“Just grin and bear it” is not a rubric that appears in the currently authorised translation of the Mass into English. Maybe it should. It sums up the outcome of a discussion at the latest meeting of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, in the light of a change in canon law giving them more authority over liturgical translations. But not enough authority, they have decided, to dispose of a seriously flawed translation and replace it with a very much better one – or even to allow that alternative translation to be used beside the current one.
Pope Francis’ motu proprio Magnum Principium was hailed – and recognised as such by Archbishop Peter Smith at the press conference at which the bishops’ decision was announced – as part of his programme of reform intended to return to diocesan bishops and hence to episcopal conferences their jurisdiction over such matters as the translation of the liturgy best suited to their territories. Under the previous system, translations had been imposed by Rome irrespective of the wishes of the bishops. That was wrong in principle, theologically unsound, and contrary to the intentions of the Second Vatican Council. But the bishops of England and Wales, and of every other English-speaking part of the Catholic Church, felt they had no choice but to knuckle under when in 2010 Rome issued the English text of the Roman Missal now in use, despite the fact that they had previously agreed to a superior translation.
According to guidance – which the bishops said they were “grateful” for – from the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW), the change in canon law does not allow bishops to interfere with translations already authorised. But guidance from the Roman Curia to the bishops can always be challenged, and even rejected. Pope Francis could have been appealed to directly, and a review of the version the bishops themselves had commissioned and approved be commissioned immediately, to make it ready for use.
The bishops of England and Wales are well aware of the unpopularity of the current translation, and of its flaws, as Archbishop Smith was candid enough to concede. It includes many crude attempts to find literal equivalents in English to the official Latin text. Some English-speaking Catholics may have become inured to its poor, exclusive language, and the bishops may be counting on them to accept the status quo. They are mindful too that new missals cost money.
Yet England is the motherland of the English language. English Catholic bishops have missed the chance to show the way forward to the other 10 nations where the Mass is usually said in English. Before deciding to “grin and bear it” they could at least have consulted the others, including the bishops of New Zealand, who have already indicated they are considering reviving the translation the Vatican buried. It is quite possible that bishops in other English-speaking countries too will not take the CDW’s “guidance” lying down. Might we one day witness the sight of the Catholics of England – who have included Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Tolkien, Waugh and Greene – being reluctantly dragged along behind?