While he was in Colombia, Pope Francis made a significant liturgical change, modifying the canon law which governs approval for liturgical translations.

While the liturgy is not as central a priority for the Holy Father as it was for his predecessor, it would be impossible for a liberalising pontificate not to address some of the grievances of the Church’s liberal liturgical wing. As far as it goes, the canonical change is modest. It mandates no textual changes and keeps intact the governing principles of translation, but gives greater latitude for what national episcopal conferences may do in fashioning their own liturgical translations.

Entitled Magnum Principium (“Great Principle”), the motu proprio published on September 9 shifts the balance of authority towards national conferences of bishops, opening the possibility of greater diversity in liturgical texts around the world, and even within the major languages, especially English, given the wide range of countries which use it.

Henceforth, the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) will not play the role it does now in preparing liturgical translations, but will largely limit itself to approving – or withholding approval – the texts prepared by bishops’ conferences.

The Holy Father’s decree is a significant turn away from decisions taken over the last 25 years, which aimed at greater consistency, above all in the decision to have a single translation of the Roman Missal for the entire English-speaking world.

Whether national conferences of bishops will take advantage of the new latitude offered them remains to be seen. There may be little appetite among bishops to return to the “liturgy wars” of the 1990s. Liturgical translations are expensive – both in production and in the resultant new books that parishes have to buy – and consume vast amounts of episcopal time and energy.

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