For All or For Many? Pope Benedict Explains

For All or For Many? Pope Benedict Explains May 2, 2012

The year was 2003 and we were motoring through the French countryside, visiting wineries and restaurants and cathedrals and churches.  A Dominican priest served as spiritual director for our pilgrimage.

At one of the most beautiful basilicas (I think it was in Bordeaux), we stopped to pray at a side altar, in the left transept of the church.  Over the altar hung a remarkable painting of the Crucifixion; but Jesus’arms were not outstretched on the Cross, as He is usually depicted.  Instead he hung on a single sturdy pole, a rough hewn tree trunk, his arms tied and nailed over his head.  

“That,” explained our Dominican guide, “is a Jansenist painting.  It symbolizes the Jansenists’ belief that since not everyone will go to heaven, Jesus died—not for all—but for many.”

For years, I’ve accepted this at face value; but then came the revised translation of the liturgy, and I found myself stymied by the priest’s words at the Consecration:  He now says “for you and for many”—not “for all” as in the past.

*     *     *     *


I’ve grown accustomed to “And with your spirit” and the words slide easily off my tongue.  The transition from “for all” to “for many,” though, catches me off guard each time the priest speaks those words at the Consecration of the Precious Blood.  Each time I hear the words, I find myself distracted for a minute, pondering their meaning.  (This is good!  Remember, one of the anticipated benefits of the revised translation was to once again capture the minds of the faithful, encouraging them to reflect more deeply on the meaning of the liturgy.) 

So I was delighted recently when Pope Benedict XVI explained the translation in a letter to the German bishops, asking them to end their ongoing reluctance to translate the Latin “pro multis” more exactly, as “for many” rather than “for all.” 

In his letter, which was written on April 14 and released by the German Episcopal Conference on April 24, Pope Benedict explained that in opting for a literal translation (“for many”), the Church shows “respect for the word of Jesus” (Mk. 14:14; cf. Mt. 26:28).  On the other hand, he notes, rendering “pro multis” as “for all” is “not a pure translation, but an interpretation, which was and remains very reasonable.”

Pope Benedict’s decision to translate the phrase “pro multis” literally in new translations of the Roman Missal dates back to 2006, when the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments announced his intent.  However, some bishops in the German-speaking world objected to his decision—with the result that there could be more than one translation in use.  Pope Benedict solved that problem last month, explaining to Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, the president of the German bishops’ conference:

During your visit of 15 March 2012 you let me know that, regarding the translation of the words “pro multis” in the canon of the Mass, there is still no consensus among the bishops of the German language area. There now seems to be the danger that, with the soon to be expected publication of the new release of Gotteslob, some parts of the German language area will keep the translation “for all,” even though the German Bishops’ Conference had agreed to use “for many,” as was desired by the Holy See. I promised you I would express myself in writing about this serious issue to prevent a split in our most inner prayer room.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, president of the Austrian bishops’ conference, welcomed the papal instruction.  Cardinal Schönborn expressed his appreciation for the papal letter’s “argumentative clarity and depth,” adding that the new translation of the Roman Missal marks a return to a “greater proximity to the traditional words of Jesus Christ in the Bible.”

What remains is for the German bishops to catechize the faithful regarding the reasons for the more accurate translation.  The Holy Father’s letter, which included an outline of the reasons for the change, will certainly be a help with that catechesis.


Well, yes, I see the point our good Dominican guide was making with regard to Jansenists’ “for many” claims.  Jansenism was a theological movement which developed in France, then spread to other parts of Europe, concerned with the reconciliation of divine grace and human freedom. 

The Jansenist movement took its name from Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen, whose works were not well known until after his death.  His followers opposed the doctrines of grace as explained by Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin; but they claimed that the Counter-Reformation had also erred by emphasizing human responsibility at the expense of the divine initiative, relapsing into Pelagianism.  (Pelagians believed that humanity is naturally good and can attain salvation without divine aid.) 

Jansen, in contrast, taught that human nature had been severely damaged by original sin, and that Christ’s redemptive suffering was the sole means of restoring humanity to union with God. 

The nuances of salvation theology were discussed and debated in the Church, with the Jesuits and the Jansenists taking opposing views, until 1653.  On May 31 of that year, Pope Innocent X issued a papal bull, Cum occasione, which condemned five propositions of Jansenism:

1.         that there are some commands of God which just men cannot keep, no matter how hard they wish and strive;

2.         that it is impossible for fallen man to resist sovereign grace;

3.         that it is possible for human beings who lack free will to merit;

4.         that the Semipelagians were correct to teach that prevenient grace was necessary for all interior acts, including for faith, but were incorrect to teach that fallen man is free to accept or resist prevenient grace; and

5.         that it is Semipelagian to say that Christ died for all.

In 1705, Pope Clement VI promulgated a new bull, Unigenitus.  Unigenitus condemned 101 propositions of Pasquier Quesnel, a proponent of Jansenist teaching, as:

false, captious, ill-sounding, offensive to pious ears, scandalous, pernicious, rash, injurious to the Church and its practices, contumelious to Church and State, seditious, impious, blasphemous, suspected and savouring of heresy, favouring heretics, heresy, and schism, erroneous, bordering on heresy, often condemned, heretical, and reviving various heresies, especially those contained in the famous propositions of Jansenius.

The acceptance of Unigenitus  as French law in 1730 finally caused the decline in strength of Jansenism in France.

Browse Our Archives