The following appears in the August/September 2001 issue of "Rite," published by Liturgy Training Publications (

Liturgiam authenticam : Canonical Observations

by John M. Huels, O.S.M., professor of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

On March 28, 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments published the Instruction on the Use of Vernacular Languages in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy, Liturgiam authenticam. The document provides detailed rules, principles, and criteria to assist conferences of bishops, and those who advise them, in the translation of the liturgical books from Latin to the vernacular languages, both the prayer and scriptural texts and the liturgical laws.

The document consists of 133 articles and 86 footnotes and establishes many new norms, far too many even to summarize here. I shall only address several, more general questions: the juridical nature and weight of the document, those who are bound by it, and its effect on previous documents treating liturgical translations.

What is the Nature and Weight of Liturgiam authenticam?
Liturgiam authenticam is an instruction, an act of executive power. The pope approved it only in general form (in forma communi), which does not give it the force of law (lex). The congregations of the Roman Curia are executive authorities. Only the pope and the college of bishops have legislative power for the universal Church. The congregations of the Roman Curia do not have legislative power unless this has been delegated by the pope, which was not done in this case. Consequently, Liturgiam authenticam must be read together with the universal law, not in opposition to it. The principal sources of universal law on the liturgy are the Code of Canon Law and the laws contained in the liturgical books. According to canon 34 of the Code, instructions clarify laws, elaborate on them, and determine the methods to be followed in the observance of laws. Instructions may not be contrary to the law in any way. If any norm in an instruction is contrary to the law, it lacks all force (c. 34, 2).

According to canon 838, 3, the conference of bishops has the authority to prepare translations of the liturgical books and to publish them after the Holy See has granted them its recognitio (a kind of approval). The norms of Liturgiam authenticam should not be interpreted in such a way as to restrict the authority of the conferences of bishops to prepare and approve the vernacular editions of the liturgical rites for their countries. The instruction, technically, is not telling the conferences of bishops how they must do translations, but setting out the criteria and rules that will guide the Apostolic See itself in determining whether to grant its recognitio. This is, in the end, more of a technical difference than a real one, because the conferences will have to observe these criteria if they expect to get the recognitio for their liturgical translations.

Because an instruction cannot contradict the law, if there is any apparent discrepancy between universal canonical legislation and a norm of the instruction, the text of the instruction must be read in such a way that the universal law is upheld. For example, Liturgiam authenticam states in no. 104: "For the good of the faithful, the Holy See reserves to itself the right to prepare translations in any language, and to approve them for liturgical use." Clearly, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments has the authority to approve translations (the recognitio), but just as clearly it does not have the right or the authority to prepare its own translation and impose it on a conference of bishops.

While this provision may seem contrary to canon law, the next sentence of the norm clarifies that, even when the congregation prepares a translation, the conference of bishops itself must still approve it and send it back for recognitio. Technically, the law is upheld when the conference approves a translation submitted to it by the Apostolic See; the authority remains with the conference. Likewise, the conference has the power not to approve such a translation. In that case, the congregation could impose it on the conference only with a special mandate from the pope, since it lacks the legal authority to do this on its own.

Who is Bound by the Instruction?
Documents of executive power are binding in the same way as laws, but instructions are different from laws in whom they bind. Laws may bind anyone in the church community, including the faithful in general. Instructions are directed only to the executors of the law, those whose task is to enforce the law and carry it out. Instructions do not bind the community at large, but only those executors of the law for whom they are given, such as diocesan bishops, conferences of bishops, major superiors of religious institutes, et al.

Liturgiam authenticam is addressed principally to the conferences of bishops. Secondarily, it is addressed to diocesan bishops and supreme moderators of religious families (religious institutes, societies of apostolic life, etc.) who are involved from time to time in the translation of liturgical texts for celebrations of their particular calendars. Indirectly, the instruction is addressed to all who are involved in preparing translations of liturgical texts for the conferences of bishops, local churches, and religious families. Among those indirectly bound are the staff, translators, and consultors of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. The norms of the instruction affect them most intimately, since their work is reviewed by each of the English-speaking of conferences of bishops and ultimately by the Apostolic See.

What Other Documents are Affected?
Ordinarily, instructions do not revoke previous documents of executive power, but Liturgiam authenticam does this in no. 8. It says the norms set forth in this instruction are to be substituted for all norms previously published on the matter of liturgical translations, with the exception of the 1994 Instruction on the Roman Liturgy and Inculturation. There are no footnotes indicating which previous documents are intended, so the wording of no. 8 must be taken at face value. All previous norms are revoked, that is, norms of executive power, not legislative norms, since the congregation lacks the power to revoke laws. The well known collection, Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal and Curial Texts, has and entire section with 26 documents on the vernacular in the liturgy (nn. 108-133), including the most important one, the instruction Comme le prévoit of 1969. None of these documents is legislative, so all are now revoked.

Liturgiam authenticam marks a much more "activist" approach for the Roman curia in the preparation of translations of liturgical texts than has been the rule since Vatican II. The Council had entrusted this task to the conferences of bishops (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36, 4), but now the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments has made abundantly clear its intention to become directly involved itself in the details of translation, particularly for the major vernacular languages such as English, French, and Spanish. This more activist stance, reflected in the many new and detailed juridical norms of Liturgiam authenticam, is likely to be the rule for many years to come, unless a pope or an ecumenical council decides something different.