Missal crisis

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Reader JM has pointed me to the slowly-unfolding controversy about the new English-language missal, due to be used in Roman Catholic services from 11/27/2011 onwards. For a chronological overview, see Rita Ferrone, "Roman Missal Crisis: A Timeline", 7/16/2011.

An anti-missal FAQ is here. Some other anti-missal articles are John Wilkins, "Lost in Translation: The Bishops, the Vatican, and the English Liturgy", Commonweal 10/2/2005; Robert Mickens, "Unlocking the door of the vernacular", The Tablet 6/18/2011; Rita Ferrone, "Bad Language", dotCommonweal 7/6/2011; Rita Ferrone,  "It Doesn't Sing: The Trouble with the New Roman Missal", Commonweal, 7/15/2011.

A slightly more positive spin can be found in Rita Ferrone, "Virgil and the Vigil: Bees are Coming Back to the Exsultet", Commonweal 4/10/2009. For a stronger positive take, see e.g. "Revised Roman Missal: Understanding the reasons for the changes", Catholic Tide 2/10/2011.

There's at least one book on the subject of the translation theories at issue: Peter Jeffrey, Translating Tradition: A Chant Historian Reads Liturgiam Authenticam, 2005.

One linguistically interesting aspect of the controversy has to do with how to translate "pro multis" in the Latin phrase "qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum". This issue has its own Wikipedia page, which explains that

Pro multis is a Latin phrase that means "for many" or "for the many". Not having the definite article, Latin does not distinguish between these two meanings.

The critical issue seems to be that for many people, "for many" implies "but not for all". The 1973 missal (therefore?) translated "pro multis" as "for all". According to Toan Joseph Do, "All In?", Commonweal 12/19/2008:

Since the promulgation of the Missal of Pope Paul VI in 1970, many Western European language groups have adopted the phrase "for all" in their translation of pro multis. Among these are the Dutch, German, English, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish translations. One exception is the French, which uses the Latinate equivalent of "for many," la multitude. As far as the English language is concerned, there is an important difference between many and all. "Many" often excludes; "all" does not.

The 2011 version has "for many".

Many other aspects of the controversy, including the historically and lexicographically vexed question of consubstantiation, are covered in Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column for 4/15/2011, "Mass Confusion?".


  1. Stephen said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

    As an Episcopalian, I find some of this discussion both familiar and foreign. The Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican Communion, has of course been worshipping in the vernacular for centuries, but we went through our own "modernization" with a new Prayer Book in 1979 that reformed the old, hieratic English that hadn't been much changed since the original Book of Common Prayer was written in England in 1549. Many people objected to the new prayer book. I can see why, too – the traditional language is beautiful.

    But still, our modern language liturgical texts (in many places version of the same texts used in the Roman Missal) are SO MUCH BETTER than all of what I've seen out of the ICEL. I don't like the idea of the Vatican consolidating power (I mean, I don't like it so much I'm not even Catholic!), but every time I've attended a Catholic Mass I've found it to be the most dry language imaginable. And as a Latin student I've noticed the wide divergence between the original Latin texts we're all referring to and some of the translations they come up with.

    As a liberal who doesn't really like the current pope for many, many reasons (again, so much so I'm not even Catholic!), I still say I'm glad they are getting a new translation of the Missal. The English used in the Catholic liturgy up until now has been decidedly subpar.

  2. Ellen K. said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    Thanks for the links.

    My big disappointment in the new translation is they've kept "for us men" in the Creed. For me, at least, that's gibberish. "Us men" said by me, a female, has no possible referent.

    Linguistic question. I'm aware of course that "man" can be used for mankind in general, or, in some contexts, for a generic person. Has "man" been used (by some people, in some places and times) for a specific female person? Has "men" been used (outside the creed) for a group that includes specific female persons, and specific non-adult persons? (And when we say the creed, we who say it are specific individuals who are supposed to refer to ourselves as "us men" whatever our age or gender.)

  3. Rebecca said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 5:34 pm


    I assume you are referring to this line:
    Qui propter nos hómines et propter nostram salútem
    Descéndit de cælis.
    Who for us men and for our salvation descended from heaven.

    Latin distinguishes clearly between 'homo, hominis' for man as in human, and 'vir, viri' for man as opposed to woman. So the original Latin is gender-inclusive. To use 'men' as a translation in English would not have been so problematic in the past, but using men to mean mankind is unpopular now, as it is deemed sexist. That being the case, I agree men is now not an entirely appropriate translation, as, for many people, it no longer reflects the meaning of the original Latin.

    [(myl) The 1998 version had "For us and for our salvation / he came down from heaven". The 2011 version has "For us men and for our salvation / he came down from heaven."]

  4. Ellen K. said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

    But the passage doesn't use "men" to mean "mankind". It uses "us men", specifically including the speaker as an individual. Unless "us" somehow doesn't include the individuals saying it. That's not the same as referring to mankind in general. It's me, a female, calling myself a man. My question is, was/is there a place and time where a woman might actually do that, when not reciting something written by someone else.

  5. Xmun said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

    I wonder how the new translation renders "Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, qui tollis peccata mundi". In the 1970s the translation we used here in New Zealand went "Lamb of God, Son of the Father, who takes away (etc.)", which always irritated me intensely with its rendering of a second-person singular Latin verb by a third-person English one. Bring back "takest", I used to say! Or, if you must modernize, have it as “you who take away . . ."

  6. Eric P Smith said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 7:31 pm


    Like you, I detest “you who takes”. It’s not just bad in Latin: it’s bad in English too. Like you, I yearn for “thou who takest”, but I accept that it was necessary to modernise. And like you, I think that the best modernisation would have been “you who take”.

    In fact the new Third Edition reads:
    Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
    I suppose that is all right if you don’t mind the comma splice.

    The full text is available on the Web in many places, for example http://old.usccb.org/romanmissal/order-of-mass.pdf

  7. Dakota said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    The one that's always bothered me is "the holy catholic church", small c, in the Apostles' Creed.

  8. JMM said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

    Of course it's a small c. It's an adjective. Other denominations use that same prayer, with that same word with its original meaning. The prayer (creed) was written before a designation was admitted to be needed.
    Benedict et al may use the term 'Catholic' to refer to their organization, and they even use 'Roman' at times, but that's not how they think of it. Well, it's how they think of it if you use a small c.

  9. John said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    No one is bothered by the idea of "literal translation"? Holy cow, that needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

    "Consubtantial" is getting a lot of talk too.

    Ellen, vir is usually for people with a Y chromosome in classical Latin, but not always. It's sometimes the generic. Likewise homo is sometimes clearly for males.

    "You're the one who takes away the sins of the world." Good English, right? As long as we don't say "Lamb of God, you who takes…" I don't think it's wrong.

  10. Dakota said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    I know. If you use upper case, it's still an adjective. The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses lower case.

    I believe the original phrase was "sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam". Curiously, Google translate renders this with an upper case c.

    I still don't like it.

  11. LDavidH said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    @Dakota: I agree, I also don't like it, being a Protestant an' all. In my denomination (UK Baptist) we rarely if ever use the creed, but when I go to another church where they do, I usually say "universal" when everybody else says "catholic". That's what the original Greek word means anyway, so why complicate it with a term that in most people's mind has definite Roman connotations?

  12. blahedo said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    I'm glad to see this get mention here. I should add that "slowly-unfolding" is an understatement; this has been "unfolding" like a slow-motion train wreck for years. :P

    Some of the changes are probably for the better; in the 1973 translation there was a lot of poetic detail and parallelism that got left out. For instance, in the Latin Gloria there is a stanza whose phrase-by-phrase translation would be: "Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father / who takes[t] away the sins of the world, have mercy on us / who takes[t] away the sins of the world, hear our prayer / who sit[s|est] at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us." The lines repeat and reference each other as well as the three-line Lamb of God later in the liturgy. But in the 1973 translation in use throughout the English-speaking world (Protestant as well as Catholic, actually), we get "Lord Jesus Christ, only son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us, you are seated at the right hand of the Father, receive our prayer." The words themselves are fine, but it totally throws out the textual structure (and not because doing so was unavoidable). So some of the changes to "bring it in line with the Latin" are positive, at least in the sense that they can restore things without losing accessibility or fluency in the translation.

    On the other hand, most of the changes seem fairly ham-handed, as if they were done by someone who spoke English as a fourth or fifth language, was more fluent in Latin, and whose top priority in making the translation was to pick words and phrases that looked the most like Latin. The articles refer to "consubstantial", which is a good example of this; if these prayers (and discussion thereof) are literally the only place the word is used in English—true as far as I know—then how is this a good translation choice? Another is the retranslation of a phrase currently given as "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." The new version, truer to the literal Latin, is, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but…" Awkward at best. Its proponents claim, apparently in all seriousness, that this is an improvement because it's a pun, between roof (of your house) and roof (of your mouth)—you're about to eat the Communion wafer! Get it? Get it? …sigh.

    Ultimately, the Catholic congregations will get used to the new translation and complaints will settle down to a constant low grumble, and this will mostly blow over. I suspect the main lasting effect—and motivation, for some of the proponents of the change—is that it will invalidate the vast majority of the liturgical music written in the last fifty years. As a group, the supporters of "fixing the missal" are also the ones that hate, hate, HATE the majority of post-Vatican-II liturgical music and will be happy to see it consigned to the bin. Because most of the changes involve not just word changes and minor tweaks, but complete reorderings of sentences into a Latin grammatical structure, most music set to them will not be able to be adapted.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

    @John: I didn't ask about Latin. I asked a question about English language usage.

  14. Sili said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    How many more comments before we have people killing eachother over filioque?

  15. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

    As an atheist with (in relative terms) approximately zero experience with or interest in the Catholic Church, I'm moderately amazed that I just spent at least two hours reading many of the linked articles (and linked articles from linked articles).

    Putting aside the weirdness of (probably) Msgr. James Moroney's error-ridden "Received Text", with regard to Ellen K's comments, it is my strong impression that the deepest ulterior motive for the Liturgiam authenticam and the Vox Clara was to end and remove any and all inclusive liturgical language and to end and remove the influence of the cultural progressives who had been responsible for it.

    Much more speculatively, I'm wondering if it's the case that the unique imposition of the Vox Clara on the anglophone Bishops might be the combination of two factors (both of which I'm guessing at): 1) that the other national/language groups are, by and large, less progressive than the anglophones; and 2) the American Church is notably and (from the Vatican's perspective) notoriously both progressive and powerful (well, in some respects if not specifically within the Vatican).

    If so, then this perhaps might best be seen through the prism of Church politics rather than (as Moroney absurdly claims) advances in scholarship in translation theory. *cough*

  16. John said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

    BTW, is no one going to get on Mark for hyphenating "slowly-unfolding"? :-)

  17. John said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    Ellen K,

    Sorry. I should have addressed that to Rebecca.

  18. Ken Brown said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 7:34 am

    Among us Protestants, the current Church of England version of the Nicene Creed in use since the 1990s has "For us and for our salvation". Some of the earlier new versions (IYSWIM) had "For us men and for our salvation" but at least some worshippers used to not say the word "men" at least as far back as the 1970s. I was one of them. I'm not a woman but I can't abide a bad translation :-)

    In modern English "us men" is just a plain mistranslation. Its blatantly incompetent. No English speaker is likely to think of that form of words first as a way to express that thought. Few of them would think of it tenth. It is a calque from some other language where a phrase like that has to carry grammatical gender. I suppose someone might come up with it if they wanted every word in the original must to be represented by a word in the translation. Or if they were not a first-langauge English speaker themselves.

    Whether or not the range of "homo" can overlap with "vir" in Latin is irrelevant. First, because the original is not Latin, its Greek and the word is anthropos: "" But secondly and most imnportantly because its quite clear that the original was meant to refer to all humans – or at least all the ones who are saying the Creed together – and that has also been the consensus of the Christians who have used it ever since.

    I guess what is really going on is that this version of the Creed is not a new translation at all. It is probably just carried on unmodified from older English translations. (Laziness as well as incompetance and sexism?) The English version it most resembles in choice of words is the one in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549/1662 as used in the Church of England up to the 20th century

  19. Vinaigrette Girl said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:51 am

    Oh, Ellen. Just because your entire lived experience is XX and the use of the words 'men' and 'man' always has meant XY only, and heaven help you if you step away from the essentiality of your XX-ness, now you're worried about inclusive language, instead of accepting that 'us men' does so mean you, as long as you don't apply it to wages, priesthood, bodily autonomy, independent moral agency, or representation in politics and the boardroom?

    Women. We're so picky, picky, picky, and just don't have the brainpower to appreciate the abstract.

  20. Techercat said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

    Regarding the phrase "under my roof" — it references the centurion in Matthew 8:8 who is seeking healing for his servant, and says to Jesus, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed." The new translation makes a clearer connection to this verse.

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