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!