What Does Pope Benedict Really Say? Who knows!?

There is a must read article by Sandro Magister on the problems the Holy See is having in actually reporting what Pope Benedict is really saying.  Here at WDTPRS we have dealt with this before.

He is a engaging snip from Magister to whet your appetite.  My emphasis

This Is the Vatican. Communications Have Been Interrupted

Benedict XVI speaks to the world. But his words reach the general public with great difficulty – and sometimes not at all. Here’s what isn’t working in the communication system that should assist the pope

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, November 23, 2006 – Struggling newspaper that it is, with a market of a few hundred copies and a loss of 4.6 million euros in 2005, it passed almost unnoticed that “L’Osservatore Romano” didn’t show up on the newsstands in Rome on the afternoon of Tuesday, November 7.

The copies were printed (see photo). But at the last minute, the order came from the Vatican secretariat of state to toss them back into the pulper. Because they were wrong straight from the title placed on the front page. It was dedicated to an address by the pope to the Swiss bishops, which in reality was never delivered.

But a great many people realized what happened that day by consulting the Vatican’s online bulletin, which is visited by millions throughout the world.

At midday, there appeared on the Holy See’s website a speech presented as having been delivered, in French, by Benedict XVI. By mid-afternoon, the speech wasn’t there anymore. And that evening, a communiqué (1) appeared stating that the text had not been read out loud, but was a draft going back to the beginning of 2005 and to the previous pope, and that Benedict XVI had made other remarks to the Swiss bishops, improvising in German. The transcript of the actual address would be released the following day.

This time the fault was not that of “L’Osservatore Romano,” nor of its director, Mario Agnes, nor of the Vatican press office, the last links in the chain. The disaster took place at higher levels, at the junction between the curia and the pope.


Okay…. if that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will.

The other day in the context of our ongoing pro multis discussions, I mentioned the problem of the appearing, and vanishing, link to the Latin text of the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia.  The text problem with that encyclical was a nightmare and it is still confusing people.

Friends, the texts of Vatican and papal documents change. 

Yes, they change.  From the time of the first release of some document, even an encyclical, to its publication in the Acta Apostolica Sedis, changes are made.  This was very common in the later years of Pope John Paul II.  We have yet to see what will happen with the documents of Benedict XVI.

Furthermore, you might be noticing that the translations of papal addresses and other documents released by the Vatican are all over the place in respect to the original language of delivery or authorship.  (Remember: Official texts appear in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis… but versions are released to the public in various languages long before the final versions appear in the Acta.)  I think there mistranslations occuring and people are not noticing them.

Isn’t it true that under the hammering stream of new material we simply don’t have time to read and absorb things?  And why should we have to double-check accuracy of documents from the Holy See?  

For Pete’s Sake! (literally!)…  the Holy See has access to very smart people who come from every corner of the globe and have the use of nearly every important language.  What’s the deal?  

Translation can be very tricky sometimes, but what a Pope says is, … let me go out on a limb here… important.

Just as an example, a friend alerted me to a question in the translation of the Pope’s speech to Swiss Bishops on 9 November

Here is the German text:

"…zu den Konkretisationen schreiten, deren Grundlage uns immer noch der Dekalog anbietet, den wir mit Christus, mit der Kirche in dieser Zeit weiterlesen und neu lesen müssen."

Here is the Italian:

"…progredire anche verso le concretizzazioni, per le quali il fondamento ci è sempre offerto dal Decalogo che, con Cristo e con la Chiesa, dobbiamo leggere in questo tempo in modo progressivo e nuovo."

Here is the English:

"…we need to move forward towards ways of putting it into practice, whose foundation is always offered to us by the Decalogue, which we must interpret today with Christ and with the Church in a progressive and new way."

There is a real problem here.  Taken out of context and not read in reference to the German original, this "progressive" could cause problems. German "weiterlesen" does not exclude English "progressive", but it really aims at a meaning of "progressive" in the sense of "continue to read and read anew".  "Weiterlesen" here means not simply repeat what has been said before, but find something more always, as Benedict is forever emphasizing, through a "hermeneutic of continuity". 

A couple different groups have serious problems with a "hermeneutic of continuity".  "Liberal progressivists" break the hermeneutic of continuity by refusing to consider the past and "locked in amber traditionalists" refuse the possibility of future developments.  Either one of those groups could lock onto a word like "progressive" and misunderstand what the Pope is saying.  "Amber traditionalists" might point an accusing finger at Pope Benedict and say, "You see?  This modernist ‘pope’ wants a progressive reading of Scripture!", while "progressivist liberals" would say, "You see?  The Pope says we have to reinterpret Scripture for a modern world!"  Sound like an exageration?  I don’t think so.

We have to use great caution with every document coming now, friends. 

  • Read carefully. 
  • Check the original. 
  • Verify translations the Holy See provides. 
  • If something sounds strange, apply a hermeneutic of continuity.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Anonymous says:

    A problem is that German is a “difficult” language. An Italian hazard’s a translation into his own “easy” language, and other “lazy” people translate from the Italian “translation”. What is needed is to return to the use of Latin for important documents. The careless use of Italian panders to an endemic lack of intelectual rigour in the Church.

  2. I don’t usually respond to “Anonymous” comments, but I will not accept that “Italian” is “easy” while German is “hard”.

    In my experience, anyone who thinks Italian is “easy” has fooled himself into thinking he knows the language better than he really does.

    I wholeheartedly agree that Latin must be reclaimed in the Latin Church. However, at this moment, we simply lack sufficient writers whose Latin is adequate for the task.

    We need a Latin “Manhattan Project”.

  3. Jon says:


    Speaking of “what the Pope says,” do you have any idea at this point what he may have said at the Academy of Music yesterday? Being Thanksgiving I’m looking for something to be extra thankful for with my turkey this afternoon ;^)

    And of course, Happy Thanksgiving to you. Be sure one of the things we readers are particularly thankful for is your presence among us via this wonderful invention. Enjoy your day.

    With grateful prayers…

  4. RBrown says:

    This is no surprise.

    1. Even though Papa Roncalli’s Veterum Sapientia is an Apostolic Constitution, carrying the highest papal authority, for years it was not on the Vatican Website. Now, after some complaints, it is there–but only in Latin.

    2. Pius XII’s Sacramentum Ordinis, also an Apostolic Constitution, is nowhere to be found on the Vatican website, probably because it deals with the rite of ordination, and Paul VI promulgated his own. A Swiss priest friend said the absence of SO shows that there are many who want to pretend that Pius XII never existed, just as the Russians who want to pretend that Stalin never existed.

    3. To me the problem still exists simply because JPII, with a few exceptions, never really attempted any reform of the Curia–or of the Church.

  5. I remember hear Fr. Reggie say in one of his “Latin Lover” radio shows that when they translated the document “Deus Caritas Est” into Latin, they had to use the Italian translation rather than the original German. He didn’t seem too thrilled with having to translate from a translation rather than the original, and given the results of this blog, I can certainly agree with Fr. Reggie.

  6. There are still proponents of “The Spirit of Vatican II” out there bollixing up the works whenever possible. We have them here too on our little scale. They need to be kindly put out of the “Church-influencing” business. If they are religious, they have prayers to say a; if they are laity, they have kids to raise and business to run. They shouldn’t be trying to run the church.

  7. Ray from MN says:

    The subject of translations is interesting. I have
    studied languages but am no way qualified to provide
    more than a casual translation of documents in German
    and maybe one or two other languages with the help
    of a dictionary.

    I hadn’t thought about it much before, but but a
    proper translation, especially of something written
    by the Pope, a political leader or a scientist must
    be more than a matter of just tossing off the first
    thing that comes to mind, as fast as one can type,
    even if the translator is perfectly fluent in both

    Exact meanings, and shades of meanings, must be
    provided, in so far as that is possible.

    At your convenience, Father, could you provide
    some thoughts on how much effort it takes to
    translate “what a prayer really says” in a second,
    or 37th language? Is there such a thing as
    “translation aids” that you use, in addition to the
    best dictionary you can find? Must you discuss
    definitions with others to work out exact phrasing?

    Or if there are good articles on the subject,
    provide a few references?

    Thank you.

  8. Ray: Lot’s of Latin, friend. Also, when I sniff that a word might be carrying some meaning that I don’t instantly see, there are a couple other dictionaries I consult because they are more specialized. I have linked to a couple on the side bar and I often mentioned them in my articles.

  9. Eufemia Budicin says:

    I think the pope needs a supervising media secretary just for his speeches and writings. Father Lombardi can Lombardi can’t do everything and Georg Gaenswein seems too in the shadow. Translating is very
    tricky and Vatican translators may suffer from the worldwide humanites educational collapse.
    See the article on the Spiegel:” Papst unterschätzte globale Mediengesellschaft”

  10. Eufemia: Could you give us a link to that article?

  11. Eufemia Budicin says:

    On the Spiegel the articole is not free. But I found it on Kipa

    “Spiegel”: Papst unterschätzte globale Mediengesellschaft

    Hamburg, 19.11.06 (Kipa) Der durch die Regensburger Vorlesung des Papstes ausgelöste Konflikt war nach Ansicht des Hamburger Nachrichtenmagazins “Der Spiegel” vor allem Folge einer Fehleinschätzung der globalen Mediengesellschaft.

    Der Papst habe die “explosive Kraft des Wortes” in diesem Umfeld unterschätzt, heisst es in einem am Samstag vorab veröffentlichten Bericht des Magazins.

    Zum “Medien-GAU” sei es “durch die Unbeholfenheit des gerade umbesetzten Presseamts im Vatikan” gekommen. Zudem habe “im Hofstaat” eine Person gefehlt, “die im Notfall den Mut hat, auch einen Papst vor Irrtümern zu warnen”.

    Benedikt XVI., vermutet der “Spiegel”, habe “keinen Kreuzzug beginnen”, aber die Debatte ein wenig vorantreiben wollen. Auch in der später überarbeiteten, amtlichen Version der Rede habe er sich lediglich von der Polemik seines umstrittenen Zitats über Mohammed distanziert, nicht aber vom Inhalt. Die Wirkung dieses Zitats habe er aber nicht vorausgesehen.

    Auch die unmittelbaren Hörer der Vorlesung, zitiert das Blatt die Einschätzung des langjährigen Vatikan-Sprechers Joaquin Navarro-Valls, hätten sie nicht so verstanden, wie sie später dargestellt worden sei. Es sei ein grossartiger Text gewesen, den “einige Agenturen” mit einer irreführenden Verpackung übermittelt hätten.

    Der deutsche Kurienkardinal Walter Kasper sei allerdings, heisst es weiter, bei dem Zitat innerlich zusammengezuckt und habe gedacht: “Das gibt Ärger.” Unter Johannes Paul II. sei noch jeder Redetext von mindestens zwei Personen durchgesehen worden, dem “Cheftheologen” und dem Substituten des Staatssekretariats.
    Benedikt XVI. habe dieses Verfahren abgeschafft. Die Regensburger Rede habe das Staatssekretariat erst am Tag vor der Abreise des Papstes nach München erhalten.

    “Medialer Tsunami”

    Einige Journalisten, die den Text am Tag der Vorlesung vorab erhielten, erkannten nach Darstellung des “Spiegels” aber sogleich dessen Brisanz. Der darauf angesprochene Vatikansprecher Federico Lombardi habe dazu erklärt, der Papst wolle gewiss keine Lektion erteilen, wonach der Islam als gewalttägig verstanden werden müsse.

    Einige Redaktionen hätten unterdessen bereits Muslime befragt, was sie von dem Zitat hielten. In italienischen Morgenzeitungen sei kommentiert worden, dass eine “Fatwa gegen Benedikt XVI.” nicht auszuschliessen sei. Die “New York Times” habe in den Worten des Papstes eine Sprache entdeckt, “die Moslems entflammen lassen könnte”.

    Erst am darauf folgenden Tag sei durch die Meldung, dass in der Türkei Grossmufti Ali Bardakoglu – der den Redetext zu diesem Zeitpunkt nach späteren eigenen Angaben noch gar nicht gelesen hatte – gegen die angeblich “feindselige Haltung” des Papstes protestiert habe, ein “medialer Tsunami” ausgelöst worden. Noch am Abend habe Lombardi eine Richtigstellung verschickt, doch es sei längst zu spät gewesen, heisst es im “Spiegel”.


    19.11.2006 – Kipa

  12. Eufemia: Thanks VERY much for posting this!

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