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.


    Thank you Mr. Royal for this reporting. I hope you are obtaining your information from people other than Fr. Rosica, as he seems to have his own agenda. What I don’t understand is why it is so important to find “welcoming”, “positive”, “non-harsh” ways in speaking about moral issues. What exactly are the fathers trying to achieve by doing this? Will using welcoming language help people save their souls if they are in mortal sin …???

  • Mike M

    Since last year’s meeting of the synod, Rosica has gone from barely known outside of Canada to “Vatican spokesman” then even to “Papal spokesman” in the minds of the media. And then he pontificates as if he has the authority of the Pontiff, himself, while seeming to have no thought that those who actually speak for the Church might have some obligation to ensure that they’re not sowing confusion and division. It’s bizarre and inappropriate. A position in the Vatican’s press office, and as an English language press guy for the synod, bestows a responsibility to communicate what the Church has to say, and does not bestow a license to substitute one’s own opinions for those of the Holy Father, the Synod Fathers, or anyone else.

    Thankfully, I live in the United States where I don’t have to worry that Fr. Rosica will try to financially destroy me for criticizing him.

  • MercyMe

    Corinthians 3 So if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are dying. 4 In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of those who do not believe to keep them from seeing the light of the glorious gospel of the Messiah, who is the image of God.

    I have great concern that creating a teaching that is “non-divisive, kinder, and welcoming” will completely fail our young (indeed a great majority of Catholics in the pews) in determining the truth of the gospel. It will be interesting for me to eventually hear my children ask why Mom is so perplexed about current neo-pagan trends when the church delivers a message that is mostly without conflict in regards to these same trends.

  • DougH

    If we’re supposed to follow Jesus’ example, then certainly we want to be “positive” and “welcoming” … with the repentant and honest seekers of truth. But with the mockers and those just seeking sound-bites to twist against him, Jesus was by turns clever (“give unto Caesar …) or outright vicious (“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”). A difficult example to follow, but something to think about.

    • And one time he offended so much that all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. [Lk 4:28-29] Another time they wanted to stone him. Finally he was crucified and all the Apostles [bishops are their successors] apart from Judas and St. John suffered martyrdom. Why? Because they spoke the truth the Word had heard from His Father and stayed true to that Truth.

  • DS

    “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. ”

    I believe Benedict would call this a “rearguard action.” (see his book on Genesis.)

  • fondatorey

    Yes, the problem with avoiding offensive language is that the people claiming offense are faking. They aren’t ‘offended’ by tone or diction, they’re offended by content, and claiming offense is a passive aggressive way to manipulate others into changing their content.

  • fondatorey

    I recently read a book called ‘Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion’ which is about the techniques salesman, marketers and PR people use to get us to buy their product, whether it is a material good or a politician. The author’s point is that such people use ‘shortcuts’ built into out psychology to obtain our assent and compliance without our having to think things through. The techniques essentially mimic the conditions which would normally result in a person’s giving a socially and personally responsible assent.

    One thing about the sort of Catholic writing that has stood the test of time is that it is free of these sort of manipulative techniques. The writers/influencers of, say the New Testament, are not trying to gain your assent via manipulation, they’re giving it to you straight.

    For the Church to adopt a PR posture towards the world would result in the message of the church being promoted using dishonest and manipulative techniques. Something to think about.

  • The gospel has to be preached in season and out of season, even when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears [..] will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings. [Cf. 2 Tm 4:1-8]
    Pray I will [a good and wholesome thing and duty], but I can’t shake the feeling the Pope’s request to pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire the Synod Fathers is disingenuous.
    PS And why should the Catholic Church follow the way of other ‘christian’ communities who have been there done that with disastrous results?

  • samton909

    Oh, come one now. They don’t object to the language that is used. They object to anything that is not approval of their lifestyle. They pretend that they are weak sisters who are simply crushed by the objective language used to describe their “condition”.

    Then they turn around and crucify Brandon Eich, and drive bakers out of business by using government fines if you disagree with them.

    Do not give in to their disingenuous whining.

  • mw006

    You playing defense if not in retreat when you start walking on eggs when addressing the secular West. There are no points to be earned with softer words and “inclusive” language unless you also surrender on doctrine. Proclaim the truth plainly and without apology. At least you gain a measure of respect. The Church in the West may dwindle in numbers but a Western Church of fewer believers would simply reveal what is present-day reality. At the end of the day there is no substitute for holding fast to eternal truths.

  • Super Genius

    The problem with this effort to come up with language that won’t frighten the horses is that the fundamental reality to be presented – the cross – will always be a scandal and a stumbling block to the world.

  • Lilly Rose

    Interesting article. I hope they realize they are being too condescending to a portion of society that care less about the Church and much less about her teachings. Why not concentrate more efforts on how to better educate Christians? If language will change so will meaning, and off goes doctrine.Without doctrine and teachings, the world has no use for the Church.