What writers can learn from the new translation of the Catholic Mass

If you have ever tried to translate a passage from one language into another, you know how challenging the task can be. A word in Italian or Danish, for example, may look very much like an English cognate, but mean something quite different in a new cultural context.

So I begin with sympathy for those experts within the Catholic Church who have worked very hard to produce a new translation of the Mass, introduced around the world last Sunday, the first day of the new liturgical year.

All writers can learn something important from such a project, the most ambitious since the traditional Latin Mass was replaced by vernacular versions around the world in 1962, my first year in Catholic high school.

That’s when the greeting “Dominus vobiscum” became “The Lord be with you.” That’s when the priests saying Mass turned around to face the people. That’s when we Catholic kids went from singing Latin hymns, such as “Tantum Ergo” to adapting folk songs such as “Blowing in the Wind.”  The leap from Aquinas to Dylan seemed at the time death defying.

Of all the recent changes in the Mass, one difficult and controversial change merits special attention, but before we get to it let me disclose to you where I stand.

I became an altar boy in 1957 as a fourth grader. While I consider myself a progressive Catholic and believe in the reforms brought about by the Second Vatican Council, I bear no animosity towards the traditions of Catholic liturgy, including the Latin Mass.

Which brings me to the replacement of the phrase “one in being with the Father” to “consubstantial with the Father.”

Lots of Catholics – including members of the clergy and theologians – detest this change in the prayer known as the Nicene Creed, arguing that it feels like an attempt by the Vatican to turn back the clock on liturgical reform and to regain stronger central control of all aspects of Catholic belief and practice.

The website of American Catholic bishops defends the change to consubtantial, arguing that “the new translation is more in keeping with the ancient Latin text of the Creed and a more accurate translation.”

The early Church

Many orthodox Catholic doctrines were developed at early church councils, often in response to a perceived heresy. It was at the Council of Nicea in AD 325 that bishops tried to clarify the definitions of Jesus Christ as being both fully human and fully divine. Those church leaders developed a set of beliefs, a creed, that is still recited by the faithful after the reading of the gospel and the delivering of a sermon.

In that statement of belief, Catholics have been saying in English that Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, one in being with the father.” That phrase “one in being” is a modern translation of the Latin “consubstantialem,” which is a translation from the Greek word “homoousion.”

The official website of the American bishops argues that “many theologians and the Holy See thought that the term ‘consubstantial’ was more in keeping with the Latin tradition and a more literal and accurate translation than the more recent ‘one in being.’ ”

It would be easy enough to ridicule this change, to argue that if you want adherence to the original texts and literal denotation, that the new phrase should be, “homoousian” with the father.

After all, if you choose a word that sounds more like theology than a common expression of faith, it would be just as easy to teach the congregation from the Greek as from the Latin. (The phrase Kyrie elieson in the Latin Mass is Greek for “Lord have mercy.”) And isn’t the notion of “two persons in one God” not mysterious enough for believers to grapple with?


The attempts to make the liturgy and the Bible more accessible to the faithful have a long and controversial history. English reformer John Wycliffe resisted the Catholic hierarchy by overseeing and distributing a popular 14th century translation into English. In this and other such actions were sown the seeds of the Protestant Reformation, including Martin Luther’s own translation of the Bible into German.

Why shouldn’t people have direct access to the word of God? The honest answer is that a clerical caste saw as its primary mission to remain the sole arbiters of God’s meaning, forming a linguistic wall against misinterpretation, heresy, and heterodoxy.

I have no doubt that those translators who have given the faithful “consubstantial” believe it is closer than “one in being” to the theological truth of the Trinity.  I’m not saying this is a distinction without a difference. But it may be a distinction that comes with a cost. Compared with the three little English words “one in being,” the long and Latinate “consubstantial” comes off as theological jargon.

Jargon is a little like slang in that it is used to set the members of a group apart through knowledge of a specialized language. The difference is a matter of connotation. We associate slang with lowlifes (such as criminals, dope-smoking musicians, and text-message-addicted teens), while we associate jargon with those in professions of official power and authority (lawyers, economists, politicians, consultants, educators, even journalists).

In that context, the word “consubstantial” reflects a kind of back story.  It announces from the Vatican to English speaking Catholics that  “priests are still in charge, that they remain the keepers of God’s mysteries, that they belong to a special language club into which the faithful may not enter.”

As usual, my 92-year-old mother puts it more succinctly. Though a fervent Catholic, she carries no slavish allegiance to unseen translators disambiguating angels from the heads of doctrinal pins.  Her response to the changes is down to earth and perhaps a bit cynical: “Too many old priests with nothing better to do.”

This debate reminds me that language always matters, but that it matters most when the stakes are highest.

  • The intent of the writer matters.
  • Unintended messages have consequences for writers and readers.
  • The connotations of words can be more important than their literal meaning.
  • Common speakers of English will prefer the simple over the technical and will distrust jargon in any form, but especially when it arrives dressed in Latin or Greek.

Something gained in the literalness of translation can be lost in the associative confusion of connotation. Some critics have argued that Christ did not drink from a ‘chalice’ (another change). He drank from a ‘cup.’ Wine and water may be contained in both vessels, but the difference between gold and wood can make all the difference in this world — and maybe in the next.

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  • bigbreasts

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    The Catholic Mass as celebrated on Earth is the exact projection here on earth of the continuous offering in heaven. It has been modified to reflect the languages of the participants.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, well…libruls, neo-cons, original cons…it’s all a con. Word of God? Really? Which “God” exactly?  Zeus? Odin? Thor?  Which “word”? Aramaic? Hebraic? Greek? Latin translated from the Greek?
    What about the “Princes” of the Church who fathered children, had mistresses and untold personal wealth? That’s part of the the history the Church has written with the infallibility of those Popes.

    The lesson is writing fundamentals, not fundamentalist bull hockey overseen by an  inbred, self-serving hierarchy straight from the 11th century.

  • Anonymous

    Sure, Roy…but what if you’re an athiest?

  • http://twitter.com/socmed_superman Carla Kendall

    Catholics should really stop protecting pedophile priests that are raping our children, and should just shut up until they do.

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  • http://twitter.com/RoyPeterClark Roy Peter Clark

    Thank you for these animated comments.  The debate here may call attention to another important phenomenon.  Documentary film maker Errol Morris calls it “Believing is Seeing,” the title of his fabulous new book on photography and perception.  Each of us brings our own autobiography to the analysis of any text.  This will probably be most true in the areas of politics, religion, and, yes, sports affiliation.  So is “consubstantial” a positive change because it is truer to the original?  Or is it an inelegant effort by conservatives to Latinize the Mass?  As I re-read the essay, I am struck that my mother, Shirley Clark, may be the most credible source, only because she is a conservative Catholic (will not vote for any candidate who is not opposed to abortion) and yet scratches her head about these changes.   

  • Anonymous

    Very true, Joseph, but you’re complaining about Rome, not the Church. If the vernacular is the “voice of the Church,” then Rome must respect each of the vernacular languages.

  • Anonymous

    OK, jay, you do realize you wouldn’t have worshiped in German or French (or any of those “language groups”) if not for what the “liberals” did forty years ago. Translation is an art, and the people who inflicted this new translation on us have tin ears. It’s as if they’re uncomfortable with English — they disrespect the language, and consequently make the Mass extremely inaccurate. And “Ratzinger” is his name, not a sign of disrespect, though I don’t like the infallibility granted to the job just 131 years ago. Call it “silly,” but I find “consubstantial” to be extremely “unpoetic.”   

  • Christopher Joseph

    Seriously, who cares? This is may be an issue for the Church in the English speaking world. Who would translate “Consubstantial” into Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali and Punjabi true to its Latin roots? More people speak each of these languages than those who speak French, German, Italian or Polish.

    Too many people have too little job? Build some roads, cultivate some cassava. World would be a better place close to what God created. 


  • jaybird1951

    A very silly comment on your part. Did any of the liberals ask our permission forty years ago when they discarded the Latin and foisted the now discarded translation on the faithful? Stop the nonsense about a “clerical caste.” Millions of us laypeople are grateful for this new translation, that has replaced the often bland and banal version we have had to suffer through for decades. I worshiped in German and French for 12 years in Europe and those language groups have had accurate and more elegant translations of their own all this time. The English speaking world is the only one that was afflicted with an inaccurate and very unpoetic translation. P.S. His title is Pope Benedict and not “Ratzinger.”  Show some respect for the man and his office if you ever want rspect for your own position. Church liberals can be very petty, sad to say.  

  • Anonymous

    As a former Latin teacher turned journalist, I can tell you there is nothing wrong with the new translation, which I felt was a long time coming. The translation that was in use from Vatican II until now was so loose as to sometimes be misleading. (“Credo” in the creed is translated in English as “we believe,” when it actually means “I believe.” Sounds small, but it matters. How does one person know what another truly believes? It puts the focus on the collective, which is nice for warm fuzzies, but the emphasis at that point is on one’s own relationship with God.)
    To me, it was an act of injustice to give Catholics a translation of a centuries-old ritual that was inaccurate. The Mass is important and people have a right to know what the Church Fathers actually said, and make informed decisions. “Consubstantial” might be a big word, but most people can learn new words and maybe it’ll help them reflect on their faith in a new way.
    People can make up their own minds about they believe but they have a right to have documents that are accurately translated.
    “It announces from the Vatican to English speaking Catholics that 
    “priests are still in charge, that they remain the keepers of God’s
    mysteries, that they belong to a special language club into which the
    faithful may not enter.”
    For real? Catholics I know have dictionaries and don’t have a hard time asking for explanations of what they don’t understand.
    It seems so ironic to me that people who embrace the modernizing changes
    of Vatican II so wholeheartedly are so unhappy with an updated document
    that’s a more accurate translation of an important primary source. People aren’t stupid. With some conversation and a little reading, they’ll be fine.

  • Mr. News

    Good point, and why our motto should remain: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
    At least they didn’t go back to the original Greek…

  • Anonymous

    Ratzinger and the others behind this ridiculous and wordy translation are trying to turn back the clock and “Latinize” the Mass. It was done by the clerical caste without even a nod to the people who truly make up the body of the church.  

  • Anonymous

    “Why shouldn’t people have direct access to the word of God? The honest answer is that a clerical caste saw as its primary mission to remain the sole arbiters of God’s meaning, forming a linguistic wall against misinterpretation, heresy, and heterodoxy.” No, it’s ONE answer. Lack of printing and literacy was another, and by itself sufficient. Besides, pre-literate people did the same as what modern people do: make up their own stuff and declare it to be true.