Language Hurdles: Ecclesiastical Latin

For many Catholics, it is not easy to understand the importance of Latin in the life of the Church. In February of 1962, on the eve of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII wrote: “Major sacred sciences [in seminaries] shall be taught in Latin, which, as we know from many centuries of use, must be considered most suitable for explaining with the utmost facility and clarity the most difficult and profound ideas and concepts. For apart from the fact that Latin has for long been enriched with a vocabulary of appropriate and unequivocal terms, best calculated to safeguard the integrity of the Catholic faith, it also serves in no slight measure to prune away useless verbiage.”

Today, the concept of young people learning their subjects in Latin is almost incomprehensible, but less than a hundred years ago, in the early 1950s, seminarians in many places were still required to converse among themselves on certain days of the week only in Latin, and theology was taught in Latin. This made the transmission of the Catholic faith much easier and more complete. Even in English, most of the theological terminology is based on Latin: grace, confession, confirmation, contrition, virtue, vice, indulgence, absolution, redemption, resurrection, vocation, matrimony, orders, mission, sanctuary, altar, sacrifice, incarnation, eternity, and the list could go on. Those who understand Latin can crack open the underlying concepts of these words and the theological nuance they convey. Those who do not understand Latin are in danger of getting lost in a sea of private opinions. I am not suggesting that the mysteries of the Christian faith can be expressed only in Latin, but the Church’s language is a stable defense against various sophisms aimed to undermine it.

Must we also say something about the need to “prune away useless verbiage” mentioned by the pope? What about sentences such as “Globalization rightly stirs a keen desire for personalism and interiority. Today, the balance between unity and pluralism is considered a major value”? (Synod of Bishops, Instrumentum laboris, 2001, No. 26). Another example from the same document reads as follows: “The Bishop concretely expresses his responsibility in society, where he lives in a global village of communications as a participant in the life of the entire planet” (ibid, No. 32). Haven’t we heard enough of fashionable speech pushing novel ideas? Shall we read the Amazonian Instrumentum laboris together?

Speaking of the Church’s language, Pope John Paul II said on one occasion: “One who cannot understand the original Latin writings of the Fathers and of so many great authors is not to be deemed well educated, having to rely only on translations, which, even if they exist, rarely capture the full meaning of the primary text.” Catholics will not readily concur with such statements these days. Some specific examples comparing English to Latin might help illustrate the importance of the Church’s language. Let’s look at a randomly chosen paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

English:

During the first centuries the Church sought to clarify her Trinitarian faith, both to deepen her own understanding of the faith and to defend it against the errors that were deforming it. This clarification was the work of the early councils, aided by the theological work of the Church Fathers and sustained by the Christian people’s sense of the faith. (CCC No. 250)

Latin:

Priorum saeculorum decursu, Ecclesia suam fidem trinitariam, modo magis explicito, enuntiare studuit, sive ut suam propriam fidei intelligentiam altius penetraret sive ut illam contra errores defenderet qui eam deformabant. Haec opera veterum fuit Conciliorum quae a labore theologico Patrum Ecclesiae sunt adiuta et a sensu fidei populi christiani fulcita.

The Latin version says not “first centuries,” but “previous centuries.” The difference could be significant. All preceding centuries, even the 19th century, are “previous” centuries. The Latin says the Church was “eager to announce in a more explicit way” her Trinitarian faith, which is not the same as the English version’s “the Church sought to clarify.” A search for clarification is needed in cases of error and doubt, and that is different from an “eagerness to announce” something “more explicitly.” The English then speaks of “this clarification,” where the Latin says “this endeavor.” That is also a significant difference. Something could also be observed about the Latin “sensus fidei,” which is not rendered in its fullness by the English “sense of the faith.” The Latin word “sensus” is less related to the idea of sense as a “feeling” and more to the idea of knowing and understanding. “Sensus” could be translated as understanding, opinion, perception, or judgment. In this context, a good English rendition might have been: “the Christian people’s understanding of the faith.”

It should be noted that the above statement of Pope John Paul II was not directed at some group of academics; it was directed, “first of all, at young people.” Latin is for everyone.

The first challenge, it would seem, for anyone wishing to promote the use of Latin, liturgically or educationally, is to persuade Catholics of the importance of Latin in the life of the Church and in their own lives and of the dangers resulting from its neglect. But another challenge, and perhaps a greater one, awaits those who are willing to take the first steps. Where should they turn, what sources should they use, and what would be recommended to them in order to take up the study and use of Latin?

Many educational institutions and some private initiatives promote the study of Latin as a so called “classical” language, and that might be the first place that would suggest itself. But it should be understood that the main interest of a “classicist” is the study of the golden age of Latin letters of the pre-Christian era. That is certainly a praiseworthy undertaking, in and of itself, but there is a problem. The entire “classical studies” institution worldwide aims to discredit ecclesiastical Latin by promoting the idea that the language of the Romans somehow ceased to exist with the advent of Christianity. The study of “classical” Latin treats the writings of such shining stars as Saint Jerome only as an afterthought — as a lesser cousin of that “pure” Latin of the pre-Christian era.

Not to take anything away from the golden age of Latin letters, which should be of great interest to anyone engaged in the study of Latin, but that doesn’t have to lead to the dismissal of everything that followed in the course of many centuries. With the advent of Christianity, Latin underwent a process of enculturation. In some cases, words acquired a new meaning — words such as “gratia” (grace), which was employed to express the action of divine good will. New words were introduced such as ecclesia, resurrectio, and incarnatio, but the language itself did not disappear.

Ecclesiastical Latin can be just as elegant, just as high-sounding as Ciceronian Latin. But, as many of the Church Fathers warned, the pre-Christian oratory includes many examples of fancy talk with little substance. It makes no sense to be so captured by the oratory elegance of pre-Christian authors as to dismiss the entire body of Christian Latin and to dedicate oneself to mimic an age that no longer exists. The advent of Christ has changed everything. Even unbelievers cannot pretend that it didn’t happen, as much as some might like to put on Roman sandals and visit some old amphitheater, where they recite pieces of Latin poetry, before they get back on their cell phones and drive home.

One of the pet peeves of classicists has to do with an effort to reconstruct the first-century pronunciation. As an object of study akin to archeological research, it can be useful as long as it is understood that it is based on probable conclusions — but here, again, the classicist tries to discredit Ecclesiastical pronunciation of Latin as “incorrect.”

To sum up: The second challenge facing anyone wanting to take up the study of Latin has to do with avoiding the pitfalls offered by institutions of “classical” studies.

Where, then, could one turn in order to take up safely the study of ecclesiastical Latin? A canonical association dedicated to the advancement of the Catholic Church’s Latin heritage called the Family of Saint Jerome would be a safe place to start. Its members make a commitment to study and use the Latin language, the living language of the Catholic Church, in order to arrive at a sound command of it, in reading, thinking, speaking, and writing. Its members, many of them young, enjoy conversing, corresponding, reading, and writing in Latin. This year, at its annual meeting, a group of young participants performed a play titled “The Martyrdom of St. Agnes.”

As the Family’s founder, Father Suitbertus Siedl, OCD, used to say: “Latin is not dead, but it is sleeping these days. Let’s wake it up.” Needless to say, at their meetings, all the liturgical celebrations, all conversations, and all prayers are done in Latin only — not in an academic, but in a familiar Catholic setting. Information about the association’s founder, about various audio, video, and written teaching materials, and about the association’s activities can be obtained by writing here:

The Family of Saint Jerome
507 S. Prospect Avenue
Clearwater, Florida 33756 (USA)

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