Back in Christianity’s early days, petty semantics could cause powerful schisms. A big reason the western and eastern churches split was a bitter dispute over the addition of three words, “and the Son” (in Latin it was one word, “filioque”) to the 4th-century statement of Christian belief, the Nicene Creed.

But if you thought modern Christendom was beyond that kind of medieval nonsense, think again. Despite all the really weighty issues Roman Catholics face, including the latest sexual abuse scandal playing out in Philadelphia, the most passionate debate this year may well be whether the Nicene Creed should say “one in Being with” or “consubstantial with.” That’s because the Vatican plans to introduce a new English-language Roman Missal, the prayer script we Catholics use at Mass — and its awkward changes to prayers and the liturgy are raising a chorus of complaints from priests and the laity. It’s tempting to dismiss the clash with the old saying about fights inside academia: they’re so fierce because the stakes are so low. But the Catholic missal melee is unfortunately a reminder that the tiresome practice of theological hairsplitting is still alive and well in the 21st century.

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