Consubstantial Differences?

I had a friendly disagreement this morning with one of my students. He said it was a great weekend for the Catholic Church, because the new translation of the Mass was introduced. He was happy that it more literally follows the original Latin. He assumed I would agree.

Instead, our argument broke down (at least on my side) into a tired old conservative vs. liberal battle, me being the tired old liberal. I see the changes as a regression, as a pulling away from the Vatican II reforms, and as a further encroachment of the hierarchical, patriarchal Church on laypeople’s understanding and involvement in the Mass and the Church as a whole.

He, being younger (though not a kid—he’s an adult), saw the changes as an expansion and improvement on Vatican II. The Mass is still in English, after all; he’s not arguing for a return to Latin altogether. He has found the translation we’ve been using for several decades unsound and weak.

There are lots of changes, but they can all come down, symbolically, to the word consubstantial. The old Latin text of the Creed said that Jesus was consubstantialem Patri, meaning that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father. That is, they’re both divine and eternal. The English we adopted in the ‘70’s said Jesus was “one in being” with the Father. The new translation resorts back to consubstantial.

Here’s a theological defense of the term, saying that we’re all one in being with the Father, but Jesus is made of the exact same stuff, and maybe it all makes sense. In fact, I like words like consubstantial. I like digging out its underlying meaning from the Latin roots. (Standing, under, and with are all in there.) But I don’t enjoy inflicting these words on other people, who are supposed to be simply praying, not deciphering long Latinate words.


I suspect that underlying the traditionalist argument is an outdated preference for Latinate words in general—the belief that they’re just better than straightforward vernacular English. (So many syllables, after all!) Consider this explanation from an apologist for another switch–from born to incarnate in the new translation:

“This phraseology more accurately reflects the Latin text of the Mass which includes the word incarnatus (‘incarnate’). This theological term refers to ‘the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it’ (Catechism, no. 461). In the words of John’s gospel, ‘The Word became flesh’ (John 1:14). Accordingly, we now say that the Son, ‘by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.’  And this captures more of the theological point expressed in the Creed. The Son of God was not just born of the Virgin Mary. The Eternal Son of God actually took on human flesh!”

So, incarnatus has more to do with actual flesh than the word born? I guess so. Carnis means flesh in Latin (as in carnage, or carnivorous). But Dr. Sri himself says it is a theological term! Does it automatically connote flesh to most people saying the Creed? Will they have an epiphany? “Ohhhh. Jesus had actual flesh! I never thought of that before!”

To me, “incarnate of the Virgin Mary” is weird theological talk that disguises a real woman having a real baby. Jesus was a human infant, made of flesh. How does a rarely used, three-syllable Latinate word make this clearer?

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1 Response to Consubstantial Differences?

  1. sheilamarie tobbe says:

    great comments — love that it is a Latin teacher commenting! Amen.

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