Thursday, December 8, 2011

The "New" Liturgical Translation and Male Bias: Reflections

Priests Concelebrating Mass

I very much like Michael Peppard's Commonweal blog posting about the "new" (orotund and very Latinate) translation of the Roman liturgy for English-speaking countries.  The big claim to fame of the "new" translation is that it's faithfully Latinate--absolutely, slavishly faithful to the Latin original (though God seems to speak Hebrew in the Jewish scriptures and Aramaic and Greek in the Christian ones, and Latin is almost nowhere in the picture in either set of scriptures).  

One of the principles all of my Latin teachers, both in high school and at the college level, drummed into my head over and over is that literal translation is hardly ever good translation.  To get at the sense or meaning of a text, we have to understand what the text says literally, but then render that literal statement in terms that make sense to our own culture.

And as Peppard points out, the "new" translation fails miserably at that objective, as it deals ham-fistedly with gender-oriented terms, accentuating male exclusivity when the Latin original does not do so.  A case in point: the term homo (and its plural homines) literally mean "human" and "human beings"--not "man" and "men," as the "new" translation decides to render them for the most part.  

Latin has gender-specific words that mean "man."  Those words are vir and aner.  And they're not the terms being rendered as "man/men" in the "new" translation.  In rendering homo/homines as "man" and "men"--rather than as "human" and "humans"--the translation is actually violating the original sense of the text, while claiming to replicate its original meaning perfectly.

And it's not difficult to discover why the translation takes this particular fork in the road.  As the thread of comments following Peppard's posting demonstrates, there's a significant number of Mass-attending Catholics who are absolutely delighted to use the liturgy as an occasion to slap uppity women in the face, and to remind them that the God to whom we pray as Catholics is a Big Man who pursues big men's goals in the world--not the goals of uppity little feminist women.

There's a whole contingent of faithful, church-going Catholics who would vastly prefer to let every woman in the world know she's a second-class citizen of church and society, than to entertain the possibility that God's vision of the world is not premised on the superiority of one gender over the other.  And that the obligation of followers of Jesus who have caught his vision of the reign of God is to overturn gender discrimination, not drive it deeper--especially not through the words we pray in our worship services.

(Note how surprisingly hot under the collar some respondents to Peppard's essay are about his suggestion that the terms "man" and "men" are not gender-neutral, as many anti-feminist advocates of their use in everyday speech to denote "human" or "humans" are wont to maintain.  When Peppard asks his students to compile a list of the men who have influenced them, they never--and isn't this surprising--write down the names of any women.  Though we're told that speaking about how "man thinks this" or "man disposes" is gender-neutral and free of gender-bias.)

It happens that, as I read Peppard's Commonweal posting, I'd just re-read Ruth Fox's splendid essay of several years ago about how the liturgy handles women in the bible.  A copy of the essay is at the Call to Action site, and Jim McCrea emailed it to me and other e-friends yesterday.  I remember being so impressed with Fox's essay when I first read it in 1996 that I wrote her to thank her for it, and received a nice acknowledgment of my letter from her.

Fox's point: the official lectionary that has been used in Catholic churches since Vatican II--the set of scripture readings used at each Mass daily and on each Sunday--expunges women, to a considerable degree, from the biblical texts.  Women are far more richly represented in the Jewish and Christian scriptures than the official readings used in the Catholic lectionary would suggest to us.

Is all this accidental?  Hardly.  To understand why it's the case, one has only to look at who mandates and approves the translations and official readings used in liturgical worship.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, the task of mandating and approving these official documents is allocated to men.  It's done by men and for men.

As one priest after another has reminded his parishioners following the implementation of the "new" translation, liturgy really is all about the priest, first and foremost.  He's the one bearing the brunt of the implementation of the liturgical revisions.  He's center-stage, and the "new" liturgy is designed to make him even more front and center on the liturgical stage.

And it's not accidental in the least that a club comprised exclusively of men would design a stage set giving exclusive attention to males as the primary actors in the most significant drama staged by this club.  While women are relegated to the shadows off-stage.  Or allowed to sit and adore in passive submission in the theater audience, from a distance.

(And as the church dies on the vine because of its defense of indefensible gender bias, as it excludes women from ordination, Belgian Catholics are signing, by droves, on to a statement which informs the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church,

We simply do not understand why the leadership in our local communities (e.g. parishes) is not entrusted to men or women, married or unmarried, professionals or volunteers, who already have the necessary training. We need dedicated pastors! 
We do not understand why these our fellow believers cannot preside at Sunday liturgical celebrations. In every active community we need liturgical ministers!
We do not understand why, in communities where no priest is available, a Word service cannot also include a Communion service. 
We do not understand why skilled laypeople and well-formed religious educators cannot preach. We need the Word of God!

But the pastoral leaders appear not to be listening.) 

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