Fr. Robert Hart
Readers Of The Ratzinger Report (a series of interviews with then Cardinal Ratzinger by Vittorio Messori published in book form in 1985) should recall that the current pope has always rejected as false the idea of a pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church. He himself attended the Council as a priest and theologian alongside of Henri de Lubac and has always insisted that Vatican II is not the actual cause of modern liturgical and doctrinal confusion. It was, in his view, simply misunderstood- some might say, abused. In this light, the recent Apostolic Letter should come as no surprise. Furthermore, its implications address a pattern that is larger than the Roman Catholic Church, visible among other western liturgical churches, notably among various kinds of Anglicans, where a common perception of Rome’s lead was imitated, but to a degree far more radical and extreme.
During the 1960s and 70s, after Vatican II, Catholic Church leaders began to transform liturgy into something deemed relevant to the changing times. With the advent of the Novus Ordo, Anglicans were moved to make changes as well, beginning with experimental services and then whole new versions of Holy Communion and the Daily Offices. When the Episcopal Church in the United States drew from these services to produce a new Prayer Book in 1979, traditional Episcopalians objected that it was not a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer, though bearing that title, but rather something new and different. Along with changes to the frequently used services, its Psalter is not a faithful translation of Hebrew (which I can judge for myself); neither are other parts faithful to Greek and Latin. And, the Confirmation Rite no longer contains the same meaning.
The opposite response of Bishop Brandolini, namely the sincerely grateful and joyful response to Motu Proprio, fits another pattern as well. Pope Benedict, in separate letter about Motu Proprio answers the desire of many Catholics, old and young alike, to be allowed a return to the Tridentine Mass, and also mentions the separatist movement led by Archbishop Lefebvre that broke from Rome over the issue of fidelity to the old Missal. Here, too, is a pattern, for it brings to mind the Continuing Church movement in Anglicanism that broke away from the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Anglican Church in Canada in 1977 over such issues as women’s “ordination” and foreboding about the new Prayer Book of ‘79 (the Continuing movement has spread to other countries). The issues in the Anglican churches were more radical and severe than in Roman Catholicism, and the Continuing Church movement therefore truly necessary. However, in both cases, the same question arises. What is it that people of various ages, old and young alike, are seeking in older forms of worship? What do traditionalists have in common?
To say they are seeking orthodoxy is misleading, because it requires evidence that newer forms are inherently unorthodox, an argument that is, at best, difficult to make. The burden of proof lies on those who condemn the Novus Ordo Mass, or the Rite II Holy Communion as “heterodox rites,” and I have seen no convincing argument for the charge. The answer is less extreme. What traditionalists are seeking is something authentic. New ideas and new forms may catch on, and endure; or, they may not. However, the Tridentine Mass, the Book of Common Prayer, and I will add, the Byzantine Liturgy, are among things known, tried and true. They are authentic. We can add that the Vulgate and the King James Bible, Gregorian Chants and Bach Cantatas, and a host of prayers, devotions and hymns, having stood the test of time as well, have an authenticity that gives them a superior place to all new and experimental forms.
Each of these authentic forms and usages was new once, and compared to ancient forms that were first in Aramaic (or very possibly older Hebrew, since Jews were comfortable with this as the language of scripture and of prayer), every liturgy has been through a process of reception by the people. For example, The Book of Common Prayer was met with violence in Cornwall when it was first introduced. But, in time authenticity is established due, in no small part, to orthodoxy of doctrine, a focus on the essentials, and uplifting sound combined with profound meaning that can be produced only by carefully chosen use of words.
By far, the most important element of liturgical and devotional authenticity is language, because language has power. To quote Pope Benedict’s letter that accompanies the actual Apostolic Letter:
"In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church's faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place."
However, the same cannot be said with certainty about experimental forms, especially since we must add translations of the Bible to liturgy, indeed as a necessary part of the liturgy. After all, these are things that go hand in hand; they cannot be separated. Therefore, we must think carefully about the power of language itself. This is the power to teach or to deceive.
II. The Speech of Mordor
To appreciate fully why people want to pray with authentic forms, we should consider how extreme the consequences may be when they cannot, which means looking at more problematic examples than we have considered until now. These include consequences of using language for scripture and prayer that misleads, distorts and confuses. And, it is this rather than simply a new approach, that is the true opposite of liturgical authenticity. Although I have said that traditional Christians are looking for authenticity, and to identify their quest as a desire for orthodoxy may be difficult to prove, it is not hard to prove when we turn to the harder case. The harder case is among some of the churches of the Anglican Communion, where the attempt to imitate post Vatican II Roman Catholicism, by putting a high premium on perceived relevance, developed into radical and consequential errors.
The Episcopal Church still uses the 1979 Prayer Book, and normally the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. This new Prayer Book replaced the tradition of English Prayer, a simplified Regula by which the Anglican faithful were called to live, with a book of public services. Most of these services were not revised editions of the Book of Common Prayer, with a powerful and majestic language rooted in the entire Christian Tradition, often translated from Latin, always drawn from the scriptures according to the understanding of the saints of past ages. Instead, some of the new services were contrived to be relevant in their use of modern idioms and words. And, the Psalter was mistranslated into socially acceptable and new usages of language. As Dr. Peter Toon pointed out, speaking near Baltimore Maryland in or around 1990, with the use of the mistranslated Psalms “there can be no revival; because this is not the word of the Lord.” He pointed out that the first error was in Psalm 1, where “the Man” was now “they who.” The Man, as the Fathers of the Church taught, was Jesus Christ. But, “the Man” was thrown out in favor of Gender Inclusive Language, and replaced with a plural, “they,” for an individual of either sex (popular, but grammatically wrong, and in this case theologically empty).
In the 1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church a modern hymn changes the Lord’s own promise from the sixth chapter of John: “I will raise him up on the last day.” Using a rule common to all classical language, the Lord’s promise is to the individual who truly believes and partakes of the food of eternal life. The “Gender Inclusive” version, “I will raise them up on the Last day” gives no promise to the individual about his own soul- or even about her own soul. It speaks of a collective, and just how many of “them” will be raised cannot be known. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, is also riddled with mistranslation. For example, the Book of Malachi says “he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.” But, the NRSV arbitrarily mistranslates the Hebrew word for “fathers” as “parents.” There is simply no justification for this. 1
Language of contrived relevance and very modern usage, cannot be used for the Bible and liturgy without violence to the meaning and spirit. This new language, if used for prayer and scripture, is futile at best, and unavoidably deceptive in its effect. Feminism and Gender Inclusive Language combine into a tongue that defies interpretation. As Gandalf was hesitant to speak the language of Mordor in Rivendell, no one can proclaim the word of the Lord in “newspeak.” Saint Paul could speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but the new kind of socially acceptable language seems more like the tongue of demons; it has no word that is understood to mean agape or caritas, since “love,” is too general. Traditional believers are not comfortable praying in this new tongue, and do not want translations of the word of God into such dark and imprisoned language. For them it distorts truth and destroys beauty, muddles all true communication, and twists everything into a lie. It has no word for caritas, because it has no usage of “Father” as the One Who defines love by Himself.
We possess numerous translations, words that cannot exactly haunt us because they are always fresh and alive, though coming from generations long fallen asleep in the dust of the earth. Saint Jerome wrote about his time in the desert: “The flesh I might try to break with frequent fasting: but my mind was seething with imagination: so to tame it, I gave myself up for training to one of the brethren, a Hebrew who had come to the faith. And, so after the subtlety of Quintilian, the flowing of Cicero, the gravity of Fronto and the gentleness of Pliny, I began to learn another alphabet, and meditate on words that hissed and words that gasped.” As Helen Waddell reflected, “the final vintage was to be the Vulgate translation of the Old Testament: he was still working on Hebrew in his old age.”2 As in ancient times, the gift of the Holy Scriptures is only preserved by learning tongues of old, from before the times of our fathers.
The discipline used when translating the King James Bible, for example, flowed naturally from reverence that had motivated Christians of earlier generations to choose words carefully. “Translated out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised.” In other words, the translators were quite able to make corrections, because they knew Hebrew and Greek. But, they did not take it upon themselves simply to disregard former translations, so when they made changes, it was never arbitrary. But, modern translations, to the extent that many of them can rightly be called translations, too often corrupt their work by contrived relevance. If there is one place above all where we must turn the issue of relevance around, and learn again to apply discipline to our minds so that it is we who become relevant to another’s instruction, it is hearing the word of the Lord. And, if there is one place where our words must be studied and based upon revealed truth, it is in bearing our souls before the throne of the Almighty as we pray.
I am not suggesting that a return to older forms, such as the Tridentine Mass, is the only way to avoid this problem. That would be simplistic and naïve, and require that we embrace a false assertion. But, one advantage to remaining true to authentic forms and translations, updating language and customs only with great care and fidelity and only when truly useful, is the safety of orthodoxy. Authenticity of language helps to avoid error and insure true instruction in the Faith.
To translate the first commandment literally, we are forbidden to have other gods in the Lord’s presence- that is before His face (al-Peni). The only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, along with the other Comfortable, are revealed in the Name spoken by the risen Christ: The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the Name into which we are baptized. But, this Name is regarded as offensive in the new language, and by invocation of contrived relevance we are bidden not to speak it. Changing the traditions, including the traditional use of language, may appear to make the message more relevant. But, the cost needs to be weighed. When things go too far, the cost is that of knowing God as He is revealed. Which means the cost of contrived relevance through distortion of language is life eternal (John 17:3), a cost that we must decline to pay.
1) The first mistranslation in the NRSV combines the first two verses of Genesis into one sentence, by adding wrongly the word "when," as if the world existed before God’s creation. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form…” The Hebrew simply does not justify this “translation” either. The first two sentences are not joined in the original Hebrew. The older “And, the earth was without form and void...” is literally correct, and it cannot be used to suggest Pantheism.
2) Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, (New York, 1998), p.33