In a recent document titled “Liturgiam authenticam: On the Use of Vernacular Languages in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy,” the Vatican made the following statement concerning translation of the divine name when translating liturgical texts into vernacular languages: “in accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the above-mentioned ‘Septuagint’ version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH) and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning” (Liturgiam authenticam 41:c).
The document offers several reasons for this recommendation:
1. The translation should conform with traditional liturgical use.
2. The translation should follow the tradition received from the Fathers of the Church.
3. The translation should express the traditional Christological sense of the text.
4. The translation should manifest the unity and the inter-relatedness of the two Testaments.
5. The translation should be guided by the reading of the Nova Vulgata Editio whenever there are more than one possible translation of the biblical text.
6. Ancient versions of the Sacred Scriptures should be consulted, especially the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
7. The translation should reflect the history of interpretation as found in the citations of biblical texts in the writings of the Fathers of the Church.
8. The translation should reflect the biblical imagery found in Christian art and in the hymnody of the church.
The document in question reflects the desire of the Catholic Church to return to the traditions of the past and maintain the authentic liturgy of the church that was preserved in the Roman Missal.
In the deliberations of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the Council decided that the tradition of the Church should be preserved whole and intact. Liturgiam authenticam (# 4) states:
Clearly, the same vigilance is required for the safeguarding and the authentic development of the liturgical rites, the ecclesiastical traditions, and the discipline of the Latin Church, and in particular, of the Roman Rite. The same care must be brought also to the translation of the liturgical texts into vernacular languages. This is especially true as regards the Roman Missal, which will thus continue to be maintained as an outstanding sign and instrument of the integrity and unity of the Roman Rite.
In my view, the recommendation concerning the translation of the tetragrammaton should be understood in this context. Since the name “Yahweh” is a scholarly construct, the use of Yahweh in the liturgy of the Catholic Church departs from the traditional use of the divine name because it does not follow the historical traditions of the church. Neither the Septuagint, the Church Fathers, nor the Vulgate used the name “Yahweh.” For this reason, the Catholic Church believes that modern translations of liturgical texts should refrain from using this scholarly construct and return to the traditional ways of translating the divine name.
The view that the purpose of Liturgiam authenticam is to maintain traditional Catholic teaching is reinforced by a letter called “Letter to the Bishops’ Conferences on the ‘Name of God’” (Prot. N. 213/08/L). This letter is dated 29 June, 2008 and was signed by Francis Cardinal Arinze and Archbishop Albert Malcolm Ranjith. According to Paul Zalonski at Communio, the letter has the following directives:
1. In liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers the name of God in the form of the tetragrammaton, YHWH is neither to be used or pronounced.
2. For the translation of the Biblical text in modern languages, destined for liturgical usage of the Church, what is already prescribed by n. 41 of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam is to be followed; that is, the divine tetragrammaton is to be rendered by the equivalent of Adonai/Kyrios: “Lord”, “Signore”, “Seigneur”, “Herr”, “Señor”, etc.
3. In translating, in the liturgical context, texts in which are present, one after the other, either the Hebrew term Adonai or the tetragrammaton YHWH, Adonai is to be translated “Lord” and the form “God” is to be used for the tetragrammaton YHWH, similar to what happens in the Greek translation of the Septuagint and in the Latin translation of the Vulgate.
After listing these three directives, Zalonski wrote:
The cardinal and the archbishop explain in the first part of the letter the value of remaining faithful to the consistent teaching and tradition of the Church. Here one can say that in following this teaching Catholics have continuity of faith: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (often abbreviated by the bromide of lex orandi, lex crendendi). The implication of this teaching, therefore, has much to do with Christology, liturgical theology, catechetics and interfaith dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters. I think the final paragraph bears prayerful consideration because of the Church’s objectivity:
Avoiding pronouncing the tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the Church has therefore its own grounds. Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the Church’s tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.
Several other bloggers have commented on the implications of Liturgiam authenticam. Some of these bloggers are Iyov, Fritz Voll, Kevin Edgecomb, Bosco Peters, John Hobbins, Charles Halton, David Hymes, Doug Chaplin, Jim West, and Rocco Palmo. Michael Gilligan has a good study of the use of the tetragrammaton in the Bible and liturgy.
Tomorrow I will discuss the use of the divine name in the Bible and in liturgy.
Studies on the Divine Name:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary