Should the word "Yahweh" be used in the liturgy?

Answer: NO
Authoritative: YES

It is not uncommon, in the modern fare of liturgical music, for worship songs to use the word "Yahweh" in reference to God the Father. Given the sanctity of this name, if it proper to include it in these worship songs, to pronounce casually in our modern liturgies what the ancient Jews dared not pronounce even in the Temple but on one single day?

For me this is a moot point; if we were using the Church's traditional chant for the Mass parts instead of "introductory hymns" "offertory hymns" and "communion hymns" this would not be a problem. But it is a question that is raised and something many people wonder about who go to these sorts of parishes.

Up until 2008, there was no guideline on this point, but in August 2008 the Vatican released some directives on this very question, in which it was stated quite unambiguously that the practice of using the name "Yahweh" in the liturgy ought to be suppressed.

Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Divine Worship, announced the news in America about theĀ  Vatican's "Directives on the Use of 'the Name of God' in the Sacred Liturgy" in an Aug. 8 letter to his fellow bishops. The Vatican has ruled that the word "Yahweh" must not "be used or pronounced" in songs and prayers during Catholic Masses.

Bishop Serratelli noted, "We welcome this guidance on the use of the particular terminology for the Divine Name, as it helps to emphasize the theological accuracy of our language and appropriate reverence for the Name of God so consistent in our tradition."

He said that the decision would likely have "some impact on the use of particular pieces of liturgical music in our country as well as in the composition of variable texts such as the General Intercessions for the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments."

John Limb, publisher of OCP in Portland, Oregon, said the company would be contacting composers to "ask them to try to come up with alternate language" for their hymns. But the hymnals for 2009 had already been printed at that time, so the affected hymns would not include the new wording for at least another year.

At Chicago-based GIA Publications, another major Catholic publisher of hymnals and source of much of the modern garbage, no major revisions were necessary because of the company's longtime editorial policy against use of the word "Yahweh." Kelly Dobbs-Mickus, senior editor at GIA Publications, told CNS at the time that the policy, which dates to 1986, was based not on Vatican directives but on sensitivity to concerns among observant Jews about pronouncing the name of God! Nice to know that our publishers of Catholic music are so sensitive to the concerns of Jews! As an example, she cited Heinrich Schutz's "Thanks Be to Yahweh," which appears in a GIA hymnal under the title "Thanks Be to God."

Bishop Serratelli said the Vatican decision also would provide "an opportunity to offer catechesis for the faithful as an encouragement to show reverence for the name of God in daily life, emphasizing the power of language as an act of devotion and worship."

"By directive of the Holy Father, in accord with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this congregation ... deems it convenient to communicate to the bishops' conferences ... as regards the translation and the pronunciation, in a liturgical setting, of the divine name signified in the sacred Tetragrammaton," said the letter signed by Cardinal Francis Arinze and Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, congregation prefect and secretary, respectively.

The Tetragrammaton is YHWH, the four consonants of the ancient Hebrew name for God. "As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: 'Adonai,' which means 'Lord,'" the Vatican letter said. Similarly, Greek translations of the Bible used the word "Kyrios" and Latin scholars translated it to "Dominus"; both also mean Lord.

"Avoiding pronouncing the Tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the church has therefore its own grounds," the letter said. "Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the church's tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred Tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated."

The two Vatican officials noted thatĀ Liturgiam Authenticam, the Congregation's 2001 document on liturgical translations, stated that "the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew Tetragrammaton and rendered in Latin by the word 'Dominus,' is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning."

"Notwithstanding such a clear norm, in recent years the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel's proper name," the letter said. "The practice of vocalizing it is met with both in the reading of biblical texts taken from the Lectionary as well as in prayers and hymns, and it occurs in diverse written and spoken forms," including Yahweh, Jahweh and Yehovah.

Note that this applies not just to liturgical music, but to the entire liturgy, including the readings. I never gave this matter much thought before, but I admit it bothered me in liturgical readings when I knew that the Latin or even the original Greek said, "Thus says the LORD," and the lector said, "Thus says Yahweh." It always kind of bugged me, but I never knew why.

Of course, we ought to have reverence for the name of God, and I think the Vatican is right on with this: first, because we ought not to so flippantly attempt to pronounce a name that the Jews of old dared not even write, and second, because we do not even know if that is how it was pronounced. The Tetrgrammaton YHWH has no vowels, and our pronunciation of "Yahweh" is just and educated guess. We don't want to be guessing if we are saying God's name, kind of like Homer Simpson praying to "Jebus."

So, the use of the word "Yahweh" is definitely out.

Sources: Letter from Bishop Serratelli dated August 8; a letter from Francis Cardinal Arinze, dated June 29; and a CNS report.