The Holy Father’s “Our Father” Comments in Context

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On the evening of December 6th, TV2000, the Italian equivalent of EWTN, aired an interview of Pope Francis where he criticized the Italian translation of the Our Father. He pointed out how some other languages have better translations. His argument is the Italian isn’t an accurate description of what the Gospel says, not to change the Gospel.

So, please don’t freak out about this. Give me 3 minutes to explain.

How Translation Works

Let’s do a little background to understand how translation works, the original text of the Our Father, and then examine the problem in Italian Francis refers to. Before I learned other languages, I thought the translation was just changing a word for a word. I assumed words meant the same in different languages. Later, I learned this is not the case. However, it is easy to think this before learning foreign languages.

A comical example a friend who teaches foreign languages posted was Google translate gives “mermelada de papel” for “paper jam.”  Anyone who knows Spanish is laughing. “Mermelada” means jam in the sense of fruit jam in your fridge so this means you’ve made paper into food.

More difficult still is how distinctions between words vary. In Spanish, the verb “estar” from the Latin verb to stand, is used in many cases we’d use “to be” in English but also for cases we’d use “to stand.” Such distinctions between words can also move over time. On these points, even professional translators struggle.

So what do we have in the Our Father? Here’s the key line in Greek, just as St Matthew wrote it.

καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν (And lead us not into temptation)

I know most of you probably don’t understand that. I post it so we can understand translation. First, some words have a pretty easy or direct translation.

καὶ = and

μὴ = negation which we translate as “not” although “do not” or similar would also work

ἡμᾶς = us

εἰς = in or into

However, two words are not so obvious and direct to translate.

εἰσενέγκῃς which we translate as “lead” comes from two words “into” and “to carry.” Strong’s – a top dictionary of Biblical Greek – defines it: to carry inward (literally or figuratively), bring (in), lead into.

πειρασμόν which we translate as “temptation” but some Bibles translate “trial” has a wide range of meanings. Strong’s has a long definition but here’s a summary: an experiment, attempt, trial, proving, an enticement to sin, or temptation. It has a wider meaning than just a temptation.

Thus, the same line could be translated different ways based on those definitions.

Now let’s get back to Italian and Pope Francis. In Italian, the line is “e non ci indurre in tentazione” which is basically the same as English except “indurre” isn’t exactly “lead.” Google translate gives us “cause” when put in alone, but Italian dictionaries give a wider sense. One says “move another to do something, persuade.” Another says, “convince, persuade… force, oblige… provoke.”

Pope Francis on The Our Father

Pope Francis said this Italian translation isn’t good because it is too easy to misunderstand that God causing temptation. He says, “It isn’t a good translation as it speaks of a God who induces to temptation.” He insists, “[The one] who induces you into temptation is Satan.”

He refers to French and implicitly to Spanish, both of which clarify this point better. Francis mentions, “The French have modified the prayer as ‘don’t leave me to fall into temptation,’ because it is I who fall; it isn’t He who throws me into temptation.”

A literal translation of Spanish also shows the same pattern. It would read, “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

What the Pope is doing is not changing the Our Father. Instead, he is asking translators to make sure they don’t leave the translation open to misinterpretation.

Translations of ancient texts change as language changes, and to clarify possible misunderstandings. Few of us can read, “Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,” but that’s the first line of the original English translation of the Our Father from about 1000 years ago. Likewise, our current translation of the Our Father uses “art” as a verb and “thy”: we might switch them to “are” and “your” as the more standard words today.

When many interpret God as authoritarian, it is probably worth clarifying that he doesn’t cause temptation. Pope Francis is right in pointing out that God doesn’t cause, just allows, temptation. Some languages may have translations that need to be updated to reflect that. This does not change the Our Father.

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10 thoughts on “The Holy Father’s “Our Father” Comments in Context”

  1. Pingback: The Holy Father’s “Our Father” Comments in Context – Fr Matthew P. Schneider, LC

  2. Pingback: VVEDNESDAY CATHOLICA EXTRA – Big Pulpit

    1. No, Pope Francis is not going to change the Our Father. He is also not going to win the Boston Marathon. He is not really capable of doing either.

      The real context is that of Francis’s whole papacy. He has a prominent habit of dropping out little tidbits like this — things that are widely seen as undermining not Catholic tradition, and are for that reason embraced; things that expressed in such a way that no guarantee of papal infallibility could possibly attach to them, meaning the Holy Spirit has never promised to protect the Church from them. So far He has permitted Francis to do these things; God does not cause us to sin, and Francis does not cause us to sin, but in dropping these suggestions and letting them hang, Francis certainly leads us into temptation.

      Pope Francis is far from the only priest to do this kind of thing. We have all experienced the kind of priest who will say things like, “Some scholars say that the only miracle [of the loaves and fishes] was generosity,” and just leaves that statement hanging. The priest’s statement is true, of course, because some scholars can be found to endorse any idea, the more foolish the better. The priest has also not, strictly speaking, said that he endorses the view that the miracles of the loaves and the fishes is an honest account of people sharing their lunch. He just leaves the congregation with the impression that of course real miracles don’t really occur. If they really embrace that, they will eventually work out the consequences — that miracles are impossible because God is no more real than Santa Clause, a nice story to make children behave. Again, the priest has not, in any way for which his mortal superiors will ever hold him to account, exactly taught heresy, but he has planted the doubt, and he does nothing to remove the doubt.

      If a priest does this very rarely, it is probably accurate to say that he was merely careless and did not proof-read his homily, or he was distracted and did not finish a thought. These things happen, of course. When they become a pattern, though, it is a different matter; when they become a pattern, that pattern is precisely the context in which all other hints and curious omissions will be interpreted. If the priest refuses to answer questions about what he actually meant, well, that refusal is a kind of answer.

      Pope Benedict was at one point a German professor, and it shows very strongly in his personality. There is a stereotypical precision among Germans that borders on mundane and unimaginative; if a German says he will meet you at 1 pm, he will meet you at 1:00 pm, not 12:45 and not 1:15. On the other hand, if an Italian or an Argentinian tells you he will meet you at 1 pm, on the other hand, and he shows up at 1:40, he will not (according to stereotype) understand why anyone would be angry with him for being late. I think it is fair to say that Pope Francis has nothing of the German professor in him, and allowances have to be made for differences in style, and again, both styles have their strengths and weaknesses. We’re almost five years into Francis’ reign, though, and it becomes harder and harder to attribute his failure to clean up the messes he creates to a preoccupation with the “big picture”.

    2. As for temptation itself, well, of course God does sometimes lead us into temptation. Temptation is spiritual danger, not spiritual harm. A good military commander will, when the situation calls for it, not because he wants them to be injured, but because they are working together to win a war. Well, we are fighting a spiritual war, and if we suffer, we shall also reign with him; blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he hath been proved, he shall receive a crown of life, which God hath promised to them that love him. When Our Lord was sweating drops of blood in Gethsemane, and when the sword passed through Our Lady’s heart, that was temptation — there was the opportunity, humanly speaking, to sin, but they were not forced to sin and did not desire sin.

      There is less than zero reason to change the traditional translation of the Our Father, but there is clearly a need to teach the difference between, sin, concupiscence, and temptation.

    3. Father – What about Church’s official Latin text?

      The Pope’s criticism of the Italian (and by implication, English) translations of the sixth petition (both of which are valid and have received appropriate approvals by the Church) is in essence a criticism of the the Nova Vulgata Editio (“New Vulgate”), promulgated by the Apostolic See.
      St. John Paul II wrote an apostolic constitution upon completion of the New Vulgate in which he said: “By virtue of this Letter we declare the New Vulgate edition of the Holy Bible as “typical” and we promulgate it to be used especially in the sacred Liturgy but also as suitable for other things, as we have said.” Scripturarum Thesaurus (1979).“Typical” is a term of art in canon law. To declare something to be the typical edition of a work means that it is the authorized reference edition that is to be consulted in cases of dispute. Further, Liturgiam Authenticam provides that the New Vulgate should guide among possible renderings of passages that have traditionally been rendered one way in the liturgy (no. 41a) (e.g., the 6th petition of the Our Father).

      The Italian and English translations are actually true to the language of the New Vulgate (as well as with all of the older versions of the Vulgate going back to St. Jerome. The French and Spanish translations are not true to the Vulgate Latin text. Instead, they go back to the Greek and translate it differently than the Vulgate text. There is no way to square the French and Spanish translations with the Latin.

      Thus, the implication of Pope Francis’ statement is that the New Vulgate, and all prior versions of the Vulgate, render the 6th petition of the Lord’s prayer not just poorly from a literal point of view, but “incorrectly” from a theological point of view. That would mean the official text of Sacred Scripture used by the Church from the time of St. Jerome until now is “wrong” in the eyes of the Pope.

      What are the implications of the Pope stating that the Church has been “wrong” about something as basic as the Lord’s Prayer since the text was first translated into Latin 1,600 years ago?

    4. “However, the way I see it, his criticism of the (old) Italian … is in essence a criticism of the the Nova Vulgata Editio….” That’s one of the main problems with how Pope Francis has been governing: it’s too much like a game of charades. There is too little clear teaching, and there are too few statements for which he can really be held accountable.

    5. The Latin word St. Jerome uses is “temptatione”, but its primary meaning is “trial” or “test”. Somewhere I’ve read that it has the context of going toward an attack.

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