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The Catholic ESV Lectionary?

December 7, 2011

It now seems that the Roman Catholic Churches in Ireland, Britain, and Australia are heading towards using a modified version of the ESV for their new lectionary.

How did this happen?  Here is the story:

In 2003, The Catholic Conferences of Australia, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland formed an International Commission for the Preparation of an English-language Lectionary (ICPEL) to prepare a new lectionary.  The plan was to adapt the the NRSV, a translation that had substantial Catholic involvement.  Passages that appeared in lectionary would need to be adapted to the  to the 2001 Vatican instruction called Liturgiam Authenticam.  This adaptation is no small matter.  Among the requirements of Litugriam Authenticam:

  1. “If the biblical translation from which the Lectionary is composed exhibits readings that differ from those set forth in the Latin liturgical text, it should be borne in mind that the Nova Vulgata Editio is the point of reference as regards the delineation of the canonical text. Thus, in the translation of the deuterocanonical books and wherever else there may exist varying manuscript traditions, the liturgical translation must be prepared in accordance with the same manuscript tradition that the Nova Vulgata has followed.”  (This is no small matter, because the Neo-Vulgate’s Deuterocanon has a very different textual basis than most other translations.)
  2. “The effort should be made to ensure that the translations be conformed to that understanding of biblical passages which has been handed down by liturgical use and by the tradition of the Fathers of the Church, especially as regards very important texts such as the Psalms and the readings used for the principal celebrations of the liturgical year; in these cases the greatest care is to be taken so that the translation express the traditional Christological, typological and spiritual sense, and manifest the unity and the inter-relatedness of the two Testaments.”  (The NRSV’s translation is based on the original Hebrew text, and is not necessarily “Christological.”)
  3. “In many languages there exist nouns and pronouns denoting both genders, masculine and feminine, together in a single term. The insistence that such a usage should be changed is not necessarily to be regarded as the effect or the manifestation of an authentic development of the language as such. Even if it may be necessary by means of catechesis to ensure that such words continue to be understood in the “inclusive” sense just described, it may not be possible to employ different words in the translations themselves without detriment to the precise intended meaning of the text, the correlation of its various words or expressions, or its aesthetic qualities. When the original text, for example, employs a single term in expressing the interplay between the individual and the universality and unity of the human family or community (such as the Hebrew word ’adam, the Greek anthropos, or the Latin homo), this property of the language of the original text should be maintained in the translation. Just as has occurred at other times in history, the Church herself must freely decide upon the system of language that will serve her doctrinal mission most effectively, and should not be subject to externally imposed linguistic norms that are detrimental to that mission.”  (In other words, gender-neutral language is not permitted.)

Now as onerous as this task might seem, it has been successfully done with the NRSV.  The (Anglophone) Canadian lectionary is based on the NRSV, and has received the approval of both the Vatican and the NRSV copyright owner, the National Council of Churches (NCC).

However, the Australian-British-Irish effort has hit some significant snags.  Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, who chairs the ICPEL, writes:

Some years ago, I was asked to chair a commission which would prepare a new English-language Lectionary, using a modified form of the NRSV and a revised Grail Psalter. That seemed straight-forward enough, and the expectation was that the new Lectionary would be ready for publication at the same time as the Missal.

However, we struck problems with the copyright holders of the NRSV and have had some difficulties in our dealings with the Holy See. All of this so becalmed the project that there is now no hope that the Lectionary or any part of it will appear at the same time as the Missal. In fact, we have decided to move away from the NRSV and to prepare the Lectionary using a modified form of the English Standard Version (ESV), still with the revised Grail Psalter.

On this new basis, the project has progressed well; and the hope now is to have at least the first volume of the Lectionary (Sundays and Solemnities) ready for publication as close as possible to the appearance of the Missal.

Now this is remarkable on several points.

First, note the the tyranny of copyright.  While the Vatican is mentioned, the major blame is put on the NCC, which has not kept silent about its distaste for changes being made to the NRSV which run contrary to the fundamental translation philosophy of the NRSV.  Each of the items (1,2, and 3) listed above conflicts with a fundamental translation principle of the NRSV.  It seems that in this case, the NCC took a principled stand against those modifications, with the result that the ICPEL project could not move forward with the NRSV.  Nonetheless, one wonders:  why was a compromise possible for the Canadian lectionary, and not for the ICPEL lectionary?

Second, this is quite a snub to Ignatius Press, which has long pushed a modified version of the RSV (which it calls the RSV-2CE).  This revision of the RSV (which partly eliminated archaic “thou/thee” language) was designed to conform with Liturgiam Authenticam, and in fact, Ignatius claims that the Antilles Catholic Conference received Vatican permission to use this translation for its lectionary.  (Note that Ignatius remaindered its remaining stock of the lectionary to a church scheduled to become an Anglican Ordinariate church on January 1st.   The Anglican Ordinariate has approval to use the RSV (rather than the US lectionary, which is based on the New American Bible, NAB.)

Third, and this is most surprising, the ICPEL has apparently chosen a translation that had no Catholic involvement at all.  The ESV (which some jokingly call the Evangelical Standard Version or the Elect Standard Version) had a strictly Protestant (and largely Calvinist) translation team.  (The Translation Oversight Committee and Translation Review Scholars were also all male.)  The RSV Apocrypha was adopted by Oxford University Press and four male Protestant scholars to form the ESV Apocrypha.  The ESV has never received approval as a Catholic Bible (as opposed to a Catholic Lectionary), and it is hard to imagine how it could be approved as Catholic Bible under Canon law 825.  However, lectionaries are governed under a different Canon law (838), which is why in most jurisdictions (including the US) approved Bibles have different text than approved lectionaries.

If the ICPEL proposal receives Vatican approval and moves forward, it could prove to be one of the most surprising events in the Bible translation wars.

(HT:  Tim and Joel)

Update 11 Aug 2013:  Rumors are floating about that the ESV Lectionary project is on hold.  See this post.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 7, 2011 10:00 pm

    I am not at all surprised. I think that the dominant fracture line in Christianity today is between those who are male dominant and those who are egalitarian. Hence the growing association between evangelicals and Catholics in some areas, and the glowing review of a Mormon book by the Council of Manhood and Womanhood recently.

    Click to access jbmw%20fall%20%5C%2711%2016.2complete.pdf

    It used to be, in my childhood, that us Bible-based Christians would have no truck with Mormons and Catholics. I had the sense that we stood for something a little broader than the subordintation of women. Oh for the good old days!

  2. Mchael Demers permalink
    December 8, 2011 5:09 pm

    It’s still too early to tell what really happened here with ICPEL, NRSV, NCC, and the Vatican. I have a hard time believing that the ESV will actually be the basis for a new Catholic lectionary but there is some logic for it because it’s based on the RSV. The NCC still owns the copyrights to the NRSV and the RSV and it has evidently become a problem for them to accept any changes to meet the requirements of Liturgiam Authenticam. This leaves the ESV as the last best chance for ICPEL’s new lectionary unless they want to translate the Nova Vulgata themselves.

  3. Michael Demers permalink
    December 8, 2011 5:19 pm

    @Suzanne McCarthy I suggest that the dominant fracture line in Christianity today is between those who believe in the Body and Blood of Jesus as real and those who don’t.

  4. December 8, 2011 6:13 pm

    Hi Michael,

    I would have thought so in the past. But why do we find a current rapprochement with Mormons?

  5. December 8, 2011 6:46 pm

    Michael & Suzanne — I still don’t know what to make of this. For example, if ICPEL wanted a “back-door” to the RSV text, why not adopt the RSV-2CE? And what changed between 2007, when an NRSV-based lectionary received recognitio for the Canadian Conference, and 2011?

  6. Michael Demers permalink
    December 8, 2011 6:47 pm

    You got me.

  7. Michael Demers permalink
    December 8, 2011 6:59 pm

    @Theophrastus There is something very murky going on with the RSV-2CE. No list of changes were made, no list of translators/editors were given, and the copyright still belong to the NCC.
    The last I heard on the Canadian lectionary was that it’s restricted to what was done (3 out of 4 volumes), that there will be no more printing of it, and that it will need to be revised again in the future. The end result is that the Vatican has made it unacceptable for other English-speaking countries to use.

  8. December 8, 2011 7:55 pm

    Michael: Interesting. I did not know that about the Canadian lectionary.

    There was a list of changes between the RSV-2CE and the RSV-CE published by a third party; it is contained in the appendix of this book: The Catholic Bible Concordance.

    You raise interesting points about the copyright rights issue. I know Crossway bought a powerful rights package (letting them do nearly anything they wanted to the RSV); I don’t know what rights Ignatius bought. (Both of them list the NCC as the original copyright holder on the copyright page.)

    I agree with that it is still too early to know what will happen.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 8, 2011 7:57 pm

    Here is what is odd to me.

    “When the original text, for example, employs a single term in expressing the interplay between the individual and the universality and unity of the human family or community (such as the Hebrew word ’adam, the Greek anthropos, or the Latin homo), this property of the language of the original text should be maintained in the translation.”

    This is truly peculiar. Why do they mention “single term” and focus on that particular feature? The most problematic issue in Bible translation is that very often the indefinite pronoun in Greek is “tis” and is followed with a grammatically masculine but semantically indefinite relative pronoun. This is then translated into English as “if anyone …. he.” This is semantically masculine in English ans has lead many theologians to restrict certain activilities to the male. But the transition from indefinite gender in Greek to masculine gender in English never seems to bother those who want a conservative liturgy. I really don’t get it.

  10. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 8, 2011 8:02 pm

    And adam of course refers to 32000 girls only as part of a list of booty. There is not one translation that calls those girls “man.” Of course, the word means “human beings.” But some Catholic theologians refuse any language that does not elevate males into a category which represents the human race. It’s hopeless.

  11. December 8, 2011 8:02 pm

    Suzanne: In addition to paragraph 30 of Liturgiam Authenticam (which you quote above), you may find paragraph 31 of Liturgiam Authenticam interesting.

  12. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 8, 2011 9:01 pm

    if men want to feel that way about women, I wish they would find another planet to do it on. I work hard, I support my family, I make decisions, I take on the hard stuff and some men just talk about women like they are not really human at all.

  13. Michael Demers permalink
    December 8, 2011 9:23 pm

    Adam blamed Eve. That is the whole problem in a nutshell not to mention the lack of a third person singular in the English language.

  14. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 8, 2011 10:10 pm

    Well said, Michael.

  15. December 8, 2011 11:25 pm

    In the same CBMW journal that reviews and praises the Mormon book for rescuing “Biblical Manhood,” there’s another book review that trashes in the most severe ways a book by evangelical Christian, Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women. The reviewer says:

    James understands Adam and Eve to be colaborers in a context of conflict and resistance even before the fall, necessitating a strong co-leader for Adam. But Scripture attributes the conflict of the biblical drama to sin, narrated in the account of the fall in Genesis 3. There is no hint in the narrative or in subsequent biblical testimony to the kind of conflict that would necessitate a co-leader and warrior for Adam. Adam is alone; so God creates one who is like him—but not the same as him—as a “helper suitable for him,” and in so doing creates the institution of marriage. James ignores the biblical theological categories of fall and redemption, attributing that which the Scriptures blame on the sinful rebellion of Adam and Eve to creation itself.

    The CBMW of course consists of men, who in several instances, are the men endorsing and even are editing the male-only-translated ESV.

  16. Michael Demers permalink
    December 9, 2011 8:38 am

    Re: the Canadian lectionary. It’s ironic that their old lectionary was actually based on the RSV. It was pretty good but they still got rid of it!

  17. Norly Waller permalink
    December 14, 2011 11:21 am

    Does it absolutely follow that England and Wales are also heading for a modified ESV lectionary if the Australians are?

  18. December 14, 2011 11:33 am

    They are all members of the ICPEL, so it seems likely they will settle on a single translation. However, there is always a possibility that things will develop differently.

  19. Michael Demers permalink
    December 14, 2011 12:22 pm

    I thought that the New Jerusalem Bible would have been a good choice for the ICPEL.

  20. Russ permalink
    December 14, 2011 6:53 pm

    Can’t we all just get along?

    Merry Christmas everyone!!!

  21. December 14, 2011 7:41 pm

    Michael — NJB is great, but it does not satisfy Liturgiam Authenticam (it uses some gender-neutral language, spells out the Tetragrammaton instead of using “Lord”, uses a different textual basis for the Deuterocanon, etc.)

    Russ, thanks!


  1. Things get weirder with English Catholic lectionaries « BLT
  2. Catholic ESV Lectionary on hold | BLT
  3. The odd Gideons Textus-Receptus ESV | BLT

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