The new papal document Magnum Principium marks a dramatic shift in power away from Rome towards the world’s bishops’ conferences, in line with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. That, at least, is the line put out by its supporters since it was released last Saturday. But does it stand up to scrutiny?

Pope Francis issued the text motu proprio – that is, under his own personal authority – while he was in Medellin, during his stirring visit to Colombia. Magnum Principium amends the hitherto obscure canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law, changing the way that liturgical translations are approved. When bishops’ conferences submit draft translations to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, they will no longer receive a list of mandatory alterations, but rather a simple “yes” or “no”.

In recent years, French, Italian and German bishops’ conferences have clashed with the Congregation, leading to lengthy delays over new translations. With this new document, Pope Francis is seemingly trying to break the logjam, while still giving the Vatican the final say. So it is not a sweeping redistribution of power, as some claim, but rather a rebalancing.

Even so, the text may have significant consequences. But it is too early to judge what they will be. It is possible – even likely – that there will be more variations within language groups. In a decade or so, the words of the Mass in Birmingham, England, could be strikingly different to those in Birmingham, Alabama. Such liturgical diversity is not a problem per se. Catholics in previous centuries were at ease with a variety of rites. In addition to the Roman Rite, there was the Ambrosian Rite, the Mozarabic Rite, the Dominican Rite and so on. But this good-natured co-existence is harder today because liturgy has been politicised. Favouring one liturgical usage over another is seen as taking a side in a grand theological battle raging since at least Vatican II. The old saying lex orandi, lex credendi holds true: seemingly subtle liturgical changes can lead to profound changes in belief. This explains the misgivings over the new document in conservative circles.

Liberal-minded Catholics, in contrast, are rejoicing. They hope that the “new” English Mass translation, introduced in 2011 after decades of wrangling, will be thrown out – or, at the very least, tweaked. But are the world’s English-speaking bishops’ conferences eager for more textual battles? And if so, is it certain that all the changes will be to progressives’ liking?

Let’s not forget, finally, the vast majority of Catholics who have no investment in the “liturgy wars”. They do not wake at three in the morning worrying about whether Et cum spiritu tuo should be translated as “And also with you” or “And with your spirit”. As a Church, we should be focusing on what does keep them awake at night, rather than launching into a new, energy-sapping round of liturgical infighting.

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