Thursday, March 17, 2016

How not to deal with offensive liturgical texts

Passion Sunday, sung in Holy Trinity, Hethe, last Sunday. The Gospel, John 8:46-59, is
not found anywhere in the 1970 Lectionary. It is too scary.
Ildefonsus Schuster, the great liturgical commentator of the early 20th century, and a bishop and beatus to boot, remarked of the Good Friday 'Orationes Sollemnes', which he thought of as a single, great 'litany':

In reciting a prayer of such venerable antiquity, we seem to enter into a closer spiritual relationship with those early generations of martyrs and confessors for the faith, who used the self-same words before us, and thus obtained the graces needful to enable them to correspond to their high vocation of witnessing to this faith with their own blood.

A couple of decades later, Josef Jungmann, whose personal views were distinctly reform-minded, not to say modernist, wrote in the great work which has become the standard reference for the history of the Roman Rite, that in the same prayers,

whose echo goes back to the first century, we have the general prayer of the Church in the exact wording in which it was performed … since the third century.

Annibale Bugnini, of all people, wrote about his reverence for these prayers when undertaking the limited re-writing of 1965:

It is always unpleasant to have to alter venerable texts that for centuries have effectively nourished Christian devotion and have about them the spiritual fragrance of the heroic age of the Church’s beginnings.

The point is not that changing such prayers could never be justified, but that the burden of proof lies massively against it.

One of the most remarkable texts to be found in the Position Paper, however, is a remark in an official commentary about the Holy Week Reform of 1956, about the new Latin Psalms created by Cardinal Bea and published in 1945:

In the new version of the psalms expressions are avoided which have acquired another sense in modern languages.

This is a truly vertigo-inducing thought: that the official, Latin version of Scripture, to be used in the Office, in liturgical texts, and as a reference point for vernacular translations, be changed so that it does not suggest false equivalents in modern languages. For one thing, it would be a matter of opinion what is 'misleading'. But even if this were granted, how many languages should be taken into account? Italian, French, Spanish, English? All Romance languages? Why not others as well? And how often should the exercise be repeated: every 50 years? Every 30?

In other words, not only would the Latin source-text be no more stable than a modern vernacular, it would be further twisted into knots to avoid suggesting to a Latin ignoramus anything 'misleading' in umpteen different languages. If this is so for the ideal Latin text, shunting aside the Latin versions used for more than 10 centuries, why not say we need an ideal Greek and Hebrew version? Don't the inspired texts include 'expressions which have acquired another sense in modern languages', including modern Greek and Hebrew?

This is simply the opposite of what Latin is supposed to be: a stable language enabling us to use the very same words as our predessors in the Faith. But it is the logical conclusion of the drive to remove from the liturgy anything which could cause offence. If this is raised to the level of a principle, then we can't stop with litiurgical texts. The same must be done for Scripture itself.

As a matter of fact, the 1945 Psalms were ditched by Vatican II, on the grounds that they failed to take account of 'the entire tradition of the Latin Church' (Sacrosantum Concilium 91), so we've ended up with yet another Latin Psalter, and indeed entire Latin Bible, the 'Neo-Vulgate', which also fails to respect the 'entire tradition of the Latin Church'. (See the discussion of the Vulgate here.)

There is another wrong way to deal with offensive texts: to ignore them. I have laid some stress on the prayers for the conversion of the Jews to Christianity to be found in the Liturgy of the Hours. It doesn't come as much surprise, given the general collapse of liturgical discipline, to hear of people skipping these prayers. What suprised me more, though perhaps it shouldn't have, is that in the German translation the texts are systematically mistranslated.

Christ, Son of David, fulfilment of the prophecies, may the Jewish people accept you as their awaited Deliverer [Messiah].

In thee everything proclaimed by the prophets is fulfilled, help us to recognise God in our lives.

Simeon and Anna proclaimed you as the Saviour; grant that the Jewish people may accept your message [Gospel] so long foretold.

O Christ, who was sung of (about) by the angels, made known by the shepherds, praised by Simeon and Anna; - give, that we may accept your Good News.

(Quotations in Latin and German and references are in the Position Paper, Appendix B.)

This is an outrageous falsification of the liturgical text. But I suppose it is actually less outrageous than the translation of 'pro multis' ('for many') as 'for all' in the words of consecration, and not so much worse than the many, many other ideologically-driven mistranslations found in 'old ICEL', such as 'hostia', 'victim', being rendered as 'sacrifice'. The degree to which these mistranslations were theologically justified by liberals came out very strongly in the debate about the 'new ICEL'.

A different way of ignoring awkward texts is to omit them entirely from the liturgy. It is of the nature of the liturgical reform that things Bugnini and his collaborators didn't like were left on the cutting-room floor. What readers may not already know is that passages of Scripture were removed from liturgical use, even as the Lectionary was being vastly expanded. For example, the First Letter to the Corinthians (11:27-9) warning against the unworthy reception of communion, which is read on both Maundy Thursday and Corpus Christi in the 1962 Lectionary, is not found anywhere in the new Lectionary.

Similarly, last Sunday, Passion Sunday, we had - in the EF - the Gospel of Jesus and the Pharisees disputing in the Temple from the Gospel of John: it is nowhere to be found in the Novus Ordo lectionary. There are many more examples in Appendix B of the Position Paper on the Lectionary here.

The problem with this should be obvious. The reformed liturgy has established a body of Scripture and ancient liturgical texts which needs to be hidden away in embarassment: the nasty bits, the bits where Jesus gets cross, where St Paul criticises things which people actually do, where sinfullness and the need for grace are mentioned.

It is a like a dysfunctional family where there are topics you're not allowed to broach, or emotions you are not allowed to display, like anger or grief. What is supposed to happen when Catholics pick up a copy of the Bible and find these passages for themselves? Well, what happens to a member of a dysfunctional family when they talk to an outsider who mentions a Forbidden Topic, or displays a Forbidden Emotion? They find it very hard to handle. You can see the same process of shock, panic, and denial in Catholic on-line forums where the phrase 'I have difficulty with this passage' crops up, and utterly insane interpretations are put forward by kind-hearted moderators to make the passage mean something unchallenging, ideally something entirely in conformity to the depraved customs of modern life.

This, obviously, is not a healthy situation, and it leaves Catholics wide open to attacks on the Church. Does the Church have unchanging teaching? Then how come all those liturgical texts had to be buried in a big hole in the ground? Does the Church base her teaching on the Scripture? Then why does she not want to hear St Paul talking about the theology of marriage during the Nuptial Mass, like she used to?

That is not to deny that apparantly offensive and difficult texts present a problem, just that these solutions are absurd and ultimately counter-productive. In the next post I will discuss a better solution.

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  1. For what it's worth, Jn. 8:51-59 is read in the OF on Thursday of the 5th week of Lent (which, as I post this comment, happens to be today!). So it is not quite right to say Jn. 8:46-59 is "nowhere to be found" in the OF lectionary, for part of it is in there (though on a weekday rather than a Sunday).

    Verses 46-50 of Jn. 8 are entirely missing from the OF, however.

    1. True. It focuses the question more acutely, does it not? There was clearly a deliberate decision to cut those last verses, of the conflict between the Pharisees and Our Lord, and his clear claim to divinity.

    2. Yes, and it would be interesting to try and pin down who made those sorts of decisions, and for what reasons. As I'm sure you're aware, Dr Shaw, this sort of thing is fairly common when one compares the EF and OF lectionaries in detail.

      Regarding John 8, you may find this snippet of information interesting: in his history of the liturgical reform, Bugnini says that in 1965, thirty-one experts were asked to select biblical passages they thought best suited for liturgical use (cf. The Reform of the Liturgy [Liturgical Press, 1990], pp. 412-413). Fr Donatien Mollat, S.J. was asked to select pericopes from the Gospel of John. Curiously, in the Consilium's documentation, Jn. 8:42-47 and 8:48-59 are actually included in Fr Mollat's list (Schema 137 [De Missali 17], 22 Dec 1965, p. 18). These two pericopae are then assigned by Group XI of the Consilium to Tue and Wed of the 5th week of Lent in their 1966 draft lectionary (Schema 176 [De Missali 25], 25 Jul 1966), which was published in July 1967 and sent to around 800 scholars and experts for comment.

      At some time between July 1967 and May 1969, this arrangement obviously ceased to be the case. Given what Bugnini says (cf. Reform, pp. 419-420), it seems likely that the readings assigned to the 5th week of Lent in the Consilium's draft lectionary were eliminated or reorganised by Group XI between January and April 1968, because they were considered "too difficult" by the aforementioned scholars (though no specific mention is made of this in the Consilium's documentation).

      The vagaries and dangers of "experts", eh?

    3. That's very interesting. Perhaps some memoirs will turn up one day to explain it.

      I understand you have written a book on this subject, so well done and I look forward to reading it! If you have any thoughts on the Position Paper on the Lectionary:

      please contact me directly or through the Latin Mass Society, I'd love to hear your opinion.

    4. Ah, the old "let's bury the 'awkward' reading on a weekday in Year C" routine.