On bringing back Latin

Editorial, December 2009

It is certain that there has been a drastic decline in the knowledge of Latin in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. It probably did not occur to most of the bishops at the council that their approval of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy of the Church would result in the near disappearance of Latin among bishops and priests.

Here are a few examples of what I mean. Most priests now being ordained do not know enough Latin to celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Most bishops elected to go to the Roman Synods cannot understand Latin when it is spoken, cannot write Latin and cannot speak it. I have been a personal witness of this for the past thirty-five years. And this takes place in a Church whose official language is Latin! Important Vatican documents, which for over 1,500 years were written in Latin, are now written in vernacular languages and then translated into Latin. A good example of that is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was composed in French and then later translated into Latin.

The neglect of Latin in seminaries started around 1960. Pope John XXIII tried to stop the decline in Latin with his apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia in 1962. But bishops and religious superiors did not implement the wish of the Pontiff and he did not enforce it, so it was a dead letter. I remember asking a Jesuit seminarian in the early 1970s if he knew Latin. He said, “No, we don’t need that any more. Everything we need is available in English translations.”

I would like to call  your attention to an article in this issue on “Bringing Back Latin” by Professor Mark Clark, who teaches Latin at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. Dr. Clark points out that almost two thousand years of Catholic history, theology and culture exists in the Latin tongue. Those who do not know Latin have access to that treasure only in vernacular translations, and no translation can give the full nuance of meaning that is found in the original. So ignorance of Latin on the part of bishops and priests means that they have no direct access to the sources of Catholic culture. This is a tragedy of the first order and something should be done about it. I have been told that now there are only five or six Latin scholars in Rome itself who are capable of translating into Latin documents like the Catechism.

The Fathers at Vatican II assumed that Latin would continue to be the common language of Catholic priests around the world. In their very first Constitution on the Liturgy they said: “The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (#36 [1]). But then, not really realizing what they were doing, they went on to approve the use of the vernacular which “may frequently be of great advantage to the people.” This was one of those “time bombs” inserted into the documents of Vatican II that most bishops who voted for it did not recognize.

Is it too late to recover Latin as a living language among Catholic clerics and lay scholars? Professor Clark sees certain signs that Latin could make a comeback. One of them certainly is the growing popularity of the traditional Latin Mass and its growing acceptance across the nation. The issuance by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum is another sign. Many young priests now are learning Latin so they can celebrate Mass according to the Extraordinary Form as contained in the 1962 Roman Missal. At St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome there is currently a revival of Gregorian chant.

A strong move to bring back Latin would be for the Pope to order that all seminarians studying for the Catholic priesthood must know how to celebrate Mass in Latin. There is a rumor that this is being considered in Rome. That would mean that all seminaries must again teach Latin and require at least a reading knowledge of it as a requirement for ordination. When I was being trained as a Jesuit seminarian in the 1950s classes were taught in Latin, our textbooks were in Latin and the annual oral examinations were in spoken Latin. At ordination, we could read, write and speak Latin.

Latin is a unifying factor for all Roman Catholics. I hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will move our Pope and bishops to bring back Latin as a sign of the oneness of the Church.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.