Singin' those Catholic liturgical blues

As the old saying goes, if you want to blow up a church all you really need to do is change the hymnal. You could say that, and much more, about efforts to change the texts at the heart of life in all liturgical churches. This brings us to the recent changes in the English-language Mass that will soon reach Catholic pews. The Washington Post recently offered an A1 feature story about this complex and dense subject that left several GetReligion readers scratching their heads. Why is that?

Well, I must admit that I do sense the presence of a journalistic spirit that is brooding over this story, an expert voice that has soaked into the text between the lines. I was left asking WWFTJRD?

Let's walk through the top section of this story, paying special attention to the attribution phrases. Thus, the lede:

English-speaking Catholics are bracing for the biggest changes to their Mass since the 1960s, a shift some leaders warn could cause “ritual whiplash.”

Note the presence of the vague "some leaders" sort-of attribution. There will be more like unto it.

The overhaul, which will become mandatory Nov. 27, is aimed at unifying the more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide with a translation that is as close as possible to the original Latin version. It allows for less independence and diversity of interpretation in a church that in recent decades has tried to retain more control over how Catholicism is defined.

Frankly, I am not sure how the English-language Mass is supposed to unify global Catholicism. We can assume that this refers to the wider effort to translate the Vatican II Latin Mass into a variety of languages. Also, all -- repeat "all" -- translations shape or even limit the ability of worshipers to self determine the meaning of the words. The same was true of the less literal translation that has been used for several decades.

Recent popes have emphasized orthodoxy and hierarchy, particularly in the West, where religious identity is increasingly fluid. Catholic hospitals and schools have been required to more clearly espouse church teachings, and Pope Benedict XVI has stressed the sole truth of Catholicism over other faiths, even declining this month to pray with Hindus, Jews and others at an interreligious event.

Many statements of facts with no attributions. I am sure people on left and right would describe these issues differently. The word "even" jumps out in the second sentence.

The new translation changes the majority of sentences in the Mass. The prayers and call-and-response dialogue between the priest and the congregation are different, transforming the dialogue that Catholics under 40 have used in church their entire lives. Some leaders warn that the shift could cause “ritual whiplash” among those accustomed to a worship script so familiar that most recite it from memory.

Note the return of "some leaders." No attributions at all at this point in the story? Folks, someone is doing the talking. Meanwhile, a Catholic reader underlined another crucial point: "Actually, no, the prayers are the same. The translation, and hence the words, are different."

Let's move on.

Reaction to the changes has been intense, in some ways fueling a Catholic culture war that began when the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s imposed far more sweeping changes designed to open up and modernize the church. Some traditionalists say the new translation of the ritual is richer and -- because it’s less conversational -- more mysterious and spiritual.

In many ways, the key to the whole story is that first phrase: "Reaction to the changes has been intense." I would agree, but it's crucial to note WHERE the reaction has been so intense. After all, readers should note that the changes have not actually gone into effect yet in the pews.

Thus, where have these strong reactions come from? Perhaps the reactions come from the unidentified voices that shaped the entire top of this story, those authoritative voices that apparently cannot be named -- one must assume to protect them from the Vatican. Thus, it's safe to say that many of the voices must be critics of the changes who reside in (a) Catholic academia, mainly seminaries or (b) a variety of Catholic leadership or staff positions, perhaps in major dioceses in the Washington, D.C., area.

At this point in the story, some key voices finally emerge on the record. Catholic readers on the left and right will not be surprised at the strong response from this bishop in particular:

Erie, Pa., Bishop Donald Trautman says that such words as “consubstantial” and “chalice” and a Jesus “born ineffably of the inviolate Virgin” won’t help Catholics get closer to God.

“We have to keep in mind these are prayer texts being used by priests at a Mass,” he said. “People should be able to understand them when they are heard.”

After this, readers return into the land of unattributed information, including some interesting examples of changes in the Mass that the nameless leaders expect to cause trouble. I am sure voices on the pro-Vatican side could respond with examples of passages in which great beauty has been added in the new translation, but their voices are missing. Here is another hint at sourcing:

A poll of Catholics done early this summer by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that 77 percent of respondents were unaware of a forthcoming new translation. Catholic dioceses and schools began preparations a few months ago, running workshops and podcasts and updating Web sites to lay out what’s happening and why.

And where is this research center, in the great yin-yang debate of Catholic academia in Washington? That would, of course, be Georgetown University.

I could go on and on. But here is another example of the methodology.

Still, church officials say they expect serious confusion when those Catholics who aren’t connected with Catholic institutions and attend church only on big holidays, show up for Christmas. The Rev. Michael Wilson of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Solomons, Md., said he will offer this advice next month to his congregants: “Okay, folks: Everyone take a deep breath.”

Note that the verbal knife in the first sentence has no attribution -- it merely comes from unnamed "church officials (not to be confused with unnamed "church leaders"). The calm voice in the second sentence comes from a person with a name.

The story continues, riding a wave of phrases such as the "thinking that came out of Vatican II," "traditionalists worried," "has seen much debate" and multiple uses of the tried and true, "several priests."

I am sure that there will be additional stories in the future. Please help the GetReligionistas look for the good and the bad in the mainstream coverage (or guides to resources and experts who can help reporters find facts and opinions on both sides of the story).

Let me stress that the goal in the comments pages is not to argue about the details of the liturgical changes or the alleged conspiracies behind them (or the translations used in previous decades). Focus on the details in this Post story, especially the sources that are quoted. In other words, stick to the journalism.

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