An Important Translation Issue

An important passage* in the 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons was translated into English as follows:

The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life. (§16)

The official text of the Letter is in Latin, promulgated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (79 [1987], pp. 543-554). In the Latin text, there is a word—unice, often translated as ‘only’—which is missing from the English translation. Thus, a more accurate translation of the last sentence would be:

Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person only as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.

Comparison with other languages reinforces the claim that this is the more accurate translation. The German text translates unice with ausschließlich, meaning “exclusively,” and the Italian and Spanish texts use puramente, meaning “purely.” Finally, the Portuguese text translates unice with meramente, meaning “merely.” Of the major western European languages, only the French text joins the English in omitting to translate unice.

In terms of authority, the Latin text is the official text promulgated by the Church. German is the native language of Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time the Letter was drafted and promulgated. And Italian is the most commonly used working language in the Vatican. So the agreement of these three languages is strong evidence that the revised translation above better reflects the intended meaning of the document.

This translation also fits well with the insistence, in the first sentence of the paragraph, that the person is not reducible to their sexual orientation. Their sexual orientation is a significant fact about the person, which the Church treats as relevant to the possibility of a valid marriage, or of a priestly or religious vocation. It presents significant pastoral challenges, which are spelled out in other paragraphs of the Letter, and have also been addressed by individual bishops, national bishops’ conferences, various Roman dicasteries, and the Pope.

It’s also notable that the phrase “homosexual person” occurs 23 times in the document—most obviously in the title itself—and also in the Catechism. The Church obviously does not teach that you can’t apply sexual orientation labels to persons. The key, however, is that the person is not defined by or reducible to their sexual orientation.


*NOTE: For those with an interest in the full text of the paragraph in the various languages mentioned above, I have included the official Latin text and the other major translations of the relevant paragraph below. I have underlined the key word where it appears in each translation.

Latin: Persona humana, ad imaginem et similitudinem Dei creata, aeque definiri nequit, si unice ratio habeatur propensionis sexualis. Quilibet homo in hoc mundo vivens problematibus et difficultatibus quidem premitur quae ipsum tangunt, sed etiam spiritualis profectus opportunitates, vires, talenta ac dona ei suppetunt propria. Ecclesia offert illum vitae contextum, quo hodie homines quam maxime indigent pro humanae personae medela, ac tunc potissimum offert, cum renuit in persona unice considerare rationem « heterosexualem » vel « homosexualem », sed declarat quemlibet hominem prae se ferre fundamentalem identitatem, cum creatura sit et, per gratiam, Dei filius et vitae aeternae heres.

German: Die menschliche Person, die nach dem Abbild und Gleichnis Gottes geschaffen ist, kann nicht adäquat beschrieben werden, wenn man sie auf ihre geschlechtliche Ausrichtung eingrenzt. Jeder Mensch auf dieser Erde hat persönliche Probleme und Schwierigkeiten, aber auch Möglichkeiten zu wachsen, Fähigkeiten, Talente und eigene Gaben. Die Kirche bietet den gerade heute empfundenen dringend nötigen Zusammenhang für die Sorge um die Person des Menschen an, wenn sie sich weigert, eine Person ausschließlich als »heterosexuell« oder »homosexuell« einzustufen, und darauf besteht, daß jeder Person dieselbe fundamentale Identität zukommt: Geschöpf zu sein und durch die Gnade Kind Gottes, Erbe des ewigen Lebens.

Italian: La persona umana, creata a immagine e somiglianza di Dio, non può essere definita in modo adeguato con un riduttivo riferimento solo al suo orientamento sessuale. Qualsiasi persona che vive sulla faccia della terra ha problemi e difficoltà personali, ma anche opportunità di crescita, risorse, talenti e doni propri. La Chiesa offre quel contesto del quale oggi si sente una estrema esigenza per la cura della persona umana, proprio quando rifiuta di considerare la persona puramente come un « eterosessuale » o un « omosessuale » e sottolinea che ognuno ha la stessa identità fondamentale: essere creatura e, per grazia, figlio di Dio, erede della vita eterna.

Spanish: La persona humana, creada a imagen y semejanza de Dios, no puede ser definida de manera adecuada con una referencia reductiva sólo a su orientación sexual. Cualquier persona que viva sobre la faz de la tierra tiene problemas y dificultades personales, pero también tiene oportunidades de crecimiento, recursos, talentos y dones propios. La Iglesia ofrece para la atención a la persona humana, el contexto del que hoy se siente una extrema exigencia, precisamente cuando rechaza el que se considere la persona puramente como un « heterosexual » o un « homosexual » y cuando subraya que todos tienen la misma identidad fundamental: el ser creatura y, por gracia, hijo de Dios, heredero de la vida eterna.

Portuguese: A pessoa humana, criada à imagem e semelhança de Deus, não pode definir-se cabalmente por uma simples e redutiva referência à sua orientação sexual. Toda e qualquer pessoa que vive sobre a face da terra conhece problemas e dificuldades pessoais, mas possui também oportunidades de crescimento, recursos, talentos e dons próprios. A Igreja oferece ao atendimento da pessoa humana aquele contexto de que hoje se sente a exigência extrema, e o faz exatamente quando se recusa a considerar a pessoa meramente como um « heterossexual » ou um « homossexual », sublinhando que todos têm uma mesma identidade fundamental: ser criatura e, pela graça, filho de Deus, herdeiro da vida eterna.

French: Créée à l’image et ressemblance de Dieu, la personne humaine ne peut trouver sa figure adéquate dans une réduction à sa seule orientation sexuelle. Tout être qui vit sur la face de la terre a ses problèmes et ses difficultés personnels, mais également des occasions de croissance, des ressources, des talents, des dons propres. L’Eglise offre le cadre, dont l’exigence se fait aujourd’hui fortement sentir, d’une pastorale de la personne humaine, lorsque précisément elle refuse de regarder celle-ci comme “hétérosexuelle” ou “homosexuelle” et souligne que chaque être humain a la même identité fondamentale en tant que créature et, par grâce, enfant de Dieu et héritier de la vie éternelle.

One thought on “An Important Translation Issue

  1. Pingback: Why I Call Myself a “Gay Catholic” – A Blog by Chris Damian

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