Volume > Issue > The Failures of the New Lectionary

The Failures of the New Lectionary


By Chene Richard Heady | June 2000
Chene Richard Heady, a convert to Catholicism, is a doctoral student in Victorian literature at Ohio State University.

In the summer of 1999, I began to notice that whenever St. Paul spoke in the new Lectionary at Mass, he seemed a bit “off.” His syntax was awkward, he seemed unsure of himself and his audience, he dodged controversial issues; he was, in short, not his old self. It appeared that Paul was trying to hide his new insecurity by referring to his audience as his “brothers and sisters” rather than as the more accustomed “brothers” (as in the prior Lectionary) or “brethren” (as in the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible). Like a Fundamentalist preacher of the old school, the lector at Mass would rasp, “Brothers and Sisters…” before he wheezed out the epistle reading. Sometimes, even Paul’s doctrine was unclear. I was raised a Fundamentalist, and Paul has been barking at me since early infancy, so naturally I was concerned by such strange behavior. As the summer wore on, I realized that whatever illness had infected Paul had spread to the rest of the scriptural authors, as, overnight, their ears turned to tin, and their lungs blew misty circumlocutions around important doctrinal matters. Something, I thought, had to be said about this, lest the Scriptures themselves turn incoherent.

I have been hesitant to speak publicly on this matter, but, because the Catholic periodicals I receive have discussed only the new Lectionary’s gender implications and have ignored its doctrinal ambiguities, I feel I must speak out. I suspect the reason the doctrinal problems of the new Lectionary (which came into use in 1998 in some places, 1999 in others) have not been discussed in theological periodicals is that they become most clearly apparent through literary analysis. According to the venerable theological dictum lex orandi, lex credendi (roughly: what we pray is what we believe), liturgical problems are as much a literary issue as a theological one. The lex orandi dictum, cited in the Catechism (#1124), implies that what is at issue in a liturgical translation is not simply whether a translation of Scripture is technically justifiable, but also the likely reception of this translation — how the faithful are likely to be taught and shaped by what they are given. There are some consistent and disturbing literary patterns in the new Lectionary: It entirely translates and edits out the Bible’s teaching on fornication, and renders the doctrine of Hell if not invisible, then opaque.

My primary concern here is with the new Lectionary’s sins of commission — its theologically questionable translations — but since its sins of omission also play an important role in this matter, an initial observation about omissions must be made. For the sake of clarity and brevity, omissions are at times necessary in preparing Scripture for public reading. However, the elimination of two verses or less will never serve the end of brevity, and rarely that of clarity. It is fair to say of a given passage and a given doctrine that if (1) the verses that most clearly teach this doctrine are eliminated and (2) the remaining verses are translated ambiguously, then (3) the passage no longer teaches the doctrine in question. As so often happens in literary study, the omission and commission work together to establish textual meaning or eliminate doctrine. But this is needlessly abstract. Allow me to give a concrete example. Paul’s discourse on the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:13-20) reads in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible [NRSV] as follows:

13. “Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16. Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall become one flesh.” 17. But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

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