What the meaning of the word is is

I was happy to read Jeffery Rowthorn’s blog about some phrasing in the new translation. I want to bring up three examples from his selections for another reason.

The most serious one is the mistake at the end of Eucharistic Prayer II.  The line used to be, “make us worthy to share eternal life”. But now it will read,

“that we may merit to be co-heirs to eternal life” (my italics).

Of course this is a giant step toward Pelagianism. God and God’s grace used to make us worthy to “share eternal life” in present translation, something completely consonant with the doctrine of the Church. But we are going to return to the question of meriting grace, the burden being placed on OUR shoulders to be sinless and pleasing to God, seemingly without help. We are to choose good or evil with no special Divine aid. But this is the very definition of Pelagianism.

Second in the lines that follow the Sanctus in Eucharistic Prayer III, we find,

“You are indeed Holy, O Lord and all you have created rightly gives you praise. . . “

This phrasing seems to suggest that what God did not create does not give him praise (which makes sense, given the starting place). It would have been so easy to escape from this trap by writing,

“You are indeed Holy, O Lord,

the creator of everything that is,

all of which rightly gives you praise.”

Or some other such workaround.

Third, the dramatically important Doxology at the end of each Eucharistic Prayer has been robbed of all impact.

“Through him, and with him, and in him,

to you, O God, almighty Father,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

is all honor and glory,

for ever and ever.”

This represents, formally, a periodic sentence (one in which the “sentence unfolds gradually, so that the pollen of thought contained in the subject/verb group shows itself in full only at the sentence’s end [Wikipedia]). Since this kind of buildup forces delayed gratification on the reader/hearer, the climax must be noteworthy if the sentence is not to fall flat. What is the climax in this translation? The word “is”. I have nothing against this word (Bill Clinton: “it depends on what the meaning of the word is. . . is”). But the most common conjunctive verb in the English language, is, lacks all impact, color, and force. In my judgment, instead of a real periodic sentence, the translators have rendered the Great Doxology a mere runover sentence. Ack.

Just some obversations.



11 responses to “What the meaning of the word is is”

  1. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar

    the question of meriting grace, the burden being placed on OUR shoulders to be sinless and pleasing to God, seemingly without help.

    Not “seemingly without help”: “Have mercy on us all, we pray, that with … all the Saints who have pleased you throughout the ages, we may merit to be co-heirs to eternal life.”

    We are asking for God’s mercy, so that we might merit to be co-heirs with His Son. We rely on God’s mercy (and grace) for this to happen. May we be made worthy of the promises of Christ, and all that. (cf. 2 Th. 1:5,11; also Eph 4:1; Phil 1:27; Col 1:10; 1 Th 2:12)

    As for “all you have created”, we’ve already said in the Creed that God is the maker of Heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. It is in that context that I read “all you have created”.

  2. Mark Thompson Avatar
    Mark Thompson

    Father, is the issue you have that “ut . . . mereamur” is not properly translated as “that . . . we may merit,” or that EP2 should not have been composed to say “ut . . . mereamur” in the first place? I know there are those who think that the translation process is an opportunity to rewrite pesky problems in the Missal and eliminate things like “pro multis” and the occasional odd grammatical construction which are seen as undesirable. But if we’d like to rewrite the missal, isn’t the right step not to fake our way through the translation but to write to Rome and ask them to change the editio typica for everyone?

    I’d say the same about your suggestions for EP3: “et merito te laudat omnis a te condita creatura” simply doesn’t quite mean, “You created everything, and it all rightly praises you.”

    Am I missing something in these critiques, or are you really just saying that these prayers were badly composed in the Latin?

    Edited to add: loved One Bread, One Body, by the way. Thought I should tell you!

  3. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    Among other things, John is exposing one of the hazards of sticking to a rigidly literalist rendering. No one in their right mind would these days translate ut mereamur as “that we may merit”, but rather as “that we may be worthy” or even “that we may be found worthy”.

    As far as the Latin itself is concerned, some of our bishops have been saying for quite some time now that it’s all very well sticking closely to the Latin, but what happens when the Latin is “no good”? That’s a question the Church still has to face, and it’s an issue not just in the Eucharistic Prayers but across the entire Missal.

    Following Graham Wilson’s comment in another thread, perhaps we could label the new translation of “Through him…” as the Lame Duxology.

  4. Mark Thompson Avatar
    Mark Thompson

    No one in their right mind …

    This is where you often seem to lose people, Paul. You can argue that one translation or another is better supported in the literature, makes better sense contextually, etc., but it’s not as though translating with the straightforward “that we may merit” is evidence that one’s a moron or mental defective. Insufficiently “groovy,” maybe, which I know is still a big sin in some circles.

    Besides which, although “that we may be worthy” is a perfectly cromulent translation of “ut mereamur,” your proposed alternatives don’t get any closer to “make us worthy” and thus don’t really satisfy Fr. Foley’s objections. If you buy his initial argument, then “that we may be (found) worthy” seems equally to place on our shoulders alone, without the help of God, the onus of proving our worthiness to a spectator-God. Mereri has senses of “earn, acquire, deserve, merit, be worthy of, get by purchase,” and it’s not an issue of “rigid” versus “flexible” translation whether to translate it with such a sense, but an issue of translation versus reinvention and rewriting.

    1. John Foley, S. J. Avatar
      John Foley, S. J.

      “Mereri has senses of “earn, acquire, deserve, merit, be worthy of, get by purchase,” and it’s not an issue of “rigid” versus “flexible” translation whether to translate it with such a sense, but an issue of translation versus reinvention and rewriting.”

      Mark, I completely agree. I do not wish to mount a diatribe against the Latin that is being translated so literally but I would recommend highly Peter Jeffery’s scholarly comments on the subject, gathered into the book “Translating Tradition: a Chant Historian Reads Liturgiam Authenticam” (Collegeville, 1955). They are an eye-opener.

      I do reject the assumption that “we” all know that the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace; no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification.” I do know this (PhD in Theology), and it is so stated at other places in the Mass and the catechism. But I do not think most folks would be theologically literate to this extent. As a priest I hear many people who are afraid they are not worthy of being loved until they “clean up their lives,” or in other words, “earn, acquire, deserve, merit, be worthy of” grace. But they ARE worthy of being loved by God, who is the source of all their grace and worth. I fear that this kind of literal translation will feed the fear.

      By the way, I completely agree with Ben Blackhawk’s remarks except for, with equal due respect, the last paragraph.

      Enough embiggening!

  5. Ben Blackhawk Avatar

    It’s high time that _someone_ finally got concerned about Pelagianism in the translation of the mass. Take this example from the start to the Collect for Tuesday 5 of Lent:

    Da nobis, quaesumus, Domine,
    perseverantem in tua voluntate famulatum…

    The lame duck ICEL translation gives us:

    Lord, help us to do you will…

    Yes, all we need is a little “help”, God. We really can do the rest of it ourselves…

    Translating “Grant us, we beg you…” as “…help us…” is so common in the lame duck ICEL translation that it I was able to literally choose a collect at random from the whole liturgical year and find an example of it on my first try.

    Now, I have not seen many of the collects in the new translation, so it’s not a slam dunk that this problem has been corrected, but considering what we have seen so far, I’m willing to bet the collects in the new translation will not be so Pelagian.

    Incidentally, with all due respect to Fr. Foley, I don’t really see Pelagianism at work in “…that we may merit…”, nor do I think that “all you have created rightly gives you praise. . . “ implies “that what God did not create does not give him praise.” It seems to me that in this post Fr. Foley seems to be digging for problems when they aren’t really there.

  6. Sam Schmitt Avatar
    Sam Schmitt

    It’s not clear to me how mention of merit makes this translation of the prayer “a giant step toward Pelagianism.”

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a good explanation of merit at nos. 2006-11, where it states clearly that “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.”

    Denial of this truth was the crux of Pelagius’s heresy, not the assertion that, as the Catechism goes on to say, “Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.”

    Far from veering towards heresy, I think the new translation does an important service by reminding us of this truth, somewhat obscured in the current rendering.

    1. Fr. Allan McDonald Avatar

      Good points Sam. The 1998 joint Declaration by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church showed were we are unified in certain areas of Justification, but it also shows where the Catholic Church diverges from the classical Lutheran theology too. It is in the area of merit you highlight from the Catechism-“Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the grace needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity and for the attainment of eternal life.” I think a false ecumenism which perhaps was at work in the revision of the Mass and the old English translation could indeed have been at work to obscure this particular aspect of Catholic teaching on “merit.” The reform of the reform and thus a more literal translation of the Latin standard for our Mass leads thus to the more accurate Catholic understanding of “merit” highlighted above.

  7. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
    Anthony Ruff, OSB

    1. In my reading, the Joint Declaration doesn’t simply show where we diverge. It shows that no divergence is sufficient to be church-dividing, and that either position is recognized by the other as well within the range of orthodoxy.
    2. The coming translation will be, as a whole, less semi-Pelagian and more Augustinian, so it will ironically move us closer to classical Lutheranism.
    3. For my part, I don’t presume to impugn “false ecumenism” to the Church or to the liturgies the Church approved!

  8. Fr. Allan McDonald Avatar

    For what it’s worth, the joint declaration writes the following in 4.7 –The Good Works of the Justified, number 38:
    “According to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened. When Catholics affirm the “meritorious” character of good works,they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.”
    Does the current English translation obscure this and does the new one highlight this? Just asking.

  9. David Haas Avatar
    David Haas

    I could not agree more with John’s critique of the “new” doxology translation. I do not have the background in Latin or in English syntax that many do who regularly visit this blog.. but in not only reading the prayer but in HEARING the prayer, it completely loses, as John rightly says, its “force.” The Amen acclamation that follows should musically and dramatically spring from what precedes it… it seems sad indeed.

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