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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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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