Bringing back Latin

During the debates of the Second Vatican Council one prelate after another addressed the Fathers of the Council in fluent Latin. That they did so is hardly surprising, for Latin remained the living language of the Roman Catholic Church. What may be surprising, however, is their collective level of fluency. The European prelates in particular displayed in their speeches and lively discussions a near-native mastery of Latin that would have been the envy of Renaissance humanists living five hundred years previously. Among the issues the Council Fathers debated in Latin was the introduction of vernacular languages into the Mass. When they ultimately decided to endorse the use of the vernacular in the Mass it doubtless never occurred to them that the facility in Latin that they took for granted—Latin, after all, was an integral part of their own intellectual patrimony and would remain the official language of the Church—would largely disappear within half a century.

Yet disappear it did, and quickly. How and why merits our attention, as does the question of what can be done to revivify the tradition of living Latin within the Church. For if living Latin dies, the consequences for the Church are grave. What is significant about the fact that the Fathers of the Council spoke readily in Latin is that they thought in Latin, which gave them easy access to the length and breadth of the Catholic tradition. The Church’s treasury of writings spanning the centuries is like a large chest in the attic, to which Latin is the key. Unfortunately, we stand in danger of losing the key, for few now live who can actually think in Latin. This is especially true within the Church herself. A sign of this is that even at the Vatican documents are no longer composed in Latin and then translated into vernacular languages but are first thought in the vernacular and then translated into Latin. We are in fact in danger of becoming strangers to our own tradition, for few can read the thoughts of our Catholic tradition in the language in which they were thought.

At this point, a word of clarification about what I mean by “reading” is in order. There are many young persons, a good number of them Catholic, studying Latin. Indeed, if we are to believe the New York Times, we are in the midst of a Latin-learning renaissance of sorts. Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between studying Latin and actually learning Latin. Folks today study Latin, but rarely learn it. A short while ago, folks studied Latin to learn it. They could read it, write it, speak it, and generally think in it as well or nearly as well as they could think in their own native tongue. By “reading Latin” or “thinking in Latin,” therefore, I mean the ability to understand Latin at a pace approaching the native facility of an educated person. This was a given for the Fathers and periti of the Second Vatican Council, but unless things change radically, Latin will soon be a dead language in the truest sense, namely that no one living actually knows it well enough to use it.

To understand how we got here, we have to go back a thousand years or so to the time when Europeans, and especially those speaking languages descended from Latin, first began to study Latin as a non-native language. Little books designed to teach Latin conversation, close relatives to the vast number of volumes available today for mastering conversation in French, German, Spanish, etc., began to appear in the eleventh century. Mastering Latin was important because it was not only the language of the Church but also the language of educated elites. Living Latin would continue to serve these two constituencies for another eight hundred years, and as a consequence a steady stream of books for mastering Latin conversation continued to appear. A distinguished tradition of teaching and learning living Latin arose, which served not only a clergy that said Mass and preached in Latin, but also all those who went on to study at the universities that appeared all over Europe throughout the high Middle Ages. Latin was no ornament but was rather the essential language for communication at the university. No one then could successfully attend university without knowing Latin, any more than a native speaker of English today could successfully obtain a degree from the University of Paris without knowing French well enough to understand lectures, take tests, write papers, and read books quickly and well. This explains why in the sixteenth century the middle-aged Ignatius of Loyola returned to sit on the primary-school benches with young children. He did so to learn Latin, and he was wise enough to know that he had to start from the ground floor. Fortunately for him, he was able to take advantage of a vital tradition of teaching and learning Latin as a living language, just as today, young Americans wishing to master German or French or Italian can take advantage of a tradition of well-thought-out language courses for non-native speakers.

Latin remained the language of learning for centuries after the common appearance of vernacular literatures in the later Middle Ages. Newton, for example, wrote his Principia in Latin in the seventeenth century, and throughout the eighteenth century scholars as well as churchmen continued to write and publish in Latin. Gradually, however, over the course of the nineteenth century Latin was displaced by the vernacular languages in the universities, although dissertations continued to be written and defended in Latin at the University of Paris in the 1920s and even later in the German universities. In the English-speaking world, the eclipse of Latin as a universal requirement in the university occurred earlier. The important point for my purposes is not when but why it died, for the similarities to the situation within the Church following the Second Vatican Council are unmistakable.

When university students no longer needed to understand Latin to get a university education, there was no longer any real need to know Latin as a language to be used. As a consequence, the methods for teaching and learning Latin changed fundamentally. Latin was no longer taught as a living language but as something vestigial. It became anemic, something ornamental rather than essential. Of course, there were still then, as there are now, excellent reasons to pursue a course in classics, but in the academy the quest for Latin as a living language was finished.

Two books published fifteen years apart in America illustrate beautifully the passing away of that tradition at the close of the nineteenth century. In 1892 there appeared Professor Stephen Wilby’s English translation of the Guide to Latin Conversation, a Jesuit handbook that had gone through seven editions in French. This Guide, a compendium of the Church’s tradition of teaching living Latin, contains eighty dialogues, thirty by the Belgian Jesuit Van Torre and fifty from the famous Jesuit classicist Pontanus as well as “phrases…of Erasmus, of Vives, of Cordier, of Alde-Manuce, of Fathers Pontanus, Van Torre and Champsneups.” Wilby, citing successful efforts to revive spoken Latin in Italy and France, wished to do the same in the United States. But it was in fact too late, as can be seen from the second volume, Dr. Colyer Meriwether’s Our Colonial Curriculum: 1607-1776, which appeared in 1907. In his third chapter (“Ancient Languages”), Meriwether leaves no doubt of his own negative view (“Not even the wildest Latin maniac of the present would venture upon the flights of those early days”) of the persistent efforts down through the centuries to keep alive this language that “not only vanquished Greek but for a long period…stifled all the vernacular of Europe.” After reviewing at some length the history of futile colonial attempts to instill living Latin, Meriwether concludes: “Many of their fathers wrote it at one time, in fact all educated ones who wished to keep company with their class did so, but it is rather safe to say that the boys at school did not use this tongue in their everyday intercourse with each other…. As for Latin conversation among the youth in colleges that can be dismissed summarily as an alluring myth.”

In hindsight, Wilby’s translation stands as an American tombstone for the tradition of living Latin within the academy, while Meriwether provides an unsympathetic epitaph. Meriwether actually cites Wilby’s translation, and the context in which he does so points to the continued vitality of living Latin within the Catholic Church: “This fever has burnt in European veins two thousand years and all the cooling effects of modern languages and modern sciences have not entirely reduced it. The Jesuits still talk it and the brethren of every nationality communicate with each other by means of it. Today they have fat little conversation volumes up to date in Latin terms for all new ideas introduced into English by the enormous developments in science and numerous inventions. One of the later ones appears under the authorishp (sic) of S. W. Wilby, though it is really a conversation book of the whole order.” Although Meriwether was in fact mistaken about the purpose of Wilby’s volume, his wonderment that there still existed in the twentieth century an international body, in this case the Society of Jesus, that communicated primarily in Latin serves my main point well.

Latin continued to serve not only the Jesuits but the Catholic Church in general as an international language, precisely because there was an authentic need. Catholic priests and scholars did not study Latin for its own sake but rather for the sake of their living, breathing culture. Languages are intimately connected to cultures, and Latin for almost two millennia had been the language of Catholic culture in the West. It is for this reason that the Jesuits (and others) took pains to keep alive the Church’s long tradition of teaching and learning living Latin. They knew well that not only passive mastery (reading and listening) but also active mastery (writing and speaking) were necessary to be masters of Latin. This very tradition produced the outstanding Catholic scholars, many of them priests and bishops, who distinguished themselves during the first half of the twentieth century. This same tradition led to the remarkable Ciceronian exchanges at the Second Vatican Council, where fluency in Latin was the rule rather than the exception among prelates.

Sad to say, however, that tradition has all but passed away. Only a few Latin-speaking prelates remain today, and the number of Catholic priests or other religious working on the original sources of our tradition is now minimal. A few personal anecdotes will serve to illustrate how much things have changed. In the fall of 2007, while staying with the Dominicans at Saulchoir in Paris, I had the chance to speak about the decline of Latin within the Church with the Dominican scholars of the Leonine Commission, whose task it is to make available the best critical editions of St. Thomas. To a man these outstanding scholars and Latinists lamented the passing away of the Church’s Latin tradition and urged me to do whatever I could to make available to priests and other religious the resources for mastering Latin that had once been routinely available. Last summer I had dinner with Monsieur Luc Jocques, head of the Latin Section of Corpus Christianorum, the modern project whose aim is to make available modern, critical editions of the vast body of Christian literature produced down through the centuries that still survives in libraries all over the world in manuscripts, unedited and unstudied. Monsieur Jocques told me that when he started at Corpus Christianorum, the roster of scholars working on Latin critical editions was filled with Catholic priests and religious, but that now he can think of only one or two among the army of scholars working worldwide on such projects. In short, the Church itself can no longer take for granted the fluency in Latin that was until recently seemingly its birthright.

I have put off until now answering an obvious question, namely, why does all this matter? Just as the academy and the educated world outgrew Latin, why not allow the Church to do the same? I respond that, even if, Deo gratias, the Church should encompass the globe and become literally catholic in language and culture, and even if, Deus vetet, the Catholic Church in Europe should wither on the vine, it would still be true that the vast majority of Roman Catholic culture and tradition grew up and was formed speaking Latin. It is, as it were, the native language of the Roman Catholic Church, and were we to let it die we would in fact suffer the loss of our mother tongue. We would have access to our patrimony, that wonder-filled treasury that now lays unseen in the Church’s attic, only in bits and pieces and then only in translation. We would become foreigners to our own tradition, to our own thoughts. This is a potentially grievous loss for a Church that holds Tradition sacred. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have recently reminded us that the Church needs Latin for this very reason.

A second obvious question is why Latin has fallen so far, so fast. In this connection I am reminded of something that I heard Dr. Ron MacArthur, the former president of Thomas Aquinas College, say on several occasions. Addressing the question of why grammar and, in particular, Latin ranked last in importance among the liberal arts, Dr. MacArthur replied cogently but wisely: “Anyone can learn Latin.” He is right, of course. Anyone can, but the sad fact is that few moderns do. The reason for this is that roughly a century ago the Latin teachers of the world changed their goal. They stopped trying to teach Latin as if people needed to know it and began to teach it as a means for accomplishing other worthy ends, such as for example understanding grammar or building vocabulary. The result, however, is predictable. Although there are legions of native speakers of English who can read French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese or any other living language with native or near-native facility, there are by contrast few now living who can pick up Augustine’s De civitate Dei and read it in Latin as they would any other book.

The solution then is simple: to recover our former fluency, we need only restore what was traditionally our end, namely, to master Latin comprehensively so as to be able to use it: to think in it, to speak it, to write it, and to read it with native or near-native facility. Wilby had the right idea in making use of the Church’s existing resources for teaching and learning living Latin. A small sample from his volume will suffice to show the kind of treasure he unearthed. Near the end of the first dialogue reproduced is a little prayer that Father Pontanus, the original author of the dialogue, referred to as “illa [pretiuncula] Ecclesiae communissima et commodissima” (“that most common and most suitable little prayer of the Church”): “Actiones nostras, quaesumus, Domine, aspirando praeveni, et adjuvando prosequere, ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur.” This apparently common yet beautiful seventeenth-century prayer is quintessentially Latin in its structure, its thought patterns, and its striking economy of expression. As Wilby knew, these are all radically at variance with our own habits of thought and expression, and his inspiration to return ad fontes was exactly right. To think in Latin does in fact necessitate acquiring the habit of thinking in Latin.

Happily, the means for doing so—the long and distinguished tradition of teaching and learning living Latin—still exists. There are even contemporaries taking advantage of that tradition, part of a flourishing, international neo-Latin movement. Last summer, for example, many hundreds of Latin speakers gathered in Budapest for a conference organized by Luigi Miraglia, a leader of the movement. There are many reasons why people today are pursuing living Latin: aesthetic, humanistic, pedagogical, etc. It is part of the tradition of the Protestant Churches themselves, which can boast of numerous spiritual writers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries who wrote and published in Latin. But no individual or society has an incentive comparable to that which should move us, for as Catholics, we should study Latin not for its own sake but for ours. We must do so not to return to some Utopian past or to restore some hegemonic culture, but rather to stay vibrantly connected to our own past and our own culture, past and present. Let us not forget about that treasure chest in our attic, filled with wonders great and small. Above all, let us not lose the key.

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avatar About Dr. Mark J. Clark

Dr. Mark J. Clark is an associate professor in the department of classical and early Christian studies at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, where he teaches Latin as a living language. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2002, and his articles on the Bible and theology in the Middle Ages have appeared in a variety of journals, including, among others, Traditio , Recherches de Théologie et Philosophie Médiévales , Sacris Erudiri , and Revue Bénédictine .

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