, II, Sec. 1), and for cooperation with the Hierarchy in expounding and defending the teachings of the Church regarding the Bible and in promoting a greater love for and a deeper knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures (Art. II, Sec 2). Since its inception the CBA has been involved in such work, first in revising the Douay-Rheims on the basis of the Vulgate, then (after the publication of Divino afflante Spiritu in 1943) in translating the Bible from the original languages.

While we recognize many positive aspects of Liturgiam authenticam, we believe it contains provisions detrimental to solid biblical scholarship and ultimately to the Church and its authority. Among other things, it appears to misinterpret the authority of the Nova Vulgata (NV) and advocates policies that make it difficult to produce good vernacular translations.

1. The Authority of the Nova Vulgata

LA attributes massive authority to NV in nos. 24, 33, 37, 41a, and 43. LA No. 37 makes NV "the point of reference as regards the delineation of the sacred text" and requires that in the case of "varying manuscript traditions, the liturgical translation must be prepared in accordance with the same manuscript tradition that the NV has followed." No. 41a applies the same principle to choosing among translation options. No. 43 requires translators to follow NV in rendering literally such words as "horn" and "seed," anthropomorphisms, and the words anima and spiritus.

The true nature and purpose of NV can be learned from the Apostolic Constitution Scripturarum thesaurus of John Paul II authorizing its publication (April 25, 1979), and the interpretive article by Bishop A.-L. Descamps, Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (Esprit et Vie 89 [1979] 598-603). Prior to the conclusion of the Council, Pope Paul VI in 1965 appointed a commission to revise the existing Vulgate, known to be replete with errors, in accord with modern studies, while preserving or refining its Christian Latin style. The complete NV was published in 1979. The original purpose of NV--to be a revised Vulgate for a reformed liturgy--was never to be realized, however, for Pope Paul VI authorized the general use of the vernacular for the missal and breviary.

What is the authority of NV today? Its value for translators now is limited to the situations specified in the Apostolic Constitution and explained by Bishop Descamps, i.e., preparing vernacular translations when translators know no Hebrew and Greek and when there are no specialized resources. There is no basis in the Apostolic Constitution of NV or in Bishop Descamps for making it an authority for all translators of the Bible for liturgical purposes.

LA No. 37 attempts to impart to NV the authority St. Jerome's Vulgate is alleged to have. The Vulgate, however, never had the authority LA attributes to it. The decree of the Council of Trent to which LA appeals (Denzinger-Schönmetzer, 1506) makes no claim for any inherent authority of the Vulgate. Divino afflante spiritu (No. 21), to which LA unfortunately never refers, carefully explains that Trent's "authentication" of the Vulgate was for purely practical reasons--it was the best of the many Latin translations then circulating. If there were any doubt, the Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum (No. 22), has dispelled it: "For this reason [access to the Scriptures] the Church, from the very beginning, made her own the ancient translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint; she honors also the other Eastern translations, and the Latin translations, especially that which is called the Vulgate. But since (cum autem) the word of God must be readily available at all times, the Church, with motherly concern, sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into various languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books." According to Dei Verbum, the Church's pastoral mission to make the Word of God available to all means going beyond the venerable versions of the past (Septuagint, Syriac, Vulgate) to provide suitable vernacular translations from the original languages.

A detail that especially concerns us is LA No. 37, which requires translators to use the NV as the textual basis for the deuterocanonical books. There are insurmountable problems with this requirement. The text of Wisdom of Solomon is so bad in NV that one specialist has recommended that ecclesiastical authority recall it (G. Scarpat in RivB 35 [1987] 187-194). The textual basis for Sirach in NV is essentially the Old Latin; concerning this text Alexander A. Di Lella, O.F.M., of The Catholic University of America, a leading authority on the book, has asserted that it "has more doublets, variants, glosses, and interpolations than any book of the Latin Bible ... double and even triple renderings, additions, transpositions, Christian reworkings, and a few omissions as well" (The Wisdom of Ben Sira [Anchor Bible 39; New York: Doubleday, 1987], pp. 57 and 60). Had the Pontifical Biblical Commission been consulted in the preparation of LA, as it should have been but apparently was not (see below), such provisions certainly would have been avoided.

Another error of LA is its applying the liturgical term editio typica to biblical texts. The Apostolic Constitution Scripturarum thesaurus twice says that the NV is an editio typica. LA interprets the phrase as giving authority to NV to correct other translations, but the phrase means only that whenever NV is reprinted, the text of this edition (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1979) must be followed exactly. Bishop Descamps made the point with perfect clarity (in his footnote one): "The adjective 'typica' (from typos, model) means here, as it does in liturgical law, the 'exemplary' edition of a text to which any new edition of the text must strictly conform. . . . . Thus, the use of the word 'typica' says nothing about the relation between the Neo-Vulgate and texts related to it such as the Vulgate or the original texts of both Testaments." In fact, an "Editio typica altera" appeared in 1986.

In summary, NV does not make itself an authority for translators of biblical texts for the liturgy. The application of editio typica to biblical texts to make them authoritative is a misinterpretation of the term.

2. Policies that make it difficult to produce good vernacular translations

The assertion in LA No. 30, "In many languages there exist nouns and pronouns denoting both genders, masculine and feminine, together in a single term," does not hold for English. English "he" does not preserve gender concord when its antecedent is feminine, and does not preserve number concord when its antecedent is plural. The adjudicators of language issues in English are, according to the old dictum, "the best speakers and writers"; English does not have "academies" like other European languages. The lack of concord has long been noted by excellent writers such as Lord Chesterfield who wrote in 1759, "If a person is of a gloomy temper. . . they cannot help it" (Letter iv. ccclv. 170).

The search for an epicene pronoun (= having one form to indicate either sex) in English goes back at least to John Wilkens in 1668, according to Dennis Baron, Grammar and Gender (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), who gives many examples of such searches in his ch. 10. Even the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published at the turn of the last century, is aware of the problem and contains many examples of solutions.

LA No. 30 also speaks of "a single term . . . expressing the interplay between the individual and the universality and unity of the human family," and requires "that this property of the language of the original text should be maintained in the translation." Whatever language the author of that sentence may have had in mind, it certainly was not English. English has one word, "man," which has two completely different meanings: (1) human being, (2) adult male. The other Germanic languages long ago transferred the original generic sense of "man" to a new word, e.g., Mensch in German, thereby freeing Mann to mean "adult male." The result is that "man" is ambiguous in English. The best writers of the past tried to resolve the ambiguity. David Hume wrote in 1752, "There is in all men, both male and female, a desire and power of generation more active than is commonly exerted" (Political Discourses, x.159). More examples can be found under "man" in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Baron, Grammar and Gender. Today, virtually every English speaker notices the ambiguities because of changes in the culture. The claim that "the Church herself must freely decide upon the system of language that will serve her doctrinal mission most effectively" is breathtaking in its disdain for the actual speech of specific peoples. Fortunately, the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1993 was sensitive to the cultural context. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church expressly states that "the first stage of inculturation consists in translating the inspired Scriptures into another language. . . A translation, of course, is always more than a simple transcription of the original text. The passage from one language to another necessarily involves a change of cultural context. . ." (IV.B).

LA No. 31c, which mandates that "fathers" "be rendered by the corresponding masculine word into vernacular languages insofar as it may be seen to refer to the Patriarchs or the kings of the chosen people of the Old Testament, or to the Fathers of the Church," is inaccurate. Of course, Hebrew 'ab is to be translated "father" where it refers exclusively to males. But as all recent lexicons point out, the Hebrew word often has a much broader extension than English "father" and should on many occasions be translated "ancestor." Despite the assertion in LA No. 31c, the Hebrew word refers to the Patriarchs or kings relatively few times. "Ancestors" is often the more accurate term. The American Bishops' Criteria dealt accurately and concisely with the problem of kinship terms.

LA No. 36 mandates that in every territory there should exist only one approved translation, i.e., the one produced on the model of NV and approved for the liturgy. This administrative fiat would doom all Catholics to the use of a Bible that fails to live up to the normal requirements of modern biblical scholarship. Reason and experience also suggest that other translations which have enjoyed such popularity for so long will not suddenly cease to be used.

LA is endeavoring to encourage translations of liturgical documents that will convey in a worthy and intelligible way the deep meaning of the Bible, the sacraments, and our other ritual actions. While it pursues this praiseworthy goal, we believe that it does not take sufficient account of the workings of language generally nor of the limits and ambiguities of the English language. These issues, added to the emphasis given to the NV, make us concerned that our best scholars will be unwilling in the future to take part in translating biblical texts for liturgy.

We respectfully call to your attention the Motu Proprio of Pope Paul VI of June 27, 1971, No. 13, that "the [Pontifical Biblical] Commission must be consulted before the issuance of new norms on biblical matters." While LA is primarily about liturgy, its provisions certainly constitute "new norms on biblical matters," and we urge that the CDW rethink the provisions of LA that relate to the use and translation of Scripture, particularly those that relate to the NV, and seek advice from the Pontifical Biblical Commission and Scripture scholarship worldwide. This would seem to be a necessity with regard to a document that aims to have so great an impact on the life of the Church.