The King’s Anguish: Mistranslating the Holy Scriptures

In this Crisis Magazine classic, Anthony Esolen takes a discouraged but entertaining look at the lectionary.

 
 
“If any man,” says the preacher, “can show just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace.”
 
At that the door is flung open, and in strides anybody from a dozen old movies. The screenwriters knew their trade. The one marriage service from which everybody remembers a line or two is that of the Book of Common Prayer. That language was memorable. It had cadence, balance, emphasis, and a simplicity and reverence befitting Christian prayer: an unashamed naming of humble things that can be seen and heard and touched, along with a majesty fit to honor the Creator of all things visible and invisible.
 
Why can’t we Catholics have hymnals and a lectionary faithful to the ancient texts and sensitive to the requirements of poetry and memorable prose? It’s not much to ask.
 
We don’t have them now. Sing “Rice-a-Roni” to a class of college freshmen, and they will finish the jingle for you. Begin the intro to The Brady Bunch and they will chime in, even if they haven’t watched the show in years. The awful but catchy music does it. But what weekly communicant can remember more than a sentence of Eucharistic Prayer III?
 
Readers, examine your memories. “Greater love than this hath no man.” “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” “My cup runneth over.” “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” I’ll wager that your memories are like mine: When we think of a verse from the Bible, we recall the old language: King James, or Douay-Rheims, or an amalgam of several old-fashioned renderings. What we don’t recall are the words from our lectionary or our modernized hymnals. And there are reasons why not.
 
 
No Man’s Land
 
One of the results of our linguistic compromise with feminism is that we render many sentences vague, indirect, and impersonal. We also blur the Scripture’s frequent opposition of God and man. Consider again the words of Jesus, this time from the old Jerusalem Bible:
 
“What God has united, man must not divide” (Mt 19:6, emphasis added).
 
We can imagine, can’t we, the temerarious man who would try? That’s the glory of the singular-collective man: It signifies everybody, but everybody conceived as one, and so it can summon an image of a particular man doing a particular thing. And that clarifies our position relative to God. For God is on one side of the sentence, and man is on the other.
 
What do we lose when we concede the natural language? Accuracy, clarity, power, and memorability. Here is Jesus in Matthew 16:26, from the Challoner revision of Douay-Rheims, posing the ultimate choice:
 
For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
 
Our lectionary:
 
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
 
What’s happened? Well, the subject of the Greek sentence is anthropos, generic man, masculine in gender and, more important, capable of calling up a specific image, that of a man who will meet a wretched fate if he gains the whole world but loses his soul. But to avoid that direct translation, our jiggerers recast the grammar, turning the verb profit into an abstract noun, making the subject of the sentence the impersonal there, and dropping the clear he, subject of the explanatory clause. Worse, they suppress the idea of man, generic or otherwise, by the vaguest of all indefinite pronouns, the stuffy little one. Nor does this one do a lot; there is profit for one to do thus and so, but one just sits bashfully in one’s little accusative nook, hoping that nobody will notice.
 
Thus the strong balance and contrast of Christ’s eloquent words — “if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul” — are derailed. In the Douay, as in the original Greek, Christ proclaims a principle by summoning a specific image. We can all think of a man who thought he might gain the whole world, but who lost his own soul. The last misbegotten century provides a rogue’s gallery of such. And we can all put ourselves in that man’s place at the moment of decision: Ignatius of Loyola approaches us and says, “Francis, my friend, what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world?,” and it is no theoretical one we’re talking about, but this man, that woman, here and now.
 
Yet for all its poverty of style, the lectionary fails to avoid the masculine pronoun anyway, and falls into incoherent grammar to boot. Having begun with one, the translators could not proceed grammatically without sounding like a blueblood sniffing the bouquet of a claret: “One simply does not drink one’s wine, you know.” So they used his instead of one’s. But the possessive of one is one’s, not his! One ties one’s shoelaces, lest one fall on one’s backside. His would refer to somebody else’s. Replace one’s with his in the previous sentence, and see if you don’t suddenly imagine some awkward scene involving Moe, Larry, and Curly.
 
I am not niggling here; only rarely does the no man’s land of the lectionary fail to render Holy Scripture flabby or unintelligible. Here’s a particularly bad case. First the good English:
 
None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself (RSV, Rom 14:7).
 
Replacing “to” with “for” would bring it into contemporary idiom, though it is clear as it is. The Jerusalem Bible replaced the proverb with an explanatory gloss:
 
The life and death of each of us has its influence on others.
 
Which, though forgettable, is at least clear and grammatical. Now for a tongue that ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, nor hath it entered into the mind of man to conceive:
 
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
 
That’s grammatical gibberish. The reflexive oneself requires a one to reflect, but there isn’t any. Replace no one with nobody, and you will see the problem. Oneself must refer to somebody else, thus reversing Paul’s meaning:
 
Nobody lives for one [the -self is now emphatic rather than reflexive], and nobody dies for one.
One is on one’s own, it seems. “Ah, Jeeves, people indeed are cold these days; why, no one will give one a lift, no matter that one’s pig is endangered.”
 
Turn back, O person, and mend thy foolish ways! Even when the Greek reads aner orAndres  adult males), the habit of unsexing may prove too strong: “As he was entering a village, tenpersons with leprosy met him” (Lk 17:12). Alas, ye lepers, fled of most men, but abbreviated by translators! And the language is stilted, too:
 
“Who’s coming down the road, Jimmy?” 

“Looks like ten persons with leprosy, Dad.” 

“Ten persons with leprosy, eh? Last week it was six persons. I sure wish these persons with leprosy would stay on their own side of the gulch.”
 
 
Proceed in an Indeterminate Direction, Young Man
 
The impersonal constructions and indefinite pronouns are only the leading edge of a stylistic low-pressure system rolling in, bringing their blankets of fog. The translators seem to fear pricking their fingers on the bristles of strong prose. They reverse E. B. White’s dictum: They prefer the vague to the precise, the abstract to the concrete, and the general to the specific. The losses in rhetorical force and in theological meaning are great. Consider:
 
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce (Mt 21:33-34, lectionary).
 
Obtain his produce? Greek karpous is concrete, visible, tangible: fruits, literally things you pluck. Compare with King James:
 
There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it.
 
In each case where the translations differ, the King James translators choose a word that exactly and concretely expresses the sense of the Greek, and our lectioneers choose something in the ballpark, less precise and less interesting. For the man is no mere landowner but anoikodespotes, the ruler of a household; and he hedges his vineyard roundabout to protect it from thieves (the lectionary makes the hedge seem a decorative afterthought); and he leases it to men of the earth — farmers, not simply tenants; and it is in Greek the lovely season of the fruit drawing near, and the man sends his servants to take the fruit.
 
Jesus uses the image of fruit again and again, as does Paul. To translate karpous as produce is to bury the connection between this parable and all those passages that teach us the fruit of true faith and love. It also dulls the parable, importing into it the language of a wholesaler for Kroger’s. “Blessed is the produce of your womb,” said Elizabeth to Mary. “By their produce you shall know them,” said Jesus.
 
Sometimes the translators choose the vague to avoid the embarrassment of the specific, lest it prove too potent for our frail nerves. Here again is the parable of the ten persons with leprosy:
 
And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him (Lk 17:15-16).
 
It’s clear enough, but note the King James:
 
And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks.
 
In which version do you see and hear the scene more clearly? In which does the leper act most dramatically? He does not simply realize he has been healed — he sees it! The man is staring in wonder at hands that look like hands and not tree rot. And he doesn’t simply return; he turned back — turned right around on the spot and retraced his steps to find Jesus and thank Him. And when he does thank Him, he does not simply fall at Jesus’ feet. That’s an act of humility before an important person, beseeching Him by clasping His knees. The Greek is clear: Epesen epi prosopon. He prostrated himself, falling face to the ground at the feet of his Savior. That is an act of worship.
 
We don’t want words too suggestive of homage, do we? Note the dilution of urgency in this well-known parable:
 
The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those invited: ‘Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.'” Some ignored the invitation…
 
The concluding moral? “Many are invited, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:1-5, 14). Yes, indeed. I’ve known men who wondered whether they had an invitation to the priesthood; they searched their souls, then their unopened mail, and discovered that no, they had not been invited after all.
 
The Challoner does read “invited” for the first section; King James has the more urgent “bidden,” suggesting rather a polite command or summons than something you can choose to accept or not, indifferently. But for the climactic final line they and the Jerusalem Bible turn to the simple verb call, as of the summoning voice of God, with all its scriptural echoes and its immediacy: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” As for the formal invitation, with its stuffy image of receiving a card, Repondez s’il vous plait, it is nowhere to be found in the older translations, because it is nowhere to be found in the Greek. What those who reject the call do is more specific, more humanly understandable, and more ominous: They made light of it. That, of course, goes a deal beyond ignoring.
 
But the greatest danger of abstraction is meaninglessness. Abstract words are difficult to use precisely. St. Paul is often abstract; therefore the translator must strive to make the words and the grammar absolutely clear, and to preserve as much of the underlying concrete imagery as possible. Here is Paul urging his followers at Philippi to be united in love:
 
If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels [meaning: compassion] and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind (Phil 2:1-2).
 
Look at that fellowship (Greek koinonia). It implies that the Christians are united with the Spirit, and therefore with one another. For an abstract noun, it retains great warmth, because it shows us the fellow men who are, in the Spirit, of one accord, of one mind. Now the lectionary:
 
If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.
 
The phrase united in heart is not bad, but the rest is flat. The translators have muffled the powerful anaphora of if…  if, apparently thinking that any… any would do as well. They have unaccountably ditched fulfill, with its suggestion of fullness of heart, of overflowing joy; again, King James is closer to the original. But what’s happened to the fellowship? What can the question mean, “If there is any participation in the Spirit”? Is it possible for Phil to participate in the Spirit, but not Fred? If Phil of Philippi participates in the Spirit, whatever that means, and Fred of Philippi doesn’t, then how does one answer Paul’s question? “Yes, we have participation in the Spirit here at Philippi, yes indeed. Phil participates, and so does Penelope, but most of us are waiting to see what happens.”
 
 
The Mod Squad
 
If you see a man in a gray suit and tie and fedora, you’ll say, “That man is well-dressed, in an old-fashioned way.” If you see a man in a sweatshirt and jeans, you’ll say, “That man is dressed casually.” But if you see a man in a sweatshirt and jeans, with a tie and a fedora, you won’t say, “That man is old-fashioned,” or “That man is contemporary.” You’ll say, “That man is a fool.”
 
Our lectionary is the man in a sweatshirt and jeans, with a tie and a fedora. The translators couldn’t excise all the old forms without sounding like tax attorneys. So they excised most of them but left others in; and the odd incongruities are sadly comical. Here is the finale of the magnificent hymn in Philippians:
 
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
 
It’s not Douay, it’s not King James, but it will do. The periodic sentence is not sliced into lector-manageable pieces; the hieratic bestow is for once permitted to stay in the room; the modifier at the name of Jesus retains its striking position preceding the subject of the final clause. But note how the introduction to the hymn has been revised. Here is King James:
 
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.
 
That word mind resumes, with great force, what Paul has been advising for his followers, namely that they be of one mind. Here then is the one mind wherein they are to abide. Our lectioneers miss the cue, or cannot allow the slight old-fashionedness of this use of mind, even though they would soon allow the far more old-fashioned bestow. So they unwittingly call up the image of a struttin’ Jesus:
 
Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.
 
An attitude is a posture, a pose; the thumb-hooking slouch of a kid on the streets is a particularly unpleasant attitude. Paul is talking not about an attitude but about something that reaches the core of our beings. To see the difference, revise the words of Jesus thus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your strength, and your attitude.” Doesn’t work, does it?
 
I don’t object to revision when the old forms are misleading or unintentionally silly. But the translator should never forget that Scripture must often and necessarily be strange. That is partly because we’re not living in ancient Palestine. But why should the feel of that culture and its traditions be lost? So when the lectioneers have Gabriel announce the pregnancy of Mary’s relative Elizabeth, I weep for Palestine lost, and its richness of cultural meaning. Why the dead modern word? What dullard won’t know what kinswoman means? Yet what does that old word imply that the new word loses? Maybe an entire world wherein one’s most important bonds were forged among one’s family, one’s kin. A relative has something or other to do with me, perhaps by tedious marital connections. But a kinsman is of my kind, in English as in Greek.
How dull is the change? It’s as if the translators had eliminated a deeply personal word, like the verb abide (Greek meno, to stay, stand fast, abide) in “Abide in me, and I in you” Un 15:4), with all its echoes of dwelling and steadfastness, and replaced it with a bald function word denoting stasis and little else — a word like remain. Ah, so they have done, throughout the Gospels.
 
Consider the lovely opening of this old hymn, and modernize it in the style of the lectionary:
 
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide, 
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
 
Remain with me, the evening starts to wane; 
It’s getting dark, O Lord with me remain.
 
Yet for all these semantic landmines, the real destruction is carried on quietly. Jesus did not write, but taught on mountains, in boats, and in the synagogue. Now, oral narratives require rhetorical devices to make them memorable: balance, parallelism, repetition, and, most important of all, easy and frequent links from clause to clause, and passage to passage.
 
So, given the chance to preserve a taste of the preaching of Jesus, the lilt of His voice as He moved effortlessly from point to point, weaving His words together into a coherent and melodious whole that could be remembered by His unlettered listeners, our translators slice and dice, making it hard to follow the train of thought, and impossible to remember it in its entirety. Here is Jesus speaking against the hypocrites of His day. First the choppy lectionary:
 
But do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation “Rabbi.” As for you, do not be called “Rabbi.” You have one teacher, and you are all brothers (Mt 23:3-8).
 
Now Challoner, with additional connectors italicized:
 
But do not act according to their works; for they talk but do nothing. And they bind together heavy and oppressive burdens, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but not with one finger of their own do they choose to move them. In fact, all their works they do in order to be seen by men; for they widen their phylacteries, and enlarge their tassels, and love the first places at suppers and the front seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplace, and to be called by men “Rabbi.” But do not you be called “Rabbi”; for one is your Master, and you are all brothers.
 
Not only is the and… and series faithful to the original; it builds to a climax, as Jesus, master preacher, loads charge upon charge against the scribes and Pharisees, accumulating them in a sentence as heavily burdened as the niggling rules wherewith the Pharisees burdened other people. It is a breathless tour-de-force; alas, too old-fashioned to fit in our neighborhood, and therefore leveled for a rhetorical parking lot.
 
 
Alt., in the Name of the Law!
 
If the lectionary is poor, the hymnals are worse. I’m not only referring to the off-Broadway show tunes masquerading as folk music, but to “traditional” hymns, neutered and cauterized and blacktopped without shame. Here flattened language, theological deafness, incongruity of diction, and bad grammar unite. I need only place side by side an original poem with its mugged and beaten version from Today’s Missal:
 
Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all Nature, 
O thou of God and Man the Son!
 
Thee will I cherish, thee will I honor,
 
Thou my soul’s glory, joy, and crown.
 
Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, 
Son of God and Son of Man! 
Truly I’d love thee, truly I’d serve thee, 
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.
 
Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight, 
And all the twinkling starry host;
 
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer
 
Than all the angels Heaven can boast.
 
Fair is the sunshine, fair is the moonlight, 
Bright the sparkling stars on high; 
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer 
Than all the angels in the sky.
 
What, O revisers, did this poor poem do to you, that you had to mangle it and then tag it with the theological nonsense of angels floating in the stratosphere, somewhere between weather balloons and the space station?
 
Perhaps the revisers had no malice against Fairest Lord Jesus. Perhaps they were only incompetent. But who told them they should bother the poem in the first place? Space won’t permit an excursus into the bad theology behind most of the revisions; but why should they do to religious lyric what they wouldn’t dare do to Shakespeare? Or would they dare? My gosh, it’s Yorick! l used to know this guy!
 
I’m well-acquainted with sins of translation, having committed my share. But the revisers of our lectionary enjoy enviable advantages. They don’t have to worry about meter and rhyme. They are free to work from past translations, and they have millennia of tradition and commentary to assist them. They can often do the wisest thing — nothing — and be congratulated. As for the compilers of hymnals, they should simply choose the songs and let them be.
 
I know we’ll be seeing a new lectionary soon. My hopes aren’t high. In the meantime, two generations of Catholics have grown up with the mind-erasing prose of the current version. Not to worry. There’s still The Brady Bunch.
 

 


Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a senior editor for
 Touchstone magazine. His latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery). This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Crisis Magazine.

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Maria

    Bravissimo!

  • Jitpring

    This is a superb essay. Many thanks. As I read, I compared the verses he cites with the RSV as well. For some time, I’ve been vacillating between the RSV and the Douay-Challoner. Like the dreadful NAB, the RSV also flattens, though not as much. At any rate, I’ve now decided that I’ll regularly read only the Douay-Challoner.

  • Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick

    I think it was Cardinal Oddi who said: ICEL has only two problems. They don’t know Latin. And they don’t know English.

    As Dorothy Sayers says in The Mind of the Maker, sometimes laughter–good, deep, derisive laughter–is all the good that can be drawn from literary/linguistic evil. But it’s something.

  • gwr

    Why don’t the translators/castrators of the Transgendered Bible (aka the New American Bible) apply their knives to the Prince of Lies? As far as I can make out, Satan always appears in the texts as an unaltered male.

  • pammie

    Great essay Prof. Esolen and excellent comment gwr! My 30 Something can’t be convinced she wasn’t singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” at Mass for all those years.( It was that unbearable classic, “On Eagles’ Wings”, she’s remembering).In other words, post’60’s liturgical and musical efforts have been catering to a political and cultural agenda, rendering them mostly bland, foolish-sounding and entirely forgettable.

  • Margaret

    Your words about mangled hymns brought to mind a painful experience I had. Some may think I’m a sentimental sap, but I don’t care! [smiley=tongue]

    My husband and I each chose one hymn to be sung during our Protestant wedding ceremony. I chose Fairest Lord Jesus; I had always loved its sweet, reverent words of devotion to Christ. As we sang it during our wedding, tears filled my eyes. I was filled with gratitude for the amazing love of Christ and the incredible blessing He was giving me that day. The lyrics perfectly stated how I felt about Christ at that moment.

    A few years later, we converted to the Catholic Church. During one Sunday Mass, the cantor directed us to sing Beautiful Savior. I was puzzled as the tune coming out of the organ was that of Fairest Lord Jesus. To my surprise and disappointment, the lyrics were stripped of majesty and poetic beauty. They felt stiff and utilitarian in comparison to the hymn I knew by heart. And tears filled my eyes again, but for a different reason.

    I can understand changing lyrics of hymns if they are heretical or in some sort of error. But why would anyone feel it necessary to strip a hymn of its poetic charm and devotion? Why are some Catholics allergic to beauty? Good gracious, why do we have to dumb everything down? It breaks my heart.

  • I am not Spartacus

    There is no excuse for what The Catholic Church has allowed to happen these past more than two score years.

    There has been a massive failure of masculinity.

    The Catholic Church has been modernised and feminised and the refusal to apply authority to prevent perversion and secularisation in our most Sacred acts is execrable and has driven many men into the arms of the Orthodox Church or into the arms of the Lefevbrists.

    A few years ago, me and The Bride (convert from Congregationalism) were on vacation on the island of Santorini.

    Sunday Morning, we got up early and walked into Fiera, towards St. John the Baptist Cathedral, which we had visited Saturday. On Saturday, when we toured it, we took photos, and sat in a pew meditatively as we listened to the beautiful Gregorian Chant they had piped-in there. (Talk about false advertising).

    So, as we were walking to Mass on Sunday morning, we passed-by the open-doored Greek Orthodox Cathedral just as the Priest was incensing the lavishly-decorated iconostasis and chanting in a voice rich in masculine tonality.

    And as we were walking, I told the Bride, with great expectation, that we’d prolly hear something just as beautiful at Mass when we got there.

    Nope. The Pastor’s assistance, after introducing himself, handed-out “missals” to each of us to read in our own languages and he encouraged us to sing in our own languages. Of course, the Mass was a N.O. Joke and folks were talking during Mass in German, French, English etc.

    As soon as Mass was over we scrammed. The Bride asked me why the Catholic Church didn’t have a beautiful service like the Orthodox did.

    “Because the Greek Orthodox Church is run my men who are deadly serious about Tradition and Divine Liturgy and they will NOT allow internal enemies destroy Tradition, Beauty, and Sacredness and Reverence. Now, let’s go get a drink.”

  • Pammie

    Alas, I Am Not Spartacus what you say is all too true. I grew up around solid MASCULINE Irish Holy Ghost priests who didn’t take any guff about the Faith off of anyone, EVER. Never saw them rearranging the altar flowers, but I did see them rushing off to administer the Sacraments in some situations where the less brave would fear to tread. Tough guys they were and yet their kindness was well known. It’ll be a while I’m afraid before we shall see their like predominate again in holy mother church. Too many shameless Rembert Weakland types still hovering about redecorating the sanctuary for my taste.

  • HBanan

    Why is general shoddiness deemed “feminine?” Seriously, femininity is quite lovely and beautiful and worthwhile. And good. All-women ceremonies (such as at sorority initiations or bridal showers) usually involve lots of lovely things like candles, nice smells, etc. Dull translations, blah liturgies, unbearably cheesy “relevant” discourses, and tacky felt banners are not masculine or feminine — they just stink. How are bells, incense, processions, beautiful poetic language, lovely church art, elaborate altars, and gorgeous music masculine, and their abolition feminine? I grant that some hymns are set in a key only sopranos or can sing, but they aren’t girly, just poorly written. Changing “him” to “one” or “Man” to “person” doesn’t really feminize scripture, it just makes it awkward, and I as a woman find that this weird obsession with gendered pronouns only makes me feel more alienated — some liturgist out there has decided that I must be jealous of men for being the same sex as Christ. Nope, sorry guys. I’m just grateful to Him for His sacrifice. I am included in the “Man,” of all mankind, no?

    I don’t know if any of you are “Office” fans, but I think Michael Scott could have had a second job as a Catholic liturgist. Re-watch “Women’s Appreciation.” Michael’s efforts to show how enlightened he is vis-a-vis his female employees only highlight his chauvinism. His awkward antics aren’t “feminine,” nor do they earn the women’s respect; they are just embarrassing. So too with sucktacular liturgies. Not masculine. Not feminine. Just bad.

  • Pammie

    I had never thought of the externals you mentioned as either masculine or feminine. But now that you mentioned it all those things were, for the most part, created/composed/painted by men.
    Every felt banner I have ever seen HAS been sewn/glued by a well intentioned woman.

    Yes women do wonderful things . But they like and do many things differently than do most heterosexual men. The all women ceremonies are lovely things to be involved with, but let’s face it -those cute little crustless sandwiches just don’t have the same effect on my husband and brothers as they do me. Doesn’t mean they are oafs(well not since the ’70’s anyway) or that I am witless. We just tend to respond in different ways to the same things.

    I don’t know, but I can’t conceive of a regular sort of guy thinking liturgical dancing would lead to holy thoughts or that
    “theme masses” make it easier to worship the Most High. However it IS easier for me to imagine my (non catholic mostly)girlfriends thinking how cute the celebrants were in their clown costumes and, “what a novel way of involving the kids”.

    My main point though was that we seem to have more priests worried about redecorating than passing on intact the Faith of the apostles. The liturgy has to reflect and convey that serious intent to all segments of the population.

  • HBanan

    Pammie, I see your point on the banners. And of course men don’t want to do bridal shower stuff; I was using that as an example of a *truly* feminine activity! But bridal showers are usually more enjoyable (for women) than a blah Mass. The coy sappiness of some liturgies is for sure better tolerated by many women, and would make basically all men cringe. It makes me cringe too. But what about the two male terrors of catholic music, Haugen and Hass? And the priests who use the altar as a little improv stage? Why should we get the blame for them? Chicks may dig the banners (though I have never seen such things hanging in their homes!) and the dancing, but I think it was men who did the new translations of the texts. It was also men who wrote the beautiful translations. Of course, those men were excellent writers, chosen for their incredible talents with language. I heard Shakespeare wrote part of the King James Bible. The new translation reads like an engineer wrote it. A male engineer. A male engineer who has never read a poem or even a tacky Hallmark greeting card. Maybe they were priests who had been engineers and then got the call. Also, consider that the ugly banners are often the ONLY decorations in a church. Did some lady say, “get rid of that statue of our lady and replace it with my banner,” or did she see a bland, 10 foot high concrete wall and think: it needs something, anything. She had poor taste, a low budget and next to no artistic skill, so you get a purple banner with some grapes on it. It’s tacky, yes. Bad, yes. But might she have preferred donating to pay for a nice painting of the church’s patron saint, had that option been available? And it was probably a male architect who designed the bunker-chapel. What could be more masculine than a concrete bunker or barn?

    I just get really tired of all bad Catholic liturgical trappings described as “feminized” or “feminine.” They aren’t. A bridal shower is feminine, and is fun, cutesy and pretty, and hyper-decorated. Everything about it is aimed at lifting the mind to the upcoming wedding and marriage. Same with a baby shower — baby decor everywhere, baby activities, baby and pregnancy discussions, etc. I feel sorry for any man who somehow gets roped into going. A priest came to a baby shower once to bless the mother & pray for her baby, and I thought he would just melt through the floor. If liturgies were just like a bridal shower, it of course would be way too girly, and need fixing asap! Instead, they are just bland, maybe a bit embarrassing, and worst of all in terms of feminine activities, *off-theme*. The liturgy should indeed lift the mind of all present to God and to the eternal teachings of the Church. A beautiful liturgy, complete with resounding, poetic, soul-stirring language, does just that. Such Masses have changed my life.

    For the ladies that love the cutesy stuff, the Church actually used to satisfy them quite well with Marian devotions. Would such ladies rather have tacky banners and a clown suit, or a great big parade with a wildly decorated, flowery, statue? Bad liturgical dance, or a May queen festival? There were some fairly coy and cutesy traditions around saints feast-days that were everything a girl could want, that included candles, flowers, dressing up in special outfits, dressing up statues like dolls (and making their little costumes!), pantomime, specially shaped cakes, etc. These all took place outside Mass (though there was a Mass too), and could even include folk dancing and crafts.

    I think the best thing for liturgy is to find people with talent and put them to great use. That’s how we got the Sistine Chapel, after all. Commissioned by a man, and painted by a man, but not just any random Catholic guy who thought the chapel needed sprucing up, the greatest living artist of the time and one of the best to have ever lived. There are fantastic Catholic artists, both male and female, out there, not being patronized by their parishes. The texts for Mass and of the Bible should be translated not just by people who understand the ancient languages and have studied their Biblical history, but who have an excellent grasp of English writing. If they have to collaborate with a poet, so be it. The reverence of a Mass should be promoted and safeguarded by the priest, and the desire for fun activities channeled into extra events in the Church hall or gardens. The problem right now isn’t masculinity or femininity, it’s ineptitude.

  • Tony Esolen

    Folks,

    I champion the feminine. What we have instead is the effeminate, the silly, and the prissy, and that is something quite different. And sure, men like Haugen, Haas and Schutte are really good at giving us effeminate, silly, and prissy music.

    But back to the article: WHY should we have to put up with the butchered poems and the bad translations, just to please the occasional implacable feminist? She’s not going to be pleased anyway…

    (With sigh of weariness): The feminine is to the effeminate as the masculine is to the macho, as any full-blooded reality is to its silly caricature.

    (With another sigh of weariness): You can consider it either a man’s strength or his peculiar weakness, but it is a fact nonetheless: men do not read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but women will read Treasure Island. In some sense, the man is to the woman as the generic is to the special, and thus “embraces” the woman within his being as man; but for that very reason he must always make sure of his being a man as opposed to being a woman — which worry the woman does not have. Please, no sniping here about being comfortable with your sexuality! If you look at men closely, you will understand that their manhood is essentially always at risk, always in danger of being rejected by their peers, always in danger of the fall; you are a man until you show yourself publicly to be a coward (for example). So out of deference to this strength or weakness on the part of man, if anything we should be careful at least to balance the femininity of the liturgy (which is a good thing) with masculinity (which is also a good thing)… Charity would require it, don’t you think?

    And no, not everything in the liturgy can be so easily categorized. But some things can. Can we agree that the felt banners have got to go? Can we agree that maybe a men’s choir now and again would be nice to have? Can we agree that if we want more priests we should make sure to have boys at the altar?

  • Pammie

    I can’t add anything more to the discussion than the previous comment. The effeminate vrs the masculine priest–I couldn’t exactly explain it but I know it when I see it and I know that I don’t like it. Didn’t I read somewhere that at least one of the men responsible for those abominable musical ’70s classics has since left the priesthood and is in a “domestic partner” arrangement?

    A side note-Having methodist friends and some family members I have had opportunities to go to funerals, baptisms, weddings etc in the methodist church in the past 20 or so years. I have noticed that since admitting women to the pulpit, there are fewer and fewer male pastors. In fact I haven’t seen one in years at these types of events. I know this is anecdotal, but I wonder if there are available statistics on the impact of a woman clergy on male vocations. Anyone know?

    I thank Mr.Esolen for writing about this topic. I was so against having altar girls mainly because I thought it would lessen the participation of young men. From what I see in churches that I visit, that seems to have come true. We need to rethink how to get our young men involved with the Church and I think we need to listen to normal,heterosexual Catholic MEN on how to go about doing it.

  • HBanan

    Mr Esolen, I agree full-heartedly with all your points! Your second “sigh of weariness,” in particular, is something I have always noticed, and is also why I don’t think much of “inclusive language” in anything but legal documents. I grew up reading and identifying with male and female protagonists, as do many girls who love to read. I don’t want boys forced to read “Anne of Green Gables;” if they don’t already love the idea of a spunky orphan messing up her chores and worrying about her hair color, they aren’t going to enjoy the book. You are also dead right that appeasing hard-core feminists by fiddling with language is a big time-waste, as there’s no getting around the obvious fact that the Catholic Church is a patriarchy and a patriarchal religion. So anyone who cares about that kind of thing will still be surly. I try to give men a lot of charity when it comes to their need to preserve their sense of manliness, but I’ve just got to stand up for femininity when it’s used as shorthand for the dreary, banal, or saccharine. I want men to understand that, much as they feel rightly irritated in terms of masculinity at bad liturgical language, songs, etc, a lot of very feminine ladies in the pews are also wincing or groaning inside — your sisters are on your side! I have never felt *less* feminine than after nearly a year of the slapdash liturgies I was going to. It took some very masculine men teaching me their coping strategies and a couple of years of going to other, quite distant parishes before I could attend my closest parish with any regularity. Anyway, thanks for the clarification.

    p.s. Pammie, I hear Knights of Columbus can be fun for men college-age and up. Also, Theology on Tap, which is for everyone but is something I think a lot of men like. I’m afraid I don’t know what it’s like for kids at most parishes. I didn’t go much to church til I was in college, and what I remember of CCD is mostly watching videos about auras and being told to increase my self-esteem. My siblings were warned of the evils of California Trolls and told Mexican ghost stories. I hope things have improved! But, at home we all liked our Children’s Book of Saints.

  • Pammie

    Thanks HBanan for the suggestions. I am blessed to have a Latin Mass parish to attend. We don’t have altar girls at the vernacular mass and have a really strong altar boy program led by fathers in the parish, for the most part. It also has a large homeschooler component with lots of family participation mothers and fathers both. My comments were based on my travels, when attending other Masses and what I have observed- less and less young men in the pews and on the altar.

    I’ve often wondered why is it we have so much trouble attracting both young women and men to the Faith when religions like Islam do not. Their young people don’t seem to mind standing up for their faith, by dressing differently etc. Ours don’t seem to be capable of the least sacrifice lest they be ridiculed by their peers or whatever. Maybe your description of your CCD class content(more the norm than not I’m afaid) has alot to do with it.God bless HBanan! I’m happy you could see through all the nonsense and remember those Lives of the Saints.

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