The new liturgical rules will benefit rich countries over poor ones

While he was in Colombia, Pope Francis made a significant liturgical change, modifying the canon law which governs approval for liturgical translations.

While the liturgy is not as central a priority for the Holy Father as it was for his predecessor, it would be impossible for a liberalising pontificate not to address some of the grievances of the Church’s liberal liturgical wing. As far as it goes, the canonical change is modest. It mandates no textual changes and keeps intact the governing principles of translation, but gives greater latitude for what national episcopal conferences may do in fashioning their own liturgical translations.

Entitled Magnum Principium (“Great Principle”), the motu proprio published on September 9 shifts the balance of authority towards national conferences of bishops, opening the possibility of greater diversity in liturgical texts around the world, and even within the major languages, especially English, given the wide range of countries which use it.

Henceforth, the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) will not play the role it does now in preparing liturgical translations, but will largely limit itself to approving – or withholding approval – the texts prepared by bishops’ conferences.

The Holy Father’s decree is a significant turn away from decisions taken over the last 25 years, which aimed at greater consistency, above all in the decision to have a single translation of the Roman Missal for the entire English-speaking world.

Whether national conferences of bishops will take advantage of the new latitude offered them remains to be seen. There may be little appetite among bishops to return to the “liturgy wars” of the 1990s. Liturgical translations are expensive – both in production and in the resultant new books that parishes have to buy – and consume vast amounts of episcopal time and energy.

While that will take time to tell, some initial observations are possible even now.

Magnum Principium was launched as by ambush, while the Holy Father was travelling abroad. The commission of experts on this question – referred to in the text itself – was so secretive that its composition was never publicly revealed. As recently as this spring, officials at the CDW were telling visiting bishops that nothing major from the commission was afoot.

Apparently, Rome is convinced that major liturgical initiatives can only be done by ambush. The most important document on translations before Magnum Principium, the 2001 instruction Liturgicam Authenticam – which centralised translations and mandated that they be done in sacral language more faithful to the original Latin – was also an ambush, appearing without as much as a by your leave from the Holy See press office when St John Paul II was on a historic visit to Ukraine. Maybe liturgical questions are such that collaboration has to be by pre-emptive papal fiat.

Pope Francis writes that “a vigilant and creative collaboration full of reciprocal trust between the episcopal conferences and [the CDW] is absolutely necessary”. Whether that comes to pass remains to be seen, but the papal initiative itself rewards those national conferences that were most defiant of the CDW. Those bishops – in Germany and Italy – who long dragged their feet on mandates under Benedict XVI have now been rewarded. The Germans have scored another major victory under Pope Francis who, counter-intuitively, smiles favourably on the agenda of the world’s richest and most worldly local Church.

The rich countries will benefit most. Liturgical translations are massively expensive in terms of money and personnel. Churches at the peripheries already rely on the wealthier countries to do the heavy lifting on this, but their interests previously could be defended by Rome. It is more likely now that the poorer countries will have to follow the lead of the rich. The Germans, Italians, French and Americans have the resources to take advantage of what Magnum Principium permits.

The document calls for a “faithful” translation, and Liturgicam Authenticam remains in force, binding the future work of bishops’ conferences. However, the CDW’s authority to determine what is faithful is now reduced. In a post-Amoris Laetitia world, fidelity can be interpreted by different groups of bishops in mutually contradictory ways. The principles remain the same – Amoris Laetitia insisted upon that too – but the application in concrete circumstances will be judged differently, and likely in contradictory ways.

Magnum Principium is a surprise from Pope Francis in at least three respects. First, according to his principle that time is greater than space, his motu proprio elevates geography over continuity.

Second, as he teaches that reality is greater than ideas, experience already shows that on liturgical matters the idea of harmonious collaboration often gives way to the reality of division and acrimony.

Third, while the Holy Father urges the Church to get out of the sacristy, there is nothing like liturgical strife to keep everyone holed up precisely in the sacristy, where the liturgical books are kept.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the September 15 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here