Unfaithful to Truth: Errant Translation of Catechism Is Rejected

On December 10, 1992, Pope John Paul II officially promulgated the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first “universal” Catholic catechism in over 400 years. Seven years in preparation by a drafting committee composed of bishops from around the world, the new Catechism was presented to the world by the Holy Father in a moving ceremony where he called it “a sure and certain standard for the teaching of the faith.”

The Catechism had already attracted considerable attention during its preparation. Following its promulgation, it quickly became, in the U.S. at least, one of the most popular of all themes for articles, speeches, conferences, symposia, and the like. Despite all this attention, however, week has followed week, month has followed month, and still there has not really been any “document”: the official text of the Catechism is not yet available in English.

Nor, as of this writing, is it known when an English version will be available. All who have written or spoken about it have had to work from the French text, officially promulgated by the Holy Father. The document was written in French, apparently, because that proved to be the best common medium for the various bishops who were working on it. Translations into all the major languages were expected to follow quickly upon the publication of the French text, and this was the case for German, Italian, and Spanish. A common version for the whole English-speaking world was known to be in preparation as well.

By the summer of 1993, however, no English translation had made its appearance, prompting the American bishops to urge Rome to approve a translation expeditiously. But Rome was not to be hurried in the matter. Although public indications were sparse, several news stories appeared confirming rumors that the English translation was being held up—in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), no less.

Considering all the fanfare which had accompanied the preparation and promulgation of the Catechism worldwide, the continued absence of an English translation could not help but cause something of an anti-climax, if not an embarrassment. In some quarters, the continuing delay even gave rise to the expression of “anti-Roman” sentiments, since the CDF was neither releasing the translation known to exist, nor issuing statements or calling press conferences, American-style, to explain why not. The whole affair could thus be viewed as another example of Rome adopting the stance of “never apologize, never explain,” while everyone else was left hanging.

A Justified Delay

The writers of this article have both been professionally engaged, among other pursuits, in translating books on Catholic subjects from French into English. Both of us have also read the entire Catechism in French. As a result, we are entirely in agreement with Pope John Paul II that this new catechism is “a precious, splendid, profound, and timely gift for all.” We yield to none in our eagerness to see this magnificent document made available in English and, especially, made the basis of catechesis at all levels.

But we have also been in a position to read and study the translation of the Catechism made for English-speaking Catholics—the one still being held up by the CDF in Rome as we write. Regretfully, we have not been reassured by what we have found in this translation.

Speaking primarily as translators—although also as educators—we judge this translation to be a very bad one. If it had been foisted on the English-speaking world in the form in which we have studied it and in which, apparently, it went to the CDF for approval, we believe it would have brought discredit upon the whole Catechism enterprise, to the detriment of the faith and of the Church.

In our opinion, the CDF has performed an outstanding service to the Church by delaying the publication of this translation. The text is in serious need of correction on not a few points—including many important ones. Whatever the embarrassment flowing from the long delay, the shame of publishing an English version of the Catechism that so imperfectly reflected the French text which the Holy Father approved would have been a far more serious thing.

Without pretending to deal comprehensively with the defects of this translation in the compass of a single article, we believe that some varied and salient examples of how the translation falls short will contribute to greater public understanding of the long delay in releasing an acceptable English version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Hundreds of errors in the translation could be cited besides those included in this article. Many of them no doubt represent small points. Nevertheless, some of them do not represent small points, and, cumulatively, they are dismaying. Besides, why not get the thing right? It is not an impossible task. Indeed, it is crucial that it be done; millions of Catholics in the 26 countries of the English- speaking world depend upon it.

We have found numerous cases where words and phrases have simply not been translated correctly. In other cases the English version is evidently not complete; things that are found in the French are not found in the English. Elsewhere things have been added to the English version, apparently on the translator’s sole authority. In yet other cases, “translation” problems turn out to be far more than translation problems; they possess theological and doctrinal significance, as well—sometimes major doctrinal significance. Finally, this translation involves itself in the enormous problem of so-called “inclusive language.”

Feminist Language

Let us take the last problem first. “Inclusive language” is the contemporary term used to describe the avoidance of the words “man” or “men,” or “he” or “him,” when what is meant is “mankind,” “everybody,” “people in general,” “both men and women,” “the human race,” and so on. Ideological feminists claim that women are not “included” if “man” or “he” is used in a generic sense; hence language must now be used which, in their view, “includes” them. No longer can we affirm, for instance, that “all men are brothers”; we now have to say that “all men and women are brothers and sisters”—but then what about children, who are neither men nor women? Are they left out when contemporary “inclusive language” is used?

Some believe this “inclusive language” necessary, in spite of the fact that the English language and, before that, its Anglo-Saxon ancestor have used “man” and “he” and the like in a generic sense for well over a thousand years. That tradition does not cut any ice with today’s ideological feminists or with those fellow-travelers who imagine such feminists “represent” women and constitute the wave of the future, when everybody will always naturally and  automatically say, “he and she,” “him and her,” etc.

Published in 1967, the Funk and Wagnalls Standard English Dictionary defines “man” as (1) a member of the genus Homo; (2) the human race; (3) anyone, indefinitely; and (4) an adult male, as distinguished from a woman or a boy. Today’s radical feminist claim amounts to saying that this last definition of “man,” given only in the fourth place in a standard, recent English dictionary, is the only valid definition. As late as 1986, Webster’s New World Dictionary was still defining “man” as (1) a human being; (2) the human race; and—in third place this time— (3) an adult male human being. Thus “man,” as the English language has always viewed him, already includes “woman” when used in specific contexts—and the meanings, according to these contexts, are perfectly understandable to everybody.

Unfortunately, some dictionaries such as the Random House College Dictionary, published in 1985, have now acquiesced to modern ideological feminist influence: they list first the definition of “man” as “an adult male human being.” But this represents an unprecedented novelty. Nor is it necessarily something that is going to last.

For present purposes, the problem is that French, like English, uses l’homme, “man,” in the same generic way that English does. The official version of the Catechism is therefore replete with hundreds of cases in which “man” is used precisely in the way that stirs up ideological feminist ire, beginning with the very first numbered paragraph of the document. The first paragraph of the Catechism declares that “God . . . freely created man” (l’homme)¬which the English translation under consideration renders, “God . . . freely created the human race.” This same paragraph goes on to affirm that God is “close to man.” The translation gives this as, “close to us.” The passage goes on to affirm that “He gathers all men” (tous les hommes)—which, as anyone can guess by now, the translation renders, “God gathers the human race” (note: not “He” but “God”).

Thus the translator—apparently acting in response to the ideological feminist imperative, for no principle of translation would ever justify it—has laboriously and relentlessly gone through the entire text of the Catechism changing “men” to “people” or “humanity” or some-thing of the sort, adding “sister” wherever “brother” happens to appear, and even repeating the nouns “God” or “Christ” in order to avoid using “He” or “Him.” When the Catechism teaches that “all men are implicated in Adam’s sin” (402), this becomes, in translation, “all humanity is implicated in Adam’s sin.” Later in the same paragraph, “all men” becomes “all people.” In paragraph 543, exactly the same French expression, tous les hommes, becomes “everyone.” And so on.

The infusion of “inclusive language” into the text of the Catechism was deemed necessary by the translator also for passages quoted from papal and conciliar documents, from the Fathers of the Church, and even from Scripture. Such a transformation is far more than a “translation”; it is an ideological statement.

Nor are the results happy. The text ranges from banal through awkward to jarring. Sometimes the results are downright deplorable; at other times they are merely absurd. Occasionally the almost maniacal concern to avoid generic language leads to distortions and misstatements of Christian revelation and essential Catholic doctrine.

One sometimes hears that this translation employs “inclusive language” only “horizontally,” that is, only when referring to human beings; never “vertically,” that is, when referring to God. And what, one might ask, is so bad about that?

First of all, it is not true. We saw how the word “God” had to be unnaturally and awkwardly repeated in the very first paragraph of the Catechism so as to avoid the word “He”—even when applied to God! Once the feminist premise about language is accepted, it would seem, the feminist bias steadily re-surfaces.

Again, the simple title above paragraph 203, which in French reads Dieu Revele Son Nom (God Reveals His Name) becomes in English the much more bland and abstract “The Revelation of God’s Name.” In the same paragraph, the exposition suddenly shifts from the third person singular to the first person plural—”a name expresses our essence” for le nom exprime l’essence—evidently in order to be able to avoid using “His” later on in the passage when referring to the name of God. This is game-playing, and it is not amusing when what is involved is the truth of God.

In paragraph 212, hormis Lui, “besides Him,” becomes, gratuitously, “besides YHWH.” In paragraph 221, in the sentence, “God is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and has destined us to share in that exchange,” the “He” employed by the French text to indicate Who has thus “destined” us is quietly dropped, as is surely the case hundreds of times in the course of the translation. In paragraph 383, the scriptural text of Genesis 1:27 is changed in response to the feminist imperative; “he created them” is made to read “God created them.”

If there is conflict between what Scripture says and what the feminist imperative demands, it would be unwise to bet on the former against the latter. In paragraph 442, Galatians 1:15, “He Who set me apart,” becomes “God who set me apart.” And so on.

These citations are only a few examples of how feminist assumptions dictate the translation, not only of “horizontal” language referring to human beings, but also of at least some “vertical” language referring to God and to Christ. It is astonishing that any believer should agree that feminist claims justify changing the words of Scripture itself. Who has the right to change Scripture?

What feminist locutions do for normal “horizontal” language most of us have long since discovered. Typically, an expression such as peche des hommes, “sin of men,” comes to be (mis)translated as “sinful humanity” (211). Les anges et les hommes (“angels and men”) become not just “angels and human beings,” but also, absurdly, “people and angels,” all within the confines of the same paragraph (311). Another passage, speaking of “the love that finds in each man a neighbor, a brother”—la charite qui trouve en chaque homme un prochain, un frere—is translated in a way that first substitutes “person” for “man,” and then, compulsively, adds “and sister” after “brother” (1931). (What about “cousin”?)

Even those who are not bothered by such clumsy and jarring phrases and locutions should nevertheless realize that they are simply not English. A translator is supposed to render as faithfully as possible in his target language what has actually been said in his source language, not deform what his source language says in response to the dictates of a highly debatable ideology.

More than that, however, some of these inept substitutions for natural English alter the meaning of the text, sometimes profoundly. Paragraph 383, for example, changes Genesis 1:27 to say that “God . . . did not create the human person to be a solitary.” “Human person” here substitutes for the word “man” (in the Hebrew, Adam) which is actually found in the Bible. But the two terms are not equivalents. For example, Jesus Christ was a man, but He was not a “human person.”

Again, in the English version paragraph 364 asserts that “humanity . . . [is] a unity of body and soul.” But this is not true. “Humanity” has neither body nor soul; humanity is an abstraction. Only individual men have bodies and souls, as the French text clearly says in speaking of how l’homme is vraiment un, though possessing corps et ame. In paragraph 659, the same abstract word, “humanity,” is used to translate Christ’s “body,” glorified at the Resurrection; indeed, according to this passage, it was Christ’s “humanity” which was taken up into heaven! Quite apart from the questionable theological implications here, this is the kind of writing that wouldn’t pass freshman English.

Oblivious to all other considerations in its single- minded determination to imprison the Catechism within the cheerless walls of “inclusive language,” then, this translation even changes the familiar phrase in Romans 8:29, “first-born among many brethren,” into “the firstborn within a large family.” This absurdity appears not just once (381), or twice (501), but at least three times (2790).

How much easier it would have been simply to bow to the fact that the word “man” already is “inclusive.” Many more examples could be adduced, but surely enough has been said to indicate the folly of trying to render the Catechism of the Catholic Church in feminist- speak. The translator of the Catechism should have avoided this minefield just as surely as Adam and Eve should have forgone the forbidden fruit.

Simply put, in this translation, “the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles” finds itself in crude and uneasy misalliance with a brand of feminist ideology that comes to us from the American ’60s. This is a terribly high price to pay in order to appease a school of ideology which, for the most part, is bitterly anti-Catholic and hence unappeasable anyway.

Errors, Simple and Grave

Many words and phrases are not translated correctly. La plus pure does not mean “supreme” in English, as this text translates it (64); it means “the purest” or “the most pure.” A differend in French does not mean “difference” (247) but a “point of disagreement.” Nor does sollicitude in French mean “supervision” (303), but rather the same thing that its cognate means in English. The French verb se devoyer essentially means “to go astray” (301); to translate it as “to become corrupted” is much too strong for the normal usage of this word. French services, again meaning roughly the same thing as its cognate word in English, is unaccountably translated “ministries” in paragraph 794, while in paragraph 1509, “ministry” is the English word used to translate the French charge (meaning being made responsible for something). Schismes, which means exactly the same thing in French as it does in English, is blandly translated “divisions” (1206); symbole is wrongly translated as “emblem” instead of “symbol” (1220). Opere is translated as “achieved” instead of “effected” in paragraph 1221, while “achieved” in paragraph 1275 turns out to stand for yet another word, s’accomplit, which, again, is not the proper rendering. Signifier does not mean “to express” (1333) but “to signify.”

In paragraph 1532, passage to eternal life becomes “passover,” which is simply ludicrous in English (al-though “passing over” would be acceptable). Offense is translated “attacked” instead of “offended” (1469). Clement becomes “gentle” instead of “merciful” or “clement” (2086). Revele does not mean “portray” (2259); it means “reveal.” Nor does promesse mean “sign” (2347); it means “promise.” In paragraph 1334, definitif is translated as “conclusive,” while in paragraph 1340, the same word is translated as “ultimate,” when the English cognate “definitive” could and should have been used in both cases. And biens (“goods”) most certainly does not mean the same thing as “blessings” (2590).

Paragraph 2238 speaks of the Christian’s “right and sometimes [his] duty”—as we are translating the French here—”of making a just protest against that which may appear harmful to the dignity of persons and the good of the community”; in the translation before us, however, the French juste in this passage is translated “lawful,” which could imply that the kind of protests in question would not be legitimate if they were “against the law”— not “lawful,” in other words. This kind of translation will not do in a society where abortion, for example, now is “lawful”—and regular protests against it are both necessary and just. The translation, however, rather strangely seems to favor “lawful” in a number of cases where it does not precisely fit. Paragraph 2278, for example, on the subject of euthanasia, speaks of les interets legitimes (“the legitimate interests”) of the patient; but again, the translation renders this as “lawful interests”—which presumably will no longer obtain if euthanasia is made “lawful,” as it has been in the Netherlands. “Legitimate interests” is clearly the proper translation here.

All these are examples of mistranslated words. Many other examples could be cited of French expressions rendered incorrectly for the context in which they appear. For example, toujours actuelle does not mean “ever appropriate,” as it is translated in paragraph 1351, but rather “current,” or “going on now.” Similarly, des maintenant does not simply mean “now,” as in paragraph 1404, but “from now on” or “henceforth.” Nor does la presentation des oblats in any way mean “the preparation of the altar,” as it is translated (1350); in the context, it refers to the bringing up of the gifts. Speaking of the Mass as both a sacrificial memorial and a sacred banquet, paragraph 1382 of the translation merely says “both,” leaving out the French a la fois et inseparablement, “at once and inseparably.”

Whole clauses or sentences are also sometimes translated wrongly or misleadingly. In paragraph 197, for example, it is stated that “the whole Church . . . communicates the faith to us as the matrix of our faith.” Besides being almost nonsensical (how is it possible to “communicate faith” as the “matrix” of itself?), this reading fails to translate the French properly. The French says, l’Èglise toute entiere . . . nous transmet la foi et an sein de laquelle nous croyons. What this means is, “The whole Church . . . transmits the faith to us, and in her bosom we believe.” (It is significant, by the way, that “communicate faith” is preferred to “transmit the faith”; one can communicate whatever one decides upon, whereas one can only transmit what one has received.)

Dealing with a similar subject, paragraph 1253 informs us that “of necessity, the faith of each believer participates in the Church’s faith.” The French, however, says, ce n’est que dans la foi de l’Eglise que chacun des fideles peut croire, which means: “It is only in the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe.”

In paragraph 1350 we read that “in Christ’s name the priest will offer . . . the bread and the wine in the Eucharistic sacrifice when they have become his body and blood” (emphasis added). This translation implies that the priest will offer the bread and the wine only after they have already become His body and His blood. A more correct translation would be a more literal one: “The bread and the wine . . . will be offered by the priest in the name of Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice where they will become the body and blood [of Christ]” (emphasis added again). The French reads, Le pain et le vin . . . seront offerts par le pretre an nom du Christ dans le sacrifice eucharistique ou ils deviendront le corps et le sang [du Christ].

In paragraph 2009, the translation says that “as God’s adopted children, justified and given a share in the divine life by God’s free gift, we can truly merit.” The French for this says something quite different, however: L’Adoption filiale, en nous rendant participants par grace a la nature divine, peut nous con ferer, suivant la justice gratuite de Dieu, un veritable merite. This sentence would be much better translated by the following: “Filial adoption, by making us participants through grace in the divine nature, can confer on us, following God’s justice freely accorded, a true merit.” Now it is simply not the same thing to say that we can freely merit, which is what the translation says, instead of saying that God can “confer . . . a true merit” on us by filial adoption, which is what the original French text says.

Or, again, speaking of confirmation, paragraph 1288 speaks rather weakly of “the fulfillment of Christ’s wish,” whereas the French text has pour accomplir la volontê du Christ, which is to say, “to fulfill the will of Christ.”

Paragraph 517 tells us that Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption, including “in his Resurrection by which he justifies us” (Dans sa Resurrection par laquelle it nous justifie). The translation of this clause, however, gives “in his Resurrection because he justifies us,” which could imply that Christ’s Resurrection is a “mystery” only in that he justifies us. Also, for those modern theologians who see the Resurrection not as an actual historical occurrence but rather as some kind of a “faith event,” the Resurrection would flow logically from the fact of our justification. But, of course, it is precisely the other way around, as the original French text makes clear.

We could go on. At length. Not a few of the passages in this English translation are marked by inexactitude and imprecision. Admittedly, some of them involve texts with which any translator might have difficulty, and many of them may concern only fine points. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are far too many such mistranslations in this text; on these grounds alone, the translation must be judged to be wholly inadequate.

Moreover, some of the mistranslations seem inexplicable, even frivolous—as if the translator were not paying attention. For example, in paragraph 1446 there is a quotation from Tertullian speaking about “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which the loss of grace is” (la seconde planche saint] apres le naufrage qu’est la perte de la grace”). In the translation this passage becomes, “as the shipwrecked grasp the support of a plank,” without any reference to the subject of grace at all, or apparently any understanding that here the word “plank” here means something like “the second item” relating to salvation.

Or, again, there is paragraph 2125, quoting Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes 19, which the Flannery translation of the Vatican II documents renders, “Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism”; the French for this is, Les croyants peuvent avoir une part qui n’est pas mince . . . dans la diffusion de l’atheisme. The text before us, however, translates this same passage as “the rise of atheism is largely attributable to believers” (emphasis added).

Finally, in paragraph 484, our translation renders Luke 1:32, quite arbitrarily, as “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Even though it is presumably not wrong doctrinally to have Mary affirming her own virginity, it is not what the French original says; nor is it what the Gospel of Luke says. They both say, “How can this be since I do not know man?” No translator should take such liberties with a text, even if what he says happens to be true.

Omissions and Additions

There also are many instances in this translation of the Catechism where things have either been left out or been added in. One fairly regular omission appears to be the dropping, even when quoting Church documents, of the word “sacred” in expressions like “sacred council,” or of the words “Holy” and “Mother” from the expression “Holy Mother Church” (1203, 1667). In fact, the translator seems to have an aversion to the idea of the Church as a “woman” or a “mother.” This would seem to be the necessary obverse of the radical feminist demand for so- called “inclusive language.” Like the latter, it diminishes the literary style of the translation.

Other omissions include such things as paragraph 425’s excision of d’abord (“first of all,” or “primarily”) from the sentence declaring that “the transmission of the Christian faith consists in proclaiming Jesus Christ”; but while the transmission of the faith does consist in proclaiming Jesus Christ, it does not consist only in that. Similarly, paragraph 469 in the translation omits “inseparably” from the statement that the Church “confesses that Jesus is both true God and true man.”

Paragraph 1205, quoting from Vatican Council II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (21), states that “the liturgy, above all, that of the sacraments, ‘is made up of immutable elements, divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change.’”The translation omits here an important phrase in the French that “the Church is the guardian of the liturgy.” Paragraph 1174, speaking of celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours “in the approved form,” leaves out the intelligence that this approval is something given “by the Church.”

Paragraph 1467, discussing the secrecy of the confessional, drops the adjective “absolute.” In paragraph 1567, where priests are said to owe their bishops “love and obedience,” the word “love” is dropped in the translation, which speaks instead of “obedience and respect.” In paragraph 2039, the translation drops the adjective “fraternal,” modifying “service.”

Paragraph 2366, quoting Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae (12) on the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of conjugal intercourse, leaves out the encyclical’s important statement that this teaching has “often been expounded by the Magisterium of the Church.” In fact, the translator seems to have an aversion to “the Magisterium.” On numerous occasions the translator uses the phrase “teaching authority” to translate the French Magistere (e.g., 2036). Why not “Magisterium”? It is true that this word means the “teaching authority” or “teaching office” of the Church—an “authority” and an “office” that have existed since Christ proclaimed to His apostles the words of Luke 10:16. But the word “Magisterium” has appropriately come into wide use in relatively recent times in order to reinforce the claim that the Church does, precisely, teach truth (see Vatican II, Dignitatis humance 14; Sacrosanctum concilium 16). It is important that the Church’s understanding of “Magisterium” be distinguished from that of Christian communions who hold that “truth” emerges from the private judgment of the believer reflecting on Scripture, and from the notion that the authority of the Church is derived from a community of individuals (the “gathered church”). This distinction is especially critical in an era and in a culture which strongly tends to deny that truth can be knowable at all—in particular, that truth which the Church teaches. In any case, the language of the Catechism, in the original, regularly reflects the established and valid modern use of the word “Magisterium.” Why not use it in the translation?

We come now to additions inserted by the translation Paragraph 1313, indicating that the ordinary minister of confirmation is the bishop, goes on to say that the bishop “may, for serious reasons, delegate to the priest the faculty of confirming children baptized in infancy“—the italicized phrase, again, has been added to the English without any warrant from the French text. Paragraph 1371, speaking of the faithful departed who have died in Christ, adds that they “are therefore assured of their eternal salvation.

In paragraph 1069 concerning the liturgy, the text adds “whole” before “the people of God,” and in paragraph 1071 it adds “effective” before “visible sign.” In paragraph 1210, the word “chrismation” is added as a synonym for “confirmation,” although surely this is a word most speakers of English have never heard. The text of paragraph 2263, speaking of “legitimate defense,” adds “deliberate” before “murder,” although murder is by definition deliberate; and the text of paragraph 2278, speaking of medical procedures, adds “unnecessarily” before “burdensome.” Some of these additions may involve minor matters, but their occurrence serves to undermine confidence in the integrity of the translation.

Theological Partisanship

Clearly, some of the mistranslations, omissions, and additions to be found in the English translation of the Catechism have doctrinal significance. In too many instances—it should, of course, be “in no instances” where a “catechism” or simple compendium of the faith is concerned—this translation evinces a definite parti pris with regard to some of the theological controversies that have raged in the Church over the past generation. This can surface even in such seemingly small things as the title Constitution Hierarchique to be found directly above paragraph 874; the translation gives “Hierarchical Structure” for this particular title. But it matters a great deal whether the Church’s sacred hierarchy is part of the Church’s organic constitution as established by Christ Himself, or whether, as many “progressives” allege, the hierarchy is simply a mutable “structure” established by men, one of many outdated structures which can and should be replaced.

Similarly, the language of the translation in such passages as the last two sentences of paragraph 1577, concerning who is able to receive sacred ordination, can be of some doctrinal significance. The translation here reads, “The Church considers itself bound by [the] choice of the Lord. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.” But this translation could imply that, since the question is merely something that the Church “considers,” then the Church might well sometime be brought to “reconsider” the question, especially if feminist pressure in the matter continues to be as effective as it has been in persuading some that the Church needs “inclusive language” in the English version of her universal Catechism. The French for this text, however, says that l’eglise se reconnait lige, that is, “the Church recognizes [the reality] that she is bound,” and therefore implies that no change in the matter will ever be possible.

Comparably loose wording is to be found in the translation of paragraph 2382, where it is stated that “the Lord Jesus insisted upon the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage should be indissoluble” (emphasis added). The question immediately arises: Maybe it should be, but is it? Given one of the common meanings of the word “should” in English, some might interpret this translation to mean that what the Creator willed was merely the desirability of a marriage bond that is permanent and unbreakable. By contrast, the French for this sentence is very clear: Le Seigneur Jesus a insiste sur l’intention originelle du Crgateur qui voulait un mariage indissoluble. That is, “The Lord Jesus insisted on the original intention of the Creator who willed marriage to be indissoluble” (emphasis added).

The translator also has a distaste for both the word and the essential theological idea of “the Fall.” In paragraph 410, the sentence, “After his fall, man was not abandoned by God” (Apres sa chute, l’homme n’a pas erg abandonng par Dieu), appears in the English translation as, “God did not forsake our first parents after their sin” (emphasis added). In the sentence following this one, “lifting [man] up from his fall” (le relevement de sa chute) becomes, again, “removal of their sin,” that is, Adam and Eve’s sin. Similarly, in paragraph 289, the triad “creation, fall, promise” (creation, chute, promesse) once more becomes “creation, sin, promise” (again emphasis added). In paragraph 385, where the word “fall” is used, it is placed, significantly, within quotation marks (even then, it comes out as the “fall” of “humanity,” not of “man”—this for chute de l’homme).

The translation also consistently eschews the word “hell.” Whereas the French text speaks of the descent of Christ aux enfers, that is, “into hell,” the translation prefers to speak of Christ descending “to the dead” (e.g., 631, 634). In paragraph 633, where the word “hell” is found in the English version, it is placed between quotation marks. In paragraph 634, where the French text actually does use the expression sgjour des morts, “abode of the dead,” the translation again gives, invariably, “to the dead.”

Still more serious is the translation’s treatment of the whole notion of sin. Although the Catechism carefully delineates the Church’s traditional understanding of mortal and venial sin (1854-64), the translation nevertheless succeeds in rather thoroughly obfuscating that distinction— just as it thoroughly obfuscates the distinction between “grave” and “light” matter in moral matters. Generally, it tries to avoid using the term “light” by always substituting “not grave” for it (e.g., 2073). In many other places, Oche grave, “grave sin,” is translated instead as “serious sin” (e.g., 1385, 1457).

There is method here, not just muddle, since “serious sin” is not only the most frequently mentioned type of sin recognized in the translation; it is also, instead of “mortal sin,” sometimes explicitly contrasted with “venial sin” (e.g., 2480), implying not only that venial sin is not all that serious, but also explicitly recognizing the categories of sin postulated by the so-called “fundamental option” theory. This modern moral theory introduces between the traditional categories of venial sin and mortal sin another category which it styles, precisely, “serious sin.” For the fundamental-option theologians, a sin may be “serious” but not necessarily “mortal”; for them a sin is “mortal” only when the sinner has explicitly decided to reject God in the process of acting against His will.

The fundamental option theory has been expressly rejected by the Magisterium of the Church (see CDF, Persona humana 10, 1975; Veritatis splendor, 65-70). Thus the sudden re-surfacing of its characteristic terminology in this compendium of authentic Catholic doctrine is a grave development. If not corrected, the language used here to characterize sin could dispose some of those being catechized to the influence of the superficially plausible but erroneous fundamental option theory. This theory is exactly the sort of thing that does appeal to our dominant secular “culture” today.

We can only wonder whether this translation represents a desire, conscious or unconscious, to accommodate the harsh world in which we are obliged to live today. The same kind of question arises when we see the translation drop the word “all” in the paragraph concerning “the moral evil of all procured abortion” (2271). The world in which we live finds the Catholic view of morality and sin excessively rigid, and the temptation to meet the world half way is always strong. But this is not a temptation to which a catechism aiming to transmit the integral faith of Christ can afford to yield.

In view of all the deficiencies of this “Englished” version of the Catechism, it is devoutly to be hoped that its protracted sojourn in the Congregation for the Doc-trine of the Faith in Rome means that it is undergoing thorough revision and correction. If so, the CDF is only doing its plain duty. Responsibility for the delay belongs to those who presumed to put forward a translation for English-speaking Catholics that could not possibly be acceptable.


  • Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Rev. Michael J. Wrenn is the director of the Catechetical Institute of the New York Archdiocesan Department of Education, Yonkers. Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. His most recent book is Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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