Sunday, September 10, 2017

Reflections of Magnum Principium

So...the Holy Father has issued a new motu proprio, Magnum Principium on the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. I've spent this afternoon reading the motu proprio and reflecting on the document, the Latin language, and what the motu proprio means for the Church. I'd like to offer the following considerations. These are very confusing times. God grant that I have written well. As always, I am open to your charitable correction. May God bless us and never fail to show us mercy. 

1. Canon law is something I am not extremely familiar with, so I admit possibly error here - but, as far as I can tell, the essential canonical change made by the motu proprio is that responsibility for promulgating vernacular liturgical translations has been devolved to the Episcopal Conferences, who not only are to carry out the translations, but also make the judgment call as to when such translations are necessary. Essentially, the onus of fidelity has shifted: whereas before it was the job of the particular commissions of the Holy See to ensure a text's fidelity to the original Latin, Magnum Principium amends canon 838 so that responsibility to fidelity to the Latin is on the shoulders of Episcopal Conferences, the Holy See's role being now reduced to merely confirm such translations. If I am wrong in this understanding of the major canonical change, please graciously correct me.

2. Whether or not I am understanding the canon law correctly, the biggest innovation here is not the specific canonical change but the principle, the "great principle" (Magnum Principium) from which this motu proprio takes its name. This principle is that the comprehension of the laity "requires" that the further expansion of the vernacular in the Mass. The motu proprio acknowledges that this means the loss of Latin as the primary liturgical language, but essentially says the Church was willing to make this sacrifice so that the people might "become the voice of the Church." Basically, it is a kind of liturgical supersessionism, where the demands of the times require the vernacular supersede Latin as the Church's sacred language - that "it is necessary to communicate to a given people using its own language all that the Church intended to communicate to other people through the Latin language." The communication in Latin has been definitively superseded and replaced by communication in vernacular, which "often only in a progressive manner" will eventually "be able to become liturgical languages, standing out in a not dissimilar way to liturgical Latin." Liturgical supersessionism.

3. Of course, as the villain Syndrome says in The Incredibles, "When everyone's super, no one will be." When every vernacular language is a liturgical language, then there in effect is no liturgical language anymore. The essential root of the word sacred, the Latin sacrum, denotes something set apart from everyday use. It is reserved for divine usage. Sacred objects are not treated like profane objects; sacred places are set apart from profane places by special behaviors and taboos - hence, why holy places are called sanctuaries. Sacred persons have a dignity that sets them apart from others. The very essence of the sacred is to be set apart. In Roman times, there was a sharp distinction between the sacra and the saecula, the former denoting people, things, and spaces set aside for worship, the latter signifying that which was for common use. Now, nothing is more secular than the vernacular language, the language people cuss and argue and do business in. Not to say that vernacular never has any part in the liturgy, obviously; Aramaic, Greek, and Latin were all once vernaculars. But it is one thing to say vernacular languages can have a part in the liturgy and quite another to say that vernacular languages essentially are sacred languages by virtue of their very vernacularity. That is the real innovation of the motu proprio. Every language is a sacred language! Everybody gets a trophy! You get a car! And you get a car!

4. The ridiculous irony here is that, while the opening statements of the motu proprio invoke the Second Vatican Council, Magnum Principium actually contravenes the vision of the Council Fathers and the Council documents, which stated that the use of the Latin in the Latin rite was to be preserved as normative, with vernacular only envisioned as applying to the readings and some of the prayers - not the Canon of the Mass (Sacrosanctum Concilium 36.1). Of course we know that these texts from the Council opened the door to the mess we are discussing right now. Texts like SC 36 are examples of the timebombs Michael Davies so famously spoke of. Even so, in asserting that the vernacular usage become normative, essentially replacing Latin, Francis is in fact contravening what the Council documents seemed to have envisioned. Well, though it may be a strange twist on the documents of Vatican II, it can't be denied that it is a totally victory for the Spirit of Vatican II.

5. When reading Magnum Principium, one cannot but be struck by the document's pragmatism. The focus is entirely on the practical "needs" of the laity. The consideration of the issue proceeds from a point of view that is entirely "horizontal." There is no mention about the historical role of Latin in the Church's liturgy, no talk of the communion of saints, nor even of the practical role of utilizing a single language for the life and worship of the Church. In 1962, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII had written:

[The Church] values especially the Greek and Latin languages, in which wisdom itself is cloaked, as it were, in a vesture of gold. She has likewise welcomed the use of other venerable languages, which flourished in the East. For these too have had no little influence on the progress of humanity and civilization... 
But mid this variety of languages a primary place must surely be given to that language which had its origins in Latium, and later proved so admirable a means for the spreading of Christianity throughout the West. And since in God’s special Providence this language united so many nations together under the authority of the Roman Empire — and that for so many centuries — it also became the rightful language of the Apostolic See. Preserved for posterity, it proved to be a bond of unity for the Christian peoples of Europe.
Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.
Nor must we overlook the characteristic nobility of Latin formal structure. Its “concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity” makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression.
For these reasons the Apostolic See has always been at pains to preserve Latin, deeming it worthy of being used in the exercise of her teaching authority “as the splendid vesture of her heavenly doctrine and sacred laws.” She further requires her sacred ministers to use it, for by so doing they are the better able, wherever they may be, to acquaint themselves with the mind of the Holy See on any matter, and communicate the more easily with Rome and with one another" (Veterum Sapientia, 1962).

It seems that any discussion of the Church's liturgical language would have some reference to history, to the "so many centuries" mentioned by St. John XXIII, to the glorification of God and the sanctification of the language used by so many saints, not merely dwell on alleged practicalities of this current place and time. That's not surprising, though; the contemporary talking Church is so enamored with the idea of "proclamation", "word as mystery" and "announcement" that its hardly a shock that the motu proprio takes an extremely pragmatic view of liturgical language. It's so ironic, however, that even considered pragmatically, it makes a lot more sense to have a universal liturgical language "to be a bond of unity for the Christian peoples" than to not.

6. Speaking of practicality, I have to say practically speaking, I am not sure how much of a huge difference this is going to make. For one thing, I want to ask the Holy Father what planet he is living on. In what part of the world is "not enough vernacular" really a problem? Is there anywhere where the reign of Latin is so absolute that vernacular needs a broader usage than it already has?? As to the quality of the translations, I think there might not be any substantial change. Episcopal Conferences are notoriously untrustworthy in so many respects; I chuckled to myself when I saw the new document's admonition that Episcopal translations must be faithful, knowing how that worked with the New American Bible. But at this point, is there confidence that the Magisterium would do any better? It's really a pick your poison sort of situation. I honestly don't really trust anyone to do vernacular translations. Translation is policy, and whenever there is a chance to make a translation, the folks in charge will make those translations according to whatever the theological zeitgeist demands. And that's true whoever is in charge of it. So, I'm not sure I am worried that new translations will be qualitatively worse. Once you open the door to all these vernacular translations, it's just what's going to happen. The day of Pentecost has been undone; we have returned to Babel.

That's all for now. I'm sure there's more to say. But obviously, if you don't want to have to worry about translation and all the nonsense attendant upon relying on vernacular editions of the liturgy, just come to the traditional Latin Mass. In the Latin Mass the Church, "by providing splendid vesture of her heavenly doctrine and sacred laws", thankfully avoids all such worry.

What do you think?