The great Gray Lady flunks Mass math

One of the overarching story lines in the mainstream coverage of the new English translation of the Mass is that the critics of the new translation (who, thus, are the defenders of the old, more casual "dynamic equivalence" translation that it has replaced) are the true defenders of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Of course, this would mean that Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican powers that be and other defenders of the new English translation are actually working to overturn the spirit (more than the actual actions) of Vatican II.

With that tension in mind, pay special attention to the lede of The New York Times daily story about the Advent I changeover.

Roman Catholics throughout the English-speaking world on Sunday left behind words they have prayed for nearly four decades, flipping through unfamiliar pew cards and pronouncing new phrases as the church urged tens of millions of worshipers to embrace a new translation of the Mass that more faithfully tracks the original Latin.

It's interesting, of course, that the story concedes that the new translation "more faithfully tracks" the "original Latin." Then again, "tracks" is a strange word. It is not quite the same thing as "translates." It sounds rather mechanical and clunky.

What caught my eye was the term "original Latin."

What percentage of Times readers do you think read that reference and thought, "Oh, the old Latin Mass," as in the Tridentine Mass that was updated by the Second Vatican Council?

How many, instead, do you think read those two words and thought -- accurately -- that this was a reference to the modern Mass, the Novus Ordo? The source, reference text for this rite is maintained in Latin, but this modern liturgy is then translated into the various languages of Catholics around the world.

In other words, the new translation is a more literal, grammatically strict, translation of the Mass approved by the Second Vatican Council.

If readers do not know that one piece of information, the background for the entire story changes. The Times team never explains this basic fact.

If you know that one fact, then this story is no longer about defenders of Vatican II and opponents of Vatican II -- reformers vs. anti-reformers. Instead, it's a debate between leaders in two schools of thought about how best to translate and practice the reforms of Vatican II.

If you know that one fact, then it appears that the Vatican wanted a new English translation that includes all of the words and images of the Novus Ordo, a translation that more closely parallels post-Vatican II translations into other languages used by Catholics around the world. Yes, this does mean that English-speaking worshipers will need to learn some new phrases that are, in fact, included in the Vatican II rite. Many of the missing phrases and images that are being restored are references drawn from scripture or allusions to scripture.

The summary paragraph offered by the Times team sums up the debates this way:

... (B)ehind the scenes, the debate over the new translation has been angry and bitter, exposing rifts between a Vatican-led church hierarchy that has promoted the new translation as more reverential and accurate, and critics, among them hundreds of priests, who fear it is a retreat from the commitment of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s to allowing people to pray in a simple, clear vernacular as they participate in the church’s sacred rites.

Note that this debate is between Vatican leaders and a vague camp of critics, including ordinary priests. In reality, this is a debate INSIDE the American Catholic hierarchy and, especially, among conservative and progressive Catholic liturgists and academics. The essential question? Is a translation "simple" and "clear" if it omits many words, phrases and images that are found in the source document?

That's the debate journalists need to cover. Thus, one would expect that this Times story must accurately and fairly cover this debate, with articulate leaders -- local and national -- being heard on both sides. That's the journalistic challenge. Correct?

With that in mind, I went through the story with a highlighter pen and marked the voices on both sides, then I counted the words. I did everything I could to leave many words as neutral, including the following quote that allowed one Catholic to cover both bases at the same time:

Rebecca Brown, a parishioner at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, said she felt well prepared for the new translation. “I’m not fond of the linguistic choices, how it rolls off the tongue,” Ms. Brown said. “But on the other hand, the Catholic Church is always about renewal and reforming itself. This is just one of those changes.”

I am sure that others attempting this task and end up with numbers that are slightly different than mine. I erred on the side of neutrality, as I mentioned.

Nevertheless, I ended up with 128 words of positive commentary about the new translation and 403 words of negative commentary. The story includes one scholar on the left, but none on the right. When it comes to direct quotes, all of the strong voices are among those who oppose the new translation.

It's not a fair fight. Then again, that does not appear to have been the journalistic goal -- simply looking at the raw materials of the report. This is a story about good guys and bad guys, defenders of Vatican II and opponents of Vatican II.

In terms of balance and tone, here is a typical exchange:

“It was interesting,” said Danielle McGinley, 31, a parishioner at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. “It feels more like a Spanish Mass to me. The Spanish Mass is a more literal translation. I like it.”

But George Lind, 73, in New York, had a more visceral reaction. He tried to say the new language at the Church of the Holy Cross in Times Square during the Saturday night Mass, he said, but he became so angry that he had to stop speaking.

“I am so tired of being told exactly what I have to say, exactly what I have to pray,” he said. “I believe in God, and to me that is the important thing. This is some attempt on the part of the church hierarchy to look important.”

Yes, yes, there are conservative Catholics who would respond that they have, for four decades, been told exactly what they have to say, exactly what they have to pray. That's the other side of the story, the other side of this emotional debate.

Do the journalistic math.

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