Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Do a little wrong?

I find the hoopla surrounding Rome's decision to translate "pro multis" as "for many" (instead of as now, "for all") in the canon of the Mass disconcerting. Are we so starved for effective exercises of ecclesiastical authority that we must greet this decision as a triumph on par with, say, the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Personally, I think no congratulations are in order for having finally correctly translated a phrase that Latin students should know by the time they finish Chapter 4 of Collins' Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin. Rather than dwell, though, on why ICEL, the USCCB, and the Holy See each in their turn allowed such an obviously wrong translation to stand for so long, I will simply recall the words of Psalm 122 and be happy that our feet (on this point anyway) are standing within the gates of Jerusalem.

At least, that was my plan until I came across an interesting comment posted by a priest.

Obviously thoughtful and desirous of bringing sound liturgy to his people, he wrote that, with a smattering of Latin and some input from those who knew more, he had long ago substituted "for the many" in place of "for all" when he celebrated Mass. He justifies his action on the grounds that "for all" was clearly wrong and that people deserve a correct translation of the Mass. He added that, if his bishop were to direct him to stop the practice, he would do so immediately.

I think this approach is quite wrong.

1983 CIC 846.1 states "[T]he liturgical books approved by the competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in them on one's own authority." Sacrosanctum Concilium 22.3 made exactly the same point, and expressly stated that priests were bound by this norm.

The Code and Council are unambiguous here. Thus, one no more needs a personal precept from a bishop in order to be bound to observe this liturgical law, than one needs a personal directive from an IRS agent to file one's taxes by April 15, or needs a direct order from a traffic cop to be required to obey a stop sign. Quite simply, as John Paul II stated when he promulgated the 1983 Code, "canonical laws by their very nature are to be observed." (my emphasis)

But perhaps the Bard (in Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1) put it best:

BASSANIO: I beseech you, Wrest once the law to your authority: To do a great right, do a little wrong.

PORTIA: It must not be . . . 'Twill be recorded for a precedent, And many an error by the same example will rush into the state: it cannot be.

Bassanio was a good man. But he underestimated the harm that could arise from trying to do good in a bad way. He is a lesson for all us tempted to impatience in these times so needful of reform.