The letter with which Francis recently contradicted and humiliated Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the congregation for divine worship, is the latest proof of how this pope exercises his magisterium.
When Francis wants to introduce innovations, he never does so in clear and distinct words. He prefers to open discussions, to set “processes” in motion, within which the innovations are gradually affirmed.
The most glaring example is “Amoris Laetitia,” for which contrasting interpretations and applications are in fact given, with entire episcopates lining up on one or the other side.
And when he is asked for clarification, he refuses. As in the case of the five “dubia” submitted to him by four cardinals, not deemed worthy of so much as a reply.
But when a cardinal like Sarah, an authority by role and responsibilities, weighs in to give a papal motu proprio on the liturgy the only interpretation he sees as correct and therefore to be implemented by the congregation of which he is prefect, Francis does not remain silent but reacts with harshness, in defense of those passages of the motu prorio – which in effect are anything but clear – that contain the liberalizations dear to him.
This is just what has happened in recent days.
Let’s recapitulate. On September 9 Francis publishes the motu proprio “Magnum Principium” concerning the adaptations and translations into contemporary languages of the liturgical texts of the Latin Church.
In defining the role of the congregation for divine worship concerning the adaptations and translations of the liturgical texts prepared by the national episcopal conferences and submitted for the approval of the Holy See, the motu proprio distinguishes between “recognitio” and “confirmatio,” between review and confirmation.
But the distinction is by no means explained with clarity. And in fact, two sides took shape immediately among the experts.
There are those who maintain that the “recognitio,” meaning the advance review by Rome, concerns only the adaptations, while for the translations the Holy See need give simply a “confirmatio,” its approval.
And there are those who instead maintain that on the translations as well Rome must carry out a careful review, before approving them.
In effect, this is what was done before and it is why various new translations of the missals have had a troubled life – like those of the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland – or are still waiting for approval from Rome: like those of France, Italy, and Germany.
In particular, the new translation of the missal in German was an object of criticism by Benedict XVI himself, who in 2012 wrote a letter to his fellow countrymen bishops to convince them to translate with more fidelity the words of Jesus at the last supper, at the moment of consecration:
Getting back to the motu proprio “Magnum Principium,” it must be noted that when this was drafted it was kept in the dark from Cardinal Sarah, prefect of a dicastery whose middle management has long been rowing against him.
On September 30, Sarah wrote to Pope Francis a letter of thanks accompanied by a detailed “Commentaire”, aimed at a correct interpretation and application of the motu proprio, one that was rather restrictive concerning its multi-purpose formulations.
In Sarah’s judgment, “recognitio” and “confirmatio” are in reality “synonymous” or in any case “interchangeable at the level of responsibility of the Holy See,” whose task of reviewing translations before approving them remains intact.
A couple of weeks later the cardinal’s “Commentaire” appeared on various websites, leading to the conclusion – given the position of the author of the “Commentaire” – that in Rome the congregation for divine worship would act according to its guidelines.
And this greatly irritated Pope Francis, who on October 15 signed a letter harshly repudiating Cardinal Sarah.
A letter in which the pope assigns the national episcopal conferences the liberty and authority to decide on translations themselves, on the sole condition of the final “confirmatio” from the Vatican congregation.
And in any case – the pope writes – without any “spirit of ‘imposition’ on the episcopal conferences of a given translation made by the dicastery” in Rome, even for “significant” liturgical texts like the “sacramental formulas, the Credo, the Pater noster.”
The conclusion of the pope’s letter to the cardinal is barbed with venom:
“Considering that the ‘Commentaire’ in question has been published on a number of websites, and erroneously attributed to your person, I graciously ask you to see to it that this response of mine be released on the same sites as well as being sent to all the Episcopal Conferences, to the Members and Advisors of this Dicastery.”
There is an abyss between this letter from Francis and the warm words of esteem expressed in writing to Cardinal Sarah a few months ago by “pope emeritus” Benedict XVI. Who said he was sure that with Sarah “the liturgy is in good hands,” and therefore “we should be grateful to Pope Francis for appointing such a spiritual teacher as head of the congregation that is responsible for the celebration of the liturgy in the Church.”
Needless to say, the object of the clash between Francis and Cardinal Sarah is not a marginal one, but touches the foundations of the Church’s life, according to the ancient maxim: “Lex orandi, lex credendi.”
Because the “process” that Francis wants to set in motion is precisely that of changing, through a devolution of liturgical adaptations and translations to the national Churches, the overall structure of the Catholic Church, turning it into a federation of national Churches endowed with extensive autonomy, “including genuine doctrinal authority.”
These last words come from “Evangelii Gaudium,” the agenda-setting text of Francis’s pontificate.
These words too were enigmatic when they were published in 2013. But now a bit less so.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)