Seven years ago, in the run-up to the Synod on the Family, there was a mild controversy over the Pope’s decision to remove Latin from its place of honor as the official language of the meeting. By the time the synod convened the language issue had largely been overshadowed by . . . other things. Nevertheless, I don’t think the Latin question should be forgotten. I felt compelled to write the post below at the time, both because the Latin language is a particular interest of mine (as I explain in the article), but more importantly because the discussion of its place in the Church helps illustrate some important aspects of Catholicism. Now, with a rumored return to the bad old days of restricted opportunities to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass (as I discuss here and here), it seems like a good time to rerun my old (slightly revised) post:
Lingua Latina Aeterna
Thus the Roman tongue is now first and foremost a sacred tongue, which resounds in the Sacred Liturgy, the halls of divinity, and the documents of the Apostolic See. In this same tongue you yourselves again and again address a sweet salutation to the Queen of Heaven, your Mother, and to your Father who reigns on high. This tongue is the key that unlocks for you the sources of history. Nearly all the Roman and Christian past preserved for us, in inscriptions, writings and books, with some exceptions of later centuries, wears the vesture of the Latin tongue. – His Holiness Pope Pius XII’s Address to the Student Youth of Rome, January 30, 1949
Over the last couple of days I have been watching two gentlemen going back and forth in the comments section about the Pope’s decision not to use Latin as the official language of the Synod of Bishops. They both make some interesting points about the place and importance of the Latin language in the life of the Church. Their spirited discussion has got me thinking not just about the Latin language, but about some of the distinctive features of Catholicism.
A God of the Particulars . . .
Don’t get me wrong, I have some definite opinions about Latin: after all, teaching it has been my main source of income for more than three decades. Aside from my personal interest, however, the language itself provides an excellent opportunity for exploring a broader topic. And, really, it’s something of a paradox. I agree with Chesterton when he says: “It [Catholicism] is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” Catholicism gives us an allegiance that is infinitely larger than those other things that try to make a claim on us, such as political parties and ideologies, nations, athletic teams and any number of false gods, including The Conventional Wisdom; and it is not just something larger, but something truer, something that is infinitely true, because it is our connection to the Infinite Omnipotent Creator. At the same time, one of the Catholic Faith’s unique features among the world’s religions is its interest in particulars, following the lead of its Lord, of whom I wrote on another occasion:
. . . He is a God of particulars. He chose a particular people to whom he first revealed himself in order that he might incarnate himself among them in the person of the God-Man Jesus of Nazareth; he carefully chose and prepared Mary as the human mother of Jesus; he likewise chose and prepared particular individuals such as Peter and Paul to carry forward the mission of Jesus.
The Church has carefully preserved, in Scripture, in creeds, and in the broader tradition these names and the names of many others: and not only Saints, but Sinners such as the various Herods and Pontius Pilate. The Gospels often don’t simply tell us that Jesus entered a town, but name it, a place the readers (or more likely, listeners) would know, such as Tiberias or Betheny. We are told about real, individual men and women who were known to people at the time, in well-known places that you can see, where you can walk down the same streets. And it doesn’t end with Biblical figures and events: the Catholic Church has carefully preserved not only the names and stories of thousands of Saints over the past two millennia, but actual pieces of their bodies as tokens, as tangible evidence, that they were real people, not myths or abstractions.
. . . And Yet Universal
It may seem like a contradiction that Catholicism is at the same time the only truly Universal Religion and one uniquely focused on individual people and concrete things. But the living center of it all is the Incarnation, where the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word, becomes the Man Jesus of Nazareth: Infinite God in a finite human body. It is the glorified body of the Risen Christ that I find most telling here, particularly the passage where Jesus shows himself to the “doubting” Apostle Thomas:
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28)
Who would have expected the Glorified Body, the Eternal Perfected Body, to include the horrible wounds inflicted on the flesh-and-blood human body here on Earth?
It seems to me that the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body on Earth, follows the model of the Master in incorporating into itself many of those things that happen to it along the way. As St. Paul says:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
I’m not saying that the various experiences and traditions (including liturgical languages) that have been part of the history of the Church enjoy the same status as Christ’s Wounds. Rather, in the passage about Thomas we see a supreme example of a pattern that is reflected in lesser things as well. It does seem that God doesn’t want anything to go to waste, and that He can use those things to join us more closely to Himself and to each other. Just look at how the stories of the Saints, from the very earliest days of the Church, have been incorporated into her liturgical life, and how devotion to them has brought countless Catholics closer to their Lord. The same can be said of many devotional practices.
What’s Latin Got to Do With It?
This is where the discussion of Latin comes in. It’s true that it wasn’t the first liturgical language of the Church (and for much of the Church never has been). In the Western Church, however, the Latin Church, it replaced Greek within the first few centuries, when there was still a Roman Empire. For the past fifteen centuries Latin was the language in which great theologians (St. Augustine, St. Thomas) formulated their thoughts, and the medium through which Catholics, including most of the greatest Saints, prayed to their God and heard His Word.
That common language, on a purely human level, is a tangible way that we share in their experience. I often describe to people, when we’re discussing the study of Latin in a purely secular context, my experience studying English as a graduate student. I found that in the work of authors writing in English prior to the mid-twentieth there always seemed to be a sort of substrata of allusions and knowing nods to the literary tradition of the Greeks and Romans, and a rich admixture of Latinisms; most of this was invisible to the vast majority of my fellow English students who had never studied Latin (never mind Greek) or classical literature. They were simply blind to an entire dimension of the literature they were reading. Consider how much more profound a loss that is in the context of the Church whose Scripture, traditions, and institutions go back to a time before any language we could call English existed.
Of course, the Church is not merely an institution, and our predecessors in the faith are not merely our forebears: they are our fellow Christians, participants right now from their eternal heavenly home in the same Church, which is the Mysticum Corpus of Christ our Lord. If we venerate bits of their bone and tiny snips of their clothing, surely we must derive some spiritual benefit from praying the same prayers, not just the same thoughts but the exact same words, and singing the same songs as they did? We are both body and soul, and we need tangible things to help us understand spiritual realities. We can’t survive on abstractions: that’s why Our Lord has given us Sacraments. The Latin language has been one of those tangible things for most of the history of the Western Church, one of the most prominent of those things (sociologists call them “identity markers”) that help us understand who we are and with whom we belong.
Look Before Leaping
As I said above, this is not merely about Latin, because the gentleman is correct who said that the Church has changed her liturgical language in the past, and may do so again. No human language is essential for Salvation, and the Church will go on (see Matthew 16:18), with or without it; also, she continually needs to assess whether the things she has picked up on the on the way are really helpful for her mission (Ecclesia reformans et semper reformanda, if I may indulge in an antique tongue). At the same time, it would be wise to consider long and hard before jettisoning things that have a long history of uniting those of us in the Church Militant with our predecessors who are now in the Church Triumphant, and beyond them to “Our Father who reigns on high,” as Pope Pius XII reminds us. Whatever happens in future synods (and I concede the practicality of a language in which most bishops are conversant), we would be unwise to abandon completely the Language of our Fathers (Lingua Paterna) too quickly.