I could write at considerable length about the value and the glory of the Latin language. I spend some of my time teaching Latin. You may imagine how I feel when somebody says to me that “Latin is a dead language” or “What, after all, is the use of Latin, these days?”
There are two problems (if not more) here. The first is the utilitarian educational philosophy that would have it that nothing should be taught that is not, by the terms of our modern educationalists, “useful.” The second problem is the lie that Latin is not useful.
I am not going to write about “transferrable skills,” an expression that annoys me. Yes, it is true that the thorough study of Latin language and literature gives the student certain skills that he may not have previously acquired, or, if he has acquired them, they will be sharpened by the study of Latin. But what I have to say is that there is value in the study of Latin as a language, with a literature, and for other academic reasons, and not because it “sharpens the mind,” which could be done with a puzzle book.
Latin is, par excellence, the language of Western civilization. French is not, despite my use of a French phrase in the last sentence, and neither is English. Latin was for centuries upon centuries the language in which the international thought of Christendom was communicated. Now English is, unfortunately, used for that.
Mental discipline is not the point of learning a language. The notion that a language should be taught with mental discipline as the object is laughable. A language should be taught so the language can be used — so that, for example, the student can read and think and speak and write in what our modern pedagogues call the “target language.” It always seemed strange to me, when I was at school (where I had the privilege of beginning to study Latin), that the way we were taught Latin was totally different from the way we were taught French. In the Middle Ages, and indeed until the eighteenth or nineteenth century, people — i.e., schoolboys — were taught Latin by what would now be called an “immersion method.” It would be very good for people to be immersed in Latin one again, so they would be actually bilingual. After some point around 1800 or later, too much emphasis was placed on memorizing grammatical points — though this is certainly most necessary — above competency and fluency in the language. Or so it seems to me.
It is good for Catholics to know some Latin. It is obvious that it is used in the liturgy of the Church. The Church’s postconciliar abandonment of Latin in the liturgy has done great harm, not only to the Church, but to the entire world. I say this because it has contributed to the widespread but nonetheless silly notion that Latin is “a dead language” and therefore should not be studied — and this abandonment of the inheritance of millennia has contributed not a little to the ever progressing stultification of modern man. As for Latin being dead, well, if you kill someone, how can you be surprised to discover that he is dead? If the Latin language is abandoned, not only by persons in authority in the Church, but by educational establishments everywhere, is it not a bit rich for the murderers of the language then to turn round and say it is a waste of time to study a dead language?
The sixteenth-century Protestants, of whom the more inept of the twentieth-century liturgists are begotten, hated the use of Latin in the liturgy, because they thought the worship of God should be offered “in a language understanded of the people,” as it says somewhere in the prefatory matter to the Book of Common Prayer. But why? Who is being addressed? The people or God?
Back to the language itself: Latin has a very large literature, most of it dating from after the Roman Empire. It continued to be used in academic discourse until 1800, certainly, and to a lesser extent even into the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century there was more and more academic literature written in German — perhaps rather too much, since it is to these learned Germans that we owe such strange ideas as the JDEP hypothesis, Q, and whatnot. So, to an extent, German replaced Latin in academia.
It is useful to be able to communicate in Latin. It gives one an understanding — without need of a translator — of classical Roman texts and of Catholic texts, and of many other texts in literature and philosophy in the Western tradition.
Pope John XXIII specifically wrote a papal document on the Latin language. It is astonishing that John XXIII commanded the retention of the Latin language for the studies of seminarians, and that it was under the subsequent supreme pontiff, Paul VI, that Latin was practically abandoned. Apparently, the pontifical universities in Rome stopped teaching in Latin in 1967. This was only five years after John XXIII had mandated that it should be continued, in 1962! What happened in the intervening period, between 1962 and 1967?
The use of Latin is an expression of the Catholicity of the Church. It is an expression of the Church’s unity also, and both of these — unity and catholicity — expressed both in space and in time. It is the language in which some of the greatest minds, such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas, have thought, and also used by other highly intelligent men who did not possess the true Faith, such as Francis Bacon, who seems to have thought in Latin and had most of his works translated into Latin because he thought they would not endure in English, and even if they did, the English language would change so much over the centuries that his English writings would become unintelligible, but the Latin would not.
I am encouraged to note that people have taken more interest in Latin in recent years; perhaps Summorum Pontificum in 2007 had something to do with it, and also the fact that we can now access vast quantities of books online in their original languages. I am happy that Ryan Grant is translating various important Catholic texts written in Latin, such as the works of St. Robert Bellarmine and the Moral Theology of St Alphonsus. I shall be even happier when educated people are able to read them, with some competency, in the language in which they were written.
I would also like to suggest one possible means for the restoration of the Latin language. I hope my idea will not be regarded as too radical. That is to say, we could restore the use of Latin in the liturgy, or at least make the (traditional) Latin Mass and the (traditional) Latin Breviary widely accessible. For if priests and religious, and by extension the laity, were accustomed to the use of Latin at least in this context, it would naturally incline many more people to take a greater interest in it.
David Mitchell was born in England and lives there his wife, whom he married in December 2018. David was educated at the University of Durham and was received into the Catholic Church in 2008, while he was a student. He has a B.A. in music and an M.A. in performance and sings in his church choir, where he and his wife met. He has taught
music and Latin and currently undertakes freelance music work.