Latin II: Why teach Latin?

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 favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.
— Verterum Sapientia

In addition to the many good, and still valid, secular reasons for learning Latin that we discussed last week, Latin is, still, the language of the Church. Pope St. John XXIII was a strong advocate of Latin, and probably gave the best case for it in, on the eve of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), with the Apostolic Constitution Veterum sapientia: On the Promotion of the Study of Latin (1962). (My emphases.)

“…But amid this variety of languages a primary place must be given to that language which has its origins in Latium, and later proved so admirable a means for the spreading of Christianity throughout the West.

“And since in God’s special Providence this language united so many nations together … it also became the rightful language of the Apostolic See. Preserved for posterity, it proved to be the bond of unity for the Christian peoples of Europe…

And, deliberately repeating myself:

“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 favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.”

This is especially true today: offering a Mass in English, or Spanish, or Chinese is, intentional or not, as much a political statement as it is anything else. Not so with Latin: no one “owns” Latin, not even the Church. Further, in 1962 an English speaker could walk into a Catholic church in Bangor, Maine, Napoli, Italia, or Tokyo, Japan, and follow and participate in the Mass. That is certainly not the case today.

“For these reasons,” Bl. John XXIII continued, “the Apostolic See has always been at pains to preserve Latin … For 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.”

St. John XXIII then goes on to elaborate on all three of these characteristics, in particular developing the importance of the characteristics of immutability (“modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority…”) and non-vernacular (“…a most effective bond, binding the Church or today with that of the past and future in wonderful continuity…”)

He also develops the educational benefits of Latin, laying out specific provisions for the promotion of Latin studies, and to restore the Latin curriculum in both the seminaries (where it had not, as yet, been so widely lost as is the case today) and in secular schools.

A few quotes from the Second Vatican Council document Sacrosanctum concilium are worth tossing out here:

“… the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way…” (No.4)

“… the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (No. 36)

“… the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in reciting the Divine Office…” (No. 101)

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy, other things being equal it should be given the pride of place in liturgical services.” (No. 116)

In 1964, Bl. Paul VI wrote an apostolic letter Studia Latinitatis: The Need for Latin remains unchanged.”  This letter was covered very nicely in 2012 by a ZENIT interview from which I quote here:

“… In recent years (2012), tentative beginnings have taken place within the Catholic Church in terms of renewed interest in the study of Latin. Among these are the birth of new religious communities and lay movements that have understood well how a most precious patrimony belongs to the Tradition, to the life itself of the Church, of liturgical, canonical, magisterial, theological expressions whose content is comprehensible only in its linguistic form, namely, Latin…”

One of those “new religious communities” would be The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter established by St. John Paul II in 1988 via the Apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei.

Also in 2012, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI issued a Motu proprioLatina Lingua, Establishing the Pontifical Academy for Latin” called for by Bl. John XXIII and established in an earlier form by Paul VI.

Finally, as a matter of Canon Law, following on St. John Paul II, Sapientia Christiana (1972) is Can. 249 from the 1983 Code:

“The program of priestly formation is to provide that students not only are carefully taught their native language but also understand Latin well (“lingua latina bene calleant”, lit: “let them be very well versed”) and have a suitable understanding of those foreign languages which seem necessary or useful for their formation or for the exercise of pastoral ministry.”

To finish up with an observation from Fr. John Hunwicke,

“We have, in other words, a coherent expectation in the teaching of popes S John XXIII, B Paul VI, S John Paul II, and Benedict XVI that all seminarians should become proficient in Latin, the language of the Church. And the attitude of the popes to the promotion of Latin studies in even broader contexts than that of the formation of the clergy is demonstrated in the establishment by B Paul VI of a Latin Academy; a foundation re-established and strengthened by Benedict XVI.”

Latin is not dead, nor is it irrelevant to either the Church or to education in general. I offer a final thought:

There is a painting in the Sacristy at St. John’s Church here in Bangor. It shows Jesus, and has the caption “Hoc est enim corpus meum.” Does that mean anything to anyone who passes through there today, especially the youngsters? I guarantee you, Fr. John Bapst (who established St. John’s in the late 1800s) knew what it meant, as did every altar boy who ever served under him. I want my children to know what it means. I want them to be able to access their Catholic patrimony, the rich heritage of the Church, which has been locked away in the memory hole these past 50 years. My children need the full strength of this Catholic patrimony, this heritage, as they go forward into a confused and stormy future. Even rudimentary Latin will allow them this.