Lost in Translation?

Despite all the commentary over the past few days, the Synod Fathers are still very much at the beginning of their work, even though we’re approaching the end of the Synod’s first week. They held initial discussions Monday, followed by the surprising interventions of Cardinal Baldisseri and the Holy Father himself Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon they split into small language groups – where a lot of the fine analysis and revisions of the text of the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) got done. They also elected official “rapporteurs” for the language groups Tuesday. Anglicus D (English 4) has only gotten as far as IL paragraph 9, according to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM, who was chosen to be the reporter for his group. At the press briefing Wednesday, he worried about questions of language, particularly the adequacy of translation from the official Italian, since few native English speakers know foreign tongues. And he and the other participants in the briefing were grilled about another language question: what will this new language that the Holy Father has called for – non-divisive, kinder, welcoming – really turn out to be?

They were all candid enough to say, in effect: we still don’t know.

These may all seem merely technical matters, but they quickly affect substantive issues. Many Synod Fathers are dependent on Vatican translation of speeches and texts. These are notoriously unreliable – as are the simultaneous translations of live events. At the 2014 Synod, for example, a firestorm erupted in part because paragraph 50 of the Midtern Report, which addressed people with same-sex attraction said, in English, “Are our communities capable of. . .accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?” [Italics added.] The Italian original was already bad enough, but at least valutare in that text leaned more towards “evaluating” or “judging” what such relationships had to offer.

Many of the problems on this subject and others have been attributed to Fr. Thomas Rosica, who is the English presenter for the Holy See Press Office. As I reported yesterday, it was Fr. Rosica who in the press briefing brought up the need for kinder language towards homosexuals – one of his regular themes – not wrong in itself, to be sure, since all human beings are created in the image of God and deserve respect. But there are questions about whether this is a personal emphasis of his – which is distorting the picture of what goes on the in the Synod Hall – or something the Synod Fathers have made a point of addressing. Fr. Federico Lombardi, the press spokesman, asked about the accuracy of the picture of the Synod being portrayed by his office, admitted that he had no firm numbers on how often certain points were raised in the oral presentations. But Archbishop Chaput commented that language about homosexuals has only come up once or twice so far – though it is likely to become more prominent.

Archbishop Chaput at the Synod's opening
Archbishop Chaput at the Synod’s opening

One thing is certain, however. In addition to Archbishop Chaput, Archbishop Laurent Ulrich (Lille, France) and Archbishop Salvador Piñeiro (Ayacucho, Peru) were in complete agreement during the press briefing Wednesday about the importance of paying attention to the diverse perspectives within the individual language groups. English, French, and Spanish are spoken on several different continents. (Who knew that Spanish is one of the languages of Equatorial Guinea, for instance?) In a Church that, by definition, aims to be universal, their most pressing concerns are not necessarily the same as ours. In the most developed countries, it may appear that homosexuals and the divorced/remarrieds are central questions for the Church. In Africa, however, said Archbishop Ulrich, things are quite different. We worry over decreasing rates of marriage; in Africa, they have the opposite problem, a tremendous increase in those seeking the sacrament of matrimony.

Archbishop Chaput made a very strong point in observing that it’s a concern in the developed world to find “positive,” “welcoming,” “non-harsh” ways of speaking about moral issues and social questions. (These are always positions passionately held, so it’s hard to imagine how they can be spoken of dispassionately.) In many places around the globe, however, it may very well be that Church leaders need to employ “harsh” and “critical” language to meet their situations. If the Synod wishes to be comprehensive in addressing the current situation of the family around the world, he said, it cannot restrict itself to the “facts” that are of interest only to “Western” nations.

One might add that, as all Christians well know, post-Christian Western culture is also militant and not in the least interested in peaceful dialogue with Christianity. We see all sorts of evil caricatures of traditional Christianity, and they’re regarded as allowable, even praiseworthy pleas for openness and tolerance. By contrast, the culture finds “offensive” – a much more ferocious term today than it was even a short while ago – any question about its sacred cows. Oppose abortion? An insult to the right of a woman’s intelligence and autonomy. Think same-sex attraction is “intrinsically disordered”? (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2357) That’s the moral equivalent of racism, you bigot.

Pope Francis and the bishops have set themselves a hard task translating the moral principles of the Church – and of most of the religious and ethical traditions of the human race – into a language that elites in the developed world will not declare “offensive” to the point of being beyond the pale. Most bishops are aware of the difficulty, and a few have already remarked that they are uncertain how to find a more positive way to approach the world, without the danger of losing fidelity to the Gospel.

Personally, I think it would take a miracle to square that circle. And it may just be that not only is it logically impossible; it is not likely have any practical effect among those who think Christianity is a thing of the past. Perhaps that’s why Pope Francis has asked us to pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire the Synod Fathers.