American Roadblock: Why Rome Refused a Politically Correct Translation

Is it a sin to read the new Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church? No, but it is illicit. An exaggeration, of course. No one will complain if you find a copy of the new catechism, in the approved French translation. But, technically, Catholic bookstores should not carry that edition; it will not be licensed for distribution in this country until American bishops also have an English-language version. Most bookstores are honoring the embargo, so the French catechism is hard to find.

Despite promises of quick delivery, an approved English-language version probably will not appear for several months, perhaps even until 1994. And the single man most responsible for the delay is the same man who first proposed the publication of a new universal catechism, way back at the Synod of 1986: Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston.

Originally written in French, the text of the new Catechism gained final Vatican approval in April of last year. Translators and publishers immediately leapt into action all over the world. In the United States, Cardinal Law, as head of the bishops’ committee charged with supervising the English-language edition, chose as his principal translator a relatively obscure country priest from the diocese of Savannah, Georgia, Father Douglas Clark.

On November 16, 1992, the first approved copies of the new Catechism reached bookstores in France. Italian and Spanish versions were not far behind. The German presses are rolling even as this article goes to the typesetter. Back in December, the English-language team, with Father Clark in the vanguard, had nearly completed its task. Or so it seemed.

On December 1, Cardinal Law sent a draft copy of the Clark translation to bishops around the United States, predicting that it would be ready for publication in no time. A few days later, on a visit to Rome, he ran into Mother Angelica in St. Peter’s Square. After asking her whether she was meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger to discuss the translation (She was; how did he know?), the Cardinal joked, “Just make sure he approves the translation by December 8!”

Cardinal Ratzinger disappointed his brother from Boston. He did not approve the English version by December 8. Quite the contrary, for after a lively and extended debate, he rejected the Clark translation.

Though the translation project encountered many knotty questions, the main problem in Cardinal Ratzinger’s eyes (and the reason he had brought a worried Mother Angelica rushing to Rome to lodge a protest) was the translation’s heavy use of “inclusive language”—the dedicated effort to rid the text of masculine pronouns. Because of the theological importance of God the Father and the Incarnation of Jesus as a male, the Clark translation had decided to eschew “vertical” inclusive language, and so male pronouns were allowed in references to the Almighty. But in references to the Church as the People of God, and in general discussions of humanity, “horizontal” inclusive language was the norm.

For foes of the “inclusive-language” approach, the “vertical/horizontal” distinction is not enough to eliminate theological problems. The incessant use of, “he/she” and “men and women” makes for ugly, ungainly prose, signals a surrender to the feminist linguistic agenda, blurs some crucial distinctions between the priesthood and the laity, ignores distinctions between the sexes, and loses some fine philosophical subtleties about the nature of the human person. Then, which pronoun should be used in references to the church: she or it? And, is it still Holy Mother Church? Should the famous encyclical of John XXIII be re-titled, “Mater/Pater et Magistra/Magister“?

Re-translating the title of a well-known encyclical might seem foolish. Yet in Father Clark’s draft, citations from the Church Fathers were rendered in new, inclusive language. And, when the time came to quote from the documents of Vatican II, the popular Abbott and Flannery translations (which already adorn the bookshelves in thousands of Catholic homes) were deemed not good enough: The Clark draft used its own, more enlightened version. This tendentious approach brought on sharp reaction from some of the bishops who received copies of the Clark draft, and soon the draft was being hit by a veritable barrage of criticism. The critics combed carefully through the draft, raising objections page by page. Spearheaded by Father Joseph Fessio (a California Jesuit and publisher) and Monsignor Michael Wrenn (a Manhattan pastor and veteran translator), they began to contact sympathetic English-speaking bishops in the United States, Canada, England, and elsewhere around the world, forming a “loyal opposition” to the Clark draft.

That opposition was strong enough to attract attention in some unusual quarters. On May 7, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial exposing the controversy and ridiculing the drive to bowdlerize the Catechism. But by the time that editorial appeared, the inclusive language debate had already been settled.

Within a few weeks, in fact, the opposition had reached a critical mass—critical enough to prompt Vatican officials into action. Bishop Christoph Schoenborn, who has presided over publication of the new Catechism, expressed misgivings about the Clark translation. On behalf of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger convened a meeting to discuss the matter, inviting Cardinal Law, Bishop David Konstant (the chairman of the English bishops’ translation team), Father Clark, and several other interested bishops. That meeting, held at the Vatican on February 3 and 4, was unusually bitter and acrimonious. The critics had not pulled their punches; they produced a list of complaints that ran to several hundred pages—substantially longer than the text of the Clark draft! Although the use of inclusive language was by no means the only bone of contention, it easily was the most contentious topic. Cardinal Law vigorously defended the Clark text; Bishop Konstant was even more avid in his support. But Bishop Schoenborn was openly skeptical, and another bishop—whose presence at the meeting came as something of a surprise to the Law-Konstant coalition—weighed in forcefully. In the end, their arguments convinced Cardinal Ratzinger. The Clark translation, as it stood, would not receive his Congregation’s approval. The critics of the inclusive-language approach had won the battle. The translation was headed back to the drawing board.

Freshly back in Boston, with more than a little egg on his face, Cardinal Law penned a column for his archdiocesan newspaper. After five long paragraphs of musing on the beauty of language and the challenge of translation—which must have been profoundly confusing to readers who knew nothing about the Catechism debate—the Cardinal finally came to the point. The column was full of praise for Father Clark, for his “magnificent service to the Church.” “The translation,” the Cardinal told his readers, “is now in its final weeks, and within the month it will be possible to send to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a text of which [the translators] can be justly proud.” A punctilious reader might have asked: Wasn’t the translation team proud of the document that already had reached the Congregation? But even a casual reader should have noticed a drastic change in Cardinal Law’s schedule for the publication of the English translation. In this column, dated February 12, he expressed his “hope that within several months we will have the English translation available in bookstores.” Yet back in December, he had promised his fellow American bishops that they could expect a finished product in ten to 12 weeks. Taking their cue from that schedule, the Daughters of Saint Paul had sent out promotional brochures informing bookstores that they could deliver the newly translated Catechism in mid-March of this year.

Obviously the translation had hit a snag. But only a few Catholics, with friends in the inner circles of Church administration, knew the reason. In his newspaper column, Cardinal Law provided only an oblique explanation; the words “inclusive language” did not appear on the first page of his column. Only dedicated readers, after plowing through 11 full paragraphs of generalization, reached the nub of the story, and even then, the Cardinal mentioned the inclusive-language debate as merely “one example of the complicated task that is translation.”

Published across the country by Catholic News Service in its documentary magazine Origins, Cardinal Law’s column served to notify the cognoscenti that the inclusive-language debate had stalled the Catechism translation. But readers remained in the dark as to the debate itself. On the West Coast, one secular newspaper digested Cardinal Law’s report, cogitated a bit, and reported that the Catechism was being delayed so that it could be adapted into inclusive language. Nothing could be further from the truth. The inclusive-language translation is dead. But so is the momentum toward publication of the Catechism in English. As May begins, and Vatican officials begin to look toward the leisurely work schedule of another languid Roman summer, there is no approved English translation, nor is there any translation awaiting approval—nor is anyone even talking—openly, that is—about preparing such a translation.


  • Father Brown

    "Father Brown" is the pseudonym for a former consultant to an American bishop.

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