Palm-Sunday Dispute in France
“CHRIST is God and not an image!” The amplified voice echoed around the Gothic arches of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, covering momentarily the reading of the “Epistle.” Some two thousand Catholics present had barely recovered from their surprise when they heard the Apostles’ Creed being sung in Latin. This protest singing was quickly drowned out by the mighty organ. At that the demonstrators left and the Mass continued.
Similar demonstrations occurred in other churches in Paris at Masses celebrated during that weekend of Palm Sunday, April 4, 1971. The demonstrators were not Protestants or atheists but traditionalist Catholics! But why the protest?
It involved the reading of the “Epistle” in the vernacular, in French. As any practicing Catholic knows, the “Epistle” read during Mass on Palm Sunday is Philippians 2:5-11. In the 1959 French lectionary Philippians 2:6 read: “Being of divine status, Christ did not greedily hold on to the rank that made him equal to God.” But in 1969, the French-speaking bishops authorized the publishing of a new lectionary that was approved by the Holy See in Rome on September 16, 1969. In this Philippians 2:6 was rendered: “Christ Jesus is God’s image; but he did not choose to seize by force equality with God.”
One noted French Catholic scholar, André Feuillet, wrote: “This version . . . stirred up sharp criticism on all sides. Was it not liable to make the faithful believe that Christ is not God in the strictest sense of the word?” (Esprit et Vie, December 17, 1970) Ah, there was the problem!
Pressure was brought to bear on the French hierarchy, who consented to revise this second translation of Philippians 2:6. However, when it became known that this third translation of Philippians 2:6 was no more trinitarian than the second rendering and that it would be read out in all the churches on Palm Sunday, April 4, 1971, traditionalist Catholics reacted violently.
The Catholic monthly magazine Itinéraires brought out a special supplement dated January 1971. Referring to the second translation of Philippians 2:6, Itinéraires stated: “If he [Christ] refused to seize it [equality with God], it must be that he did not already possess it.” And, commenting on the third rendering, this magazine said that if Christ “did not choose to claim to be the same as God,” this implies that he was not “the same as God.” With this the New American Bible, a Catholic edition of 1970, agrees, saying: “He did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at.” In Itinéraires’ view, “the practical effect of this substitution amounts to heresy and blasphemy.” It encouraged its readers to demonstrate their disapproval during Masses celebrated on Palm Sunday, inviting them to await the “Epistle” reading and then to cry out “Blasphemy!”, “Jesus Christ very God and very man,” or to sing the Apostles’ Creed.
In spite of these threats, the French episcopate stood by their third translation of Philippians 2:6. Le Monde (March 21-22, 1971) commented: “This translation . . . was accepted by the entire body of French-speaking bishops. The Permanent Council of the French Episcopate, that has just met in Paris, has ratified it; so it will stand.” However, to avoid disturbances during the Palm-Sunday Mass, several bishops allowed priests in their dioceses to use the 1959 translation. Notwithstanding this concession, demonstrations occurred in cathedrals in Paris and also in Lyons.
THE DILEMMA OF THE FRENCH BISHOPS
Oddly enough, these traditionalist demonstrators were trying to be better Catholics than the French-speaking bishops and cardinals! As good Catholics they believe in the Trinity doctrine, which teaches that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are equal within the Godhead. They were profoundly shocked by a hierarchy-approved translation of Philippians 2:6 that shows Christ never claimed to be “the same as God.” They were right in saying that this translation denies that Christ is God. But the point they overlook is that Christ himself denied it, speaking of his Father as “the only true God.” (John 17:3, Douay) He did not teach a Trinity doctrine.
The intriguing question is: Why did the French-speaking upper clergy feel obliged to authorize a translation that so obviously denies one of the basic doctrines of Catholicism? But that is not all. Is it not passing strange that these prelates considered it necessary to have a fresh translation made of this passage? What about all the Catholic Bibles duly carrying the nihil obstat and the imprimatur? What about the Jerusalem Bible, the Crampon Bible, the Liénart Bible, the Maredsous Bible, the Glaire Bible, the Osty New Testament, the Saci Bible and still others, all officially recognized French Catholic translations? Why make a new translation when all of these Bibles make this passage read as if Christ were equal to God, as do the English Catholic translations, the Douay Bible and the more recent Jerusalem Bible?
This mystery is cleared up by the following remark printed in Le Monde (April 6, 1971): “The scholars responsible for this change—a change ratified by the majority of the French bishops—consider the new translation more faithful to the Greek text than the former one was [italics ours].”
So now the French-speaking Catholic cardinals, archbishops and bishops find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Either they recant, withdrawing their new translation of Philippians 2:6, in which case they will show themselves to be more attached to the Trinity doctrine than to accuracy of Bible translation, or they maintain their new official translation of this important passage, at the cost of admitting that French Catholic Bibles (not to speak of those in other languages) have mistranslated this scripture by giving it a trinitarian twist.