Editorial from the Tablet
(British Catholic Journal)20 August 2011
What kind of obedience do Catholics owe the Church, with reference to the new English translation of the Roman Missal? Even before its introduction this autumn, there has been a glimpse from Scotland of the way some parishes and their priests are reacting, not with open defiance, but with excuses and prevarication as to why their parish is not yet “ready” for the new Missal. Bishop Peter Moran, outgoing Bishop of Aberdeen, spoke recently of “a certain amount of resistance in the parishes”, which was a “challenge”.
Fr Kevin Kelly, Britain’s eminent moral theologian, has now published a letter to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales accusing them of using “doublespeak” by praising the new translation in public while expressing unhappiness with it in private. It is beyond argument that the new translation is a flawed product of a flawed process, an issue well rehearsed in the columns of The Tablet. That does not lead automatically to the conclusion that the only right response to it is resistance. In any case, that is not what Fr Kelly recommends. He wants the bishops to be frank. The bishops have obviously made a calculation that the new translation – which, in its final version, they have never themselves formally approved – is a done deal. Hence their duty of obedience requires them to make the best of it while keeping their doubts to themselves. The bishops have called for a catechetical exercise in the parishes to deepen people’s faith in the Eucharist. That is impossible to object to and may do much good. But it does not supply a convincing reason why, for instance, “and with your spirit” is a better reply to “the Lord be with you” than the present form, “and also with you”. In the absence of any explanation for that and similar linguistic infelicities, people will feel bemused and no doubt somewhat irritated.
The controversy was given an extra dimension when Cardinal Napier of Durban wrote to The Tablet to ask: “Whatever happened to religious faith and obedience in Europe …? Is there no room for humble submission?” Hitherto, obedience had not been the dominant issue, though it may become so if priests start to defy their bishops. Obedience in any case is a complex concept, which does not necessarily mean unthinking compliance with an order from above. It comes from the Latin word for “to hear”, audire, which leaves open the possibility of listening without complying. In the Catholic context, for instance, as articulated by Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, obedience has been construed as meaning “deep attentiveness”. But what is it in this case that Catholics are beholden to attend to deeply? The need to revive collegiality in the decision-making processes of the Church? That seems to be the fundamental issue.
Nevertheless, there is in the parishes a deep instinct for unity in the Church, and a common-sense reluctance to make the good – or even the not-so-good – the enemy of the best. The Mass is the Mass, whatever the language. Ordinary people know very well that in practice the Church is far from perfect, and have learnt, by and large, to make the best of it. But there are problems with the “everything in the garden’s lovely” approach when people know differently. It could rapidly undermine trust and credibility.