On November 15 the Italian Bishops’ Conference announced that it plans to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer in the Mass liturgy. The bishops want the current Italian equivalent of “lead us not into temptation” to become “do not abandon us to temptation.”
The bishops have now petitioned the pope to approve this proposed alteration—a petition he is almost certain to grant. In a 2017 interview with an Italian Catholic television channel, the pontiff expressed his distress with the current Italian wording—non c’indurre in tentazione, a literal translation of the Latin ne nos inducas in tentationem that is part of the Lord’s Prayer in the Vulgate versions of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (The Vulgate version is in turn a literal translation of words [the root verb is eisphero, “bring into”] that appear in the oldest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament—which means there’s a good chance the clause preserves the exact wording Jesus used when he proclaimed the prayer in his native Aramaic.)
Francis had complained that indurre, literal though it might be (“lead into” is what my own Italian-English dictionary says) was “not a good translation.” Francis opined that “lead us not” might confuse the Catholic faithful, because “it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell.” That means it is likely that Italian-speaking Catholics will soon be uttering a kinder, gentler non abbandonarci nella tentazione. It might not reflect what Jesus actually said, but it might make them feel more comfortable attending worship services in a country where only 31 percent of baptized Catholics show up for Sunday Mass on a regular basis.
Some observers have speculated that Francis more or less strong-armed the Italian bishops into modifying their literal translation of the offending words—for him and for Catholics worried that a God who “leads” people into temptation might seem too sadistic. In fact, though, according to a report in the U.K. Express, the Italian episcopate has spent a full 16 years pondering whether to slide away from the literal implications of indurre and inducas. In 2008 they substituted non abbandonare for non indurre in the Italian Catholic Bible, although not in the Mass texts. And the Italians are a few years behind other Europeans in inventing nicer ways to say “lead us not into temptation.” In Spain and other Spanish-speaking lands (including Francis’s native Argentina), the translation is no nos dejes caer en la tentación (“do not let us fall into temptation”), and Belgium’s Flemings use a Dutch version that translates as “bring us not to the test.”
The Catholic bishops in the Francophone world have invested more than half a century—since 1966, the year after the Second Vatican Council ended—in experimenting with liturgical alternatives to the ne nous induis pas en tentation of the French New Testament (note the induis, a Romance cognate of inducas and indurre). During the immediate post-Vatican II years ecumenism—rapprochement with mainline Protestantism—was all the theological rage, so the French Church adopted a standard Protestant translation, ne nous soumets pas à la tentation (“do not submit us to temptation”). In 2017 bishops’ conferences in France, Quebec, Benin, and other French-speaking regions mandated a more easygoing ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation (“do not let us enter into temptation”) for liturgical use starting in December 2018.
Canadian liturgist Marie-Josée Poiré explained the change in an interview in Crux: “Today’s liturgy, let’s admit it, no longer speaks the language of the majority. So you have to be concerned about liturgical participation in a way that people are not just attendees, but participants.” Bishop Serge Poitras of the diocese of Timmins, Ontario, told Crux that the liturgical Lord’s Prayer is just a “theological construction” not necessarily related to either the wording of the Gospels or what Jesus might have really said.
It is always irritating when professional liturgists, theologians, and prelates deem ordinary Catholic laypeople mentally incapable of looking beyond the surface meaning of “lead us not into temptation” and understanding that the words might actually imply a subtle and nuanced understanding of God the Father’s providential concern for sinful humanity. It is especially irritating for English-speaking Catholics to face—possibly—the prospect of changing, on a whim of bishops or pressure from the pope, the deliberately archaic language of their own beloved Christian prayer that has included the words “lead into” as a translation of inducas since Anglo-Saxon times. Proposals to “modernize” the English Our Father have surfaced from time to time, but so far both clergy and faithful have rejected them.
The problem is deeper than just the unwarranted dumbing down of an ancient phrase. Updating the ne nos inducas is another knot in a long string of failed efforts to reverse the catastrophic decline of practiced Catholicism (especially European Catholicism) in the wake of Vatican II by piling on more of the accommodations with secular modernity that Vatican II supposedly mandated. To most of the theologians—nearly all hailing from Europe—who engineered the supposed liturgical and disciplinary “reforms” of the Church in the wake of the Council, many traditional rules and practices were simply too arcane and rigid for the secularized modern mind to deal with.
“Today’s liturgy no longer speaks the language of the majority” isn’t just one liturgist’s opinion; it’s an operative rule among church professionals all the way up to bishops and the pope. Right after the Council wound up in the mid-1960s, one of the first age-old rules to go was abstention from eating meat on Friday. This was deemed too difficult and arbitrary a penance, fostering Catholic separatism in what was supposed to be an ecumenical religious culture. The Mass had to be made more user-friendly: smiley meet-and-greet rituals and “contemporary” hymns instead of chant. The more avant-garde priests jettisoned vestments and other traditional formalities. The sacrament of Penance, where it wasn’t downplayed completely, was turned into a therapeutic “reconciliation” ceremony. The current push by liberal German bishops to let divorced and remarried Catholics and Catholics’ non-Catholic spouses receive Holy Communion at Catholic Masses is more of the same: making it easier, with the hope of attracting more of the potential faithful.
Of course, exactly the opposite has happened. In France, according to the most recent figures from Georgetown University’s Catholic research center CARA, a mere 12 percent of self-identified Catholics now attend weekly Mass. In Spain the figure is 17 percent, in Germany 20 percent. Those numbers are the culmination of a steady and seemingly inexorable decline in Catholic observance over the decades since Vatican II that has not exempted the United States. And if you find Sunday Mass in the average U.S. parish church a dispiriting experience, try attending Mass in France, Italy, or Spain. The liturgy will be even more depressing—even worse contemporary hymns, if such can be imagined—and your fellow attendees will typically consist entirely of old folks and American tourists.
In this context, fiddling with translations of ne nos inducas in tentationem isn’t just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s doubling down on a strategy of post-Vatican II accommodation with secular culture that has so far failed miserably. Even worse, it’s playing fast and loose with the Gospels and Christ’s own words.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.