USCC Watch: The Word Police

“Some of the anxieties that seem to have gripped us as we deal with the liturgical texts have to do with orthodoxy, lest we be spouting heresy as we praise the Divinity,” Greensburg Bishop Anthony Bosco advised his brother bishops at last November’s NCCB meeting.

“As far as orthodoxy is concerned,” quipped the bishop, “I would like to remind my brothers that, ultimately, these texts will have to be approved by the Holy See, and I assure you that that will be a very fine sieve, and should any heresy escape us, it will probably be caught, and we will be reminded of that fact. . . . I would hope that we not continue a debate on taste, which is an impossible debate. . . . We’re translating poetry in many instances — the concise style of the Latin prayers, ancient prayers. And I believe that we would have to wait till the parousia if we were to get a text in which every bishop agreed on every word. I certainly think [the ICEL revisions] are beautiful, I think they are lyrical, and particularly the alternate prayers — certainly not unorthodox.

“And again,” the bishop repeated, “there will be a watchful eye. It won’t be ICEL that makes the final decision, it’ll be the Holy See. And I would like to state publicly: I trust them.” His comments were greeted with a ripple of laughter.

By what process do our bishops safeguard the doctrinal integrity of these liturgical texts presented to them by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) for their vote? The process, adopted at the November 1993 meeting, involves consultation between two NCCB committees, the BCL and the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine (BCD) before any texts are presented to the entire Conference for vote.

Why did the bishops establish such a process? For two reasons. First, the bishops’ intention was to clarify and simplify, rather than to complicate, the procedure for approving the hundreds of revised texts which will affect the worship of every Catholic in every diocese. The bishops hoped that review by the bishop-theologians of their Committee on Doctrine would provide any necessary doctrinal corrections of translations and newly created ICEL texts before the Conference vote. Implicit in their initiation of this process was a growing concern that the proposed revisions were coming in vast segments, and so fast that few bishops could thoroughly study them.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the bishops’ action reflected the increasingly heated controversy over feminist language and its doctrinal impact. Last summer, for example, the Vatican withdrew approval of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Bible, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church had been delayed because the original English translation was defective. Most bishops evidently thought a system of checks and balances within the Conference — between the liberal BCL and the relatively conservative BCD — would resolve many problems and conflicts peacefully and in-house.

In January of this year a delegation from the NCCB, including Erie Bishop Donald Trautmann, chairman of the BCL, and Bishop Richard Sklba, auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee and chairman of the Ad Hod Committee on the Review of Scripture Translations, met in Rome with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discuss translation matters, such as the NCCB’s 1990 Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use.

Results of the January meeting were not revealed in detail. Significantly, however, Bishop Trautmann, a vigorous advocate of ICEL revisions and inclusive language, was unable to declare victory and his terse report suggested unresolved tensions and continuing conflict.

The new ICEL Psalter, by the way, recently published by the Chicago Archdiocese Liturgy Training Publications, although rejected twice by the NCCB, advertises that it is “true to the originals — not a paraphrase; employs contemporary standards of poetry; and uses inclusive language for both human beings and for God.”

So, is this process of the BCD’s review of the BCL/ICEL proposals working according to plan? No. Because the process was too complex? Again, no. Rather, it is because of dramatic changes in the membership of the Doctrine Committee since its new chairman, San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn took office in November. Archbishop Quinn replaced three conservative members of the BCD, former chairman Bishop Alfred Hughes (Baton Rouge), Bishops John Sheets (Ft. Wayne/South Bend), and Francis George (Yakima). Replacing them are Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, president of ICEL, Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory, former Chairman of the BCL, and Bishop Sklba. Archbishop William Levada is still a member. The new members of the BCD are among the strongest advocates of ICEL revisions and inclusive language in the American hierarchy.

Many bishops are undoubtedly dismayed that their earnest effort to resolve internally a serious and persistent conflict within the Conference has been effectively nullified. Others may find this an acceptable method of conflict resolution.

It seems apparent that some bishops have become convinced that their commitment to feminist language and allied church reforms is unassailable — in fact, infallible. Most professional liturgists, along with Women’s Studies experts and linguistic deconstructionsts in most universities — and all feminist ideologues — would strongly agree. Ruth Fitzpatrick of Women’s Ordination Conference crowed, when the NRSV was rejected, “I love it that it is women’s issues making the changes,” and hoped it would be the “last straw that is going to create some prophetic U.S. Bishops.” Sr. Maureen McCormack of the Sisters of Loretto, found it “incredible” that members of the curia would “even want to admit that they find fault with gender-sensitive terms.”

Virtually no one outside such groups accepts this view, however. Severe criticism of inclusive language, and its ideological manipulation of ideas has been gathering momentum in secular circles — and not just among conservatives, either. There are many notable examples including serious critiques of feminism by Camille Paglia and others.

The New York Times, hardly known for its conservatism, deemed Michiko Kakutani’s hard-hitting essay “The Word Police” so important it was printed twice, on January 31 and February 1, 1993. “The point isn’t that the excesses of the word police are comical,” writes Ms. Kakutani, “The point is that their intolerance (in the name of tolerance) has disturbing implications. . . . The prohibition of certain words, phrases and ideas is advanced in the cause of building a brave new world free of racism and hate, but this vision of harmony clashes with the very ideals of diversity and inclusion . . . and is purchased at the cost of freedom of expression and freedom of speech.”

This March, the liberal St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized sharply against “‘Interpreting’ — dumbing down — Little Women, or any other classic for that matter, [which] does the students a disservice. It robs them of an understanding of the beauty and diversity of literary language. It robs them of a sense of accomplishment earned by mastering a work in its original. And it robs them of a sense of historical perspective, change and continuity.” The editorialist concludes by quoting E.M. Forster, “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.”

The bishops will have only two days, June 15 and 16, at their Spring meeting in Chicago, to discuss and vote on the critically important Segment III of the Revised Sacramentary, along with “ecumenical” prayers and liturgical “variations.” It would be regrettable — worse, it would be tragic — if they were to allow the proponents of a decaying ideological fad to persuade them that forced “spoon-feeding” will best nourish the faith of English-speaking Catholics. Perhaps the bishops will yet receive sufficient encouragement to overcome the mounting pressure and ridicule of powerful “experts” — maybe enough to help them resist being pushed onto a bandwagon whose wheels are falling off.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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