The Failures of the New Lectionary
WHERE SOME SINS ARE NOT IMMORAL, ETC.By Chene Richard Heady | June 2000Chene Richard Heady, a convert to Catholicism, is a doctoral student in Victorian literature at Ohio State University.
In the summer of 1999, I began to notice that whenever St. Paul spoke in the new Lectionary at Mass, he seemed a bit “off.” His syntax was awkward, he seemed unsure of himself and his audience, he dodged controversial issues; he was, in short, not his old self. It appeared that Paul was trying to hide his new insecurity by referring to his audience as his “brothers and sisters” rather than as the more accustomed “brothers” (as in the prior Lectionary) or “brethren” (as in the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible). Like a Fundamentalist preacher of the old school, the lector at Mass would rasp, “Brothers and Sisters…” before he wheezed out the epistle reading. Sometimes, even Paul’s doctrine was unclear. I was raised a Fundamentalist, and Paul has been barking at me since early infancy, so naturally I was concerned by such strange behavior. As the summer wore on, I realized that whatever illness had infected Paul had spread to the rest of the scriptural authors, as, overnight, their ears turned to tin, and their lungs blew misty circumlocutions around important doctrinal matters. Something, I thought, had to be said about this, lest the Scriptures themselves turn incoherent.
I have been hesitant to speak publicly on this matter, but, because the Catholic periodicals I receive have discussed only the new Lectionary’s gender implications and have ignored its doctrinal ambiguities, I feel I must speak out. I suspect the reason the doctrinal problems of the new Lectionary (which came into use in 1998 in some places, 1999 in others) have not been discussed in theological periodicals is that they become most clearly apparent through literary analysis. According to the venerable theological dictum lex orandi, lex credendi (roughly: what we pray is what we believe), liturgical problems are as much a literary issue as a theological one. The lex orandi dictum, cited in the Catechism (#1124), implies that what is at issue in a liturgical translation is not simply whether a translation of Scripture is technically justifiable, but also the likely reception of this translation — how the faithful are likely to be taught and shaped by what they are given. There are some consistent and disturbing literary patterns in the new Lectionary: It entirely translates and edits out the Bible’s teaching on fornication, and renders the doctrine of Hell if not invisible, then opaque.
My primary concern here is with the new Lectionary’s sins of commission — its theologically questionable translations — but since its sins of omission also play an important role in this matter, an initial observation about omissions must be made. For the sake of clarity and brevity, omissions are at times necessary in preparing Scripture for public reading. However, the elimination of two verses or less will never serve the end of brevity, and rarely that of clarity. It is fair to say of a given passage and a given doctrine that if (1) the verses that most clearly teach this doctrine are eliminated and (2) the remaining verses are translated ambiguously, then (3) the passage no longer teaches the doctrine in question. As so often happens in literary study, the omission and commission work together to establish textual meaning or eliminate doctrine. But this is needlessly abstract. Allow me to give a concrete example. Paul’s discourse on the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:13-20) reads in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible [NRSV] as follows:
13. “Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16. Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall become one flesh.” 17. But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
The doctrine of this passage is clear: Because God resurrects the body, God has claims on the body, which, rather than being detached from the soul, is the temple of God. This doctrine has concrete moral ramifications — fornication is a particularly vile sin, since it defiles God’s temple (the body) and since the fornicator is choosing union with perversity rather than with God. This has been the doctrine of the Church since her inception.
Now suppose that the word “fornication” is substituted with the more ambiguous word “immorality” in this passage, as occurs in the New American Bible [NAB] and the new Lectionary. The clarity of the passage is diminished by logically nonsensical phrases like, “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body” (v. 18, NAB). Rendered thus, the verse posits a distinction not between fornication and other sins, but between immorality and sin, a distinction which implies the existence of sins that are, somehow, not immoral — which is of course nonsense. The doctrinal content of the passage is eliminated in the NAB and the new Lectionary, and the new Lectionary omits the discussion of prostitution in verses 15 and 16. So the new Lectionary does not indicate that the type of “immorality” in question is sexual sin. The moral import of the passage has been removed, as it is impossible to locate. There is some evil we are to avoid which is called “immorality” but whose nature we know nothing about, rendering said avoidance quite difficult. When the practical moral demands of the passage are edited or translated out, Paul’s very doctrine becomes distorted. 1 Corinthians 6 becomes a paean to the body. The body is the temple, the body is glorified, the body will be raised up, with no specific catches, commands, or restrictions. We have left Paul’s theology and have entered the realm of Oprah, oracle of today’s “wisdom,” whose moral injunctions are succinctly expressed in her film Beloved — “Love your flesh. Love it hard.” Paul has apparently rid himself the thorn in his flesh and turned pop psychologist.
The new Lectionary’s failings in this regard go on and on. There is no need to individually note each of the myriad of times “immorality” is substituted for “fornication,” with invariably bad results for the doctrinal content of the passage. Many passages that were meant to teach inspired truth now teach, like the passage discussed above, nothing clear at all. For example, Ephesians 4:17-24 (Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B) warns us against living as the pagans do, but the warning is difficult to follow, for verses 18 and 19, in which we are told how the pagans live, are edited out. Not surprisingly, the primary sin of the pagans which is disclosed in these verses is sexual in nature: their “licentiousness for the practice of every kind of impurity to excess” (v. 19).
Obviously, I cannot discuss every doctrinally questionable passage in the new Lectionary here, but the above are good examples of what’s wrong. Curiously, the editors of the new Lectionary, who feel quite competent to “correct” the NAB when it comes to terms of gender usage, nevertheless follow the NAB’s dubious substitution of “immorality” for “fornication” throughout (see, for example, Col. 3:5 in the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C). The editors have explained that their gender “inclusivity” was warranted by changing linguistic usage and the pastoral desire not to alienate the flock; apparently their concern not to mislead the flock is less commanding. One will seek in vain throughout the new Lectionary for a single verse that clearly condemns pre-marital sex. Traditional Catholics have long lamented that Catholic youth are now no more pure or chaste that their pagan peers, and have discussed various catechetical means of correcting this. One possible means of instruction which now must be crossed off the list is the Sunday Scripture readings.
Now let’s turn to eschatology (the doctrine of the Last Things). The greatest sin in today’s culture is “judgmentalism,” and the new Lectionary almost entirely removes any hint of God’s judgment. This dynamic can be summarized in its treatment of a single verse. The editors are willing to proclaim the eschatology of Revelation 11:19a, in which “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of the covenant could be seen in the temple,” but not that of 11:19b, in which “There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, and earthquake, and a violent hailstorm” (Feast of the Assumption, Mass During the Day — 11:19b is eliminated). We are down to the Two Last Things — death and Heaven. The new Lectionary, in preaching the coming Kingdom, proclaims that “Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates” (Rev. 22:14) but omits to mention that “Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the unchaste, the murderers, the idol-worshipers, and all who love and practice deceit” (Rev. 22:15, Seventh Sunday of Easter, Cycle C; of Rev. 22:12-17, verse 15 is eliminated). This is a truly modern eschatology — I’m entering a tunnel, I see a bright light, and am embraced by the ill-defined love of an ambiguous deity.
The new Lectionary alters or omits countless Old Testament passages referring to divine judgment, but since the theological meaning of such alterations to the Old Testament is debatable, I won’t discuss them here, and will restrict myself to the new Lectionary’s treatment of New Testament eschatology. In eschatological matters, the editors of the new Lectionary, besides performing omissions like those already discussed, violate their own stated principles, which resemble those of “dynamic equivalence.” While a “formally equivalent” translation (the type preferred by the Vatican) attempts to render the literal content of the original text into the receptor language, a “dynamically equivalent” translation attempts to render what the translators perceive as the meaning of the text into the idioms of the receptor language. For instance, our translators, while paying perfunctory homage to the Vatican’s demands for “maximum possible fidelity” in translation, abandon Paul’s use of “brothers” as a term of address to mixed groups, on the grounds (says Fr. James Moroney in an article in the National Catholic Register, May 16-22, 1999) that this usage is not found in “American English, as it is spoken in our country today.” But this concern for “American English, as it is spoken in our country today,” vanishes when the new Lectionary approaches eschatology. When the Greek word “Hades” is employed in the New Testament text, we generally read “netherworld” and occasionally “Hades.” For the Greek word “Gehenna” we read simply “Gehenna.” In a translation that justifies its linguistically questionable gender politics by the need to use dynamically equivalent “American English,” the word Hades is translated by a term meaningless in “our country today,” and “Gehenna” is simply not translated, but is, rather, transliterated. While there may be no good word in current English parlance to express the conceptions connoted by “Hades” in classical Greek usage (the Greeks did believe in a netherworld), when Jesus uses the terms “Hades” and “Gehenna” he very often is clearly describing a state of eternal punishment for the wicked. There is a simple English equivalent for both these words as Jesus uses them, one with a very exact theological meaning. It is “Hell.” While it was impossible to find the word “Hell” in the old Lectionary, the new Lectionary should have corrected this problem — but didn’t.
A few passages remain in the new Lectionary where the context and content are sufficient to indicate the idea of eternal punishment without the use of the word “Hell” (such as Mt. 25:14-30, Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A; and Mt. 25:31-46, Solemnity of Christ the King, Cycle A). Unlike fornication, which is entirely eliminated from the new Lectionary, Hell is only diminished. However, even the few passages in the new Lectionary that still teach eternal punishment are undermined by their terminology. We are threatened by destruction for our sins, but we are threatened with destruction in “Gehenna,” “the netherworld,” “Hades” — or “outer darkness,” a phrase which suggests a combination of the pleasantly eerie 60s shows The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (the first three terms are scattered throughout the new Lectionary, for the fourth see the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A). The idea that these terms are meaningful in current English usage is simply laughable. It is questionable how much the laity, who already fear Hell scantly enough, will be stimulated to virtue by hearing them. The presence of such terms deconstructs Hell, breaks its meaning down, distances it from any threat of practical application, and renders it a historical curiosity. The certainty of divine judgment is thus obscured. Who avoids swimming in the Atlantic out of fear of the Leviathan? Suffering in the netherworld is equivalent to paying your debts to the last farthing — with Monopoly money. I realize that here the new Lectionary is just following the NAB, but the editors do feel that they can break from the NAB for “pastoral” reasons — and saving souls from perdition is, I would think, the most compelling pastoral reason imaginable.
Our new Lectionary refuses to teach the sinful character of fornication and downplays, at best, the eternal reality of Hell. Local liturgical translations are not infallible. I pray God this one will be altered before it misteaches generations of the faithful, rendering lex orandi, lex credendi a sad observation rather than a great truth of the Faith.