In Search of the Holy Grail of Catholic Bible Translations

A shelf of bibles

In February, I wrote a lengthy post about Bible translations. Herewith a recapitulation and follow-up, because (a) I have more, different Bible translations than the six I referenced a few months ago, (b) I’m procrastinating about a different writing project and (c) a bunny-hole search about one of them that started with that aforementioned different writing project revealed that there’s really not a good general-purpose guide for Catholics about the mighty — and mighty contentious — question of which Bible a person ought to use.

First, I’m in agreement with the wag who said that the best Bible is the one you’ll actually open. That said, for Catholics, the “where we rate” question for U.S. sales totals proves illuminating in a depressing way. The top seller of 2017 was the King James Version at 31 percent of the market, followed by the New International Version at 13 percent and the English Standard Version at 9 percent. The first specifically Catholic version to hit the list was the New American Bible, at an anemic 2 percent market share.

Catholics do enjoy many “authorized” choices, although the KJV and the NIV aren’t among them. Before the 1983 revision to the Code of Canon Law, translations just had to be approved by either the Holy See or by any local bishop. After 1983, either the Holy See or an episcopal conference (in the U.S., it’s the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) can approve a new translation. Thus, anything receiving at least one bishop’s approval before ’83, or anything receiving USCCB or Vatican approval after ’83, is permitted for personal, private prayer and study. There are, quite literally, dozens of translations that therefore make the cut, ranging from the USCCB’s own “official” Bible to the beloved Jerusalem Bible that Mother Angelica favored. Just check the copyright page. If it’s got an imprimatur from a local ordinary from before 1983 or by a bishop under color of the USCCB after 1983, then it’s valid.

The major Bibles explicitly approved by the USCCB since 1983 include the Contemporary English Version, the New American Bible (Revised Edition) and the Good News Translation (Today’s English Version, second Catholic edition). Older versions, like Knox and the Revised Standard Version and the Douay-Rheims and the Confraternity Bible, were grandfathered under Canon 825. Interestingly, the USCCB endorses a handful of partial translations, as well, such as the inclusive-language Grail Psalter from G.I.A.

In the United States, a hodge-podge of translations percolate into the current Lectionary used at Mass. There’s technically no Bible on the market that perfectly matches the current FrankenLectionary. So don’t bother looking. If alignment with Mass readings matters to you, your closest option is the New American Bible; the Lectionary is based on the NAB subject to one-off revisions prompted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and subsequently adopted by the USCCB. (Adding to the fun: Much of the Scriptural quoting in the English-language version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church sources from the Revised Standard Version, not the NAB. But not all the CCC quotes originate from the RSV. Isn’t that special?)

Finding a “good” Catholic Bible, therefore, is a matter of considerable consternation, and websites ranging from general-interest Catholic Lite forums to the fevered underbelly of the Catholic Traditionalist movement all offer opinions with varying degrees of coherence. In general, three attributes seem to matter to people:

  • Upon what was the translation based — the Vulgate or ancient source material?
  • How literally does the translation hew to the idioms of the source material?
  • How does the translation deal with horizontal and vertical inclusive language?

Spend a few minutes in that Catholic Bible Bunny Hole and you’ll find much wailing and gnashing of teeth among people looking for the “best” translation, and they usually identify “best” as being the most word-for-word faithful to ancient sources. Yet it matters whether “ancient sources” do or don’t begin with Jerome’s Vulgate. Plus, (ahem!) literalness is not a synonym for Godliness. An idiom in Latin or Hebrew or Aramaic may or may not pass into comprehensible contemporary English; whether you want to needle over idioms that make no sense or just let the translators craft them to make sense for you is therefore a matter of preference — one that, in theory, should be theologically moot. The only reason it’s not moot is because the First Aggiornamento Armored Assault Brigade bulldozing through the 1970s deliberately mistranslated parts of the Bible and the Roman Missal to satisfy particular Wonder-Bread-and-granola ecclesiological and Christological biases, in a manner not dissimilar to the way the Protestants chucked the parts of the Bible that proved inconvenient to their, um, particular set of protestations. Had the translators been more faithful and less partisan stewards of their task, today no one would really give a whit about the difference between formal and dynamic equivalence. Vigilance is high because the shenanigans were shameless.

Where those shenanigans clamored most intensely — the subject of vertical inclusive language — the Catholic Bible-buying population remains most hyper-vigilant. Vertical inclusive language was the practice of translating terms about the Supernatural Supreme Being in deliberately gender-neutral ways, including belaboring the term God so as to avoid pronouns. (You see this phenomenon at work in the ethos of some Red Habit nunneries where bretheren become comrades and “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” transmogrifies into “the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier.”) This practice sowed confusion about well-established Catholic doctrines to the point that the Vatican policed English translations of the Lectionary and the Missal, wrestling a degree of control away from the USCCB and the largely autonomous boards of experts that shaped the translation process. The base of the Lectionary is the New American Bible, but Rome found some NAB passages so theologically deficient that several rounds of additional revision and even explicit approval by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith proved necessary. Thus, some very new Catholic Bibles proclaim fidelity to Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vatican’s 2001 instruction about how to translate stuff. That the CDF found it necessary to release this document is a sign of just how far politicized the liturgical-translation process had become; that in 2017 Pope Francis unwound bits of Liturgiam Authenticam with his Magnum Principium reveals that the fight isn’t over.

The Vatican also took issue with horizontal inclusive language, or the practice of rendering in gender-neutral terms a text’s references to humans. For example, the ancient brethren might be translated as brothers and sisters. In many cases: So what? What’s wrong with recognizing that them there womenfolk are people too? For the most part horizontal inclusive language provoked merely literary disagreement, given that in some cases, the translated text effected all the sublime grace of a memorandum composed by the Diversity & Inclusion committee at UC-Berkeley. Yet some theological problems arise here, too. For example, consider the opening verse of Psalm 1, where the traditional phrase Happy the man is rendered in the RNAB as Happy those — although NABRE under the Vatican’s prodding revised it to Blessed is the man. This kind of language that pervaded the RNAB (the two transitional versions between the original NAB and the current NABRE) is considered problematic by some insofar as rendering man as person or those affirmatively precludes the possibility of interpreting the psalm in overtly Christological terms. In other words, even horizontal inclusive language sparked occasional theological disagreement.

So, yeah. On one hand, it’s a silly thing to get worked up over, except that the guardians of scriptural scholarship gave people something legitimate and substantive to get worked up over.

Thus the situation complexifies, alas.

A Tale of Nine Texts

Let’s compare the language of these nine translations of mine against a verse — Hebrews 12:1-2. We’ll start with me listing specifically which versions I possess, along with my subjective assessment of where they fall on a grid comparing both the nature of the translation as well as the inclusion of additional supplemental material (concordances, maps, extensive footnoting, etc.) within that specific version on my shelf.

  1. Vsc — The Sixto-Clementine Vulgate (1592, Latin). Minimal footnoting.
  2. DRC — Challoner Douay-Rheims (1752, English). Minimal footnoting.
  3. KJV — King James Version (1769 revision); not approved for Catholic use. Minimal footnoting.
  4. Knox — Msgr. Ronald Knox’s one-man translation (1949). Minimal footnoting.
  5. RSV-2CE — “The Didache Bible,” Ignatius Press (2015), the Revised Standard Version (Second Catholic Edition) revised in light of Liturgiam Authenticam but governed under the RSV’s original 1960s-era imprimatur. Extensive supplementary material including doctrinal lessons and exhaustive footnotes.
  6. NASB — New American Standard Bible (1971); not approved for Catholic use. Minimal footnoting, but with a concordance at the back.
  7. NIV — New International Version (1984); not approved for Catholic use, despite that it was provided to me by the diocesan prison ministry for use when I made prison visits as a lay chaplain. Minimal footnoting.
  8. GNT/TEV — Good News Translation, Today’s English Version, Second Catholic edition (1992). Some glossary and reading-table info at the back. Many line-art drawings within the text.
  9. NABRE — the closest thing to an official Bible in the U.S., given that copyright to “The New American Bible, Revised Edition” is owned by USCCB (2011). Heavy footnotes, chapter intros and maps. NABRE is an update to the 1970 NAB, although two intermediary versions — both titled Revised NAB — appeared in 1996 and 2001.

The Story of Hebrews 12:1-2

So how do each of the nine translations — six of which are approved for U.S. Catholics — stack up, comparatively?

Sixto-Clementine Vulgate

Ideoque et nos tantam habentes impositam nubem testium, deponentes omne pondus, et circumstans nos peccatum, per patientiam curramus ad propositum nobis certamen: Aspicientes in auctorem fidei, et consummatorem Jesum, qui proposito sibi gaudio sustinuit crucem, confusione contempta, atque in dextera sedis Dei sedet.

Challoner Douay-Rheims

And therefore we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who, having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God.

King James Version (1769)

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking onto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Knox Version

Why then, since we are watched from above by such a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of all that weighs us down, of the sinful habit that clings so closely, and run, with all endurance, the race for which we are entered. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the origin and crown of all faith, who, to win his prize of blessedness, endured the cross and made light of its shame, Jesus, who now sits on the right of God’s throne.

Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

New American Standard Bible

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

New International Version

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Good News Translation, Today’s English Version, Second Edition

As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God’s throne.

New American Bible, Revised Edition

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

… all of which to say is that any authorized Catholic Bible should suffice. Nevertheless, the NABRE is closest to Mass readings and is a well-balanced edition that, in full-sized versions, offers plenty of useful study materials. More conservative Catholics favor the RSV-2CE for its comparative lack of pronoun confusion. The Douay-Rheims was the “ancestral Bible” for Catholics for centuries, plus it’s beautiful and a close translation of the Vulgate.

Just pick the one you’ll actually open. You’ll be fine. Lectio divina and all that.

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