Staircase Wit and the Revised Translation of the Missal

The French have a marvelous turn of phrase “l’esprit de l’escalier” which might best be translated as “staircase wit.”  It is used to refer to those situations where you think of the perfect retort far too late to say it—e.g., on the stairs as you are leaving.  I think of this because I ran across a passage from Blessed John Henry Newman that I wish I had seen when we were discussing the revised translation of the Missal. 

One of the changes at the time was to replace “seen and unseen” with “visible and invisible”, a change that I thought was a distinction without a difference and that was only done to make the new translation conform more literally to the underlying Latin text.  I ran across some explanations, such as this one by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university:

I believe that the literal rendition “visible and invisible” is not only more accurate than “seen and unseen” but also better reflects the philosophical and theological history behind the use of these terms.

In Christian philosophy and theology an invisible creature pertains to the spiritual realm beyond physical reality.

In this sense, “invisible” is not synonymous with “unseen.” If I were to hide behind a curtain, I would be unseen, but I would certainly not be invisible. Even the fictional “Invisible Man” felt hot and cold and would bleed if he stepped on a nail.

We sometimes use the term “invisible” to refer to physical realities in the infrared or ultraviolet spectrum shielded from our normal vision, or to radiation, radio waves and all sorts of forces. All of these realities pertain to the physical world, and although they are unseen by our eyes they are detectable and measurable by specialized instruments. Hence, philosophically and theologically they might be unseen but are not invisible.

The new translation of the creed, in using the term “invisible,” affirms with greater clarity the reality of the spiritual realm beyond the physical. This reality is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (even though this work obviously refers to the former translation of the creed).

I just didn’t buy this argument but could not think of an appropriate response.  But today, getting caught up on back Gospel readings from Daily Gospel Online I found a marvelous quote from Newman, from his sermon “The Invisible World”:

That they form a part of our unseen world, appears from the vision seen by the patriarch Jacob (Gn 28,10f.)… How little did he think that there was any thing very wonderful in this spot! It looked like any other spot. It was a lone, uncomfortable place…. Yet how different was the truth! Jacob saw but the world that is seen; he saw not the world that is not seen; yet the world that is not seen was there. It was there, though it did not at once make known its presence, but needed to be supernaturally displayed to him. He saw it in his sleep. “He dreamed, and behold, a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached up to heaven; and behold, the Angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it.”

So it would seem that for a theologian of Newman’s acumen, there was no functional difference between the words “unseen” and “invisible”.  Now it could be the case that there was no such distinction (or a different one) in 19th century English, but now this distinction holds in modern English.    But the fact that we can still refer to “The Invisible Man” (as Fr. McNamara does) and do not feel obliged to say “The Unseen Man” since he is still part of our physical reality suggests otherwise.

So with l’esprit de l’escalier:  if “seen and unseen” was good enough for Blessed Newman, I think it should be good enough for us!

About David Cruz-Uribe
  • Agellius

    “But the fact that we can still refer to “The Invisible Man” (as Fr. McNamara does) and do not feel obliged to say “The Unseen Man” since he is still part of our physical reality suggests otherwise.”

    But this makes Fr. McNamara’s point: We don’t call The Invisible Man The Unseen Man because, when invisible, he is not merely unseen but un-see-able, notwithstanding that he’s part of physical reality, like infrared light. “The Unseen Man” would only imply that he’s out of our field of vision.

    I think the reason behind the desire for a more literal translation of the Latin is the same as the reason for retaining a dead language as the Church’s official language in the first place, which is that the vernacular (as you note) is susceptible to changes in connotation.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      A literal translation will not save you from the evolution of language: language will evolve around you regardless.

      And if you think that Latin has not evolved in the past thousand years, then I think you are mistaken.

  • Agellius

    You know what, I just re-read the quote from Fr. McNamara and I see I got it wrong. I realize now that he is calling physically detectable things “visible” even if we can’t see them with our eyes.

    Granted that Newman calls the world of angels and so forth merely unseen, rather than invisible, apparently because they are see-able — albeit only when “supernaturally displayed”. When not supernaturally displayed — i.e. through a miracle — they are both unseen and also un-see-able.

    Thus, you seem to infer that there’s no distinction worth making between the angelic world and infrared light, et al. since both are see-able only with outside assistance. But the difference is that the former requires supernatural assistance and the latter merely natural.

    Based on all this I still think it’s a distinction worth making. Something that is see-able only through a miracle, is qualitatively different from what is see-able via scientific instruments.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      No, I am just saying that one cannot easily force this distinction onto the words invisible/unseen. One might do this in a careful text of systematic theology, but as a matter of even liturgical language I think it is not tenable.

  • JosephofIrving

    David air is unseen but not invisible. Invisible is not synonymy for unseen. Of all of the translation “subscription” Vox Clara foisted on us this is not one of them.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Please google “Why is air invisible”.

  • Agellius

    On the other hand it doesn’t do any harm, so what the heck? : )

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Okay, point well taken. But as I said, this is as much an exercise in staircase wit as anything else. It would have been more honest, in my opinion, to just say it was an attempt to hew closer to the Latin text than to try to dream up a theological justification.

      • Agellius

        OK, although again, I’m puzzled as to why this appears to be such an issue for you. I feel like I’m missing something. If “unseen” and “invisible” mean the same thing in your view, why do they need a reason to change it from one to the other? Why are you not completely indifferent to the matter? Do you just prefer shorter words?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Well again, this is not such a big deal to me: I saw the quote from Blessed Newman and it tickled my sense of humor (which is somewhat warped) that he used these words interchangeably after this big to do about why they “had” to change “unseen” to “invisible.” I am not indifferent only because this is one small example of a process of translation that I feel went awry.

          But I am not storming the barricades or even refusing to say “visible and invisible” every Sunday—in fact, this is one of the changes I still usually get right when I am tired or distracted. Feel free to walk away shaking your head and going, “That Cruz character has an odd sense of humor….”

  • elizabeth00

    What a good phrase, and an interesting quote from Newman. Perhaps part of his readiness to use seen and unseen (an Anglo-Saxon root) comes from his English and Anglican formation – Catholic theology seems to come with a preference for Latin terms. I wonder what he’d make of it now, though, if you asked him about this? I suspect he’d still be happy enough with seen and unseen, given his insistence that grace works through nature and not apart from it. Is there, given the Incarnation, and hope of the resurrection of the flesh, anything that will ultimately remain invisible? To be honest, I’ve very little idea what the Church really teaches about the resurrection of the flesh – perhaps not very much?!

    Or, looking elsewhere for help, doesn’t St Paul tie up the paradox in his statement, “He is the image of the invisible God,” indicating that what is (and remains) truly invisible, is only so *because* it is seen – more than that, made perceptible to all our human senses? Maybe that’s why Veronica Giuliani couldn’t stop saying that Love had made himself seen.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Julia Smucker

    Agellius’ last comment is actually similar to what I was thinking. I’m with you in principle, David – translation principles especially. Many of the changes were indeed simply reaching for cognates, and many of the theological explanations that have been contrived to make the case for such literalism have been just that, contrived. I could not disagree more with that whole approach from a linguistic perspective, and it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the most well-thought theology either.

    That said, saying “visible and invisible” in the creed has never particularly bothered me, and frankly I don’t need to go looking for more things to be bothered by. For my part, I would gladly keep every word of the revised creed – yes, including “consubstantial” – if we could only get the Catholic “we” back. But otherwise I’ve made my peace with most of it, and making peace with such things for the sake of the Body is part of what it means to be Catholic.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      Let me add that this is not something I am terribly worked up about: I had hoped to convey this by framing my post in terms of staircase wit. But thank you for the word “contrived”: this is exactly what I felt when I read this argument about invisible vs. unseen, but somehow the word eluded me at the time.

      • Julia Smucker

        I didn’t mean to assume you were getting worked up; it was more a fear of regression on my own part. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I think you’re right, but consider your weaker sister who is too easily annoyed and try not to ruin the parts that weren’t really bothersome to begin with. :-)

  • SaintlySages

    An invisible thing is that which the human eye is physically incapable of perceiving. All invisible things are necessarily unseen by human eyes, but not all unseen things are invisible, for an unseen thing can be visible to the eye, yet hidden from its view. The term “invisible” describes God better than the term “unseen” because the divine essence is not only hidden from human sight, but is also incapable of being naturally perceived by the human eye.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      These definitions are true but not full definitions, particularly of unseen. I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, and it gives instances of unseen being used exactly as you define invisible. And, as I pointed out in the original post, Newman himself used unseen in this way.

  • Mark VA

    Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

    I’ve followed your discussion on the distinction between seen vs. unseen, and visible vs. invisible, with interest. I think your observation is not only valid, but leads to many other interesting questions:

    One, do we have a language that clearly describes the differences among the various levels of this distinction? For example:

    (a) unseen or invisible as physically present in our space, but simply obscured to us by some natural barrier, as in the “curtain” example;

    (b) unseen or invisible as not physically present in our space, yet potentially able to manifest itself to us via some kind of a natural interaction with our space, as in the example of the tesseract;

    (c) unseen or invisible as not only not present in our space, but also impossible to be made manifest in our, or any other space, thru a natural interaction.

    Two, if we agree that there is no such language currently available, or if such language is insufficiently developed, then I think your point is validated (which I believe it is). However, out of prudence, I would propose that a Thomist scholar weigh in on this, before we proceed any further. I think this subject is an intersection between the planes of philosophy, logic, and mathematical rigor, so we must proceed with “peer review” caution.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      thanks. I would just add that some philosophical schools, or even individual philosophers and theologians, may have a technical vocabulary that makes these fine distinctions. However, this terminology is not to be confused with the standard uses of the words: e.g., the use of “natural” by natural law theologians and philosophers is more carefully nuanced than in standard usage.

      I suppose one could argue that a creed may require these fine, technical distinctions, which is why “one in being” should be translated as “consubstantial.” However, in this case, the change is unambiguous, whereas the change from “seen and unseen” to “visible and invisible” is not.

  • Agellius

    If it’s worth questioning the rationale for changing “seen and unseen” to “visible and invisible”, I think it’s at least as interesting to ask why it was considered necessary to render it “seen and unseen” in the first place, rather than the more obvious and literal “visible and invisible”.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Good question, though the choice of visible and invisible is only “obvious” in a superficial way. If they had a driving philosophy of translation, it may not have been obvious to them. I have no solid evidence, but my guess is that the original translators were prone to select words with anglo-saxon roots rather than latinate roots. I have not read anything specific about their translation philosophy and I would be interested in reading more if anyone can provide a reference.

  • phosphorious

    I’m not sure that there’s a real difference between seen/unseen and visible/invisible. We say “The sun is not visible at night,” meaning it can’t be seen, which suggests that “invisible” and “unseen” mean the same thing. A thing can be invisible for many reasons: it doesn’t reflect light, it’s too small, it’s an abstract object, or it’s not positioned where we can see it. To insist on the distinction is to split hairs.

    Also: either pair is a pair of complementary terms. “The seen and the unseen” refers to everything, because everything is either seen or unseen. But then everything is either visible or invisible. And everything is either square or not square, etc. So either phrase “works.”

    I prefer “The seen and the unseen” for mostly aesthetic reasons. It just rolls off the tongue better.

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