Friday, October 07, 2011

Is the Roman Canon vulgar?

This is a question posed, by implication, by Dom Sebastian Moore OSB, in a letter published in The Tablet last weekend (1st October).

The substitution of the word “chalice” for “cup” in the Eucharistic Prayer has already been noted. The unconscious vulgarity of this change, at the most dramatic moment in the whole liturgy, is horrifying, as though the dignity of the word “cup” were not upheld by the hands that held it and passed it round, and to “improve” on this is to make of another good word a genteelism which betrays the mentality of the translator – and three times! It confirms all that we now know, thanks to The Tablet’s preparatory articles, about the process whereby this translation was arrived at.

(Dom) Sebastian Moore OSB
Downside Abbey, Somerset

(That's his photo, from his blog.) They have published my reply:

Dom Sebastian Moore repeats yet again in your letters pages (1st October) the suggestion that the use of the word 'chalice' in the new translation of the Missal is wrong. It would be astonishing if he or anyone could seriously claim that 'he took the cup' is an accurate translation of 'accipens et hunc praeclarum calicem in sanctas ac venerabiles manus suas'. If the authors of the Roman Canon had wished to avoid what Fr Moore regards as 'vulgar' they would certainly not have used such flowery language, and substituted a more prosaic word like 'poculum' ('cup') for 'calix'.

It is clear that Fr Moore and your other correspondents are not objecting to the new translation at all, but to the Latin original. This has been used continuously by the Roman church since the time of Pope St Gelasius I, who died in the year 496. Alas, I think the consultation period may have closed.

Yours faithfully,

Joseph Shaw

Chairman, The Latin Mass Society

It makes no sense to suggest that the elevated language of the new missal translation is wrong but the even more elevated language of the original Latin is ok. As well as its frequent doubled adjectives ('holy and venerable') and other poetic tricks the Latin makes free use, for example, of archaism, which has not been allowed in the translation, exotic foreign words, and words only ever used in the context of Christian Latin. If the new translation is vulgar, the Roman canon must be utterly bourgeois.

The idea that only 'nobly simple' things avoid vulgarity, which rejects with disgust not only the Roccoco but the Gothic, which prefers the monotone to the melisma, is thankfully a fad passing away with Fr Moore's generation. It is small minded, petty, and parochial. What person of taste can tolerate only one style, and one, indeed, of only a handful of artists working in only a few decades corresponding to the formative period of their own lives?

Fr Moore's generation had their fun razing irreplaceable altars and dynamiting exquisite churches which they were incapable of understanding. He should allow the painful work of restoration go on without further interference.


  1. Simon Platt10:36 pm

    Now, I'm not stupid, but I can't make any sense of father's syntax.  Are you sure you copied it correctly?

  2. Simon Platt10:37 pm

    P.S. Is that him on the photo?

  3. Anonymous10:55 pm

    I am confused. Is that supposed to be a Benedictine abbot in collar and tie? I can't imagine much that could be more vulgar! (I am only half in jest.)

    Thank you for your extremely well referenced letter. At least the Tablet had the grace to publish it.. 

  4. Joseph Shaw9:15 am

    He's not the Abbot! In fact he has spent a lot of time outside his monastery, though he's back there now.

  5. Joseph Shaw9:16 am

    Yes it is, from his blog!
    I copied and pasted from The Tablet website but I'll check.

  6. Anonymous11:00 am

    Yes it is exactly as printed. It does read oddly. As my old teachers used to say, confused writing betrays confused thinking...

  7. Dylan (A Reluctant Sinner)5:56 pm

    This is the man who openly declared his homosexuality in a recent interview on an ABC (Australian) programme. In reply to a question on celibacy and the difficulties Moore must have encountered when choosing to be celibate as opposed to chosing to be married, the Benedictine had this to say: -

    <span> "For me the pressure of sex is very solitary. To be quite honest I fell in love with...I'm gay of course...but gosh, you couldn't say that 50/60 years ago, that's the other thing, the enormous change that is happening there. But as I say, solitary sex and masturbation and stuff like that, very simple stuff, nothing like a real decision of preference to marriage, I didn't have that, I snuck into the thing, and everything I know, I discovered it all in the other way round. I got in, the inwards was developed with God, and now I want to get out, I want it to get out, that's the nearest I can get to it." (emphasis mine). (link)</span>

    Seeing that Dom Sebastian is also a priest, and has written books that seem to be very supportive of "gay issues", one wonders how he was ordained in the first place or has then been allowed to continue his ministry, especially as the Holy See has made it abundantly clear that men who have "deep rooted" homosexual tendancies or who support "the gay culture" cannot be ordained and should not remain in the priesthood. (cf 1961 and 2005 documents on secletion for the prieshood with reference to homosexuality).

    Like so many other liberals, it seems to me, as you say Joseph, that Moore's real problem is not with the new English translation but with the words of the Mass as they appear in the original. He might also have a problem with Catholicism as a whole, like those who cannot stand anything within the Church that pre-dates 1970.

    I am very grateful for the fact that I was never sent to Downside. If I am ever blessed with marriage and children, I can also assert quite categorically that I would never send my offspring to such a place.

    1. Gosh it wasn't catching. One hears with regret that he died early this morning RIP. 28.02.14

  8. Terry6:23 am

    I'm so glad the biological option will take hold soon for Dom Moore and his ilk. As you said in your post, we have a lot of work to do to undo the damage done by his generation of fools.