USCC: Lost in Translation

“Prayer in the ancient tradition of the Church” the ad in the Liturgy Training Publications catalog proclaims. The subject of the glossy spread is the psalms, canticles, and prayer books using these portions of Scripture, produced by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). ICEL was created after the Second Vatican Council to produce translations for all English-speaking countries—most recently, a massive revision of the Sacramentary (Roman Missal).

Nowhere in the ad for the ICEL prayer books is the reader told that these versions of Scripture are not approved for liturgical use; that is, they may not be used for public prayer. Furthermore, the ad boldly lists among the advantages of these books the fact that ICEL “uses inclusive language for human beings and for God.”

Now, this is a very interesting admission—especially as the controversy over so-called “inclusive language” has sharpened considerably in recent months.

Last December all seven American cardinals met with officials of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship, reportedly to urge approval of a new Lectionary and selected Bible readings for Mass, “as soon as possible.” The Lectionary, which whipped through the U.S. bureaucracy with scarcely a dissenting voice raised, has met sterner examiners in Rome. Four years have passed since the American bishops’ conference approved it.

The proposed new Lectionary is based on the Revised New American Bible (RNAB), one of several recent Bible revisions incorporating neutered English. Others are the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New Jerusalem Bible, and The New Grail Psalter.

In 1994, following the controversy over the English translation of the new Catechism, the Vatican denied approval of the RNAB and the NRSV for use in the Liturgy. The next year, after a meeting with an American committee, the Vatican issued norms for translation, which have not been made public.

But in 1990 the American bishops’ conference had approved “Criteria for the Use of Inclusive Language in Scriptural and Liturgical Texts.”

These criteria accepted in principle the use of so-called “horizontal inclusive language” (references to people); but also cautioned that “vertical” language for God could significantly alter the meaning.

Feminists, however, demand that language about God must change as well. They regard Christianity and Scripture as the creations of men to perpetuate the victimization of women.

These views are retailed in the Church by some powerful women. Sister Mary Collins, for example, who supervised the ICEL Psalter project, does not conceal her objectives. In her 1987 book, Worship: Renewal to Practice, she criticizes the liturgical tradition and sacramental structure of the Church, from a feminist perspective, and proclaims her goal of “exorcising the demon of patriarchy” from the Church:

Should we keep still and deny our experience? If we announce it, the church and the society we know and which has shaped us would have to die: your life for the life of the world (emphasis added).

Few bishops read feminist writers; otherwise they might realize the seriousness of this language question. Many seem to be intimidated by feminists. Some may fear appearing ignorant or old-fashioned. Contemporary translators have been “correcting” normal English for years. They imply that their own view is educated, enlightened, and just, and that anyone who objects to ideological tinkering with sacred texts is an “extremist” opposed to all advances in knowledge.

The solemn invocation of “the Ancient Tradition of the Church” in the ad promoting the ICEL books evidently assumes that this reassuring phrase will soothe and attract. But there is nothing ancient or traditional or Catholic about gelding God or mounting a rebellion against the normal use of the language—a vowed rebellion that will not cease until every sacred text has been strip- searched for “error,” abused, robbed of its beauty and power and left wounded in a ditch.


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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