National Catholic Reporter ®

August 16, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 51

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The endgame for ICEL; Vatican sources (or, no, the pope isn’t headed for a monastery in Poland); the church and its money

He summed up his translation [ICEL] philosophy this way: “You can think of it as walking down a road,” Harbert said. “On one side is fidelity, on the other usability. The challenge always is to try to narrow the gap.”

One of the nastiest and most protracted disputes in the English-speaking Catholic world may be nearing its endgame. At a July 29-August 1 meeting in Ottawa, the bishops who govern the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, known as ICEL, installed a new leadership team. It seems likely to be compatible with the traditionalist approach to translation insisted upon by the Congregation for Divine Worship under Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, perhaps closing what has been a long-festering divide between ICEL, the congregation, and their respective supporters in Catholic public opinion.

     Taking the place of Scottish Bishop Maurice Taylor, who as chair of ICEL has strongly defended the agency against Roman criticism, will be the coadjutor bishop of Leeds in England, Arthur Roche. Replacing John Page as executive secretary will be Fr. Bruce Harbert, a convert from Anglicanism with a background in patristics, medieval languages and English, who over the years has voiced some criticism of ICEL. Harbert, also an Englishman, will move to Washington, D.C., and take over Sept. 9.

     Though largely unknown to the wider world, the translation agency has been a lightning rod inside the church. 

     Its “dynamic equivalency” approach, which allows translators to take some liberties with Latin originals in order to render texts meaningful in contemporary English, strikes defenders as consistent with Paul VI’s vision of prayer and worship in a “living language.” Others, however, fault ICEL for covertly grinding a series of ideological and theological axes under the rubric of “inculturation.” These include feminism, anti-clericalism and a bias against the transcendent. Hence when ICEL translations omit the names of the orders of angels, for example, or scour some traditional pious language (“Peter” instead of always “Saint Peter”), pro-ICEL observers see decisions in favor of relevance; anti-ICEL folk sense hidden agendas.

     With the appointment of Medina to head the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1998, Vatican policy shifted decisively in favor of the critics. Medina has called for a much more literal approach, sticking closely to the Latin, and has claimed a greater role for his congregation in overseeing ICEL’s work.

     The crackdown has enraged some who see ICEL as a prime example of “collegiality,” or cooperation among bishops, that Rome should leave alone. Hence ICEL has been sucked into the larger debate within Catholicism over how power ought to be allocated and exercised — roughly speaking, the question of centralization versus subsidiarity.

     The controversy has at times been intensely personal. Taylor spoke to the bitterness in a strongly worded farewell statement, issued as the new leadership team was announced.

     “The members of ICEL’s Episcopal Board have in effect been judged to be irresponsible in the liturgical texts that they have approved over the years. The bishops of the English-speaking conferences, voting by large majorities to approve the vernacular liturgical texts prepared by ICEL, have been similarly judged. And the labors of all those faithful and dedicated priests, religious, and laypeople who over the years devoted many hours of their lives to the work of ICEL have been called into question.

     “The impression is given, and indeed is seemingly fostered by some, that ICEL is a recalcitrant group of people, uncooperative, even disobedient. This is mistaken and untrue. One is tempted to suspect that, no matter what ICEL does, its work will always be criticized by some because their minds are made up that the mixed commission is incorrigible and unworthy of continued existence.

     “I feel that if I were to remain silent all of this I would be a party to unfair, and even unjust, damage to people’s reputations. And let’s try to be charitable as well as truthful. John Page, Peter Finn, the associate secretary, and the other four members of the ICEL Secretariat staff do not deserve to be pilloried as they have been,” Taylor wrote.

     One asset ICEL has always lacked is an all-important defender among the cardinals, someone with political throw-weight in Rome. Scotland’s Tom Winning was moving into this role, but his unexpected death from a heart attack in June 2001 took him out of the picture. The lone cardinal on the ICEL board now is Francis George of Chicago, whose own thinking, while admittedly complex, has often led him to sympathize with the critics.

     English newspapers such as the Catholic Herald have attributed the appointments of Roche and Harbert to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster. In Harbert’s case, however, it’s clear that he was also known to George. Harbert served as a visiting faculty member for the winter quarter of 2001-2002 at George’s liturgical institute at Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago.

     With Harbert, ICEL’s work will be directed by a noted scholar and linguist who is basically comfortable with Medina’s philosophy. When I reached him by phone on August 9, Harbert told me that he felt the controversial document on translation principles put out by the congregation, Liturgiam Authenticam, is a “courageous document on texts.”

     “It’s not easy to write prescriptively on language,” Harbert said, “but I thought it did so very well. The time had come when some guidance had to be given.”

     The comment is in line with the drift of Harbert’s liturgical thinking over the years. In a 1996 article in New Blackfriars, for example, Harbert described ICEL as “something of a tyranny, which individual bishops’ conferences are in effect powerless to resist.” He described ICEL translations of some of the collects, or prayers, for the Mass as “unmemorable,” flawed by a “cuddle-factor” of excessive emphasis on the heart as opposed to the mind, and revealing a “propensity towards Pelagianism” by stressing what humans do rather than what God does. 

     Yet Harbert described himself in our interview as “not really a politician,” and said that he believes it is “entirely inappropriate that the liturgy should be a battlefield.” He also struck certain notes that do suggest an independence of outlook.

     He said, for example, that Liturgiam Authenticam “has not spoken the last word” on the masculine pronoun “man,” the use, or avoidance, of which in many liturgical settings has become symbolic of attitudes towards wider gender issues in the church. Harbert said the issue would require “much study,” especially from Hebrew scholars.

     Further, Harbert said that much of the work on the new Roman Missal, the prayer book for the Mass, performed by ICEL is good and should be maintained. “To start with a clean sheet would be unrealistic,” he said.

     Harbert also said about Liturgiam Authenticam that he distinguishes between what it says on language, liturgy and texts, and what it says about “ecclesiastical structures” — suggesting that he is sensitive to the issues of collegiality and power relations surrounding ICEL.

     He summed up his translation philosophy this way: “You can think of it as walking down a road,” Harbert said. “On one side is fidelity, on the other usability. The challenge always is to try to narrow the gap.”

     Harbert, who converted to the Roman Catholic church at the age of 23 (in 1966), said he did so because he had come to realize that “Christ founded one church.” He said that he told the ICEL bishops that when he was 17, he studied Latin and Greek in the English public school system, as well as classical music. He went to Salzburg, Austria, on vacation and heard Mozart’s music, Latin, and Christianity all functioning together, and it produced a sense of “continuity” that eventually helped lead him into the Catholic church.

     Harbert said he did not apply for the ICEL job, but was put forward by the bishops of England and Wales. Yet he said he “feels privileged,” since the transition from Latin into the vernacular languages is a transition in church history perhaps rivaled only by the move from Greek to Latin. English is important, he said, because in many ways it is becoming the “new Latin” — the church’s default common language,

     “We have a fresh start,” Harbert said. “I hope we’ll manage to produce something worthy.”

* * *

     I referred last week to speculation about the possibility that John Paul might resign in Poland during his Aug. 16-19 trip there, which will already be underway as this column is published. These rumors, which have the pope moving into a Carmelite monastery to pass the rest of his days, bubbled up in sketchy reports in the German and Polish press, citing unnamed “Vatican sources.”

     (Let me just say as an aside that if all the secret “Vatican sources” cited in reckless stories such as these actually existed, Vatican City would be the most densely populated place on earth. Many such “sources” are just figments of a reporter’s over-active imagination.) 

     For a change of pace, here’s a Vatican source with a name, rank and serial number: Monsignor Renato Boccardo, chief organizer for papal journeys. I visited Boccardo in his office in the Secretariat of State on Tuesday, August 13, and asked about the rumors that John Paul will exit the stage.

     “I can deny this officially and completely,” Boccardo said. “The pope will return to Rome at 6:30 p.m. on August 19, exactly as planned. He will not stay in Poland.”

     Boccardo confirmed, in fact, that preparation for other trips is underway. A visit to Croatia is “semi-official,” awaiting the completion of work in the Congregation of Saints on two people John Paul wants to canonize while in the country. A trip to Manila in January for an international meeting on the family is also under consideration.

     I expressed some skepticism about Manila, given that a possible trip to Australia last year had been scrubbed because it was deemed too taxing. Boccardo pointed out that getting to Manila would take a mere 13 hours in a plane, while Australia would have meant between 20 and 24, and would involve fewer time changes.

     Moreover, Boccardo said, much depends on how the pope is doing at the time of the trip. If he’s especially fragile, then a long journey is especially problematic. As the recent swing through Canada, Guatemala and Mexico illustrates, however, there are still periods in which he’s up to the challenge.

     I’ll include more of my conversation with Boccardo another time. For now, I can debunk one other rumor about the Polish trip, which is that a special squadron of 100 doctors has been dragooned because the pope’s health is so precarious. In fact, Boccardo said, John Paul will be accompanied by the same two doctors who always travel with him, and on the ground in Poland there will be the same small medical team standing by that’s always present when heads of state arrive. No special units have been formed, no plans hatched beyond routine protocol.

     Where did the papers that published the 100 doctors story get their information? “Vatican sources,” naturally.

* * *

     When I heard that Cambridge church historian John Pollard was in Rome last week, I jumped at the chance to invite him to coffee. I had thoroughly enjoyed his 1999 book The Unknown Pope, about Benedict XV, and word had it that he’s nearing completion of a new project on Vatican finances. I was eager to hear the tale, given Pollard’s reputation as a meticulous, balanced scholar.

     His new book, which he plans to deliver early next year, concerns the financial situation of the Holy See from 1870, which marks the fall of the papal states and hence the end of the pope’s temporal power, to the end of the Second World War. 

     Pollard told me that several points struck him in his research.

     The first is how Vatican investing policy seemed to take shape almost completely isolated from the developing social teaching of the pontiffs that policy is supposed to serve. Pollard said he saw this during the reign of Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum launched modern Catholic social doctrine, and especially under Pius XI, whose denunciations of “anonymous capitalism” reflected the post-1929 Wall Street Crash mood of global unrest. 

     Yet even as Pius was decrying the features of an economic system that seemed to prioritize the accumulation of capital over human suffering, his aides were playing the global currency, bond and stock markets with the proceeds of the 1929 Lateran Pacts with Mussolini. In terms of investment aims and strategies, Pollard said, there was very little to distinguish the Vatican from other states or large corporations.

     Second, Pollard said the rise of modern Vatican finances is closely linked with the cult of personality that surrounds the modern papacy. Prior to 1870, he argues, there was no special devotion to the pope or the papacy. For most Catholics, the pope was a rather abstract and unknown figure. After the collapse of the Papal States, however, the pope became the lonely “prisoner of the Vatican,” and an appeal was launched across the Catholic world for “Peter’s Pence” — a special collection to support the papacy. This, Pollard feels, helped create a new psychology in which Catholics are much more focused on the person of the pope. Thus a device born in a moment of papal weakness fueled the rise of the 19th and 20th century “imperial papacy.”

     Third, Pollard said his review of Vatican finances also confirmed just how important the U.S. church has been for the financial viability of the Vatican. At one stage in the early 20th century, he said, Americans were providing about $1 million in what was at the time a $6 million annual Vatican budget. American prelates such as Chicago’s George Mundelein and New York’s Francis Spellman were demi-gods for their ability to deliver dollars.

     Pollard said he wants to wait to finish his project until January, when the Vatican will unseal some 640 files from the papacy of Pius XI (1922-1939). Although normally the Vatican opens all the files of a given papacy together, in this case the Pius XI material will be made available ahead of schedule, as part of an effort to respond to questions about the role of the Catholic Church in the Second World War. 

     When those files become available, Pollard said, we can look forward to a spate of quick Pius XI biographies. While that’s an intriguing prospect, I myself am looking forward with greater anticipation to Pollard’s own book on the dollars and cents details of recent Vatican history. 

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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