USCC Watch: Are the Bishops Being ICEL-ated

“If I understand the force of the motion, I think I am opposed to it, but I may misunderstand.”—Bishop M.
“What are we voting yes on? Is that all right to ask?”—Cardinal O.
“Does that then mandate a vote at a particular meeting of the bishops?”—Bishop M.
“If we don’t approve this amendment, will we have ten months [to study the texts]?”—Bishop S.
“We have a blizzard of papers; we cut down a forest to accompany this meeting. Why the urgency, what’s the hurry?”—Bishop B.
“Can we take up the question of interpretation of that document with the Holy See?”—Bishop C.
“Please, my brothers—quaesumus fratres—return these texts to the Committee [for review].”—Cardinal H.
“The battle on the floor over translation is just typical of something out there which is much deeper.”—Archbishop W.

Although several Catholic journals, and some bishops, have characterized critics of revised liturgical texts as coming only from a well-funded right-wing fringe, the above snippets from the extensive conversation on the liturgical texts presented last November by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) indicate that the bishops themselves have considerable concern (and not a little confusion) over both the proposed revisions and the procedures for approving them.

The February issue of the Committee on the Liturgy’s Newsletter describes the complex nine-point procedure finally adopted by the bishops, which includes review of the texts by the Committee on Doctrine before they are presented by the Liturgy Committee to the body of bishops for final vote. At a minimum, these new procedures—for which many bishops worked strenuously—extend the process of approving new translations and revisions and allow the bishops more time for study and reflection. The BCL Newsletter also lists changes in the members, consultants, and advisors of the Committee appointed by its new chairman, Bishop Donald Trautman. New members are Bishops Anthony Bosco (Greensburg) and Edward Grosz (aux. Buffalo). Cardinal Hickey (Washington) was named a consulter to the committee. Cardinal Bernardin continues as a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, and Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk remains as chairman of ICEL’s Episcopal Board. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) member Sister Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, Dean of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, is an “advisor” to the BCL, as is theologian Father Michael Spillane, among others.

Procedures for dealing with liturgical revisions among ICEL’s it English-speaking bishops’ conferences are not uniform, as is obvious from a note in the BCL Newsletter under the heading “International Liturgical Update.”

The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is scheduled to vote on the first segment of the revised Sacramentary at their mid-April meeting. The bishops were to have received the revised texts only two months before this voting meeting, and would have about 30 days to review the texts and respond. They are allowed only to vote placet (accept) or non placet (reject). They may not submit alternatives to ICEL’s revisions. While non placet votes (including reasons for same) are to be submitted one month before the meeting, in order to allow ICEL time to respond, a bishop may still submit non placets at any time before the voting meeting, providing his written reasons.

Theoretically, if enough English/Welsh bishops (more than 33 percent) submitted negative votes before the meeting, the entire Sacramentary segment might be returned to ICEL. It is unclear from the Newsletter account, however, whether individual bishops of England and Wales would ever be allowed to suggest alternative translations. Apparently, little or no discussion or consultation as a body of bishops is possible under current procedures.

Most of these bishops, one fears, will have had too little opportunity to consider the changes, and are likely to respond by rubber-stamping the work of their Pastoral Liturgy Committee (and ICEL), as the U.S. bishops have usually done. Approval of the revised Sacramentary by the English and Welsh bishops will undoubtedly be used by ICEL to “encourage” other bishops’ conferences to do likewise.

Incidentally, the United States’ conference’s requested contribution of $116,040 towards the annual ICEL budget of $700,000 is more than ten times the amount of the next highest contribution asked of the other ten ICEL-member conferences (England and Wales’ $9,585). Smallest annual contributions are asked of the Philippines ($765), South Africa ($780), and Pakistan ($30).

The magazine The Humanist, not known for its affinity for Christianity, typically publishes articles like the recent “Church Militant Lurches Rightward” and “Vatican Interest vs. the Public Interest.” One recent article, however, allows that religion can be acceptably humanistic—when presented on The Humanist’s terms. Process theology, Christian socialism, and “ecumenical” thinkers like Hans Küng and John Hick, for example, have come in for praise. And one recent article, “How to Hold Your Own Religious Service Without Mentioning God” (even humanists apparently need death rituals) sounds distressingly familiar to those who keep up with feminist theologians—such as Gail Ramshaw Schmidt, a Lutheran feminist and author of The Gender of God, who is on the editorial board of the influential Catholic journal, Worship; or Sister Mary Collins, a member of ICEL and Catholic University’s religious studies department who is now working on the ICEL translation of the Psalter.

“Whether the inherent tension [between liturgical traditions and feminist consciousness] will generate cohesion within the historical religious traditions and, more profoundly, create new possibility for life on the planet it is premature to judge,” Sister Mary informs readers of her lead essay in Women at Worship (Westminster-John Knox Press, 1993). “Meanwhile, wherever feminist consciousness is emerging, people are gathering to explore ritually and then to embody fully a future of relationships different from what has long been believed to be the truth of things.”

Some may find such declarations from a Catholic nun who is not only in good standing in her order, but a highly influential faculty member of the American bishops’ own university and a long-time member of their International Commission on English in the Liturgy to be—well—amazing.

(Readers interested in the bishops’ debate on the liturgy can read a complete transcription, “What the bishops said,” in Voices, special edition, prepared and sent as a service to the bishops. Limited copies available from Women for Faith and Family, P.O. Box 8326, Saint Louis, MO 63132. $7 donation requested.)


  • 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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