Friday, October 21, 2011

"Much to learn, you still have..."

Earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI said that the church needs to speak to youth using communication vehicles of their culture.  He made this statement out of concern that youth are fleeing the church at accelerating rates. 

Effective ministry requires reaching people where they are.  So it makes sense to use the same communication tools they use to reach them.  Thus we are starting to see clergy with blogs and Facebook pages.  The pope did not mention communicating over these media in a manner youth actually understand.  However, effective ministry also requires this.  Since the last two popes have been huge advocates for youth ministry, I am assuming that they would also support this concept. 

The last two popes are also the key forces behind re-translating the English version of the Roman Missal used at Mass and English speaking bishops are enthusiastically supporting its adoption.  Thus, all English speaking Catholics worldwide are being forced to use a new set of words at Mass. 

Putting all these factors together and after experiencing a few Masses using parts of the new translation, I can only surmise that the pope and bishops believe today’s youth are avid Star Wars fans.  I can think of no other reason for like Yoda, expect us to speak, they do.  Because, poor English grammar like Yoda, speak we shall, as we are expected to say things like, “and on Earth, peace to people of good will” rather than “peace to people on Earth”. 

If church leaders believe today’s youth are Star Wars fans, shouldn’t we just say, “May the Force be with you” instead?  This raises an important point about the translation.  There are two approaches to translation: dynamic and literal.  Dynamic translations preserve the meaning where literal translations translate every single word literally, regardless of if the resultant phrasing is awkward or makes sense in the target language.  Though “May the Force be with you” might express roughly the same meaning as “on Earth, peace to people of good will”, it is a dynamic rather than a literal translation of the Latin phrase “in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis”.  Unfortunately, the new Mass translation is a literal translation.  

An example of how severely literal translations can violate meaning can be seen in literally translating the English phrase, “I am hot” which in the U.S. means someone feels the temperature around them is excessively warm.  Translated literally into Pope Benedict’s native tongue, German, we would say “Ich bin heiss”.  Unfortunately, in German that means someone is sexually aroused. 

Supposedly Pope John Paul II began this literal translation effort because each English speaking country translated the Mass into its own vernacular, arriving at different English versions for the Mass.  Since he traveled around a lot he experienced the English language variances that exist in the world and evidently he didn’t like the fact that English in the U.K differs from U.S. English or from Australian English. 

However, the previous English translation approach acknowledged the usage differences amongst English speaking nations.  For example in U.S. English a “napkin” is a thing with which a person wipes their mouth at a meal.  However, in New Zealand English, “napkin”, only refers to a feminine hygiene product.  The word “serviette” is used to describe the thing people use to wipe their face at a meal.  Thus, in forcing the same English translation upon all English speaking countries, John Paul II and Benedict are trying to force a uniformity of language usage that does not exist.  I guess we just have to hope that the new Mass translation doesn’t refer to a napkin anywhere.

Literal translations also introduce words that do not resonate in the target language.   Therefore instead of saying Jesus is “one in being with” we are supposed to say he is “consubstantial” with God.  If I polled the average kid on the streets of the U.S. and asked them what “consubstantial” meant, I anticipate many blank stares or sarcastic responses.  Thus, the translation violates another tenet of effective ministry - speaking the language of those amongst whom you minister. 

The 1973 and 1998 Roman Missal translations to English used dynamic translation approaches.  They focused on preserving the meaning of what was being said.  This is important because the Eucharistic celebration was not originally conducted in Latin.  It was in Greek.  The word “Eucharist” is a Greek, not a Latin word, for example.  Furthermore, Jesus likely didn’t speak Greek or Latin.  So the foundational event for the Eucharistic celebration, the Last Supper, probably was spoken in Aramaic.   The hope is that the meaning of what Jesus said and did was preserved from Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English rather than having a word for word translation each time that renders gibberish.  Again, unfortunately, the 2011 English translation of the Roman Missal is a literal translation. 

Anyone who studies languages knows that literal translations produce very awkward wording in the target language and also tend to alter the meaning.  This raises the issue of theological problems with the new translation.  For example, the word “consubstantial” that we are now expected to utter means “of the same substance”.  However, the church teaches God is a spirit, not a substance.  How can Jesus, a human, be of the same substance as God, a spirit with no substance?  Some might say we should overlook the literal meaning of the literal translation that produces “consubstantial” and just know that this means Jesus has God’s spirit.  Yet, the church also firmly rejects the idea that Jesus was a human shell with God’s spirit.  This is a heretical belief that contradicts the church’s teaching that in Jesus, God and humanity are fully integrated.  So, “consubstantial” introduces very serious, if not heretical, theological concepts: 1) that God has a substance versus is a spirit or 2) that Jesus’ divinity and humanity are not fully integrated.

How many people will just mindlessly repeat whatever the Vatican and the bishops tell them to say?  How many people will be willing to sacrifice meaning and theological concepts in favor of not making a wave that might damage their esteem in the church?

I was at a college football game last weekend and lots of youth were wearing shirts with the Greek phrase, “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ”, printed on them.  The literal translation that renders is, “you receive”.  Any person educated in language knows to question the quality of a BabelFish translation because it does a literal word-for-word translation.  And in the case of translating this expression, that is wise advice because the expression means something quite different than what BabelFish renders. 

When the ancient Persian Emperor Xerxes came with 600,000 troops to trample little Greece, he offered to spare the lives of the Spartan king Leonidas and his 300 personal bodyguards if they would just surrender their arms and abandon their duty to protect the people of Greece.  Rather than surrender to save their lives, and despite overwhelming odds against them, Leonidas responded on behalf of the 300 Spartans with, ““ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ”, (Molon Labe) which actually means, “come and get them”.   This expression means even much more than “Come and get them”.  It is an expression of indomitable courage and profound defiance in the face of overwhelming odds opposing you.  It represents an unwillingness to be trampled by those of power.   

Will Catholic priests and lay people acquiesce to preserve their status in the church or will they cry “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” when they see the bishops, cardinals and popes try to overrun the people with poor Mass translations?  Where is the cry of “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” from women of the church being marginalized even further by reintroduction of sexist language in the Mass?   

Rather than respond with the new literal translation, “And with your spirit” that does not resonate with them, some youth who are Star Trek rather than Star Wars fans have suggested extending the right hand with fingers formed in a Spock-like “V” and saying either, “live long and prosper”, or, “my soul salutes you.”  May the Force be with those with courage to defend their faith and shout “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” in defiance of power mongers within the church.

I imagine that to the bishops and pope, Yoda would say, "much to learn you still have".


  1. The problem, I think, is less that the church is teaching heretical concepts in the use of "consubstantial" than that it is trying to use today language from a very different era, when the same words meant something entirely different.
    The "consubstantial" comes from an Aristotelian / Thomistic understanding of the world. There, substance did not mean something solid (as it does today), but the essence of what something was, i.e. what it IS. God IS, so while there is no "substance" to God the way we understand the word "substance" today, under Aristotelian and Thomistic understandins of reality, one could say God was substance itself. Another way of saying it (though it becomes circular) is that the substance of God is "Godness".

    Unfortunately, when we use the term "consubstantial", we are then faced with trying to explain that Jesus was of the same substance, understood in Aristotelian / Thomistic terms rather than in the understandings of today, as is God.
    It would have been so much easier to leave the language that we had, "one in being" which is an excellent translation of the original Greek words "homo" and "ousios" (same being) which was later translated into the Latin "consubstantialem".
    But once we start making any language, be it Latin or anything else, into our God, it will unfortunately at some point become our demon.
    The former is happening with our new translation, the latter awaits.

  2. I enjoyed your clear presentation of the issue. No arguments from me.