Saturday, July 29, 2006

Superman Returns and the New Translation


“The father becomes the son. And the son becomes the father”, whispers Superman to his sleeping son, echoing the words he himself heard from his own father in the first Superman movie.

For anyone who has seen any of the Superman movies, especially the first one and more so this one (Superman Returns), the allegorical allusions to the Christological story, though not necessarily intended, are profound and fun to follow: a father sends his only son to earth to save its people and to light their world; he comes as a child and grows into manhood and awareness of his super powers; his father dies before he begins his “ministry”, the list goes on.

In the current movie, we even have a sort of “passion, death, and resurrection”, all very “allegorical” of course. There is even the subtle allusion to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb (the empty hospital room). I could write much about it but it’s already been written. I would refer you to for “the rest of the story”.

I was particularly intrigued, though, (as my opening paragraph suggests) with those words: “the father becomes the son – the son becomes the father”. I thought of how at 50 (and I was watching the movie on my 50th birthday) of how much I have become my father in so many ways. I was also watching the movie with my son, Michael Martin, who not only shares my birthday, but bears my father’s name as his middle name.

But personal reverie aside it put me in mind of the current response of the American Bishops to the instruction of the Vatican to revise the English text of the Mass to more faithfully reflect the Latin of the Roman Missal.

I have no idea of how things are going with the project as a whole, but I am aware of one particular item that the Bishops have chosen NOT to re-translate due to what they call “pastoral concern”.

The phrase in question is “one in Being with the Father”, from the Nicene Creed. The Latin is “consubstantialem Patri” which translates literally (and quite obviously I think) as “consubstantial with the Father” or “of the same substance of the Father”. The New Catholic Dictionary defines it thus:

A translation of the Greek, homousios, chosen at the Council of Nicæa (A.D. 325) as the only correct word to express the nature of the Son of God. He is not inferior to the Father, nor posterior, nor merely like unto Him, but identical in substance and in essence with Him. He is truly God, God of very God, consubstantial with the Father, as the Nicene Creed has it, having, or rather, being, the Godhead no less than the Father
I want to emphasize the part of the above definition where it states:

“the only correct word to express the nature of the Son of God”.

We must understand that the words of the ancient Creeds, especially the Nicene Creed, were not written on a whim, but hammered out, and sometimes even literally battled out, over the course of many years.

The words were chosen in an extremely exacting way, especially in this instance where the Church Fathers were attempting to describe the very nature of the Godhead, upon which all other points of the faith must rest.

The “pastoral concern” of the Bishops (or at least the majority in this case) is that the word “consubstantial” would be too difficult or archaic for us to understand and that “one in Being with the Father” is easier for us.

Uh, no disrespect dear Bishops, but not only are we, the unwashed masses, capable of learning new words (or old words in this case), I personally believe that the meaning of “consubstantial” is a lot easier to grasp than the completely abstract “one in Being”.

“Of the same substance” is concrete, like from the same board, or from the same stone. We can picture it. “one in Being” is…well, it’s….it’s out there. And what’s more, it’s NOT what the Roman Missal says.

I’m no Greek scholar but it’s quite easy to look things up on the Internet these days. The Greek word, which was the original language of the creed in question, is “Homoousios”, which is a combination of two words: “homo” which means “same”; and “ousios” which is the Greek word for essence or substance. Thus “consubstantial” or the Latin “consubstantialem” is an exact translation of the Greek and faithful to the intent of the Fathers.

But even if the Bishops want to stay with the “Being” translation, Scholars point out that in order for the phrase to at least be dogmatically coherent with “Homoousios, the phrase should be translated "…Of One Being with the Father", whereas "One in Being" is “open to speculative misinterpretation”.

In looking at the liturgical, theological, and doctrinal confusion that today pervades, corrupts, and cripples the Church (though I gladly acknowledge all the signs of renewal), and the tremendous amount of time, energy, and money spent on defining, redefining, and clarifying that which was already clear in the sacred language of the Church (not to mention the printing and reprinting of the Liturgical books), the majority of the fault must be laid at the feet of the jump to the vernacular.

Bear in mind that the headlong dive into the vernacular was another attempt to be “pastoral”. Perhaps its time for our Bishops to stop worrying about what is pastoral and start worrying about what is true (which in fact would be the pastoral thing to do).

I’ve pointed out in the past that Latin remains the language of Science and Medicine precisely because of the specificity demanded by those disciplines. It remains so for our Church for precisely the same reason. Trouble is most of us do not speak the language of our Mother. Any wonder why there is dissension in the family!

Okay, so there’s no serious tie-in with Superman Returns, in case you were still waiting for one. So go see the movie and start learning some Latin.
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