Magnum Principium: The Risk of a Tower of Babel [Updated]

Source: FSSPX News

On September 3, 2017, Pope Francis signed an Apostolic Letter in the form of a Motu Proprio modifying Canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law. Published on September 9, the document entitled Magnum Principium “rebalances” the question of liturgical translation in favor of the Bishops’ Conferences. This decision became effective on October 1, 2017.

As La Documentation Catholique explains, with this modification, “the pope henceforth entrusts the Bishops’ Conferences with the responsibility of translating, approving and publishing the liturgical texts ‘for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.’” And the media outlet adds that this is a “change that strengthens the attributes of the Bishops’ Conferences.”

The pope resolutely places himself in the wake of the “renewal of the liturgical life” promoted by Vatican Council II. Francis wishes – by introducing a modification of the law – to reaffirm with greater force Vatican II’s great principle that liturgical prayer, in order to be “understood,” must be “accommodated to the comprehension of the people,” as he wrote in his Motu Proprio.

A Principle of Disruption

And yet this “great principle” of liturgical adaptation has so far not been a factor of peace and unity in the Church, as L'Osservatore Romano remarks – with utmost oratorical precautions – in its French issue on September 28, 2017: “this question is delicate and not without its difficulties, as can be seen from the intense debate of the past decades and the specific problems that have come up with the work accomplished on the texts”.

There certainly has been no lack of difficulties. Shall we mention for example what the Jesuit John Baldovin called in America Magazine “the sad saga of the scrapping of the English translation of the Roman missal,” in 2011 after much work and many oppositions?

The following year, the revision of the translation of “pro multis” in order to make it truly faithful to the original Latin words was a source of much debate among the Italian bishops, and its implementation proved delicate: and that in the land of Dante!

In Germany, this correction was simply abandoned. The president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, explained on September 29 that he and his fellow bishops had welcomed the new Motu Proprio with a feeling of “huge relief.” This is an opportunity for the German bishops to exercise their greater authority and freedom, concludes the newspaper La Croix, by labeling the Vatican’s past insistence on a literal transcription of the Latin text as “altogether excessive.” After years of contesting and refusing to correct the translation mistakes that were a conscious choice, Magnum Principium comes as a way out of a dead end and a reestablishment of the authority of the bishops in liturgical matters.

An Authorized Commentary from Rome

From Rome, an authorized commentary of the recent papal document was given by the Secretary of the Congregation for the Divine Cult and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Archbishop Arthur Roche, who explained the text’s novelty in L’Osservatore Romano. In order to restore what he calls “a collaboration full of reciprocal trust”, the pope explains two notions that are quite distinct: revisio – recognition – and confirmatio – confirmation. These two tasks always ultimately fall under the competency of the Apostolic See.

The “revision”, to quote the secretary of the Congregation for the Divine Cult, considers the criterion of the fidelity to and “substantial unity of the Roman Rite”. It principally consists in rereading and evaluating – in what is supposed to be a rigorous control – the “legitimate liturgical adaptations” that each episcopal conference may wish to make to the liturgical texts, with the goal of taking into account and enhancing the “diversity of peoples and ethnic groups” in the liturgy. In other words, the episcopal conferences can propose to Rome the “inculturation” of a liturgical text, but the Congregation for the Divine Cult has the final say.

Confirmation” has to do with the translations from the Latin original to the vernacular, translations prepared by the bishops for the regions for which they are responsible. The Apostolic See’s only act upon these translations is “confirmation”, or the ratification of the work of the episcopates, obviously supposing that the translations are faithful and correspond to the original liturgical text: here, in the precise field of translation – and not adaptation – from the Latin text to the vernacular is where the episcopal conferences are granted more room for their own initiatives, although Rome does retain her role as final judge.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Cult and the Discipline of the Sacraments, gave his commentary on Magnum Principium not in the columns of L'Osservatore Romano, but in the October 14, 2017 issue of L’Homme Nouveau, signing “a humble contribution for a better and accurate understanding” of the Motu proprio.

The Guinean prelate confirms the prerogatives of the Holy See in liturgical matters: “confirmation” and “recognition”, far from constituting “a formality” suppose the “possibility for the [Holy See] to predicate the confirmation on certain sine qua non modifications of particular points that could be required by the fact that they do not meet the criterion of ‘fidelity’, which is from now on inscribed in the Code of Canon Law.”

Cardinal Sarah Weighs In

In Cardinal Sarah’s opinion, Magnum Principium offers precisions on the collaboration between the Holy See and the episcopal conferences whose relationship is that of “a professor towards a student preparing his thesis, or, more simply, of parents towards their children’s homework, and also, more generally, of academic authorities and supervisors”; a “fraternal” collaboration that implies “the greatest ‘fidelity’ with respect to the demands of reality”. There is no guaranteeing the German episcopate in particular will appreciate this sort of comparison…

Update (10/25/2017)

In a letter to Cardinal Sarah dated October 15 and published on the 22nd, the pope corrected any restrictive interpretations of Magnum Principium. According to Francis, it is important not to impose translations on the episcopal conferences, clarifying that the “recognition” and the “confirmation” are two distinct steps. “Recognition,” he wrote, means “the verification and preservation of conformity to the law and to the communion of the church.” “The process of translating relevant liturgical texts (that is, sacramental formulas, the Creed, the Our Father) into a language—from which they are considered authentic translations—should not lead to the 'imposition' on the bishops’ conferences of a given translation made by the dicastery (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments), as this would undermine the right of the Bishops”, established by canon law and before that by SC 36 §4. (Vatican II Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the liturgy. Ed. Note)

“It is incorrect to attribute to confirmation the purpose of recognition (which is “the verification and preservation of conformity to the law”). “Confirmation is not a purely formal act but necessary for the edition of the liturgical book translated. It is granted after the version has been submitted to the Apostolic See for the ratification of the Bishops' approval in a spirit of dialogue and help to reflect if and when necessary, respecting their rights and duties, considering the legality of the process being followed and its ways." The sovereign pontiff concluded his letter by asking Cardinal Sarah to transmit it to the members and consultors of his dicastery and to all the bishops’ conferences.


Will Magnum Principium limit the many adaptations that all too often disfigure the face of the liturgy? It is highly doubtful. In the present confusion, there is a truly urgent need to keep the Mass of all time and the use of the sacred Latin language. The reflections of the late Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, “Perpetual Director” of the Pontifical Choir of the Sistine Chapel, are just as pertinent as ever. In an interview with L’Espresso in 2009, he lamented the multiplication of the adaptations in the divine cult: “By doing this, one only celebrates self and the mystery and beauty of God are hidden from us,” he declared.

And he added prophetically: “In fact, we are seeing the decline of the Western world. An African bishop once said to me: ‘We hope that the Council will not take the Latin out of the liturgy, or my country that is a Tower of Babel of dialects will implode’”.