The Papal Push to Keep Latin Alive

Modern popes have been urging Catholics to embrace the Latin language. Will we follow their call?

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 Paul VI

Especially now, most lay American Catholics regard with indifference if not suspicion the idea of teaching Latin in school. Did not Vatican II—and now Traditionis Custodes—make clear that Latin is obsolete and that an undue interest in it is a sign of pathological nostalgia? Why waste time making Catholic students study Latin when they could be mastering finance, doing social work, or cramming for standardized tests? Or so the conventional wisdom seems to go. 

Yet this pervasive disdain for Latin is not merely ironic but surreal, especially insofar as it is couched in deference to Church authority. Setting aside for a moment the decades of debate swirling around the Latin Mass, it would be difficult to overstate the fervor with which “modern” popes have commended—or even commanded—the promotion of the Latin language.  

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In Veterum Sapientia, for instance, John XXIII himself begins his affirmation of classical languages with an extended and eloquent defense of the Western tradition. “The Wisdom of the Ancients, contained within the writings of the Greeks and Romans, as well as the most illustrious monuments of the learning of those ancient peoples, must be considered to be a sort of dawn which lights the way for the Truth of the Gospel,” the pope explains.

Since the Fathers and Doctors of the Church “discerned in the most excellent of the literary monuments of those ancient times a certain preparatory program for souls,” John XXIII continues, we today must concede that the Greco-Roman legacy is of paramount importance, even if much of it is pagan, for “in the established order of Christian affairs, nothing indeed has perished—nothing true, nothing just, nothing noble, nor anything beautiful—which prior ages had brought forth.”

To be sure, the preceding could just as easily lead to an exhortation to read Plato and Virgil in translation, along with translations of the Church Fathers. (And indeed, such a Great Books program alone would represent a vast improvement over what is currently offered at most Catholic institutions.)  But in context, it is clear that John XXIII had something more in mind, for he goes on to observe that “the Holy Church has cultivated and kept in highest honor the source texts of this wisdom, and especially the Greek and Latin languages, as if they were a sort of golden robe clothing Wisdom itself.”  Hence, “the Apostolic See has in every age taken zealous care to preserve the Latin language.”  

In short, Pope John XXIII emphatically concurs with his predecessors, who “have not only, often and vigorously, held up the importance and excellence of the Latin language as objects of praise,” but also urgently gave “warning of the dangers attendant on its neglect.” Latin is critical not only as a repository of memory and insight, but also as a bridge for international understanding, one which may elevate all men’s thoughts through its elegance:

[T]he Latin language is most suitable for furthering every kind of cultural initiative among all sorts of peoples, since it does not incite jealousy, but is equally accessible to every race of men. It is not partisan, but rather, favorable and welcoming to all. Nor would it be right not to mention that there exists in the Latin language an innate, noble harmoniousness and propriety—“a way of speaking which is dense with meaning, rich, and abundant, full of majesty and dignity.” It has qualities within it which are uniquely conducive both to clarity and to seriousness.

As Veterum Sapientia is a substantial document, much more could be drawn from it, but it is worth emphasizing that John XXIII was hardly alone among recent popes. John Paul II likewise noted that “Latin is in a way a universal language cutting across national boundaries,” before going on to make clear why Latin is not merely a quirky hobby of pedants and aesthetes but rather the sacred responsibility of scholars, professors, and teachers. All such persons need some direct contact with the Latin writers of the ancient world, from Livy to St. Ambrose, and “one ought not to be considered a master of learning who does not understand the language of these writers,” stated John Paul II plainly.  He even went so far as to quote the philosopher Cicero: “It is not[…]so great a distinction to know Latin as it is a disgrace not to know it.” 

Of all the modern popes, Paul VI is probably the least popular in “traditionalist” circles, even as he is often celebrated among liberals as the harbinger of the radical changes of the 1960s. This reputation as the man who inaugurated “the spirit of Vatican II” is precisely what makes Paul’s repeated and unambiguous testimony so interesting. In the apostolic letter Sacrificium Laudis, exhorting religious orders to preserve the Latin Office, Paul noted that some influential voices had called for marginalizing Latin and that “some even insist that Latin should be wholly suppressed.”  

The pope was “disturbed and saddened by these requests,” and he explained why: “What is in question here,” he wrote, “is not only the retention within the choral office of the Latin language, though it is of course right that this should be eagerly guarded and should certainly not be lightly esteemed. For this language is, within the Latin Church, an abundant well-spring of Christian civilization, and a very rich treasure-trove of devotion.”  

No doubt devotees of the Latin Mass may note how Paul VI takes for granted the importance of a Latin presence in the liturgy, and that is a fair point. But the more subtle point made here by Paul VI is that Latin liturgy has always been embedded in a Latin heritage, in a culture of the classics. As interesting and in some respects meritorious as Scandinavian, sub-Saharan African, or Mayan language and culture may be, the fact is that the Word became incarnate in the province of Palestine, in the Roman empire, following the Hellenization of the Mediterranean—which means that Christians must have a special regard for Latin, along with Hebrew and Greek.  

And no disrespect to those latter two indispensable tongues is meant when we add that, for historical reasons, Latin acquired an additional importance as the language which defined Western Christendom for centuries. If more and more Catholics find it hard to understand and identify with their predecessors, perhaps that is because we are no longer all speaking the same language—the language of the Church.

Aside from the occasional honorable dissident institutions, such as Christendom or Thomas More College, few Catholic colleges even offer Latin, much less require it. As for Catholic high schools, this writer’s impression is that such institutions are far more likely to offer Spanish or Chinese—the languages of post-America’s new underclass and overlords, respectively.

Nor is there any use pretending that the remarks of John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II apply only to seminaries. It is risible to pretend that a Latin-fluent elite of priests and theologians can emerge from an amnesiac culture which has scrapped the apparatus for teaching the language. If we now have a problem with pervasive infidelity regarding Church doctrine, it may be because we tolerated long-standing infidelity in schools and universities which did not obey the repeated Vatican direction to cherish Latin.

[Image Credit: Pixabay]


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

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