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 ( I’ve also translated Unam Sanctam from Latin into English (, 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. ronconte says:

    Your post is an example of the idolatry of Latin. It is very harmful to the Faith to suggest that the English translation of a papal document, issued by the Holy See is blasphemy or serious doctrinal error merely because you judge that the translation is insufficient. As a translator of Latin, I see nothing wrong with the translation points that you criticize. Also, if we can say about the English translation of a document, that the Pope never wrote it, because he wrote in another language, then what should we say about Scripture? Luke wrote in Greek, but Jesus spoke in Aramaic and Hebrew. Then again most Catholics use a version of the Bible in a language other than those three. Is the meaning lost or does it become blasphemy or heresy if the translation is lacking in some way? Not at all. The truths of the faith, whether expressed in Scripture, in the writings of Fathers, Doctors, and Saints, or in magisterial documents, can be expressed and understood in any language, in Latin no more or no less than in other languages.

    Concerning the Mass, in one sense, it is a re-enactment, since from our point of view it takes place repeatedly, in various places at various times. But in another sense, from the point of view of eternity, all Masses and all Communions are one in the Lord, such that His timeless sacrifice is present everywhere and everywhen with a timeless immediacy.

  2. dancom23 says:

    I guess that translation of great works to a given vernacular is necessary, so we cannot anathema the endeavor by idolizing Latin. We can however be justified that the original is made available to public access freely and so ultimately speaking no misleading agenda is intended.

    Ron, I strongly wish to wave the RED FLAG OF CAUTION here with what you say further down in your reply:

    [quote] … The truths of the faith,…can be expressed…in any language [/quote]

    Yes, this is true, and can be done with great care like the rule of Scribes hence “every jot and tittle”.

    I complain that we employ too too many subtleties, namely use of the inanimate pronoun, and “subtleties” are the devil’s workshop because they have the power to brainwash; just ask any politician.

    For example in today’s liturgy we listened to a verse from James told,”All good things come from heaven above.”

    Now right away this is a problematic subtlety because this very same religion teaches that we are not to get attached to things.

    If we look to simply a proper translation we see a most wonderful mystery as we understand: “All good gifts come from our Father above…”

    I mentioned that Pope Paul IV is my favorite Pope and that is because he wrote Humanae Vitae; but now I am studying another encyclical in which he authored whereas he, (The VII Pope that forwarded the vernacular) states the following:

    [quote] For We can see that some of those who are dealing with this Most Holy Mystery in speech and writing are disseminating opinions on Masses celebrated in private or on the dogma of transubstantiation that are disturbing the minds of the faithful and causing them no small measure of confusion about matters of faith, just as if it were all right for someone to take doctrine that has already been defined by the Church and consign it to oblivion or else interpret it in such a way as to weaken the genuine meaning of the words or the recognized force of the concepts involved.[quote]

    and further…

    [quote] Proper Wording of Great Importance

    23. But this is not enough. Once the integrity of the faith has been safeguarded, then it is time to guard the proper way of expressing it, lest our careless use of words give rise, God forbid, to false opinions regarding faith in the most sublime things. St. Augustine gives a stern warning about this when he takes up the matter of the different ways of speaking that are employed by the philosophers on the one hand and that ought to be used by Christians on the other. “The philosophers,” he says, “use words freely, and they have no fear of offending religious listeners in dealing with subjects that are difficult to understand. But we have to speak in accordance with a fixed rule, so that a lack of restraint in speech on our part may not give rise to some irreverent opinion about the things represented by the words.” (l0) [/quote]

    Thanks Ron for helping me to understand this issue and please let me apologize for accusing of blasphemy because this was wrong. I might rather accuse of setting standards where rather revision should be the rule. As an editor you yourself have experienced the need to revise.


  3. dancom23 says:

    revis: Pope Paul VI (not Pope Paul IV as mentioned above)

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