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English for the English

On Challoner's revisions to the Douay–Rheims Bible.

To be an English-speaking Catholic is to be an alien to your own tongue. Sad, but true: our tradition is basically Protestant. Our idiom of piety especially is Protestant. King James with his “thou shalt” and his “through a glass darkly” and his “darkling plain”; Cranmer with his “peace in our time / for there is none other that fighteth for us”; Cosin after him with the burial at sea:

We therefore commit his Body to the Deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body, (when the Sea shall give up her Dead) and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who at his coming shall change our vile Body, that it may be like his glorious Body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.

Even Coverdale’s little valleys and loving kindnesses stir the leaves and loam at the bottom of the Anglophone mind.

Shakespeare, too, is thoroughgoingly Protestant in his outlook, despite the best efforts of my co-religionist interpreters. Could a Catholic—at any rate, a Catholic before our current era—have possibly written

What earthy name to interrogatories
Can task the free breath of a sacred king?
Thou canst not, cardinal, devise a name
So slight, unworthy, and ridiculous
To charge me to an answer, as the Pope.
Tell him this tale, and from the mouth of England
Add thus much more, that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we under God are supreme head,
So, under Him, that great supremacy
Where we do reign we will alone uphold
Without th’ assistance of a mortal hand.

Indeed, the history plays cannot be read as anything but the triumphal progress of English sovereignty—which is to say, the English or Anglican church under the domination of the Crown, irrespective of the ancient Roman bonds, and then the Crown alone under heaven.

To be an English-speaking Catholic is to suffer a double wound. It is to be alien to the Protestant tradition of our lovely tongue, yes; yet that tradition is itself alien to its own past, to the lovely fields of the monastery farms and the peaceful lauds drifting up from Walsingham. (A romantic might take it one step further—our Saxon speech is alien to the Celtic-Roman milieu of Arthur, who fought to keep Albion free of the pagan German Sprachbund and attached in some notional way to Rome, that only and eternal city.) Burton, the merriest of madmen, who is suspicious of Roman pomps, exorcisms, and the cult of the saints, yet remains a fluent Latiner and a fond partisan of Pope Leo X. He is an uncomfortable inhabitant of the Reformation. “Old folks have their beads: an excellent invention to keep them from idleness, that are by nature melancholy, and past all affairs, to say so many paternosters, avemarias, creeds, if it were not profane and superstitious,” he writes. A shame indeed. 

The Protestant tradition, like every revolutionary process, also has always tended to become alien not just to the original object of rebellion but to its own immediate antecedents—the modern Anglican stranger to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the 1662 Book to the 1552 Book (and even more so the 1549 Book, the preference of the Anglo-Catholics), and the Presbyterian a stranger to the Book entirely. Perhaps it is then no surprise that the great eighteenth-century champion of Anglophone Catholicism, the venerable Bishop Richard Challoner, was born a child of Presbyterians on this day in 1691. Alienation from alienation: that was his theme.

His were the sere years after the 1688 Revolution; he saw the failed restorations of both 1715 and 1745. Catholic ambitions for regaining England for Rome ended with the rule of the Stuarts. In this grim period, Catholics were disenfranchised and forbidden from passing property by inheritance; that the martyrdoms were over was just a testament to the security of the Established Church and the new Hanoverian dynasty. Priests remained outlaws. After converting to the old faith at the age of thirteen while his mother served at a recusant household, he went to study at the English College at Douai. He was a precocious student and courageous—his thesis on papal infallibility offended the Gallican sensibilities of the exiles’ French hosts.

Yet his life’s work was not a brilliant career in systematic theology; rather, he was turned over to work in the English missions. His first widely circulated work was a collection of meditations for every day of the month, Think Well On’t. This work discloses the theme for his enormous literary activity: the cultivation of a vernacular piety for Catholics, the restoration of English Catholicism to the English language.

It is little surprise that his best known work was a revision of the Douay–Rheims Bible. Following Jerome’s own principle in the translation of the Greek and Hebrew into the Vulgate, the Douay–Rheims translators applied a formal literalism into the translation of English into the Vulgate. The result, although precise, was not an English Bible where the English speaker felt at home. As Newman writes, “The principle of [Challoner’s] alterations seems to be, that of making the text more intelligible to the reader; and, with this object, old words and old collocations are superseded by modern, and less usual ones are exchanged for those which are more in use and even familiar.”

An example from Ephesians will illustrate well. The original Douay–Rheims:

The Gentils to be coheires and concorporate and comparticipant of his promise in Christ IESVS by the Ghospel: wherof I am made a Minister according to the guift of the grace of God, which is giuen me according to the operation of his power.

The King James 1611:

That the Gentiles should be fellow heires, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ, by the Gospel: Whereof I was made a Minister, according to the gift of the grace of God giuen vnto mee, by the effectuall working of his power.

And finally, Challoner’s revision:

That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs and of the same body: and copartners of his promise in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, of which I am made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God, which is given to me according to the operation of his power.

His was an English translation for Catholic daily use. In some way, his efforts to reconcile the English tongue and Catholicism prefigure Benedict XVI’s establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter—an effort to bring the majestic language Cranmer and Cosin and the rest back into the fold.

In addition to his pastoral duties, Challoner published at least a book a year, mostly vernacular apologetics and devotional literature, until he died at nearly ninety. Reportedly, the shock of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots was too much for that aged but faithful servant.