The Latin language and Catholicism

I have some degree of familiarity with the Latin language. I spent just over five years translating the entire Clementine Vulgate Bible from Latin into English (http://www.sacredbible.org/). I’ve also translated Unam Sanctam from Latin into English (http://www.catholicplanet.com/TSM/Unam-Sanctam-index.htm), and from time to time, as needed, I translate sections of various Church documents or the writings of Saints from Latin for use in my theology writings. Now I don’t know Latin as well as persons who, in past centuries, had Latin as their first language, or at least as their daily language. But I understand Latin better than the vast majority of other Catholics.

It is disconcerting to me when I hear (or read) other Catholics speaking about Latin as if it were better than other languages, or as if Latin were necessarily to the Catholic Faith, or as if the Mass is necessarily better whenever Latin is used. This type of exaltation of the Latin language is unjustifiable, and at times borders on idolatry.

Is Latin inherently better than other languages?

No, it is not. Like every language, Latin has its strengths and weaknesses. Once strength is conciseness. Latin uses a change in the ending of words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs) in order to indicate aspects of meaning that other languages express in separate words. Latin benefits from a certain Roman cultural tendency to think with sharp distinctions. For example: “Veni, vidi, vici;” meaning, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” The language is concise and to the point. The subject is often implied by the ending of the verb; pronouns are used less than in other languages.

Latin also has a certain beauty and eloquence, but no more so than any other language used with beauty of meaning and of expression. A particular verse in the Bible may be more eloquent and concise in Latin than in English, or it might not be. English, though less concise, benefits from a much larger vocabulary than Latin. Any poem in any language is capable of using that language adeptly in the expression of truth by means of beauty. Latin no more so than other languages.

Latin also has its weaknesses. The Latin language lacks the definite and indefinite articles (the, a, an). This creates some problems in Bible translation, since Hebrew and Greek Bible texts will have articles, but the Latin will not. The meaning of a phrase might be less clear. Another weakness of Latin is that most words have numerous different declensions (different forms based on the ending of the word). The declension indicates the role of the word in the sentence, its number, and for verbs its tense also. But there is much overlap between the various ending and their possible meanings. So a particular ending might be singular in one case, or plural in another case. One can only tell the difference by the context of its use. This can result in a certain ambiguity of meaning.

Is Latin necessary to the Catholic Faith?

No, it is not. The Church has chosen to use Latin as Her official language for a variety of reasons. But in truth, any other language could have been chosen. In Her early years, the Church spread widely and quickly in the Roman empire (and beyond) with the result that very many Christians within the many nations of that empire, all had Latin as a common language. There was a certain usefulness then, to adopting Latin as the language for official documents, and for the Mass. A priest could say Mass in Latin, and be understood (!!), because Latin was widely used in many nations. But if the situation had been otherwise, if some other language was common to many nations, then the Church could just as well have adopted that language.

Indeed, in the Catholic Church in the East, Greek has remained the dominant ecclesial language. There is nothing inherent to Latin that makes it better than other languages for use by the Church, but there is also nothing inherent to Greek that makes it better either. And this concept about languages applies also to the languages of Sacred Scripture. There is nothing inherent to Hebrew that makes it more suitable for conveying the truths of Divine Revelation than other languages. The Hebrew Old Testament is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but so in the Greek Old Testament. It is the Spirit, not the language, that is essential to truth.

Is the Mass better when said in Latin?

No, it is not. Now on this point, I am not comparing the older order of the Mass to the newer order. These two forms of the Mass have many differences other than language. I am referring only to the language.

Some persons speak as if the Mass were somehow holier or more solemn in Latin than in the vernacular (e.g. English). They attend a Latin Mass and the use of Latin seems to make the Mass more mysterious. Why? because they don’t know much Latin. They can’t quite understand what is being said, and so the Mass seems more distant and difficult to discern. This may give the impression, to some persons, of holiness. But holiness is not obscurity.

The Mass was in Latin for many hundreds of years because Latin was the vernacular. The Bible in Latin is called the Vulgate. Why? because the word vulgate means ‘common’. Latin was the common language of the Church, in use and understood by very many persons. Now the language of Latin is not in use as any nation or people’s first language. And the vast majority of Catholics cannot understand what is being said at the Latin Mass. In my opinion, this fact makes Latin less suitable as the language of the Mass, not more suitable.

The current form of the Mass is not perfect. But returning to the Latin Mass as the ordinary daily form of the Mass is not the answer. Rather, the current form should be improved, gradually, repeatedly over time. But it is better to use the vernacular language of the faithful than a language that most do not understand.

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13 Responses to The Latin language and Catholicism

  1. John says:

    There is nothing idolatrous in advocating a return to Latin for worship. Here are four very compelling practical reasons why Latin (not per se but as the actual, historical language of the Church) is better for the Mass:

    (1) Sacredness. Latin is utterly set apart from everyday experience and
    conversation. This gives it a mystical character consonant with the mysteries
    of the Mass, and manifests a “desire to distinguish between the sacred and
    the profane.” In 1951, just as the campaign for the vernacular was
    beginning to gather momentum in the Church, an Italian scholar bluntly
    warned: “Substituting the vernacular tongue for Latin would ‘cheapen’ the
    Roman Missal.”

    (2) Unity. The Tridentine commission observed that the Church
    embraced many peoples, each with its own language; she must employ a
    language which is common to them all, especially in offering the Mass, the
    Sacrifice of Unity.

    (3) Unchangeableness. Father Nicholas Gihr called Latin, “an inviolable
    sanctuary,” due to its unchangeableness. Translations result in circumlocutions,
    interpolations, omissions, incorrectness, misrepresentations and errors;
    uniformity in worship becomes impossible. One liturgical language, he said,
    is a means to preserve the integrity of the Catholic Faith. The Sacred Liturgy
    transmits the Church’s dogmatic tradition, and the truths of the Faith can be
    established and proved from the Liturgy. Hence, the more fixed the liturgical
    formula of prayer, the better it is adapted to preserve intact and transmit
    unimpaired the original deposit of faith. Latin is the living language of the
    unchanging Church.

    (4) Tradition. It is a general law that man’s worship holds fast to traditional forms; the sacred ordinarily inspires too much respect in man for him to dare to alter it, even if using older forms means certain inconveniences. Latin was the Church’s living link with the past, a sign of her continuing fidelity to tradition. Latin was the language of the Mass in the Western Church for nearly 1600 years. St. Augustine used it when he celebrated Mass, as did St. Ambrose, St. Gregory, St. Augustine of Canterbury, St. Bernard, St. Dominic, St. Robert Bellarmine, the English Martyrs, St. Pius V, St. Alphonsus, St. Pius X, and the countless priest-saints in heaven.

    Conversely, abandoning Latin for the vernacular is historically linked to heresy. “As Pater noster did build the Churches,” said a Catholic apologist during the persecutions in England, “Our Father did pull them down.” (Describes what has happened post Vatican II as well.)

    Citations taken from Work of Human Hands by Fr. Anthony Cekada.

  2. ronconte says:

    @John

    (1) Sacredness — There is nothing inherently sacred about Latin, or any other language. God is the fullness of all Sacredness. Created things are sacred only in their relation and closeness to God. Latin is not any more closely related to God than any other language.

    If Latin is more sacred, why did Christ speak in Aramaic and Hebrew?
    If Latin is more sacred, why didn’t the Holy Spirit inspire the Scriptures to be written only in Latin?

    Latin only seems sacred and mysterious to persons who don’t know Latin, or who don’t know it very well. Everything said in Latin, to those persons, is obscured, giving a false impression of greater sacredness.

    (2) Unity — there is a certain usefulness to having a Latin Mass available as one form of the Mass, so that priests and people from various nations can join together in one Mass. But the true unity of the Church is based on Love and all the other virtues, and on unity of faith, not on unity of language.

    (3) Unchangeableness — God is unchangeable. The truths of Divine Revelation are unchangeable. Latin does change. Modern-day ecclesial Latin, as used in documents of the Church, is not the same as medieval Latin, is not the same as Biblical Latin. Older Latin Bible manuscripts are different from later Latin Bible manuscripts.

    Moreover, Latin was in use and was subject to various changes, over the course of many centuries. So Latin is not one simple set-in-stone language. It only seems so to the uninformed.

    (4) Tradition — Sacred infallible Tradition is the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation; it is the Word of God unwritten, as compared to the Word of God written in Sacred Scripture. No language, not even Biblical Hebrew or Biblical Greek is synonymous with, nor essential to, Sacred Tradition.

    Jesus did not celebrate the Mass in Latin. If Latin is the best way to celebrate Mass, or as some heretics would have it, the only valid way to celebrate Mass, then why did Jesus never celebrate Mass in Latin? Jesus used the vernacular of His day to celebrate the Mass (Hebrew and probably also Aramaic).

    The idea that the use of the vernacular is linked to heresy, and that the use of Latin is linked to orthodoxy is absurd. There have been heresies throughout the history of the Church, long before the change to the vernacular Mass.

    Neither the Mass, nor Scripture, nor Tradition, nor Magisterium, nor true worship is dependent on Latin.

  3. John says:

    I didn’t claim, nor has anyone I’m aware of, that there’s anything inherently sacred about Latin. I’m arguing that just as there’s nothing inherently sacred about gold until it’s used in sacred vessels at Mass, Latin has taken on a sacred status because of its role in the history of the Church.

    Likewise no one who advocates the use of Latin is saying that it hasn’t changed over the centuries. The question is whether its unique status as the living language of the Church but being dead in the outside world makes it better suited to maintaining the truths of the Faith.

    Now about your point that it’s absurd to link heresy and the use of the vernacular.

    I say tell that to William Tyndale, who was strangled at the stake for his heretical translations of holy writ.

    Dom Gueranger, founder of the liturgical movement that was hijacked by the creators of the new Mass, said that the introduction of the vernacular is:
    “one of the most important points in the eyes of the sectarians. Worship is
    not something secret, they say — the people should understand what they
    sing. Hatred for the Latin tongue is inborn in the hearts of all the enemies
    of Rome; in it they see a bond among the Catholics of the world, an arsenal
    of orthodoxy against the subtleties of the sectarian spirit, the papacy’s most
    powerful weapon… The master-stroke of protestantism is to have declared
    war on the sacred language. Should it ever succeed in destroying it, it would
    be well on the road to victory.” Institutions Liturgiques, 1:402-3.

    Please note his use of the term “sacred language” with regards to Latin. Now I ask you: is Gueranger a heretic or is he just misinformed?

    Or how about Pius XII in Mediator Dei:

    “60: The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth.” Same question: heretic or just ignoramus?

    And of course no one argues that Christ used Latin. But neither did He use Aramaic in the synagogue. He used Hebrew which was as dead a language in 1st century Palestine as Latin is now. Repeat: He didn’t pray in the vernacular. He knew better than to do that and He still does. We should follow His example, don’t you think?

  4. Ralph says:

    The Popes on the Latin language:

    Pope Pius XI (Officiorum Omnium, 1922): “The Church – precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure until the end of time – of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.”

    Pope Pius XII (Mediator Dei): “The use of the Latin language affords at once an imposing sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruption of true doctrine.”

    Pope John XXIII (encyclical Veterum Sapientia, 1962): The Pope spoke of the special value of Latin which had proved so admirable a means for the spreading of Christianity and which had proved to be a bond of unity for the Christian peoples of Europe. He continued: “Of its very nature, Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favour any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all. Nor must we overlook the characteristic nobility of Latin’s formal structure. Its concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression. For these reasons the Apostolic See has always been at pains to preserve Latin, deeming it worthy of being used in the exercise of her teaching authority as the splendid vesture of her heavenly doctrine and sacred laws. She further requires her sacred ministers to use it, for by so doing they are the better able, wherever they may be, to acquaint themselves with the mind of the Holy See on any matter, and communicate the more easily with Rome and with one another. The Church – because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time – of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single language is superior to the others in authority. Thus, if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would also be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings. But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. It has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use. Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular. In addition, the Latin language can be called truly catholic. It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church’s teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity. There can be no doubt as to the formative and educational value of the language and great literature of the Romans. It is a most effective training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech. The use of Latin has recently been queried in many quarters, and many people are asking about the mind of the Apostolic See in this matter. We have therefore decided to issue this document, so as to ensure that the ancient and uninterrupted use of Latin be maintained and, where necessary, restored. So many people, unaccountably dazzled by the marvelous progress of science, are taking it upon themselves to oust or restrict the study of Latin and other kindred subjects. Yet, the greatest impression is made on the mind by those things which correspond more closely to man’s nature and dignity. And therefore the greatest zeal should be shown in the acquisition of whatever educates and ennobles the mind. Otherwise poor mortal creatures may well become like the machines they build – cold, hard, and devoid of love. Bishops and superiors-general of religious orders shall be on their guard lest anyone under their jurisdiction, eager for revolutionary changes, writes against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the liturgy, or through prejudice makes light of the Holy See’s will in this regard or interprets it falsely. Professors of the sacred sciences in universities or seminaries are required to speak Latin and to make use of textbooks written in Latin. If ignorance of Latin makes it difficult for some to obey these instructions, they shall gradually be replaced by professors who are suited to this task. Since Latin is the Church’s living language, it must be furnished with new words that are apt and suitable for expressing modern things, words that will be uniform and universal in their application and constructed in conformity with the genius of the ancient Latin tongue.”

    Pope Paul VI (encyclical Sacrificium Laudis, 1966): “The Latin language is assuredly worthy of being defended with great care instead of being scorned; for the Latin Church it is the most abundant source of Christian civilization and the richest treasury of piety. We must not hold in low esteem these traditions of our fathers which were our glory for centuries.”

    Pope John Paul II (1980 letter on the mystery and worship of the Eucharist), praised Latin as an expression of the unity of the Church which, through its dignified character, elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic mystery. He said it was necessary to show understanding and full respect towards those Catholics who missed the use of the old Latin liturgy, and to accommodate their desires as far as possible. He said the Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself. And at the start of the new millennium, Pope John Paul told an international group of pilgrims in Rome on July 28, 1999: “We strongly encourage you all that, by diligent study and effective teaching, you may pass on like a torch the understanding, love and use of this immortal language in your own countries.”

  5. ronconte says:

    @John
    Tyndale was a heretic, but he should not have been put to death. Also, he was not put to death for rejecting Latin, nor merely for translating Scripture into the vernacular. And the Church could just as well have chosen another language to use in place of Latin. There is nothing inherent to Latin that makes it better than other languages.

    @Ralph and John
    Certainly, as John and Ralph both point out, there is a certain usefulness to Latin in the work of the Church. But the positive comments you both quote about Latin are more attributed to the work of the Church, done with Latin as a mere tool, than to anything inherent to the language. The positive comments about Latin you both quote are about the work of the Church done by means of Latin.

  6. Ralph says:

    @ Ron

    Dear Mr. Conte,

    You wonder if the Latin necessary to the Catholic Faith? You express the idea that nothing inherent to Latin makes it better than other languages for use by the Church. This is not entirely accurate if one looks at what the Church herself expressed through the Popes. If you read more closely what Pope John XXIII said, you will find he makes comments about its inherent usefulness and its necessity for the better understanding of the Catholic Faith. For example: “ The Church – because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time – of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single language is superior to the others in authority. Thus, if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would also be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings. But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. It has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use. Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular. In addition, the Latin language can be called truly catholic. It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church’s teaching.”

    As you can see, Pope John XXIII makes it quite clear that the Latin language is not only just a tool for the Church, but its inherent value lies in the fact that it is truly catholic, for historical reasons. Also, the Pope says that “Of its very nature, Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favour any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.”

  7. ronconte says:

    No language is Catholic. Language does not possess free will, and so it cannot adhere to a set of beliefs. Latin is a suitable tool for the work of the Church. But the Church has ALWAYS used other languages as well, including Greek, which has been used in the East in the Church longer than Latin. All the languages of the world are used by the Church to spread the Gospel.

    It is just this type of unrestrained exaltation of Latin that I am arguing against in my post.

  8. Ralph says:

    @ Ron

    You used the term “unrestrained” for the first time. No one has argued an exaltation of Latin ad nauseam. We are merely discussing the inherent usefulness of Latin within the Church. The quotes from the various Popes I have posted should suffice to demonstrate that they are not exalting nor bordering on idolatry in respect to Latin.

  9. ronconte says:

    @Ralph
    There are some persons who exalt Latin to the point of idolatry. There are some persons who use Latin as a flag to wave, indicating their dislike for Vatican II and the developments of doctrine since then. I am not saying you are in either category.

    Others over-emphasize the role of Latin, to the detriment of the majority of the faithful who do not know Latin. For example, if the Mass is only in Latin, then the Church will have a much more difficult time bringing the Faith to new converts. There should be no use of Latin where it is not fitting to the needs of salvation.

    I think that there is nothing inherently better about Latin, than any other language. The fact that it is currently not the first language of any people has advantages and disadvantages. It is less subject to change, but also less well known. When the Church first began to use Latin as an official language, this was useful because it was the first or second language, used in daily life, for very many persons. Such is no longer the case.

  10. dancom23 says:

    Ron Conte quote:

    [quote] pronouns are used less than in other languages.[/quote]

    This is interesting because when pronouns are omitted the context takes on a more personal bent and when an impersonal pronoun is added during translation to English the text gets problematic.

    For example; let’s look at a verse from the Encyclical Mysterium Fidei by Pope Paul VI, my favorite Pope (by-the-way):)

    [quote]The Mystery of Faith, that is, the ineffable gift of the Eucharist that the Catholic Church received from Christ, her Spouse, as a pledge of His immense love, is something that she has always devoutly guarded as her most precious treasure, and during the Second Vatican Council she professed her faith and veneration in a new and solemn declaration. In dealing with the restoration of the sacred liturgy, the Fathers of the Council were led by their pastoral concern for the whole Church to regard it as a matter of highest importance to urge the faithful to participate actively, with undivided faith and the utmost devotion, in the celebration of this Most Holy Mystery, to offer it to God along with the priest as a sacrifice for their own salvation and that of the whole world, and to use it as spiritual nourishment[/quote]

    My comment is that I am seeing ‘problematics’ everywhere in this English sourced from the Vatican website. Paul VI never wrote this ! Some translator made it up.(pun)

    Look at the first sentence. ‘The Eucharist is’ “something”. Then, ‘the Church regards “it”; and “offers it to God” and, “use it as spiritual nourishment” .

    This is blasphemy. Or what?

    The answer is simply that Pope Paul NEVER wrote that. Paul composed this encyclical in Latin. :) What does the Latin really say ? Look this up(no pun).

    Let’s look at something else translated into this encyclical that I am questioning here as maybe someone can comment on so as I can understand an answer.

    [quote] 27. It is a good idea to recall at the very outset what may be termed the heart and core of the doctrine, namely that, by means of the Mystery of the Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Cross which was once carried out on Calvary is re-enacted in wonderful fashion and is constantly recalled, and its salvific power is applied to the forgiving of the sins we commit each day.” (12)[/quote]

    The above is #27 part of Mysterium Fidei and my question is doctrinal.
    “Is the Mass a “”””re-enactment””” of Calvary ?

    WHOAA! Is this correct doctrine ? I was just wondering because I thought that the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus were rather eternal events in which we actually contact in the Mass and whereas Paul VI actually wrote:

    [quote] Ad communem vero omnium aedificationem et laetitiam libet vobiscum, Venerabiles Fratres, recolere doctrinam quam de Mysterio Eucharistico traditam tenet et unanimi consensu docet Catholica Ecclesia.
    Illud in primis, quod huius doctrinae est veluti summa et caput, iuvat meminisse, scilicet per Mysterium Eucharisticum Sacrificium Crucis, semel in Calvaria peractum, admirabili modo repraesentari, iugiter in memoriam revocari eiusque virtutem salutarem in remissionem eorum quae quotidie a nobis committuntur peccatorum applicari (Cf CONCIL. TRID., Doctrina de SS. Missae Sacrificio, c. 1).
    [quote]

    How is this translated ?

    Let’s try translating some words just for fun.

    ‘Once displayed continually in tangible memorandum recalling/(revoking) the pure virtue beautifully advantageous His salvific power applied to the remission of the quotidian of sins committed ‘

    dan

    ref.
    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_19650903_mysterium_lt.html

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