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Scriptural Translations

And More on the Mass as Sacrifice

ROME, OCT. 11, 2006 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I was raised Presbyterian, but with the help and guidance of my wife and a close friend, I joined the Church in 1995. However, one thing that concerns me to this day is the inclusion of the readings in the missal, as opposed to providing a Bible in the pews. How can one be sure of the accuracy of the translation used in the missal? How can one be sure that the entire, unabridged reading is provided? It is as if they are being taken out of context. I understand from my Catholic friends that the English translation used in the missals in the United States is a very poor one, and does not even have the "nihil obstat" or "imprimatur." For example, the texts have been reworked to be more inclusive (gender-neutral). These friends all point me to English translations that are pre-Vatican II. Recently, I learned that there is a new English translation in the works. Is this true? -- J.L. Dallas, Texas

A: There are basically two questions involved. One regards translations and the other the use of partial texts in the liturgy.

There will always be debate and differences of opinion regarding the quality of biblical translations. No translation is perfect, and even our Protestant brethren have their literary squabbles regarding so-called inclusive language and whether it is proper to maintain certain archaic forms.

The choice of which translation to use falls upon the bishops' conference of each country, though the Holy See's approval of its use in the liturgy is also required.

Because of this, English-speaking countries use several different translations. Most use the original Jerusalem Bible. The United States uses an adapted version of the New American Bible (NAB). Canada has temporary permission to use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), even though the Holy See did not approve this Bible for liturgical use.

Recently the bishops of the Antilles received permission for a lectionary based on a second edition of the Revised Standard Version (RSV Catholic Edition) -- recently published in a new edition by Ignatius Press -- which many consider the best contemporary translation.

A project has begun to develop a lectionary based on an adapted version of the NRSV to substitute the one used in most English-speaking countries, although the United States will not participate. Practically all lectionaries now in use have some form of permission from the Holy See.

In some cases the translations on which the lectionary is based are now out of print. In other cases, such as the NAB and NRSV, the Holy See, because of disagreement regarding some aspects of the translating principles, does not approve the whole translation as such for liturgical use but permits it to be used as a base text for a lectionary. Each text of the lectionary is then revised to make sure that it conforms to the Church's translation principles as enshrined in the instruction "Liturgiam Authenticam."

The result usually leaves most texts intact but changes those where different translating principles might have theological consequences. For example, some translators might substitute "human being" for the biblical expression "son of man" and this could be a literarily accurate translation. Theologically, however, in some situations such a procedure might obscure a possible messianic reference and also make it difficult to understand some interpretations made by the Church Fathers and other classical Catholic writings.

Thus, while the Holy See does not usually pronounce judgment regarding the accuracy, scientific precision, or literary quality of a given translation, it does seek to safeguard that a new translation does not undermine the interpretative tradition in liturgical proclamation.

This is one reason why Catholics cannot at present simply have a Bible in the pews. At the moment, only the above-mentioned lectionary from the Antilles corresponds exactly to a currently published Bible.

This issue, however, is somewhat more delicate, especially for Catholics raised in the evangelical tradition. Why does the Church read selected portions from the Bible, and at times even deliberately leave out some verses of a given passage?

At the risk of sounding facetious, in part it is because the liturgy is older than the Bible.

The liturgy certainly precedes the formation of the New Testament and the definition of the books pertaining to the Old. Indeed the liturgy's relationship with the sacred text is very complex, as the liturgical use of a specific book sometimes determined its inclusion or exclusion from the canon of Scripture.

From a practical point of view, until the advent of the printing press in the 15th century the possession of a complete manuscript of the Bible was a rare luxury. Christians, who were mostly illiterate anyway, received their knowledge of Scripture from the texts read in the liturgy, and from the Bible stories related in sermons or in painting, sculpture and glass.

The selection of readings was first developed in the first centuries of Christianity for the major feasts in order to transmit the essential elements of salvation history. As the celebrations of the Church year reached maturity so did the selection of readings.

In making this selection the Church occasionally "centonized," that is, selected, those passages and verses which best served to transmit a specific message regarding the mystery of salvation. While this process may have left out a verse or two when these touched upon another theme, it never went so far as to create a new text or join texts from distinct passages.

Far more often, it connected passages from different books by reading them within the same celebration thereby establishing an authoritative interpretative relationship between texts. The best example of this are the readings of the Easter Vigil.

These principles still hold even though the Scripture selection available in the present liturgy is vastly greater than before and many Catholics are, thankfully, far more biblically literate than in ages past.

The Church has never doubted its authority to make these selections as within its fold the task of authoritative scriptural interpretation is an ecclesial, not a private or individual, endeavor and one in which it is assisted by the Holy Spirit.

This guidance assures us that the selection the Church has made over the centuries is trustworthy and will never betray the true sense of God's Word even though some selections might not be immediately intelligible to our minds.

Furthermore, the scriptural readings were always considered as being intimately connected with the mystery being realized on the altar. The readings had to be seen as part of the greater picture of salvation history that embraced Scripture, Tradition and the sacramental system.

Scott Hahn's recent book, "Letter and Spirit," on the relationship between liturgy and Scripture would probably lay to rest the doubts of many converts to Catholicism regarding this theme.


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Scriptural, Translations, Liturgy, McNamara

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