Is the pope a Catholic? You have to wonder. In the old days, a pope’s remit was modest: infallible, but only in the vanishingly rare cases when he pronounced on matters of faith and morals concerning the whole church. But even at their most bombastic and badly behaved, earlier popes would have hesitated to do what nice Pope Francis has done, which is to approve changes in the liturgy which amount to rewriting the Lord’s Prayer.
That bit that says ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’ is, for Pope Francis, a bad translation. ‘It speaks of a God who induces temptation,’ he told Italian TV. ‘I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I fall. No. A father does not do this. A father helps us up immediately.’
Which sounds as if it’s not the translation he doesn’t like, it’s the sentiment — Christ not being Christian enough. And so, he’s approved changes by the Italian bishops to the Italian translation of the Roman missal. The original Latin Vulgate version reads: ‘et ne nos inducas in tentationem’ which is pretty well exactly the same as the familiar English one. The Italian translation, ‘non ci indurre in tentazione’, is now being replaced with ‘non abbandonarci alla tentazione’, or ‘do not abandon us to temptation’.
This matters because the Lord’s Prayer is common to Christians of all denominations. It’s part of our languages and our culture. We say it at weddings, funerals; the unreligious remember it from school. It’s a common prayer which binds us together. Why change the words? Especially since, as Greek scholars will tell you, the root verb eisfero means bring or carry in, and hence, lead; nothing about ‘allow’ or ‘abandon’.
It’s not just the Italians who are having a dodgy version of the Lord’s Prayer foisted on them by their bishops with the approval of the pope. In 2017, the Vatican allowed the French bishops to change their translation from the standard ‘ne nous soumets pas a la tentation’ to ‘ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation’, or ‘do not let us enter into temptation’.
Fortunately, the German Catholic bishops are made of sterner stuff; they refused to fiddle with their version, for ‘philosophical, exegetical, liturgical and, not least, ecumenical’ reasons. Or, as they didn’t say, the new version doesn’t make sense, is a rubbish translation and would mean that Catholics and Lutherans couldn’t say the Our Father together. Similarly, the English-speaking bishops are, thank God, staying with the version people actually know. For now, at least.
In fact, the arguments over this passage have been around a long time, as the Cambridge New Testament scholar James Carleton Paget observes: ‘The Pope’s case is to some extent one that emerges from consideration of other passages in the New Testament where it seems to be claimed that God cannot lead us into temptation or will help us avoid temptation, e.g. James 1.13 and 1 Cor. 10.13. The Greek, however, would seem to point in another direction, at least on a straightforward grammatical reading. Some have attempted to argue, not unlike the Pope, that a better translation might be ‘Do not let us fall victim to temptation’ … but would it not have been in the interest of Matthew and Luke or their source to make this clearer?’
Henry VIII and Pope Francis don’t have much in common but they did see eye to eye on this. Henry wanted ‘lead us not…’ to be translated as ‘Suffer us not to be led into temptation’, only to be seen off by Archbishop Cranmer, who observed: ‘Christ taught us thus to pray, “Lead us not into temptation”. And we should not alter any word in the scripture, which wholly is ministered unto us by the Ghost of God, 2 Pet. i, although it shall appear to us in many places to signify much absurdity: but first, the scripture must be set out in God’s own words, and if there be any ambiguity, absurdity, or scruple, after it would be declared, according to the true sense thereof.’
Don’t fiddle with scripture; just try to explain what it says. As a Catholic, I never ever thought I’d say this, but Cranmer is right; the Pope is wrong.