Phil Mathias on the corrected translation

The corrected translation has attracted a lot of criticism, very little of it substantial. 1 Phil Mathias’ National Post commentary does little to redress the balance. It’s hard to keep reading after Phil regurgitates the tired “hiearchy vs. the people” line that’s been so in vogue, 2 but we shall soldier on.

(1) Phil tackles consubstantial, and it doesn’t go well. He seems unable to comprehend why we would make the change, but it’s not hard to understand:

[ICEL1973] declared that Christ is “one in being with the Father,” a clear expression of Catholic belief. The new version says Christ is “consubstantial” with the Father. “Consubstantial” is a literal translation of the Latin word consubstantialem, which basically means “one in being” with the Father. So why make the change? (“Consubstantial” is particularly inept because in English usage, only material things have “substance” and God is a spirit.)

First and foremost, because that’s what the latin says. We translate a foreign word to its most precise English equivalent, and when there’s an established English noun (even if originally a loanword) that is the established translation of a foreign noun, we use that word rather than some other word that’s more-or-less coterminous. That’s why, for example, we pray for our auxiliary bishops rather than our “helper overseers” when translating episcopus auxiliaris, even though one can argue for the former rendering (and cite bible translations that use it). Consubstantial has been good English since the 1570s; the language of the liturgy should not be limited by the laziness of the lowest common denominator.

Second, because “consubstantial” is a better fit for the Mass, where the Creed is recited immediately before the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Phil says that “‘Consubstantial’ is particularly inept because in English usage, only material things have ‘substance’ and God is a spirit,” but that’s problematic. John 4 notwithstanding, God is Father, Son, and Spirit—one God in three persons. The three divine persons are consubstantial—of the same substance—and in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we partake of that substance. What exactly does Phil think transubstantiation means? The accidents of bread and wine remain; the substance changes, allowing us to receive the substance of Christ’s body and blood—not in some vague spiritual sense but physically and literally—which is itself of the same substance as the Father.

And third, pastoral felicity. Phil’s troubled understanding of substance actually serves to highlight why the change is necessary; if he has been mislead, it’s a good bet that others have been too. Confessing the consubstantiality of the trinity at Mass, and the catechesis that will support it, may help the faithful to better understand the trinity and the eucharist. In the past, I’ve put the point this way: We tend to think that we know what “one in being” means because we know what the words mean individually, but we truly don’t. It’s a mystery. “Consubstantial” better expresses the unity and mystery of the trinity.

(2) Phil claims  that “[t]he new liturgy is a literal translation of the Latin Mass that was universally used before the Second Vatican Council….” The new missal is not a literal translation, and it isn’t a translation of the usus antiquior; it’s a translation of the 1969 ritus modernus. One of the biggest problems with the critics of the corrected translation is that they rarely appear acquainted with the underlying text that is translated, appearing for all the world to be assessing the texts as composition rather than translation.

(3) Phil asks: “What is so special about Latin as a vehicle for Christian devotion?” And for sake of argument, we can accept his answer: Nothing. But that’s a red herring; the real question is “why is latin the issue here?” And the answer is, because that’s the language the Mass is written in. To ask why the latin text is the touchstone of the English translation is like asking “what is so special about Italian as a vehicle for drama” when asked to translate Nessum Dorma. If the Mass was written in Italian, it should be properly and faithfully translated from the Italian, not because Italian is special but because that’s the source language. (If ICEL had translated Nessum Dorma, by the way, I suspect that their Calaf’s speech—Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle! All’alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!—would have come out something like “In the morning, we will win.”)

(4) Phil says that “Benedict has already started to undo some of the Second Vatican Council’s work,” which he hasn’t, and that Benedict “can’t reinstate the Latin Mass universally,” which he actually has. 3

(5) Finally, we come to the tired fight over the correct translation of pro multis—a point on which, ironically enough, the Holy Father seems to agree with the critics in his private opinion. 4 Phil says:

One particularly troubling element in the new liturgy comes where the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice is declared. He died “for all,” the older version of the liturgy says. He died “for many,” according to the new liturgy. (In English usage, “for many” usually excludes the notion of “for all.”)

Is this change merely a heavy-handed translation of a Latin expression that has a subtly different meaning, or was it chosen by conservative writers moved by the idea that Catholics will get to heaven while others won’t?

Here’s a concise defense of the corrected translation from the Commentary on Hebrews 9:28 by St John Chrysostom (+AD 407). Why it should say that Christ died “”to bear the sins of many”? Why, that is, John asks, “‘of many’ and not ‘of all’? Because not all believed. For He died indeed for all, that is His part: for that death was a counterbalance against the destruction of all men. But He did not bear the sins of all men, because they were not willing.” Here’s the Catechism of Trent’s useful distinction:

[The words ‘pro multis’] serve to declare the fruit and advantage of His Passion. For if we look to its value, we must confess that the Redeemer shed His blood for the salvation of all; but if we look to the fruit which mankind have received from it, we shall easily f…ind that it pertains not unto all, but to many of the human race. … With reason, therefore, were the words ‘for all’ not used, as in this place the fruits of the Passion are alone spoken of, and to the elect only did His Passion bring the fruit of salvation. And this is the purport of the Apostle when he says: Christ was offered once to exhaust the sins of many; and also of the words of our Lord in John: I pray for them; I pray not for the world, but for them whom thou hast given me, because they are thine.

USCCB also has a useful FAQ here. But it really boils down to this: All are called; only many will answer. I hope you will answer.


  1. Some of it, however, has been mordantly funny. In a comment at PrayTell, Joe O’Leary said that those who publicly support the corrected translation remind him “of excited communist students of the 1960s desperately trying to find inspiration in Stalinist jargon and wisdom in Mao’s little red book.”
  2. The tendency to import this image into the ecclesial context didn’t start with Occupy Wall Street, but it has intensified with it. There is a troubling pattern of behavior on the part of the Church’s progressive wing that frames every issue as a narrative about “us vs. them,” of “clerics vs. laymen.” The gambit airs the demands of the individual, asserts that the vast majority of Catholics agree, and claims that the only obstacle standing athwart the realization of these goals is the intransigent, out-of-touch “hierarchy” (by which they mean the Church; things like that, and calling the Holy Spirit “she” are dogwhistles). This becomes particularly ironic when the author(s) are themselves clerics! (See, e.g. the last section of this post.) In reality, there is no contentious issue in the Church today—if there ever has been one—that substantially divides laity and clergy. Consider the translation. Phil, a layman, doesn’t like it; in this, he is joined by a few clerics (Fr. Anthony Ruff, for instance). Meanwhile, I, also a layman, joined by I dare say most clerics, including Fr. Ray de Souza in an NP companion piece, are fully in favor of it. A reasonable person could look at the situation and say “Mathias and Ruff are wrong, ” or they could say “Dodd and de Souza are wrong,” but what no one could say with a straight face is that the issue divides a hostile laity from an “out of touch imperial clergy.”
  3. That’s Pope Benedict’s great gift in Summorum Pontificum, 99 AAS 777 (2007): It is now the universal law of the Church (as confirmed by Universae Ecclesiae, no. 2 (PCED 2011)) that every priest may now celebrate Mass in the usus antiquior, no matter how much his bishop is opposed, and every Catholic wishing to do so may, ceteris paribus, attend. Until Summorum Pontificum, i.e. under the regime of Ecclesia Dei, 80 AAS 1496 (JP2, 1988), bishops could block celebration of the usus antiquior, but since 2007, if you know a willing priest, your bishop could be Annibale Bugnini himself and he still couldn’t deny you access to the usus anquior. Any latin-rite priest “whether secular or religious, may use the Roman Missal published by Bl. Pope John XXIII in 1962,” on ANY day outside the triduum, without “need for permission from the Apostolic See or from his Ordinary.” Such Masses may “be attended by faithful who, of their own free will, ask to be admitted.” (SP art. 2; UE, no. 20.) To be sure that pertains to technically “private” Masses, and things get slightly murkier when we get into the issue of technically “public” Masses in the extraordinary form. And indeed, one must suggest that outright defiance of one’s bishop, regardless of authority to do so, is a problem. But bishops no longer have any authority to stop the celebration of Mass according to the usus antiquior.
  4. See 2 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth 134-38 (2011).