13 September 2015


Time was when the dear old Catholic Truth Society did a nice, uniform series of English translations of Papal Encyclicals. Page 2 always gave the AAS reference and the name of the translator. Fr Winstone ... Canon Smith ... one almost got to know them. At some point, this stopped. Instead, we got the sinister little phrase Translation by the Vatican Polyglot Press.

After a few years of this, a particular and most objectionable mistranslation became standard. The convention by which the Sovereign Pontiff referred to himself as "We" was abandoned; instead, he became "I". I must make clear that this did not represent a change in the Latin originals. In them, the Pontiff remained "Nos".

Does this matter? After all, a chap or chappess nowadays does not commonly call himself or herself "We" unless they happen to be Lady Thatcher. "We" sounds old fashioned. A translation should be in modern English. Yes?

It matters a very great deal. "We" implies that the speaker or writer is not an individual expressing personal views. "We" means that the speaker is, if not a corporate being, then at least a formal being within a formal corporate structure. "We" means that the pope is acting as Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, as the Church's foremost Teacher; the text concerned has, in down-to-earth terms, been across the desks of the relevant Roman Dicasteries and been checked for error; put more formally, it expresses the settled and authentic Magisterium of the Church throughout the ages and of the world-wide Episcopate of the present. It does not come to us as the bright ideas of a clever chap; originality is profoundly less important than freedom from error.

The views of Jorge Bergoglio matter hardly at all. But when Pope Francis teaches formally and is clearly seen to be teaching formally, we all owe his words, at the very least, obsequium religiosum.

I suspect that "We" goes back very far indeed. It is certainly a convention found in the homilies of S Leo and S Gregory. But more: the Bishop of Rome is not the Church's only Teacher; every bishop has a Magisterial charism. And if you look back into the old Pontificals ... for example, at the Rites of Ordination ... you will find that the Pontiff is "We". The Anglican rites of Ordination continued this convention (except, strangely, in the Interrogatio of a consecrandus).

I have recently expressed the view that if a polyglot Roman document fails to make clear which version of it is authentic, it thereby gravely impairs its authority. I also believe that a Papal document in which the Pope is "I" rather than "We" has a considerable Magisterial deficit.


Eugenie Roth said...

If I remember correctly, Pope Benedict XVI talked about himself as "I".

Matthew Roth said...

Humanae vitae retains the “We” in the English translation from the Vatican website. I am not sure at what point that changed; it must have been at some point under S. John Paul II.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

A copy and paste from the entry, Pope, in the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia:

He is to be the principle of unity, of stability, and of increase. He is the principle of unity, since what is not joined to that foundation is no part of the Church; of stability, since it is the firmness of this foundation in virtue of which the Church remains unshaken by the storms which buffet her; of increase, since, if she grows, it is because new stones are laid on this foundation.

It appears as though modern deficits are intended to profit others at the expense of the sole owner.

Ever mindful said...

We are in full agreement
( My guardian Angel and I)

orate fratman said...

Archbishop Sheen said that the "We" goes back to the payment of the Temple tax, wherein Jesus tells Peter to pay the tax so that "We" may not give scandal. Sheen says it is the only time in all of Holy Scripture where almighty God the Son identifies Himself with one of His creatures (Peter) under the personal pronoun, "We."

Jeff said...

Except that Pope Francis doesn't promulgate documents in Latin. Almost all of them are promulgated in Italian and published in Italian officially in the AAS.