Magnum Principium actually makes radical changes very difficult. Here's why.

Over the weekend, Pope Francis issued a new apostolic letter motu proprio. The document, called Magnum Principium, caused an instant stir because it reformed canon law for the mechanisms for preparing and approving new translations of the liturgy.

Most corners of the Catholic world were quick to react to the headline changes, which were clear enough: from now on, the Holy See will not be playing any active role in the drafting or amending of new translations of the liturgy. In future, episcopal conferences will have responsibility for the whole process, the Congregation for Divine Worship will merely give a final confirmation once the local bishops have voted.

Of course, anything touching the liturgy is bound to grab attention, and many have leapt to the conclusion that this new level of initiative and autonomy for episcopal conferences is the first shot in a resumption of the so-called liturgy wars. If all one takes away from Magnum Principium is that Rome is effectively leaving future liturgical translations to the discretion of local bishops, then perhaps a snap reaction is forgivable. But when talking about legal reform, and especially a reform which touches the Code of Canon Law and a dozen other authoritative and constitutive documents stretching back to Vatican II itself, it’s important to look at where the changes fit within the whole legal framework.

In this case, while Pope Francis has definitely made a clear move to ground responsibility for translations of the liturgy in the principle of subsidiarity, the accompanying legal requirements for real unity among the bishops of local episcopal conferences are much stronger than people have understood.

Magnum Principium amends the wording of canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law, which treats the levels of authority in handling changes to and translations of the liturgy. While the actual changes to the text of the canon appear, at first reading, to be fairly minor, the potential scope of the changes is very wide indeed.

The first paragraph of the canon is left unchanged, reserving the direction of sacred liturgy to the authority of, first, the Holy See and, secondly, the diocesan bishop. This is an important principle. One of the key reforms of Vatican II was a reclaiming of the autonomy of local diocesan bishops from centralisation. It also underlines that authority in the Church resides in the pope and the bishops, not committees.

The second part of the revised canon, 838 §2, treats the role of the Holy See in publishing liturgical books and in giving a form of approval called the recognitio to adaptations of the liturgy proposed by an episcopal conference.

The third part of the new text, canon 838 §3, is where we see the most substantial changes. It states that the preparation of faithful translations of the liturgical books is the responsibility of episcopal conferences, and to approve and publish them after confirmation (confirmatio) by the Holy See. This work had previously needed a recognitio.

Now, one could be forgiven for assuming that there isn’t much difference between a recognitio and a confirmatio, but they are legally very different indeed.

In this case, the difference is so important that Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, circulated a letter and legal commentary with Magnum Principium on how to understand the reforms. The major focus, according to Archbishop Roche, is to give “a more adequate distinction, as far as the role of the Apostolic See is concerned, between the scope of the recognitio and that of the confirmatio in respect of what belongs to the Episcopal Conferences, taking account of their pastoral and doctrinal responsibility as well as the limits to their actions.”

Paragraph two of the revised canon 838 concerns active review and evaluation of adaptations of the liturgy itself. The confirmation required by paragraph 3, on the other hand, concerns vernacular translations of the original Latin text of the liturgy. The change here, from the recognitio of the Holy See to the confirmatio, shifts evaluative authority away from the Holy See and onto the episcopal conference.

Archbishop Roche explains that the confirmatio is “not to be considered an alternative intervention in the process of translation” but only “an authoritative act” by which the Holy See “ratifies the approval of the [episcopal conference].”

In practical terms, it seems that all future translations of the liturgy will be carried out by local bishops’ conferences, who alone will be responsible for the “faithfulness” of the translation; the necessary approval of the Holy See will be an act of simple ratification and not provide an opportunity for specific changes or improvements.

Rome’s future passive role in future translations is underscored in an accompanying, unsigned, explanatory note from the Congregation for Divine Worship, which observes that the confirmatio will be “ordinarily granted based on trust and confidence”. The same note points out that the new wording of canon 838 §3 is deliberately phrased so that it “cannot be equated to the discipline of canon 455” which governs how and when episcopal conferences can issues laws.

Canon 455 does not apply to the new process for liturgical translations because, according to the explanatory note, the matter is an exercise of doctrinal teaching authority and not legislation.

That the work of translation is doctrinal is underscored by the text of Magnum Principium, which states that “each translation of texts must be congruent with sound doctrine.” This seems simple enough, but actually bishops’ conferences are neither legislative nor teaching bodies, they are not councils or synods. They are administrative constructs. From the time they were created, it has been a clear legal point that they do not, and cannot, replace the authority of the diocesan bishop in his territory, still less over-rule him.

Apostolos Suos, the motu proprio of St John Paul II on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences, states that there are only two ways an episcopal conference can issue authoritative doctrinal pronouncements: if they are told to do so by the Holy See, which, following a two-thirds vote by the bishops, gives the recognitio (including active evaluation of the matter and decision) or if the vote of the conference is unanimous. These two options are essential for conferences to undertake decisions which touch doctrine, St John Paul insists, because it is essential to safeguard the authority of the diocesan bishop and guarantee communion with the whole Church.

By abolishing the mechanism for granting the recognitio to new liturgical translations, and instead instituting a confirmatio “based on trust and confidence”, Pope Francis has left episcopal conferences with a very wide latitude to act, but with the legal safeguard that there must be unanimous approval for any new translation.

At a stroke, this shifts responsibility for translation of the liturgy to local conferences, where it arguably belongs, and ensures that there can be no scope for factionalism in the new process. As a “Pope Francis” legal reform, it simultaneously makes subsidiarity real and binds it absolutely to communion.

That there is no other way of understanding the new system speaks for itself when you consider the options. Suppose a conference sent a new translation to Rome for the confirmation with only a two-thirds vote of approval; the Congregation for Divine Worship could hardly grant a confirmation “based on trust and confidence” if it received letters from a third of the bishops insisting that the new translation was not doctrinally sound. Similarly, they could not grant or deny the confirmatio based upon their own qualitative judgment of the new translation: this would simply be a reinstitution of the recognitio.

While there will unquestionably be those who are concerned at Rome taking such a clear step back from the process of approving new liturgical translations, that such work can now only proceed with unanimous support of the local bishops’ conference will, one hopes, prevent the process becoming the tool for one side or other of the liturgy wars. The Roman legal maxim quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari debet is dramatically honoured in the new process. We can only hope that bishops’ conferences rise to the challenge of communion the Pope has issued to them.