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Burke and Another “Translation Error”

And so, it’s official. Saturday morning, the Vatican announced that Cardinal Raymond Burke has been removed as head of the Apostolic Signatura – the Church’s highest ecclesial court – and appointed cardinal patron of the Knights and Dames of Malta. The move was long rumored to be coming and when it came it was no great surprise. But as often happens, now that the dreaded day has actually arrived, I find myself both saddened and (a little more than mildly) seething.

There’s a double sadness here. Pope Francis clearly approved these moves – whether they were instigated by him personally or by advisers he listens to. But it’s precisely voices like Burke’s that he needs to keep around. He’s already hearing plenty from often unreliable counselors like Cardinals Maradiaga, Marx, and Kasper. The last in particular seems more and more incoherent as he tries to explain precisely why marriage is indissoluble and yet those in a second sexual relationship – though not a marriage – may be absolved and return to receiving Communion. The only way that’s possible is if God repeals the Law of Non-contradiction. I don’t think that’s on his to-do list.

But there’s more and, I think, worse. I’m not especially given to conspiracy theories in sacred or secular contexts. But there’s some – let’s say – systemic problem within the Vatican that having a loyal truth-teller like Burke around helps to correct.

Two days before his reassignment, another “translation error” was noticed in the official English translation of the Final Synod Report. As Fr. Gerald Murray noted here Saturday, it took weeks to produce that translation. We might have expected it to have been carefully worked up and vetted at the very highest levels.

Instead, here’s what happened – or at least what appears to have happened. (The Vatican currently says it wants to be very transparent and open in its dealings – a debatable approach for an institution like the Catholic Church – but it would really serve those goals if the responsible figures explained what happened in this instance.)

The translation was published. Robert P. Imbelli*, who teaches at Boston College, noticed an odd omission and on November 3 wrote about it on the blog of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal. Paragraph 3 (actually 4 in the official Italian and now corrected) spoke of “facing the situation, with an eye on the Lord Jesus, to discern how the Church and society can renew their commitment to the family.”

Nothing controversial there, except that the Italian went on: “commitment to the family, founded on the marriage between man and woman.” An omission that’s plenty controversial. In fact, so controversial that it seems that translation was taken down for a while at the Vatican website (it’s back now).

Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke
Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke

I’ve done a fair bit of translating myself and am indulgent when minor errors crop up, especially in a difficult or long text. Translators are only human – very human at the Vatican, it seems. That such an omission could have occurred and that someone in authority to review the text could have let it go out with that omission seems more than a momentary lapse. It’s either serious negligence in dealing with a highly sensitive point or a deliberate softening of the text.

Either way, something is deeply amiss. The expression “man and woman” occurs five other times in the text: to speak of their “indissoluble union” that was the original plan (14), but as a prelude to the need for mercy; to note their “vocation” in the family (18); to affirm the truth of their love (19); to take notice of “stable and true relationship” outside of Christian marriage (22); and to acknowledge “civil marriages” (27).

In other words, the only place the term seems to have been suppressed was in a kind of global definition of family as based in the marriage between man and woman.

Several traditional Catholics I know have been trying to reassure themselves and the rest of us when these “translation errors” appear. But we’re not talking about an elderly atheist editor at La Repubblica quoting from memory here or a quick translation of some papal discourse.

Even if this is merely a slip, I personally am not much reassured. It means that the whole Vatican apparatus for translating and carefully reviewing sensitive documents is unreliable, at best.

There’s a simpler explanation, I’m afraid. Among the current uncertainties in the Church, the “mistranslations” have all leaned in the last two years in the direction of progressive views. That certainly tells us something.

That’s why Burke’s continued presence in the mix would have been valuable to the Holy Father. He’s the one who has been “free and open” in stating his views, as the pope requested, and courageous and faithful amidst multiple temptations to go along with post-Christian culture. There are not many such truth-tellers in any organization. Disagree with him you may, but a good leader knows he needs people around him who will give him their unvarnished opinions.

Announcing the move on a Saturday morning – the ecclesial equivalent of the White House late-Friday “news dump” to lessen controversy – was also singularly ineffective. Even major secular newspapers and other media outlets – who have, shall we say, a certain interest in pushing the line that the Church is finally coming their way – carried stories Sunday about the “demotion of a Vatican hardliner.” The Associated Press even reminded readers that this was Burke’s second firing – he was dropped from the Congregation for Bishops earlier this year.

Cardinal Burke is a gentleman and a gentle man, and he will not comment of the pope’s decision. Malta, though mostly a ceremonial post, is not nothing. I am not a member, but the women and men who are do very good work. Burke will no doubt perform his new duties with the same diligence and industriousness he has shown in every other post.

These efforts of this Maltese falcon will bear fruit in their proper time, Deo volente.

*Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified Fr. Imbelli as a Jesuit. He is not.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.