Liberal-minded Catholics who were disappointed with the appointment of the überconservative Pope Benedict XVI to replace Pope John Paul II—who was hardly a Rosary-rattling hippie himself—have been further chagrined by the debut of a new English translation of the Latin mass to replace the one that’s been in use since 1975.
The new translation (a project initiated by PJPII) contains some bonus material—”prayers for the celebration of recently canonized saints, additional prefaces for the Eucharistic Prayers, additional Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Intentions”—but most significantly, it hews more closely to the literal Latin text, ergo sounding stuffier. “And also with you” becomes “and also with your spirit.” “One in being with the Father” becomes “consubstantial with the Father.” And the real zinger: a mention that Christ died “for all” becomes a mention that He died “for many.” (Or, in español, from “por todos” to “por muchos,” which has a sinisterly festive air to it.) In other words, we’re not looking at you, people who fail to “accept in faith the gift that is being offered and to receive the supernatural life that is given to those who participate in this mystery.”
Among those cut out is me. I left Catholicism at age 18, after 13 years of Catholic school education—including a short stint as an altar boy at my high school parish, one so conservative that they went straight back to Latin. It was more or less an accident that I ended up at that parish, though: my parents are liberal Catholics, the kind of Catholics the priests at my high school referred to as “cafeteria Catholics.” (They make their way down the buffet of Catholicism, goes the metaphor, picking and choosing the beliefs and practices they prefer rather than swallowing the whole smorgasbord as the Pope would have them do.) Their own parish was overseen by a jovial, liberal priest who believed so intensely in the joy of the Mass that he would actually weep as he broke bread.
Eventually, though, that priest left and was replaced by one from sterner stock. There was little joy in the new priest’s sermons, and when his parishioners tried to discreetly hint that his liturgies didn’t speak to their lives, he scoffed. “This isn’t MTV!” he declared. In other words, God shouldn’t need to sugarcoat the Truth. You can accept it, or you can go straight to hell.
That hard-line approach linking the Church’s specific rituals to supernatural destiny was scorned almost 500 years ago by Martin Luther, sparking a mass exodus by the Protestants whose descendants today fill megachurches and speak in tongues. The Roman Catholic Church, however, will have you speak only one tongue: theirs. “The axiom lex orandi, lex credendi—’what we pray is what we believe’—suggests that there is a direct relationship between the content of our prayers and the substance of our faith.”
The irony for both those who celebrate and decry this new translation is that English is not the first language of many of today’s most ardent Catholic believers. That anti-MTV priest at my parents’ church was replaced by a priest who comes, like an increasing number of American priests, from another country—in this case Peru. In a reversal of the practice that had Baby Boomers saving their change to “save the pagan babies” in faraway lands, today the new priest’s Peruvian supporters send sizable monetary donations to support his work preaching the One True Faith to those same Baby Boomers, many of whom aren’t so sure about the “One” or even the “True” parts of that equation.
Catholics like my parents are disappointed at the new translation, and I think they’ll continue to be disappointed, because I don’t see the Catholic Church going back to the forward-thinking days of Vatican II. As church-going declines among Americans, the Catholics are hanging onto their base. After all, they can’t out-Unitarian the Unitarians. If it’s true that Christ died for “many,” the Catholic Church is making sure that they don’t lose their grip among the true believers who constitute the declining numbers of the Many.