Magnum Principium and the New Liturgical Translation


by Ethan Starr


In response to the Second Vatican Convention’s goal of increased utilization of vernacular languages in the liturgy, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) released its first English translation of the Roman Missal in 1973. In keeping with Vatican instruction of the time, the inexact translation sought a “dynamic equivalence” to the original Latin, attempting to adhere to the spirit of the Latin texts without a concern for absolute literality. In its intention of avoiding the sometimes unwieldy, technical language of a literal translation, the ICEL did not always win the approval Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Rome’s regulatory arm concerning liturgical translations. The Congregation’s rejection of a revised 1998 translation by the ICEL sent the clear message to the loose translations that the Congregation was not partial to dynamic equivalence. In 2002, The Congregation for Divine Worship released the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam, which mandated that "the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner” to the original Missal. The most recent English translation of the Roman Missal, in accordance with the rigidity of the “formal equivalence” method ordered by Liturgiam Authenticam, was approved by the Holy See in 2010 and adopted by most English-speaking countries by the end of 2011.


In September of this year, Pope Francis reignited debate over liturgical translations worldwide with his release of the document Magnum Principium, which took effect starting October 1. Issued motu proprio, or “under his own authority,” the new guidance for Church leaders regarding liturgical translations was aimed at fostering “shared decision-making between local churches and Rome,” one of Francis’ stated objectives as Pope. Having first formed a commission to review Liturgiam Authenticam in December of 2016, headed by Archbishop Arthur Roche. Francis concluded that after the “long journey” of liturgical translation since the Vatican II, “we can affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” Outlining the purpose of translation efforts in his declaration, Francis stated that the goal of translating the liturgy is “to announce the word of salvation to the faithful in obedience to the faith and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord.” For this reason, the use of vernacular languages is integral to communication with the faithful. The Pope added that fidelity of a translation “cannot always be judged by individual words,” but rather in the “whole communicative act.” He goes on to consider that vernacular languages themselves, in a “progressive manner,” might “be able to become liturgical languages” in their own right.


What is the real, effective change resulting from Francis’ release of Magnum Principium? Archbishop Roche notes in the official commentary on the document not only that Pope Francis calls for more productive dialogue between each of the groups in the translation process, but also that the Congregation should “ratify the approval of the bishops.” In other words, authority over translations is now decentralized into the hands of bishops’ conferences. Additionally, Church Canon Law was revised to redefine the role of the Congregation for Divine Worship, from the previous task of “authorizing” liturgical translations to a role focused on “reviewing” the respective vernacular. In an expansion of the ideas set forth by the 1994 Varietates Legitimae, which set forth conditions for legitimate variations, or “enculturation” of Church liturgy with consideration of global contexts, like local cultural customs and traditions. The liturgy, therefore, may no longer be uniform between the U.S., New Zealand, or Kenya, for example.


Pope Francis’ impactful announcement calls all communities around the globe to take an active role in determining the state of their liturgical rites. His pronouncement echoes the spirit of Vatican II, and similarly encourages Catholics to seek organic connections through liturgy of all kinds. Whether it be in the original Latin or any of the world’s many vernaculars, each individual can receive the true communication of what it means to be faithful.

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