Thursday, December 29, 2011

The 'operatic farce' of the NCR

For some time, I have regularly read the National Catholic Reporter online.

I wish I could recommend the publication, but unfortunately, every word in its name is false: it isn't "national"--the publication represents only a narrow slice of Catholics; it doesn't simply "report," it has an agenda, which is fine, except it's particularly heavy-handed in its approach to it.

And, very sad to say, it isn't "Catholic." To be "Catholic" is to be embrace the whole. (The word catholic comes from two Greek words, kata and holos, meaning "pertaining to the whole. You can even see the connection between holos and the words "whole" and "holistic.")

Sadly, the National Catholic Reporter does not embrace the whole of the Catholic Faith. Its writers and editors routinely and aggressively dissent from many elements of the Faith, including:

* The essential quality of human sexuality being inseparably procreative and unifying, and thus being essentially heterosexual.

The NCR crowd (meaning its guiding lights, its editors and writers, and the audience it cultivates) rejects this, embracing as moral contraception, homosexual acts and so-called same-sex marriage.

* The essential quality of the sacrament of holy orders being conferred only on men.

This has always been the practice of the Church, it is the universal practice of all Churches who preserve valid orders--i.,e., not only the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, but also all the non-Latin branches of the Church which are in communion with Rome (such as the Byzantine and Maronite Churches, and other "Eastern" rites of the Church), and also the many Orthodox Churches and the so-called ancient "Churches of the East"--which divided from both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches over disputes in the 300s-400s, yet preserve valid sacraments, including holy orders.

This was formally and infallibly defined by Pope John Paul II in 1994, and thus is irreformable.

* The necessity of a priest to offer the Mass.

The NCR frequently gives space to the false claim that the Mass can be celebrated validly in the absence of a priest.

* The basic structure and history of the Church's creation and structure: i.e., that Christ founded the Church on the apostles, and the Church is, by his design and intention, governed by the successors of the apostles, led by Peter's successor, the pope.

The NCR eagerly provides a forum for the most contemptuous, vicious attacks on the bishops and the pope of any so-called "Catholic" site I've ever seen. And while I cannot exactly identify the governing structure the NCR folks have in mind for the Church, they never miss a chance to take a rhetorical wrecking-ball to the structure that we have, which, yes, has changed and evolved over the millenia--yet is still firmly rooted in what our Lord said and did in collaboration with his chosen apostles.

The bottom line of the NCR's position is to deny the historicity of the Church's self-knowledge (via Scripture and Tradition) of how Christ founded the Church. Thus, to the NCR's mind, it's all up for grabs.

Beyond these most serious cases of the NCR being deliberately not-Catholic, is its increasingly bizarre reaction to the newly implemented translation of the Roman Missal.

While I have been generally in favor of it, I recognize many folks weren't and I don't fault anyone who didn't like the idea, and doesn't like the result. And whatever my personal feelings, or anyone else's, my judgment was, this is coming, I do no one any favors by moaning and groaning about it, emphasizing the negative.

The truth is, the new Missal is hardest on priests; the changes that folks in the pews have had to learn involve prayers that can--and have been--printed on both sides of a book-sized card. I just took a look at one of those cards; the actual changed words (printed in bold) add up to about 100 words.

Meanwhile, the words the priest prays have changed throughout.

Now, some priests have complained--loudly. I have not. I'm not going to complain. If you ask me if I like, or would have made, each and every change that was made, the answer is no. Had the pope called me for advice, I'd have suggested some different things. But he never called! I'm not bitter about that; I don't expect the pope to seek my advice on such things; nor do I expect that any such work of translation will get it exactly right.

But I'll be danged if I'm going to complain about it, no matter what; because in the great scheme of things, this is hardly any great suffering for me. I can appreciate that other priests are finding it more difficult, but speaking as a priest, all of us chose to embrace follow the Lord, taking up his cross. We all know that being a priest involves trials and difficulties, of which this is relatively benign.

And if I'm going to complain, I'm not going to complain to the faithful. What good would that do anyone? How would that add to your sanctification, or mine?

OK, so the NCR didn't like this translation, and has, along the way, objected to both the process and the result. They have every right to voice their views, and at some point in the process, they might reasonably have hoped to have some influence. For all I know, they may have had some influence on the process.

But at a particular point--many, many months ago--the translation was finalized and adopted--and the next stop was publishing Missals and helps, and proceeding with introducing the new translation into widespread use. And that came to fruition a few weeks ago.

Most folks, who advocate for a point of view, and don't prevail, would move on. We all have a vote, and we all see the candidates we believe in, lose. We don't like it; we believed the candidate we voted for would have done better, and we can all see, as things unfold, whether we were right. But we move on.

The past few weeks, the NCR has made clear it's not moving on. First an article from Father Richard McBrien, now an article by NCR editor Tom Roberts, continuing a rear-guard action against the Missal.

The complaints are, to be candid, ridiculous.

Really, Mr. Roberts, you're going to take your stand on how awful, terrible it is to say "and with your spirit"? You seriously consider "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof"? a terrible imposition on you? When Catholics are having their churches bombed in Nigeria, they don't dare have Midnight Mass in Iraq, and in many places, they wonder if their family will be the last Catholic to leave the land of their birth?

Yes, of course it's take effort to learn something new; and we all feel a little silly when we get it wrong. If we want to make a big deal out of it, that's our choice. But we also can all have some patience and humor about it and know, before long, it'll all be behind us and then we'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

What I found interesting is the silence, so far, from the NCR on a particular point.

As the NCR "reported" on the new Missal, during the past year, a frequent claim was that Christmas, especially, would be a train-wreck--because even with all the careful explanations and preparation, churches would be filled with folks who only attend Mass occasionally, and they wouldn't be up-to-speed, resulting in (pardon the pun) Mass confusion.

Well, the retired priest who lives with me--and who wasn't enthusiastic about any of this, but also didn't engage in a dramatic temper-tantrum about it--took a much more even strain. He said--about not only Christmas but the whole build up to the new translation: this won't be that big a deal. The responses the people give aren't changing that much. He predicted no train-wreck on Christmas.

Well, at least here in Piqua, he was 100% right.

No doubt there were folks who were puzzled, but what I heard at a crowded 6 pm Mass, as well as at the well attended midnight and 9 am Masses was strong use of the new responses. No doubt some folks remained silent because of uncertainty, but I'm not sure they'd have done any differently without a new translation. At weddings, when many of the same, occasional Mass-attenders are present, they similarly don't give the responses--and this was true before any changes were in the offing.

So if Mr. Roberts and his folks have had different experiences at Mass, I am wondering if their pastors took the approach I did--focusing on the positive and trying to keep folks together--or did their pastors reflect the negativity of the NCR? I'll never know, but: I think had I chosen to get up, week after week, and complain bitterly about this, sighing and rolling my eyes over the new translation, we might have a very different experience here of the new translation. If Mr. Roberts and any of his readers are experiencing negativity around them in the pews, I wonder how much of it is the fruit of the attitude he, himself, adopted, and which the NCR fostered as much as it could, among priests and laity.

One of the truly rich claims of the NCR crowd is that the new translation represents an attack on Vatican II.

This is utterly ridiculous. It is, not to put too fine a point on it: false.

The key facts the NCR and those who take its view are obscuring is this: the "problems" they identify are not with the translation, but with the prayers of the Mass itself, as revised after--and, putatively, in accord with--the Second Vatican Council. To put it bluntly, their problem is with the prayers of the Vatican II Mass. They don't like what Pope Paul VI and those who assisted him, came up with after the Council.

The NCR and others of like mind rely on a fuzzy recollection of Vatican II and the resulting "new Mass." Here's the sequence:

* The bishops at Vatican II issued a document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in which a number of issues related to the liturgy were raised; and calling for some revision of the Church's liturgy. The Council did not get into a lot of specifics about this or that change; and the surprising truth is, many changes associated with Vatican II were never mentioned at the Council--nor, for that matter, were they ever mandated following the Council.

* Rather quickly, Pope Paul VI--who presided over the latter portion of the Council, after the death of Blessed Pope John XXIII--appointed a team of experts usually called "the concilium." This was a group of bishops, priests and others who, presumably, had the expertise to put into concrete detail what the Council called for. There was, and remains, controversy over what they did, whether it went too far, or not far enough, in relation to the Council's directives; but in any case, they produced what we can call the "new" Mass: the revised order of Mass that is still in use to this day.

* That Missal, in Latin, has changed only slightly since 1970 when it was issued. Simply put, the Missal sitting on altars across the U.S. is the Mass of Vatican II.

* It was translated rather quickly; in fact, there was a period, between the Council and the adoption of the new Missal, in which the Mass changed several times, and there were provisional translations used at that time. But it was understood that further work of translating would follow. To some degree, that's a necessary consequence of using the vernacular; the Latin doesn't need to change precisely because its not a language in active use, and thus subject to evolution or drift in understood meanings.

* The English translation adopted in 1970 is the one that was just recently set aside, after a lengthy process of adopting a new translation. The new translation, for good or ill, took a different approach, from a "freer" style to a more direct style of translating. This is where the NCR and others focus their criticism--they consider the more direct method of translating--which arose from directives from Blessed Pope John Paul II--to be wrong.

OK, they can raise those objections. No one would claim the pope's directives about translating the the liturgy to be infallible or irreformable. A future pope may take a different approach. And, as far as I know, the NCR and likeminded folks raised their objections at the time.

However; the pope was not--in the NCR's appealing terminology--being a dictator or out of bounds in giving the direction he gave. To put it simply: that's the pope's job! His letter, Liturgiam authenticam, makes his case for his directives. You can disagree; you can wish he did differently. But it strikes me as bizarre, and ultimately very damaging, to seek--as the NCR does--at every turn to undermine the pope in carrying out his responsibilities.

Now, the idea has gotten currency that choices in translating fall into neat categories: either "free" or "strict" translation. Rather, it's a continuum between these poles; you can't really go all the way to one extreme or the other, but you can be more one way, or the other. The new translation is more toward the "strict" pole, but it isn't "slavish" about it. Every translator must make choices and compromises--that's just how it works.

Also, the NCR and many of like mind, conveys the idea that Latin is so foreign, so different, that translation is guesswork, that terms in English just don't line up with what the Latin says.

This is simply wrong. Latin is a very precise language, for one; and second, English contains a vast quantity of Latin. They have so much in common, it's not that great a leap to move from Latin to English. Not being familiar with Chinese, or Hindi, or the native languages of pre-Columbian America, or of Africa, I could readily believe that translating from Latin into those languages might indeed occasion serious leaps and approximations. But this argument falls completely flat with Latin in relation to English.

* Be that as it may, the real substance of the complaints voiced by the NCR and others in agreement with its stance isn't about the inevitable zigs or zags of the translators' choices, but what the underlying prayers themselves say. Some examples:

(1) "And with your spirit"
(2) "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault"
(3) "I believe"
(4) "visible and invisible"
(5) "consubstantial"
(6) "for you and for many"
(7) "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof" etc.

Well, here's your problem, NCR: what you object to isn't original with the new, English translation, but is part-and-parcel of the Latin prayers being translated; the Latin prayers revised and adopted, after the Council. What you don't like is the substance of the prayers...themselves.

Let's grant the point the NCR makes about each of these: that in one way or the other, the ideas expressed in these parts of the prayers are inferior; misleading or somehow fail to convey what we believe. That they should be changed. I actually think this position is wrong--but let's give the NCR the full benefit of the doubt, and say each and every critique on this subject is 100% correct.

So what to do about that?

The answer is, the problem is not in the "translation" at all, but in the original prayers being translated. Therefore, fixing these problems is not the task of the translator at all, but the pope and the bishops.

The funny thing is, NCR and its crowd complains that all these represent a serious attack on Vatican II. Funny, because neither the Council itself made any such claims--none of these passages in the prayers were singled out by the Council for revision--nor did the experts, chosen by Paul VI, see any conflict between "And with your spirit" or "for you and for many" with the Council.

They recommended and implemented pretty dramatic changes in the Mass--yet these items they did not change.

So the NCR's solution is to have translators deliberately obscure the meaning of the underlying Latin prayers; to misrepresent, to you and everyone, what those prayers say. Their approach is to promote the idea that Latin, being an old, dead language, is so very hard to translate, and really, who can say what "et cum spiritu tuo" and "pro multis" or "sub tectum meam" really mean anyway?

If NCR wants to be honest about it, they won't focus on the translation--because the translation's purpose is to convey, accurately, what the prayers say. The problems they cite with the new translation as being so terrible are issues not of wording or syntax, but of substance: they don't like what the prayers actually say.

Well, fine--then take it up with the bishops, and ask them to fix the prayers, in the Latin original. Change "pro multis" to "pro omnes" the Latin; change "et cum spiritu tuo" to "et tecum," etc.

Most folks have, or will, move on. The new translation presents many opportunities for new understanding of the prayers of the Mass and of our Faith. How helpful it might have been for the NCR to focus on what's positive. But the editors and writers at the NCR just can't seem to do that. Instead it's approach is bitter and, frankly, reactionary.

In a comment I posted at NCR earlier, I referred to this continuing rear-guard action as an "operatic farce." Because it's so over the top, and both comic and tragic. One part of me finds it laughable; yet the damage is real, and there's nothing funny about that.


Father Gregory said...

Thank you, Father. You've said a good thing in this posting - stuff that needs to be said. I've found that the new translation has gone beautifully in my parish, and I have personally not heard one complaint. (Of course I prepared them for the change for 3 years.) The NCR is a sad joke, and I can only hope that it will cease publication when that generation comes before the judgement-seat of Christ.

Fr Martin Fox said...



I can't report any big problems so far with the new translation. I've had my own difficulties, nothing to cry about; I am sure the other priests have to, and I won't speak for them.

No doubt some of my parishioners didn't like the changes, and still don't. I've been asking folks, "so what do you make of the new translation," and I've gotten different responses, none with the fury and drama of the NCR crowd--but maybe I'm not asking the right folks, or they don't want to say.

Anyway, I'll say this. My issue isn't with the NCR, and its writers and audience not liking the new translation. That's their prerogative.

No, my issue is with the rear-guard action (i.e., let's move on), and more than that, with the dishonesty of trying pretend their complaints are with the translation, when it's crystal clear their problems are with what the Latin texts of the prayers actually say.

Marc said...

Very many thanks! for this post. I think that you're quite right: the main issue isn't the translation, it's the normative Latin which the NCR folks etc have been allowed to avoid all these years.

Anonymous said...

Your are quite hateful in your posts. Are you sure you were called to the priesthood?
Linda M. Daily

Fr Martin Fox said...


What hate? Please give an example. Otherwise it's name-calling.

Anonymous said...

You sound like a Republican presidential contender in Iowa - trash the opposition. But I guess you probably learned how to do that in a prior life, within the beltway.
For me, NCR is a great publication.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for the delicious serving of irony!

When you calm down, do you want to make a substantive point?

Sarah said...

Father Fox,

I also read NCR online. I don't think it represents only a narrow slice of Catholics. I think there are a lot of faithful, prayerful, intelligent Catholics who love their faith and who read NCR. Yes, the comments section can become snarky at times. But the snarkiness comes from both sides of the issues as is the case with most website's comments. I think most of the people who like to read NCR see their Catholic faith as more than just abortion and same sex marriage. They are looking for answers to their questions and looking for inspiration to live their faith in their everyday lives. NCR concentrates on other aspects of our faith, such as poverty, ecology, peace, and justice. I look forward to reading Bishop Gumbleton's blog, and Father John Dear's postings. I like the Spiritual Reflections. One of the current blogs by Michael Lynch called Soul Seeing really hit home with me.

As for the new Mass translations, yes people are upset by them. But people have been upset by change probably from the beginning of time. I think there were many more objections to the changes back in the 1960's.

For me, the prayer "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof..." makes no sense to me. I know that it is from a Bible passage where Jesus was asked to come into the soldier's home. I am not asking Jesus to come into my home, so it really just makes me chuckle. I just say "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you..." silently because I have always found that to be a powerful prayer.

I have to say that I have questioned the structure of the Catholic Church ever since I watched the funeral of Pope John Paul II on television. I was shocked to see Cardinal Law playing such a public role. He was at the time accused of sending child abusing priests from parish to parish. I thought it was a slap in the face to all of the victims of the abuse. Then I saw all of the Cardinals in their finery with the Vatican in the background. It just suddenly hit me that I couldn't see any connection between that and the message of Jesus. I wondered if Jesus were alive on this earth today where would he be in that picture. I couldn't see him being there at all. So I found myself questioning the whole structure of the Catholic Church - the Church that I had grown up in and loved and was as much a part of me as my heart and soul. I am struggling to reconcile that new insight with my faith. I find it refreshing to read the thoughts of people who point out wonderful aspects of the Catholic faith that are lost in the constant and overwhelming message of abortion and same sex marriage.

One more thing, I thought that the only two dogmas declared infallible or ex cathedra were the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception. I don't think the denial of ordination to women was actually declared infallible. Am I wrong on that?

These are just some rambling thoughts of mine on my faith and my relationship with the Catholic Church. I feel that NCR has something of value to offer people who are searching and questioning. I don't agree with everything on the site, but do find insights of value to me.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thank you for your comments; even if I don't see eye-to-eye with you, I have no problem with your approach.

The approach of most commenters there is very different. After all, two other folks apparently migrated here from NCROnline, and unlike you, chose not to offer anything substantive.

About the ordination of women. Yes, Blessed Pope John Paul's letter on the ordination of women did formally--and infallibly--define the matter.

When this was challenged at the time, then Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the matter--speaking obviously for the holy father--and said, in effect, it's infallible.