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Online Edition - Vol. I, No. 1: November 1995

ICEL Texts Face Resistance

Disaffection with Translation Widespread among Bishops

by Thomas M. Rearly

Results of the final voting of the June (1995) meeting of bishops reveal that disaffection with the translations and revisions of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) is now widespread among the bishops. The vote indicated that the consensus ICEL used to enjoy in the conference has faded. ICEL's proposed revisions of the liturgy now invite a scrutiny which may continue into November.

But despite ICEL's success in obtaining the necessary two-thirds vote, as predicted in Catholic World Report (August 1995), there has been a major shift in the conference of bishops. For example, in 1990, the vote in favor of the "Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use" was an overwhelming majority of bishops with only a few dissenting votes. But at the June meeting ICEL's margin of victory was razor thin.

A total of 263 Latin-rite bishops were eligible to vote. Two-thirds, or 176 affirmative votes were needed to approve the translations. This time, the count was far closer than expected. The liturgical texts (prayers such as Eucharistic prayers, the prayers before Communion, etc.) were approved with 183 votes, or only 7 votes more than required.

The ICEL "variations" to the Roman Missal were particularly controversial. The variations are departures from the official Latin texts, such as the "Litany of Praise" as an option to the penitential rite.

Archbishop Levada observed that "these changes amount ... to a massive revision of the basic ritual of the Church's Roman Rite". When the votes tallied, the variations were approved with 179 votes, only a 3 vote margin of victory. A long-time observer of the conference of bishops commented that it's hard to see the Holy See overlooking the extent of this discontent among the bishops.

The number of abstentions also may have been a source of anxiety for the liturgical establishment. As it was, in the close votes, there were 8 to 10 abstaining votes. For the less controversial items (approval for the Appendix to the Roman Missal, for example), there were 20 abstaining votes. In close votes abstaining bishops might very well prevent a two-thirds majority. ICEL and the liturgy committee could not afford the indifference of a significant number of bishops.

It is now clear that the liturgical establishment can no longer be indifferent to the pockets of episcopal lethargy. As the mood of the conference changes in favor of closer episcopal inspection of the texts, ICEL now needs every vote.

The question of the wisdom of proceeding with the vote on liturgical texts looms for the bishops' November meeting. Despite ICEL's description of their critics as "ill-informed" and "sticklers for 'accuracy'", many of the bishops believe that their concerns over the integrity of contemporary translation efforts are substantive. The belief is shared in Rome as evidenced by controversy surrounding the translation of biblical texts and the issuance of interim translation guidelines. It now appears that the bishops' discontent will be addressed sooner, perhaps at the November meeting, or later by the Vatican.

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