A tale of two translations

Published June 10, 2003

The Catholic Difference

Here’s a tale of two translations that doesn’t involve the liturgical tong wars.

Permit me a brief but crucial Latin phrase. In the 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the fathers of Vatican II wrote that the ancient moral question of war and peace should be examined “…mente omnino nova…” The translation immediately available in 1965 – the translation that shaped the Catholic debate for ten crucial years – rendered those three Latin words psychologically: “with an entirely new attitude.” A more recent, and more accurate, translation of the Pastoral Constitution reads, “All these factors force us to undertake a completely fresh appraisal of war.”

On the true meaning of mente omnino nova, a great deal depends.

This is not linguistic hair-splitting. The original translation – “All these factors compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude” – suggests that there was something evangelically flawed about the Church’s fifteen hundred year-old reflection on the moral problem of war: that the Church was, somehow, “unconverted” to the imperative of peace. Further, the original translation suggests that the answer to that alleged deficiency will be found in changed “attitudes” – in new habits of the heart, if you will.

The more accurate translation – “a completely fresh appraisal” – suggests that intellectual work is urgently needed to refine classic Catholic thought on war and peace in order to meet a new set of historical circumstances: the development of international law and international political institutions; the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, and particularly nuclear weapons; the evolution of world culture and human moral understanding. A careful “appraisal” of a new situation doesn’t begin with our emotions; it begins with our brains.

Does the Church approach the moral problem of war and peace heart-first or head-first? Both are obviously important. It makes a lot of difference, however, where you put your emphasis.

For almost two thousand years, the Catholic Church has insisted that no sphere of human action exists “outside” the range of moral reason. That includes politics. And while the problem of war and peace has many dimensions, it is, at bottom, a political problem, a question of how public life is organized and society defended. Against those international affairs “realists” who insist that politics-among-nations takes place in an amoral universe where questions of good and evil have no standing, the Church insists that moral reason can and must scrutinize every form of human activity, including political, military, and diplomatic activity. Thus the Church brings far more than an “attitude” to the table of international public life. The Church brings moral ideas.

And those ideas are not just “opinions.” They are, rather, challenging claims about the truth of things. Moreover, the Church teaches that those truths can be known by disciplined thought. For the Christian, that thought will always be informed by the truth of the Gospel. Indeed, a truly converted Christian soul will find it easier to engage the truths the Church teaches about the world and its politics, even as conversion to Christ opens up our minds to possibilities we might otherwise miss. Still, the basic truths that the Church teaches about public life, domestic or international, are truths that can be engaged by anyone willing to work their way through a moral argument.

Note the words here: “reason,” “ideas,” “truths,” “argument.” In a world that is often irrational, a world in which passions can drive men and women to do terrible things (e.g., encourage their children to become suicide bombers), the Catholic Church is the chief institutional promoter of the idea that human reason can guide human history into a peace that is composed of order, justice, and freedom. It would be a severe loss for the world, and an act of self-mutilation for the Church, were world Catholicism to act as if “attitudes,” not ideas, were what really counted in work for peace and in the defense of human rights.

A sober examination of conscience would suggest that too much of that has happened already. It’s time to re-think. That’s what Vatican II required of us. That’s what the new things of the twenty-first century require of us. That’s what peace requires of us.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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