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Thank thee, bishops

November 20, 2009 |  1:23 pm

America's Roman Catholic bishops aren't completely obsessed by abortion and gay marriage. My former colleague Ann Rodgers, one of the best religion reporters around, reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that bishops have been battling over whether to approve a retro English translation of the Mass with more traditional (and, critics charge, more stilted) language.

The new/old language won out at the recent bishops' conference. So now when the priest says "The Lord be with you," the congregation will reply "And with your spirit," not "and also with you," the current, clunky and inaccurate translation of the response I learned as an altar boy: "Et cum spiritu tuo." Like W.H. Auden, I believe that you can combine conservatism in liturgical language with more progressive political view.

Conservatism is cool even when it leads to technical language. Take the line in the Nicene Creed in which, in recent years, Jesus has been described as "one in being with the Father." Now he will be described as  "consubstantial with the Father." Abstruse? Perhaps. But truer to the Latin rendering of a Greek theological distinction that once led to violence between Christians. Confusion can beget a look into church history.

Even archaic non-theological language can be a spur to education. When Christians used to say that Christ would return to judge the "quick and the dead," parents could explain to their bewildered children that "quick" referred not to marathon runners but to those who were living, who had been quickened in their mothers' wombs. The lesson could then turn to the expression "cut to the quick."

Now that the Vatican has invited restive Anglicans to bring at least some parts of their majestic Book of Common Prayer with them when they cross the Tiber, the "regular" Catholic Church has to worry about non-tone-deaf believers switching  to the new church-within-a-church. The new/old liturgy approved by the bishops could be a bulwark against such defections.

-- Michael McGough

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