Saturday, 3 July 2010

Pro multis

How the words “pro vobis et pro multis” should be rendered appears to be one of the more controversial changes in the new English translation of the mass. Let's have a look at this.

At the consecration of the precious blood, we hear:

Ordinary form: Accipite et bibite ex eo omnes: hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei novi et aeterni testamenti, qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum. Hoc facite in meam commemorationem.

Current Translation: Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me

New Translation: Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.

From the point of view of translation, this really is an easy one: if we inspect the Greek text of Matthew 26:28 (or Mark 14:24) the word used, “polloi”, means “the many” or “the multitude”. The Latin version reflects this and so, one might argue, should any further translation, especially if it is to respect the Latin text of the mass as a definitive prototype. Of course, one must note that “polloi” does not exclude the meaning “all”, but to translate it with a meaning that excludes “possibly not all” is to impose an interpretation.

The justification for the interpretation that would render “pro multis” as “for all” comes from texts such as 2 Cor 5:15 and 1 Tim 2:4, where it is affirmed that Christ died for all and that God’s will is that all should be saved. The question of the possibility of universal salvation has been argued about throughout the history of the Church. Although the idea has never been formally condemned, I don’t think that it is unfair to say that the more probable opinion is that it is incorrect considered as doctrine. However, there is a difference between believing that universal salvation is a fact and hoping that it may be true; in the catechism we read:

1821 We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere "to the end" and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God's eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for "all men to be saved." She longs to be united with Christ, her Bridegroom, in the glory of heaven:

(c.f. 1058)

Of course, by simply quoting the words of scripture, the catechism leaves ambiguous how these words are to be understood. But it would at least appear on the face of it that the catechism is teaching that we are justified in hoping for universal salvation even if we may not believe it to be true.

In order to understand how the Tradition has understood this problem, we might turn to St Thomas. In question 19, Article 6 of the first part of the summa theologiae, we find the universal doctor considering the question of whether God’s will is always fulfilled. The very first objection to this position is:

Objection 1 It seems that the will of God is not always fulfilled. For the Apostle says (1 Timothy 2:4): "God will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth." But this does not happen. Therefore the will of God is not always fulfilled.

After giving his answer that God’s will is always fulfilled, St. Thomas turns to answering this particular objection. The first two possibilities he offers may seem somewhat strained (but note that they are received in many parts of modern Christianity as true). The third, on the notion of antecedent and consequent will in Christ, seems to me to be much more convincing.

Reply to Objection 1: The words of the Apostle, "God will have all men to be saved," etc. can be understood in three ways.

First, by a restricted application, in which case they would mean, as Augustine says (De praed. sanct. i, 8: Enchiridion 103), "God wills all men to be saved that are saved, not because there is no man whom He does not wish saved, but because there is no man saved whose salvation He does not will."

Secondly, they can be understood as applying to every class of individuals, not to every individual of each class; in which case they mean that God wills some men of every class and condition to be saved, males and females, Jews and Gentiles, great and small, but not all of every condition.

Thirdly, according to Damascene (De Fide Orth. ii, 29), they are understood of the antecedent will of God; not of the consequent will. This distinction must not be taken as applying to the divine will itself, in which there is nothing antecedent nor consequent, but to the things willed.

To understand this we must consider that everything, in so far as it is good, is willed by God. A thing taken in its primary sense, and absolutely considered, may be good or evil, and yet when some additional circumstances are taken into account, by a consequent consideration may be changed into the contrary. Thus that a man should live is good; and that a man should be killed is evil, absolutely considered. But if in a particular case we add that a man is a murderer or dangerous to society, to kill him is a good; that he live is an evil. Hence it may be said of a just judge, that antecedently he wills all men to live; but consequently wills the murderer to be hanged. In the same way God antecedently wills all men to be saved, but consequently wills some to be damned, as His justice exacts. Nor do we will simply, what we will antecedently, but rather we will it in a qualified manner; for the will is directed to things as they are in themselves, and in themselves they exist under particular qualifications. Hence we will a thing simply inasmuch as we will it when all particular circumstances are considered; and this is what is meant by willing consequently. Thus it may be said that a just judge wills simply the hanging of a murderer, but in a qualified manner he would will him to live, to wit, inasmuch as he is a man. Such a qualified will may be called willingness rather than an absolute will. Thus it is clear that whatever God simply wills takes place; although what He wills antecedently may not take place.

If the third explanation, of antecedent and consequent will, appears a bit inaccessible, you may wish to refer to the commentary over at the other place.

So, the consequences of the words of scripture reproduced in the text of the mass are deep and profound. The new English translation’s rendering of “pro multis” as “for many” restores the natural meaning of the words in the Latin prototype (and in scripture) and hopefully will encourage catechesis on the meaning of this phrase and on the theology of God’s will for our salvation.

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