The New Translation: Research Thoughts

After reflecting on my personal experience with the new translation of the mass, I wanted to write a little about research on liturgy within sociology.  While changes in Catholic liturgy following Vatican II led to much discussion about the relative merits and demerits of liturgical change, I am aware of surprisingly little systematic research on this topic within sociology–at least in the US.

One place to start is Nathan Mitchell’s concise, Liturgy and the Social Sciences.  Importantly, despite its broad “social science” title, it focuses almost entirely on anthropologists.  This illustrates the relative absence of sociological work in this area–and what sociological research has been done is often theoretically rooted in cultural anthropology.  Thus, sociological studies of liturgy to date have been more focused on field research and ethnographies than survey research, which explains why liturgical research using large scale representative samples is so hard to find.

Mitchell’s small book highlights three meta-theoretical approaches that have linked liturgy and social science, and the first of the three, which Mitchell associated with the High Church camp, can be readily found across disciplines.  Highlighted in the work of anthropologists such as Douglas and liturgists like Aidan Kavanaugh, Mitchell suggests that critique of liturgy in this mode is linked to critique of culture more generally (especially modern individualism and secularism) and focuses on the way in which liturgy should shape culture, rather than the other way around.

One relatively well-known sociologist, Peter Berger, in a piece called “the vernacularist illusion” had this to say about the liturgical changes that followed Vatican II.

“As a sociologist of religion I was already struck at the time of the Second Vatican Council by the fact that there was little if any empirical evidence to indicate that ordinary Catholics found the Latin mass remote or difficult to understand (especially with English missals in hand). The remoteness and the incomprehensibility were posited a priori by theologians and prelates. The same lack of evidence pertains to all the other programs of vernacularization. I’m not aware of any studies showing that ordinary people in England or in the United States had problems with the language of the old Book of Common Prayer.”

This is a good example of a sociologist employing insights from the first of Mitchell’s meta-narratives, and the piece is both insightful and thought provoking (and worth a full read).  Yet, despite his castigation of the empirically limited view that preceded Vatican II changes, Berger’s own article doesn’t explore actual data or refer to specific sociological articles that utilize empirical data.

Still, one insight from this piece is worth exploring further.  Berger writes,

“Vernacularism, as it has come to be widely established in the churches, may well be described as a subtle and yet very damaging heresy. It is fundamentally misguided to use linguistic means to deny the transcendent remoteness altogether, to pretend that we can speak of God as we speak of politics or commerce, to try to conceal the divine otherness.”

Here we see a critique (made by a sociologist) suggesting a tension in liturgy between the transcendant and the immanent–between God’s otherness and God’s manifest presence.  Interestingly, Berger alludes here to the remoteness of Latin (which he had earlier disparaged as lacking empirical validity), but recast in positive terms.  Its very remoteness expressed a religious sensibility and truth.  Berger is suggesting that in making liturgy “accessible,” we may have removed a signficant symbolic means of expressing God’s transcendance.

In discussions of the new translation, I have heard people speak of the beauty of the new translation and heard them emphasize that God cannot/should not be discussed in mundane terms associated with profane activities such as politics and business.  At the same time, I have heard others speak of the inaccessibility of the new language and the way in which it can be off-putting to parishioners and priests, alike, who have become accustomed to the previous language.   In different ways, Berger’s piece can be read as providing support for both sides–with his discussion of the importance of symbolizing transcendence, on the one hand, and his distrust of changes made by prelates and liturgists from apriori assumptions on the other.

Regardless, Berger highlights some clear potential benefits from examining liturgy and liturgical change as an actual reality with real consequences (which can be empirically measured–however imperfectly).  In my next post, I will discuss at least one empirical study of implementation of Post-Vatican II liturgical change.

2 thoughts on “The New Translation: Research Thoughts

  1. The sociologist Kieran Flanagan has a book or two that examines the liturgy from a sociological perspective. He makes a similar claim as Berger in that he is not sure people are alienated from or find incomprehensible the Tridentine Liturgy. sBut if I remember correctly, he takes a Goffmanian perspective on the liturgy in that the “presentation of the rite” is what produces holiness or at least greatly assists in the production of virtue and holiness (not denying that God or some transcendent power is behind it all). In other words, he takes a positive look at how the liturgy is presented and enacted and tries to understand how that presentation and enactment produces holiness (I think he uses the word virtue as well). Rather than debunking the liturgy as being conducted by men to maintain patriarchal power, he asks positively how the liturgy produces holiness. Given that so many still attend Mass, something positive must be going on. Importantly, however, is his point that if too much of the social world or the ordinary world makes its way into the liturgy, it diminishes its production of holiness rather than making the liturgy relevant. Flanagan argues, but again with little empirical data, that the greater the contrast between what goes on in the liturgy to what goes on in the street, for example, language used, the dress people wear, the garments ministers don, music, ritual action, etc., the more the ordinary person will find the experience “religious” rather than some version of the secular or something in-between. In short, I believe Flanagan argues that the more relevant the liturgy is to everyday life the less the liturgy will be effective in people’s lives. I believe Flanagan would fall into the HIGH CHURCH Camp of Mitchell.

  2. Berger’s assertion seems more an expression of his personal biases than a sociological analysis.

    The Council brought together thousands of bishops and advisors who had spent years in parish ministry and in observation of and conversation with parishioners, family, and friends. It seems presumptuous to assert that “there was little if any empirical evidence to indicate that ordinary Catholics found the Latin mass remote or difficult to understand.” They may have had considerable evidence; just because it wasn’t published in academic journals doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

    If Berger cared to look, he might have turned to a 1967 survey of US Catholics, which asked people how they saw the changes in the Church, specifically mentioning the change to English being among those changes. Among the vast majority who saw the changes making a difference in the church, more than 83 percent saw them as changes for the better. When asked why they felt this way, the two most common reasons were that the Mass was easier to understand and that people could participate better at Mass.