It's not every day that an obscure word like consubstantial becomes a topic of hot debate. But this week The New York Times reported that a new English translation of the liturgy used for the Roman Catholic Mass is prompting complaints about the difficulty of the revised language, and consubstantial is Exhibit Number One for the critics.

Forty years ago, the Second Vatican Council (aka "Vatican II") opened the door for the Roman Missal, the liturgical book with the texts for the Mass, to be translated from Latin to vernacular languages around the world. The English translation that has been used by Catholics since the '60s is now getting a makeover, and the revision will be introduced on November 27, the first Sunday of Advent. (Catholics in South Africa have actually been using the missal since last year, since a misunderstanding led bishops there to institute the changes one year too early.)

The proponents of the new translation say that it more closely adheres to the original intent of the Latin Mass. The Vatican had laid out the argument for faithfulness to Latin in a 2001 edict known as Liturgiam Authenticam, or "Authentic Liturgy":

The original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet.

As the more "authentic" English rendering was being prepared, naysayers argued that it represented a step back from the efforts of Vatican II to make the liturgical language of the Church more accessible. One of the most vocal critics was Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., the former chairman of the U.S. bishops' liturgy committee. He said the new translation was "slavishly literal" and that "the vocabulary is not readily understandable by the average Catholic." He even warned that the complex language could lead to a "pastoral disaster."

As reported by The Times, the change that has attracted the most attention is in the statement of faith known as the Nicene Creed, recited by Catholics from childhood. The current translation says that Jesus Christ is "one in Being with the Father," but the new translation says that Jesus is "consubstantial with the Father" (translating the Latin phrase consubstantiálem Patri). Supporters of the new missal say that this is more precise, since consubstantial has a specific theological meaning: "regarded as the same in substance or essence (as of the three persons of the Trinity)." "One in Being," it's argued, is too vague, even if it's more readily understood.

Another change in terminology occurs in the prayer known as Hanc igitur (Latin for "Therefore, this"). The prayer in the current translation begins, "Father, accept this offering from your whole family." Now Catholics will hear, "Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family." The substitution of offering with oblation is another attempt at greater precision, hewing closer to the Latin original (oblatiónem servitútis nostræ). An oblation isn't just any offering, but something offered to God, specifically the bread and wine presented to God in the Eucharist.

But what might be lost in the move to making the English version closer to the Latin? Does the resulting text end up sounding stilted and unidiomatic? Some experts think so, and it's not just a question of vocabulary. As the Rev. Anthony Ruff, a Benedictine monk and liturgical scholar, told The Times, "syntax and word order" may be an even bigger problem: "The sentences are too complicated, the pronouns are so far away from their antecedent you can't even tell what the pronoun refers to."

For the supporters of the new liturgy, what might seem to be murky language is actually a teaching opportunity. Or, in the words of the Rev. Richard Hilgartner, executive director of the American bishops' Secretariat of Divine Worship, "it's a catechetical opportunity." Catechetical is the adjective form of catechesis, which means "oral religious instruction (as before baptism or confirmation)." (Please don't confuse that with catachresis, which is the misapplication of a word or phrase, or a strained figure of speech such as a mixed metaphor.)

If nothing else, the whole controversy has introduced readers to the recondite vocabulary of Catholic theology. Indeed, Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski tweeted that, thanks to the Times article, consubstantial was the most frequently looked up word in their online dictionary for a couple of days this week. Perhaps Mass-goers would be well-advised to pack a dictionary when they attend services this November!


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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday April 15th 2011, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
My understanding of consubstantiation in the Catholic mind, was the actual physical change that occurred in the sacraments at the precise moment of the pronouncement of the priest as he says the words, "This is the body and the blood..." It is understood that the wafer and the wine become the actual substance of our Lord and Saviour.
Or am I wrong and mixing the two: the definition of transubstantiation?
Friday April 15th 2011, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Oh boy, I can just hear the congregation now trying to spit out "consubstantial" now. No one's going to know what's going on during Mass for months. If the changes listed here are typical, we're not going to have teaching moments but teaching years. I hope Rome knows what it's doing.

Roger, yes, you're thinking of "transubstantiation."
Friday April 15th 2011, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I think it could be argued that "consubstantial" in the Catholic sense isn't really an English word. It's a Latin word borrowed into English for the purpose of theological discourse, and given a slight modification to the suffix to sound English-like.

Of course there are many words in English like this that are very useful: ancillary, puerile, senescent. The difference here is that "consubstantial" is only useful in this very narrow context. Forcing Catholics to return to this type of vocabulary, along with syntax that mimics Latin sentence structure, is tantamount (in my opinion) to revoking the promise of Vatican II that the Mass can be said in vernacular languages. There is nothing "vernacular" about these changes -- indeed they are anti-vernacular.
Friday April 15th 2011, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Dictionary lookups of "consubstantial" spike after the NYT article, suggesting that term which was so familiar among pre-Vatican II anglophones--even non-Catholics like me--is now an unfamiliar one. It's interesting that Liturgiam Authenticam specifically lists "consubstantialis" among the terms that might be difficult to render, and that may be translated into the vernacular not literally but in a variety of ways, including the coining of a new word [!]:

53. Whenever a particular Latin term has a rich meaning that is difficult to render into a modern language (such as the words munus, famulus, consubstantialis, propitius, etc.) various solutions may be employed in the translations, whether the term be translated by a single vernacular word or by several, or by the coining of a new word, or perhaps by the adaptation or transcription of the same term into a language or alphabet that is different from the original text (cf. above, n. 21), or the use of an already existing word which may bear various meanings.
Friday April 15th 2011, 5:40 PM
Comment by: William H. (Vernon Canada)
Roger Dee has confused "consubstantiation" with "transubstantiation," as has been noted. To be added, though, is that the language of "consubstantiation" had some currency in early Lutheran circles as an understanding of the Eucharist in which the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but Christ is also fully present in them. The word "consubstantial" is distinct from both of these, as a reference to the assertion that whatever the Father is, the Son is also, except that the Son is not the Father. Thus, they are one in substance, where substance is not to be understood as physical stuff. The term is also applicable to the Holy Spirit for the same reasons. The three persons are co-eternal.
Friday April 15th 2011, 6:00 PM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
As for translating sacred text into Esperanto or any other artificial language, Liturgiam Authenticam indicates that requires special permission:

17. As for the use of “artificial” languages, proposed from time to time, the approval of texts as well as the granting of permission for their use in liturgical celebrations is strictly reserved to the Holy See. This faculty will be granted only for particular circumstances and for the pastoral good of the faithful, after consultation with the Bishops principally involved.
Saturday April 16th 2011, 9:27 AM
Comment by: madeline D. (FL)
"Perhaps Mass-goers would be well-advised to pack a dictionary when they attend services this November!"

Heaven forbid those in the congregation should be called upon to expand their vocabulary!! That would be too much like---yikes---learning
Saturday April 16th 2011, 2:20 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
A thousand years ago and more, Catholics of various stripes and sects were murdering each other over such fine points of language and theology. Now let's hope they just argue to their heart's content at religious conclaves, and let the rest of us go on with our lives!
Saturday April 16th 2011, 10:15 PM
Comment by: Vivien D. (Sidney Canada)
While the western world is reading Richard Dawkins and other scientists why do we need to worry about changes in the Catholic Church's understanding of the language related to their beliefs (myths)? Isn't it more important that we, and especially those involved with education, devote more effort to understanding terms related to recent scientific developments?
Sunday April 17th 2011, 12:41 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
@Vivien D.: Couldn't agree more.
Sunday April 17th 2011, 4:10 PM
Comment by: María R. (Uruguay)
I don´t like these changes because I think that there´ll be very difficult for everybody to understand the meaning of these words. AND WHY TO CHANGE NOW?
Sunday April 17th 2011, 5:32 PM
Comment by: Gabriel G.
I am glad that the catholic hierarchy fight against the current trend to reduce the English language to commun denominator.
Sunday April 17th 2011, 9:32 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Yes, Vivian, we certainly do need to pay attention to what the "scientists" are saying.
At the same time, we need to understand what "science" is and realize it is no more the ravings of people like Dawkins than that of those who cannot understand the conflict is between the powers that are far beyond our sorry little world of "knowledge".
Sunday April 17th 2011, 9:58 PM
Comment by: Nicholas Franco (Beacon, NY)
You go Vivian! Good stuff. Poor Roger says Dawkins 'raves.' That's cute. Richard Dawkins has NEVER and I mean never raved about anything. He has the cool, collected confidence of reason and fact behind his words.

As to the Catholic mass being changed with new words, I say: fictitious words in a fictitious ceremony? Yeah that's about right.
Monday April 18th 2011, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
My apologies to Nicholas Franco for rankling his feathers.
It simply illustrates the ease by which that didactic belief system can be exposed. The unprovable thesis of "no God" is not a subject that can be settled in the "scientific world". Answer these questions:
1. Where did life arise?
2. How did we come to self-consciousness and the ability to think about our own thinking?
3. What about the moral nature of man?
4. How can our vast universe be fathomed?
5. What about the hopelessly complex mechanisms of cellular and molecular biology--not to mention the ten or fifteen separate chemically critical blood clotting steps.
Maybe I am cute, but I don't have the arrogance that goes with it!
I INTEND NO DEBATE HERE because there is none;
SCIENCE and RELIGION do not share a common pulpit!
With due regards to all readers, let's be fair here with our responses.
Roger D Paterson MD (80 years of age)
Wednesday April 20th 2011, 11:34 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Please, this is about language, and not about beliefs one or the other of us might hold differently from others. Let's not divide into groups here.

I've been through the earlier changes that erupted after Vatican 2. I will be able to live with these.
Thursday April 21st 2011, 9:20 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
You are entirely correct, dear Jane B.
In the future I'll refrain from commenting on personal insults.
Thursday May 19th 2011, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
Shouldn't the language of the Church be easily understood by the masses ?
Thursday May 19th 2011, 12:09 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
To Francisco Javier:
Yes, I believe you are right. Humankind's need for salvation, and God's revealed plan is the epitome of simplicity and should never be obfuscated by the dictates of the "wise and powerful".
Thursday May 19th 2011, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Geoffrey J. (Dover, NH)
It seems to me that understanding the language of a religion is essential in understanding each other, and in understanding religious beliefs (so that they are not simply dismissed as 'myth'). People are naturally curious beings. I, for one, am fascinated both by the advance of science and by apologetics; there is room for the unique vocabulary related to both in all our hearts. In regards to 'consubstantiation', I think there will be little trouble in learning a 'new' word, so long as people are attentive and patient with their parish and with each other.

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