USCC Watch: When the Psalter’s Lost Its Savor

“Look, you don’t have to understand why those verbs are irregular. You simple have to memorize them,” I told my daughter who was studying for her French final and complaining about the impenetrability of the logic of language. “Once you’ve got them in your head, they’re in there for good,” I added by way of encouragement.

While she was studying, I had been paging through some book catalogues from Catholic publishing companies. One catalogue contained no fewer than five separate “inclusive” versions of the Psalms (or 13, if you include an eight-part Psalm series), not counting the Psalms in the new Lectionary for Masses with Children, those in an “inclusive” prayerbook for the Liturgy of the Hours, or in a book called, We Are the Circle: Celebrating the Feminine in Song and Ritual.

One of these offerings from the Liturgical Press (Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minn.) was Psalms in Inclusive Language by the Indian feminist, Father Joseph Arackal, C.M., and another was the Psalter for the Christian People: An Inclusive Language Revision of the Psalter of the Book of Common Prayer. The latter is the work of Gordon Lathrop and Lutheran feminist Gail Ramshaw, who is an editorial consultant for and frequent contributor to Worship, an influential liturgical journal published at Saint John’s Abbey.

The feminist revision of the Grail Psalter, recently rejected by the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) was not in the catalogue; nor, of course, was the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) Psalter which is in its final stages of preparation by Sister Mary Collins, O.P., of Catholic University’s Religious Education department and ICEL’s Subcommittee for the Psalter. The new ICEL revision will be at least as gender-conscious as the rejected Grail version. Writing about ICEL’s Psalter revision project in Worship in July 1992, Sister Mary observed that ICEL’s style took shape under the influence of discussions about linguistic gender.

The issue was never whether the matter of gender would receive attention in this translation for use in the praying Church, only how it was to be approached critically. Who could deny the impression of many translations that the poetry of the psalms gives overt voice to male devotees interacting with a putatively male God?

Throughout its ten years of Psalm translation, the ICEL editorial committee had employed strategies reflecting a “typology for refashioning English speech about personal and social reality,” according to Sister Mary.

Two other Psalters offered by the Liturgical Press were versions of the “inclusivized” New American Bible Psalter prepared by the Catholic Biblical Association. This Psalter had been granted an imprimatur from the

NCCB Administrative Committee in September 1991, was approved for liturgical use by the members of the NCCB that November, and was included in the revised Lectionary for Mass, Volume I, approved in June 1992. It may well be the last translation so readily approved by the requisite two-thirds of the NCCB members—in fact, the very procedures used to secure the Lectionary’s acceptance probably contributed to the growing apprehension among bishops about the process of approving translations.

Erie Bishop Donald Trautman, the current chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), may encounter more resistance when the next round of translations is presented for vote. Formerly Auxiliary Bishop of Buffalo, he is also a member of the NCCB Committee on Doctrine and the Ad Hoc Committee for the Review of Scripture Texts. This Committee advised the NCCB Administrative Committee to grant its imprimatur to the revised Grail Psalter.

At their June 1994 meeting, the bishops intend to spend time discussing the dubious principles of translation contained in the document, Instructions for the Translation of Liturgical Texts (Comme le Prevoit), issued by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship in January 1969, and translated less than accurately into English by ICEL. Some bishops now believe that this 25-year-old statement is in far greater need of revision than, say, the Nicene Creed or the Our Father.

What is the purpose of so many Psalters? What worries a lot of Catholics—among them, many bishops—is what will happen to Catholic faith when the words in which it is expressed are no longer catholic? What happens to common belief, to unity, to community, when we remember nothing in common? Continually changing configurations of words can never truly enter our memories. The obverse side of the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (as we pray, so we believe) is that if the Church has no common prayer, there will be no common—catholic—belief. Only repetition penetrates and persists—whether learning the prayers of the Church or irregular French verbs.

Multiple translations of the Scripture are useful for study, of course, since they may illuminate facets of meaning in the original text which no single translation might achieve. Study, however, is not the same thing as worship. The Psalms are also the Church’s music—her common poetry of prayer—which should become part of our communal memory in our worship as “one Body.” Used liturgically, the proliferation of ideologically revised Psalters can only contribute to further fragmentation, rather than greater unity, of the People of God.

It is worrisome to many religious and laity who observe the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office) that the liturgical establishment seems intent on producing and promoting “revised” Psalters. Members of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, unlike clerics, are bound only by their constitutions; thus texts such as the Revised Grail Psalter may be used without approval from the Holy See.

Ideological motives aside, it is understandable that professional liturgists want to tinker with the liturgy continually, that professional translators want to re-translate, etc. That’s what they do for a living, after all. The perspective of creators of liturgies is doubtless far different from that of participants in worship. But the Church’s worship is not meant to be entertainment, despite the recent public comments of some liturgists—and even a bishop—that the liturgy has become “boring.” Still, even theatrical performances require that the players memorize their lines. Actors are not free to change the script of a play because they find it boring. Consider The Mouse Trap, which has been running in London for 41 years: if the actors were free to “white-out” the lines they regard as tiresome or irrelevant or politically incorrect, would it still be the same play?

In The Feast of Faith (Ignatius), Cardinal Ratzinger says that “Liturgy is not the private hobby of a particular group; it is about the bond which holds heaven and earth together, it is about the human race and the entire created world.”

Christian liturgy is essentially Catholic, that is, it proceeds from the whole and leads back to it, it leads to unity with the pope, the bishops and the faithful of all times and places. The Catholic element is not something added on externally, a legislative restriction of the community’s freedom, but something from the Lord himself who seeks everyone and seeks to bring them all together. Liturgy is not “made” by the community; the community receives it from the whole . . . And it can only remain an ecclesial community by continually giving itself back in commitment to this whole.

. . . The Eucharist does not stand or fall by its effect on our feelings . . . Liturgy is not a matter of variety and change; it is concerned with an ever-deeper experience of something that is beyond change . . . Liturgy is not only concerned with the conscious mind and with what can be immediately understood . . . Liturgy addresses the human being in all his depth.

If the Psalter seems to have lost its savor—its effect of preserving catholic Catholic worship—there may be hope on the horizon. An obscure community of Spanish Benedictine monks hit the top of the pop charts in January with a recording of the greatest hits of the tenth century. Gregorian Chant, remember, was pronounced hopelessly moribund 30 years ago by the same liturgical crew that ground out the tuneless translations that have now gone flat even in their own ears. There is a certain piquancy in observing that the monks’ “slavish adherence” to the timeless texts and music of the Catholic Church earned a platinum record barely three months after release. What can account for this? Persistence of memory?


  • 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.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...