Intoning the name of God forbidden?

I was in choir practice tonight. One of the hymns we are singing this Sunday had a wording change. In my hymnal it says “Yahweh’s people shall dance.” I don’t remember the new version, I wrote it in my hymnal though, but it changes it so that we don’t say the name of God. The choir director said that it’s because you’re not supposed to intone the name of God. I knew that it was forbidden in Judaism, but I didn’t think that it was forbidden in the Catholic church. My hymnal is a Catholic hymnal, and it’s not that old (maybe twenty years at most) so when did the rule get instituted?


Catholic News Agency stated:
"Vatican City, Sep 3, 2008 / 05:30 am (CNA).- The Hebrew name for God is not to be used or pronounced in liturgical celebrations, songs and prayers, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has said in a letter addressed to the bishops’ conferences of the world.

The letter concerns the use of the “Tetragrammaton,” the name which uses the four Hebrew letters YHWH. In English the name is pronounced “Yahweh.”

The choir director is correct. We are not normally to pronounce the holy Tetragrammaton. This was an issue of much contemplation on the part of Joseph Ratzinger, as a theologian, in his life and work. After he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, he personally mandated the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to issue an instruction to all the Conferences of Bishops in the world concerning the use of the divine Tetragrammaton. This was done in 2008.

All Catholics should comply with this directive. In the years when I taught courses on Sacred Scripture, for example, this issue was covered in a beginning lecture and I would pronounce one time the divine Tetragrammaton and explain its philological significance and then the circumlocutions that would be used historically (and now) to avoid pronouncing the divine Name. My students knew they were never to vocalize it or write it in my presence or for my class…though, of course, they could refer to “the Tetragrammaton” if their research paper required such a reference. That had always been my custom both as a priest with regard to the liturgy and as a professor. I was deeply gratified when this directive was finally published!

The directive the Holy Father ordered to be issued may be read in full in English here:

But it is often in the Readings or gospels.

There are catholic or christian hymns that use the Name Yahweh

Is it a sin to call God the Father “Yahweh”?

Unless your lectionary is using the Jerusalem Bible, it should not be using the Tetragrammaton…at least based on my diminishing memory and knowledge of current English language lectionary options. Where exactly are you encountering it? And besides you specify the Gospels…but the only times the Divine Name is used in the Gospels, it is because Jesus is using it in Greek and so that usage is rendered into the vernacular and the form is never pronounced by us in Hebrew.

The usage concerning calling out to God in the Passion narrative in Matthew and Mark is not the divine Tetragrammaton…it is precisely a prescribed circumlocution in Hebrew and Aramaic respectively. In Jesus’ time, the only one who would have pronounced the divine Tetragrammaton was the high priest, after having entered the holy of holies, on the Day of Atonement.

As for hymns, the directive is very clear:

  1. In liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers the name of God in the form of the tetragrammaton, YHWH, is neither to be used or pronounced.

  2. For the translation of the Biblical text in modern languages, destined for liturgical usage of the Church, what is already prescribed by n. 41 of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam is to be followed; that is, the divine tetragrammaton is to be rendered by the equivalent of Adonai/Kyrios: “Lord”, “Signore”, “Seigneur”, “Herr”, “Señor”, etc.

  3. In translating, in the liturgical context, texts in which are present, one after the other, either the Hebrew term Adonai or the tetragrammaton YHWH, Adonai is to be translated “Lord” and the form “God” is to be used for the tetragrammaton YHWH, similar to what happens in the Greek translation of the Septuagint and in the Latin translation of the Vulgate.

I do not understand the persistence in forum threads about asking if something of this order “is a sin or not.”

This is a directive to all Catholics from the Pope. He communicated it via the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which has in turn communicated this document to every bishop of the world – and it is to be implemented, actually have been implemented, in their dioceses by the parishes and by all the faithful…almost a decade ago.

This directive from the Pope was in 2008 and the compliance was to be immediate. We have been living it for years. I vividly remember all the discussion preceding the announcement of the Pope’s decision…in the academy and well beyond.

The only appropriate response, really, is not to debate whether it is sinful not to comply with the Holy Father’s directive or not…the response is very simple: to comply with the directive and implement it. The request is not that hard. I am stunned that it would not be universally known, especially by those professing to be close to the teaching of the Pope and of the dicasteries of the Holy See and following their various pronouncements.

In my priesthood or as an academic, I had never used the divine Tetragrammaton, except as an exercise in philology in one lecture per course and use the occasion to remind my students never to pronounce it and never to write it in Hebrew or transcript for anything in my class or that I would see.

Knowing the underlying theology of the sacred authors and of the era, especially of later Second Temple Period Judaism, which was the scope of my specialization when I did my biblical degree, I would never use the Tetragrammaton in my private prayer…the thought would never occur to me.

I am very surprised that it would be problematic for anyone to comply with the directive.

Finally, to answer your last question: The Divine Name is not simply unique to the First Person of the Trinity. It is proper to all Three Persons, which is why Jesus correctly evokes it when he states, in John’s Gospel: “I solemnly declare it, before Abraham came to be: I AM.” He uses the evocation elsewhere…it is, at essence, the Divine Name.

You can call God anything you want in your private prayers. The instructions are for public liturgy.

Thanks Don! I didn’t know that the Name is the Name of the Holy Trinity. Of course, looking back on it, it is the only logical explanation. I didn’t know that I AM was used in the same way as that Name, either. I did know that when Jesus said he is I AM he was saying that He is God.

I wish you were still teaching. God’s Church could always use more teachers who are reverent and accurate!

I don’t think you should. Father or Abba.

Great responses. Thank you. The fact that it was issued under Pope (now emeritus) Benedict explains why it is one way in the old hymnals our choir uses and changed in the newer versions. That was my only real confusion. I have been Catholic for less than a year, so a lot of things specific to the Catholic church are new to me. I have studied Judaism and I understand the reasons why the Jewish people don’t pronounce the name (they go so far as to not even say “God.”) I find it interesting how it has evolved, because originally it was to avoid the possibility of taking His name in vain. I always saw the tetragrammaton as God’s way of avoiding giving us a name (like the angel who spoke to Manoah and Samson’s unnamed mother) but it is the most powerful “name” we have for God.

My tagline is the Hebrew for the Aaronic blessing, and uses Adonai. Is that alright?

What about calling God “The Great I Am,” is that alright even though the tetragrammaton is a shortening of “I Am that I Am?”

What about other names/titles for God, such as “El” and “El Elyon” (God Most High) El Shaddai (God almighty) etc?

I have no intention of disrespecting God nor the directives of His Pope and Magisterium. I attended a Messianic Jewish church for a while, and I understand and respect the reasoning. Even if I didn’t understand, I respect the authority of the Holy See. I’m just trying to learn and clarify my understanding.

As I said above, you can call God anything you want in private prayers. It is in the public liturgy that we are restricted.

Greetings, Newcalling! A very warm and cordial welcome to you indeed. I did not understand that you are only Catholic for less than a year…it’s what happens when one reads that “the hymnal is not that old…maybe 20 years at most” (which is a line I would easily say but because of my own age!) and one proceeds to extrapolate data that have no actual basis. I have now understood better, thanks to your very kind post.

Yes, there is a lot to learn when one first becomes Catholic – and study becomes a journey for a lifetime, really. I remember, many decades ago, when the Holy See was something very remote to me and seemingly unknowable. Years pass and bring changes…the journey carries us forward to places we could never have imagined…and yet we find we still have incredible vistas awaiting our academic pursuit.

You have a wonderful journey ahead of you and I hope you never stop growing through study. A lifetime is not enough to devote to all there is to learn and to know theologically and historically. May the Lord continue to lead and guide you.

Given your background and studies, you would certainly understand the reverence for the Divine Name and that is a wonderful and ever-needed heritage to bring with you to Catholicism.

Depending upon your area of study before you became Catholic, you would appreciate that one of the focuses of my lectures on the Hebrew Scriptures was on the theology of name and naming and the corresponding fundamental concept of the spoken word, whether as a blessing or curse or prophecy, as having the power to shape reality. This speaks to the praxis in Judaism regarding the Divine Name and its use as it develops through salvation history. It is a patrimonial gift…also to us.

I had, in my day, something of an opposite task from your journey as I provided introductions to young seminarians about Judaism, academically and spiritually…trying to give a deeper appreciation for the Hew Scriptures and of how Catholic liturgy emerges from an essentially Jewish matrix and also on relations between Catholics and Jews both before and after Nostra Aetate. This, of course, was happening historically closer to the horrific era of the Shoah, so it had a real impact on the seminarians who were enriched with new insights and perspectives, thanks be to God. It was one of the more memorable things I did in that aspect of my life and priesthood…and one of the more moving for me, actually.

In any event the issue of the divine Tetragrammaton was a very important issue to Joseph Ratzinger, personally, and in turn, I was personally delighted when, after much reflection, he made the decision he made and caused the directive to be issued. It was really a needed corrective. It was also quite a topic of discussion in my circles. I am gratified it has been implemented as well as it has.

I myself often use Adonai and Elohim in my personal prayer (and the corresponding terms in the other languages)…and all the circumlocutions are perfectly fine for you to use, as the instruction says. Be at peace. And God bless you always.

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