What is Catholic about a Catholic Translation of the Bible?

(This is Neil) The April issue of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly has an interesting article by Emil A. Wcela, the retired auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre in New York, with the promising title “What is Catholic about a Catholic Translation of the Bible?” The question, we will see, is both very easy to answer and presently unanswerable.

It is easy to answer if we look at canon law and read, “Books of the sacred scriptures cannot be published unless the Apostolic See or the conference of bishops has approved them” (825.1). The Canon Law Society of America has added a qualification, “In practice, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has reserved to itself the approval of vernacular translations of the scriptures if they are to be used in the liturgy, e.g. as part of the Lectionary.” (Canon 838.2 notes, “It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books and review their translations in vernacular languages, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.”) So, a Catholic translation is a translation with official Catholic approval.

But surely our question is not merely a matter of authority. There must also be some sort of rational argumentation that can clarify “what is Catholic about a Catholic translation of the Bible.” This is where it gets rather difficult.

We can at least begin by ruling out some bad answers to the question.

First, as Bishop Wcela says, “A ‘Catholic’ translation of the Bible does not have to be made by Catholics.” We might even say that it is desirable for Catholics to cooperate with other Christians in the translation of the Bible. According to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Catholic Church “cooperates willingly with other Churches and ecclesial Communities in the making of translations and in the publication of common editions in accordance with what was foreseen by the Second Vatican Council and is provided for in the Code of Canon Law.” This is because the church “sees ecumenical cooperation in this field as a valuable form of common service and common witness in the Church and to the world” (see here). A Catholic translation of the Bible does not even require any Catholic sponsorship at all; the Revised Standard Version is the obvious example here.

Second, a “Catholic” translation of the Bible is not simply the most “accurate” or “precise” translation. In translation, Bishop Wcela tells us, “Human emotions, familiarity and doctrinal issues will always play a role.” He provides us with three examples.

By the end of the 4th century, Jerome had managed to translate the prophets from Latin into Hebrew. And, thus, he translated Jonah 4:6 as saying that the Lord prepared hedera to grow over Jonah’s head as a protective shade. The older translation, based on the (Greek) Septuagint, claimed that the plant was cucurbita. Was it ivy or a gourd? Augustine wrote to Jerome, saying that this issue had caused tumult in Africa, and asking him to replace “ivy” with the familiar “gourd.” Jerome said no. Augustine replied that he did not wish Jerome’s translation to be read in the churches. (Scholarship, alas, has not settled the controversy.)

In the 19th century, Francis Kenrick, then coadjutor bishop of Philadelphia, later archbishop of Baltimore, prepared an English translation of the Bible from the (Latin) Vulgate and the original Greek. He translated μετανοεῖτε in Matthew 3:2 as “repent,” not the more familiar “do penance.” The Bishop of Charleston was not happy, perhaps because translation from the Greek tended to appear Protestant. The Bishop of Louisville also criticized a Kenrick note that suggested that baptizo meant “immersion,” because, as he put it, “the Baptists here have been exulting over it too much.”

More recently, Fr Gerald Fogarty has written that the New American Bible’s rendering of Matthew 28:6, “He is not here. He has been raised, just as he promised,” in place of the older, “He is not here, for he has risen even as he said,” seemed to some to diminish Christ’s authority through rendering him passive.

Perhaps, then, we should look at history to help us identify what makes a Catholic Bible “Catholic.” Catholic scholars first translated the Bible into English during the late 16th and early 17th centuries at Rheims and Douay – hence the Douay Rheims Bible. This translation, Wcela says, was full of archaisms and Latinisms – “If thou be a prevaricator of the Law, thy circumcision has become prepuce,” “But they incontinent leaving their nets followed him.” Thus, from 1749 to 1772, Bishop Richard Challoner revised the translation – “If thou be a transgressor of the Law, thy circumcision has become uncircumcision” (Rom 2:25), “And they immediately leaving their nets followed him” (Matthew 4:20).

The production of a Catholic translation based on Hebrew and Greek had to await Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), which called for translations to be made from the original texts. The Pontifical Biblical Commission, less than ten years earlier, had told inquiring Dutch bishops that only translations from the Vulgate could be used in the Liturgy. An existing American translation project was radically changed in midcourse after the publication of Pius XII’s groundbreaking letter.

The question of translation in general became even more pressing after the Second Vatican Council because of vernacular liturgy. The Consilium, meant to implement Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, issued an instruction on translation, Comme le prévoit. The instruction says that a liturgical translation cannot “merely reproduce the expressions and ideas of the original text.” It goes on to say, “Rather it must faithfully communicate to a given people, and in their own language, that which the Church by means of this given text originally intended to communicate to another people at another time.” (See Todd’s commentary here.) Needless to say, this claim would also affect any translation of the Bible which would be used in the liturgy of the Word.

And, thus, history brings us not to resolution, but to a conceptual impasse.

Should a “Catholic” translation of the Bible be distinguished by “formal equivalence,” which attempts to replicate the grammar, style, and feel of the original language while sounding like good English? Or should a “Catholic” translation – perhaps inspired by Comme le prévoit – be marked by “functional equivalence,” which attempts to “convey the meaning of the original text as one would when communicating today,” while still being faithful to the original language? The English priest-translator Ronald Knox tried to replicate the meaning, emphasis, and idiom of the original language. But even he, following Belloc, said that the translator should ask not “How shall I make this foreigner talk English?” but rather “What would an Englishman have said to express this?” The question, then, is whether the emphasis in translation is on the language being translated, or the receptor language? (We shall see that there has been a movement towards “formal equivalence.” But how decisive can this movement be?)

Recently, the question of formal vs. functional equivalence became most pressing regarding inclusive language. In 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) withdrew an earlier approval for lectionary use of the New Revised Standard Version and the revised New American Bible psalter because of these issues. Then, the International Commission of English in the Liturgy’s translation of the psalter was determined by the CDF to be unacceptable and its imprimatur was taken back. (Eventually, in 1997, a lectionary was finally approved.) The question was whether the possibility of a Christological meaning tied to the specific word “man” in the Psalms outweighed contemporary pastoral considerations.

The question of translation was raised more generally by the CDWDS document Liturgiam Authenticam (LA), which was concerned in part with scriptural texts that would be used in the liturgy. Thus, LA potentially affected all Catholic Bible translation. Bishop Wcela tells us that LA argued for formal equivalence in place of functional equivalence. LA also claimed that a special liturgical language should be recognized. With this language, “the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities.” (LA also reiterated that translations should be made from original texts.)

More controversially, LA suggested that in every territory there “should exist only one approved translation, which will be employed in all parts of the various liturgical books.” And most controversially, LA opposed the majority of uses of inclusive language, supporting “man” as expressing the “interplay between the individual and the universality and unity of the human race.” LA also proposed the Vulgate reading as decisive in cases of divergent readings of the text.

LA also confused readers when it suggested that the church “should not be subject to externally imposed linguistic norms that are detrimental to [her] mission.” But isn’t language always shaped by usage? LA also told translators to “avoid a wording or style that the Catholic faithful would confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions, so that such a factor will not cause them confusion or discomfort.” What of the “common witness” in ecumenical cooperation? And LA said that “In translating biblical passages where seemingly inelegant words or expressions are used, a hasty tendency to sanitize this characteristic is likewise to be avoided.” Bishop Wcela wonders if this means that we must return to the literal “any who pisseth against the wall” translations (see here for the Douay-Rheims translation).

So “What’s Catholic about a Catholic translation of the Bible?” Given that a “Catholic” translation requires official approval, and any successful Catholic translation will be eligible for use in the lectionary, we can suggest that a Catholic translation will be distinguished by “formal equivalence” more than “functional equivalence,” and by caution with regard to inclusive language.

But functional-equivalence Bibles – the Contemporary English Version, for example – are still approved for nonliturgical use, meaning that they can’t be judged to be completely wrong. And the inadequacy of literal translation has been recognized. For instance, the Pontifical Bible Commission, in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, said, “The passage from one language to another necessarily involves a change of meaning, for they come up against other traditions of thought and other ways of life.” Furthermore, given some of the reception of LA, we can wonder what sort of precedent LA will actually set, and, more generally, where this history will end.

So, “What’s Catholic about a Catholic translation of the Bible?” It has official approval, and, beyond that, Bishop Wcela tells us “the devil is in the details.” The question seems simple and yet unanswerable.

What do you think?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to What is Catholic about a Catholic Translation of the Bible?

  1. Liam says:

    Wait, stop the presses: St Jerome said no to someone (St Augustine no less!)?! Sorry, I couldn’t resist. We are indebted to St Jerome’s industry in learning Hebrew (though I believe the Greeks believe the Septuagint superior to the Hebrew Tanakh), but he’s just never been a saint I cotton to. I am hardly alone.

    Good to hear of the good Jesuit (yes) Fr. Gerry Fogarty: he was my professor almost 30 years ago in church tradition. A wonderful priest and professor.

  2. Liam says:

    A couple of more considered responses to your fine reflection:

    1. What translation – *if* any – do you find most [insert positive gerund of choice here] or, alternatively, least [insert negative gerund of choice here]?

    2. The issue of common usage is more vexing that we might think. I spent years in the trenches of the inclusive language wars (on behalf of the pro side). Upon reflection, I think the Achilles heel of the pro side was that it was more prescriptive than descriptive than it realized. It’s one thing to demonstrate conclusively that usage has changed permanently in the vernacular on a pervasive basis throughout a given society and that because of that the translations should reflect the change. It’s a very different thing to say that usage had changed among sensitive communication-oriented elites and should as a matter of justice change pervasively throughout society, and that as a matter of justice that should be midwifed through Scripture translation. And it is the latter position that was at work in the 1980s and 1990s. Language is not only a leading indicator: it’s equally a lagging indicator.

  3. Jim McK says:

    The problem with the question lies in ecclesiology. A Catholic bible should be catholic, appealing to everyone in a relationship with the Church as described in LG 13-17. That is, it has to appeal to every person it can, ie all English speaking people.

    Or a Catholic bible should be one that appeals to those in communion with Rome. Since these are just one part of God’s people, this requirement may be directly opposed to the first.

    The Church needs to stay true to the first standard above, even while it desires the more parochial standard, #2. Balancing the catholic and the parochial is not an easy task.

    BTW, isn’t the NRSV still used in the Canadian Lectionary? I thought it was just disapproved for use in the US.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam and Jim McK,

    Thanks for your generous comments.

    I agree with Liam’s comments about Jerome and Fr Gerald Fogarty. (Perhaps this is the first time the two have been paired in such a sentence.)

    Regarding biblical translation, the problem for me personally is that I tend to use the NAB and NRSV when my interest is exegetical, but I find myself memorizing (and quoting) the RSV.

    The language question is a very difficult one. Besides the question of whether the proposal for inclusive language is more “prescriptive” or “descriptive” (presently, I think it is more “descriptive”), we can ask if the language itself carries certain problematic implications. When we use “man” for “person,” are we suggesting, however unconsciously, that being male is the generic form of being human, while being female is exceptional?

    Regarding Jim McK’s very interesting question of a Catholic translation somehow balancing the “catholic” and the “parochial,” we might have to accept that a Catholic translation must be tragically “wounded.” (A recent US Catholic-Lutheran common statement has noted, “Our communities are wounded by their lack of the full catholicity to which they are called and by their inability to provide a common witness to the gospel.”) That is, although we must try for an ecumenical translation as a form of common witness, such a translation simply can’t presently be achieved. I don’t think that I’ve seen this sort of thing mentioned in any official document – I’m not sure why.

    The Vatican did give a recognitio to the (inclusive) NRSV for liturgical use in Canada in 2007. I don’t really know anything about the Canadian context, however, so I can’t really comment about that.

    Thanks again.


  5. Liam says:


    After many years of dealing with many translations (which I acquired during my work on behalf on inclusive language – including Hebrew and Greek editions and Jewish translations of the Tanakh into English, et cet.), I find the RSV the least irritating of the modern translations. I am a tough customer in that I have a strong a-rational sense of Scripture as fundamentally musical (to my sensibilities, Scripture is best received when proclaimed in a cantillated idiom), and modern translations often tend to beat the musicality out of Scripture.

    I am less persuaded than I used to be that inclusive language is as dominant a reality in everyday speech as I would have hoped 20 years ago. The one thing I can affirm comfortably is that the 19th century schoolmarm rules of subject/verb agreement live mostly as schoolmarm rules. But I regularly hear “man” and masculine personal pronouns used in their universal meaning by regular people and even in media and artists (and hardly all male men doing that) – right now, I would say we’re in a period of coexistence in usage and further development remain to be witnessed.

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks again for writing. I will agree that modern translations really do seem to lack a certain “poetic” or “music” quality. If I have the opportunity to reflect more on what it might mean for a translation to be “poetic” or “music,” I will post something.

    Regarding inclusive language, I think that you are right about “everyday speech,” but that “official speech” has adopted inclusive language (one can point here to different professional societies, etc.). Whether “official speech” outweighs “everyday speech” is a different question. I can agree that “further development remain[s] to be witnessed.”


  7. Todd says:

    The note on unpoetic translations gets me thinking. Some people (bureaucrats?) seem to strive for a one-size-fits-all approach to Bibles or liturgical texts, when in fact, we approach the Bible in significantly different ways depending on whether we study the Bible, sing it, proclaim it, or use it to translate into other languages.

    It would seem that a poetic translation of the psalms and canticles is necessary when we sing them. And that a scholar is looking at “two” texts when comparing a liturgical canticle like Tobit 13, say, and a scholarly text of the same passage.

    Perhaps the notion of “one” Catholic Bible is something of a misnomer.

  8. Liam says:


    Well, we already crossed that bridge to the extent we’ve had a divergence of the Lectionary from the NAB itself.


    A snapshot-in-time from the early 1990s (my own reflections have continued to develop and today I would probably choose a starting point that might be, well, more ontological and less functional): the following was developed by a close friend and me in the context of working on translation issues (not just hymn texts but Lectionary texts and other ritual texts) for a couple of intentional communities we were deeply involved with, where we encountered many different and contradictory layers of perspectives and practices regarding inclusive language. This seems almost a bit sepia-tinged, but it does convey some sense of my prior context:

    I. Statement of Principles
    1. As Christians, we worship, proclaim and celebrate God, Who by intrinsic nature both is personal and is relationship.
    2. As Christians, we believe and cherish this God Who integrates the full diversity of human condition and experience across all boundaries of time and space.
    3. As Christians, we praise the God Who created us in Her own image, each of us an individual and unique reflection of His creative imagination and expression.
    4. We should not mistake the images of language for the reality of God. Yet language is the gift we have to share and proclaim our experience of God-with-us.
    5. In our Christian language of prayer, we strive to embrace and integrate the full diversity of human condition and experience. To fail to do so is an affront to justice and human dignity.
    6. Because God is larger than any attempt to express God in words, we strive not to make an idol of any image in our language, either by action or omission. To fail to do so is to worship a lesser God of our making, rather than our Maker.
    7. Christian liturgy at its best is poetic and heartfelt. Syllable substitution does not serve the poetry of our liturgy. We strive not so much to change syllables but to invite the People of God into a larger and richer language of prayer.
    8. This effort to expand our language, images and prayer is an expression of our Christian faith and love, and we constantly strive to remember this spirit in practice.

    II. Statement of Practice
    1. Our tradition is rich in male images of God, but we strive for balance in the use of those images.
    2. Gender-neutral language only partially honors and proclaims the God of our salvation. As human persons are not gender-neutral, so our prayer proclaiming a personal God should be both specifically male and specifically female. We strive for language, images and prayers that proclaim, not that God is neither male nor female, but that God is both male and female. And more.
    3. We are wary of impersonal language, images and prayer that depersonalize the God of our salvation, as we worship not God the Idea, but God the Person.
    4. God is relationship, both by His internal nature and by Her embrace of Creation. Language, images and prayer that express the embodiment of relationship in God — Mother-Father, Son and Spirit — enable us to embrace the God Who seeks us in relationship.
    5. We seek a constellation of images in our prayer, balanced in the total context of worship, to express as fully as possible the personal and relational nature of our God.
    6. Our tradition has grown, and continues to grow, as new human experience and expression is added to it. Customary masculine and hierarchical images are best used when chosen thoughtfully and judiciously, and balanced against the treasury of our larger tradition, renewed with each successive generation in our Church.
    7. The new language, images and prayer we bring to our worship should have the same promise of touching our hearts and finding a home there as those they replace.
    8. Rather than accepting awkward and stilted renderings of texts, we seek to face the complexity of the issues involved and to have the courage either to retain a text in its customary form or drop it.
    9. We serve both the roots of our tradition and our call to contribute to that tradition in our time by bringing thoughtful, imaginative and richly diverse language, images and prayer into our liturgy.
    10. Without the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, and often even with them, none of this can be accomplished five minutes before a liturgy begins.

    To The Greater Glory of God

  9. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for sharing the “snapshot-in-time.”

    I would want to point out that “vertical” inclusive language raises problems that “horizontal” inclusive language does not. Besides that, as you hint, the language here makes one think of control, whereas the language of prayer should be a language of dispossesion. Furthermore, I think that the apophatic caution here is misplaced. (All of my concerns, I suppose, are predictable …)

    But I do get a sense of your “prior context” – a not uncommon context in liberal Catholic and mainline communities, I think. So, thanks for that.


  10. Liam says:


    I am with ya already.

    Btw, if you want a clue about one of the turns in my reflections since that time, it was occasioned by running across this in the Summa Theologica:


    Aquinas was one sharp cookie, to put it utterly inadequately. He had anticipated an issue 700 years ahead of time.

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