Does the Catholic Church need Latin? I came across a comment by a priest on Twitter recently who, while admittedly trying to gently provoke his followers, stated that he didn’t think Latin was anything special or sacred. He was speaking about the Mass, but there are many who don’t see any purpose for that venerable tongue in the Church today. Most Roman Catholics now worship in the vernacular, and one could argue that with good translations available, Catholics do not need to acquaint themselves with it, outside of a few specialists.
Now, as someone whose Latin is admittedly rudimentary, I am not the best candidate to defend the sacrality of the Latin tongue. But I do think the good priest (and those who think as he does) deserves an explanation as to why it is and should be sacred to Roman Catholics, even ordinary Catholics who are not theologians and translators.
First, I think it should be clear that it is the Church’s Latin that is sacred and not Latin in general. No one thinks Catholics need to be able to read Cicero or fifteenth-century humanist poets (though Pius XII did once commission a translation of the psalter into classical Latin, which no one liked). It is the Latin of Western Church Fathers, of the Vulgate, the Roman Canon, the “Dies Irae” and many other ancient texts that is sacred to Catholics. If it is not obvious, this question of Latin is bound up with the Old Roman Rite, since it is one of the oldest expressions of this Latin, and one that has been hallowed by the many saints who worshiped in that rite down the ages.
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Latin has been the vehicle for the Western Church’s theology since the third century A.D. From Sts. Augustine and Ambrose in late Antiquity, to Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus in the medieval period, to the scholastic thinkers of the early modern period and the Scholastic revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its precision and clarity has shaped the Church’s teaching. At a minimum, there need to be experts in this subject so we can understand these holy men whose words are foundational for our own beliefs.
Even more important than this is the fact that ecclesiastical Latin was the medium in which the earliest traditions of the Roman Church were recorded. For most of the Roman Church’s history, these traditions have been considered to be of apostolic origin. (I am aware that more skeptical theologians might say otherwise, but I heartily disagree.) Though St. Peter and the earliest apostles almost certainly did not speak this language, the traditions they passed on were, for the most part, only given written form in the Latin tongue when the Church became free from persecution in the fourth century.
The Catholic faith, as it emerged after the conversion of Constantine, took shape in the Latin language. The Roman Canon is one of the oldest Eucharist prayers in existence, dating from the late fourth century or earlier, and it is a witness to early beliefs about the Eucharist. St. Jerome’s Vulgate was the first translation of the entire Christian Bible into a single language, and it was the version of the Bible in which later Catholic theologians encountered Scripture.
When the Church of Rome began to determine the canon of the Bible in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, it identified which books were inspired by their use in its liturgy. Given that these traditions are the basis for so much that is distinctive about Catholic theology, (such as claims about Roman primacy, whose first detailed expressions date from the fourth century), it strikes me as insane to banish Latin from the Church’s life altogether.
The Latin of the Church is a living link to its ancient past, in other words. In a world that is radically changing, even chaotic, such links are not merely ornamental accoutrements. They ground the Church’s identity in an age of confusion. I sometimes think those outside the Church understand this better than Catholics themselves. Even today, in our secular society, horror films still inject Latin phrases into their dialogue to embody some sort of ancient power, good or evil. In the Middle Ages, Byzantine emperors would mumble a few Latin words at their coronation, long after it ceased to be a spoken language in Eastern Rome, to emphasize their connection to the Roman Empire of the Emperor Constantine the Great.
Of course, there are many other reasons besides historical ones for Catholics to know at least some Latin, especially for liturgical or devotional purposes. The long development of Latin, honed by saints and countless ordinary faithful over the centuries, gives it a suppleness and expressiveness that is unique and irreplaceable.
I am sensitive to two criticisms on this point. One is that expecting the laity to know Latin is elitist or somehow creates an inequality between those who can and cannot understand it. As to this alleged elitism, I don’t hear it as often as I used to, but I recall Catholics of a certain persuasion liked to proclaim that today’s Catholics represented “the most educated laity in history.” This being the case, surely it would not be “elitist” to expect Catholics to know a few Latin prayers, like the Pater Noster or the Ave Maria? (Though American Catholics tend to share their fellow citizens’ lack of proficiency or even interest with foreign languages, which might make this more difficult.)
Another criticism I take more seriously is that Christian worship should be rational; that one should understand what one is saying when one prays to God. It is true that the worship of God should not resemble a pagan mystery cult, but one can take this in the wrong direction, making of prayer and liturgy a mere matter of transmitting information.
Something like 60 percent of human communication is non-verbal, not to mention tone, inflection, and other “non-rational” sources of meaning besides the contents of language. And, of course, for the Mass, dual language missals and booklets have long been available, so one can follow what’s going on at a Mass in Latin if that is the objection. In any case, the liturgy is expressive of the greatest mystery in the universe, and who can expect to “understand” all of it in any language?
I suspect part of the objection to the use of Latin is peculiar to our age. Ever since the 1960s, the obsession with “multiculturalism” has made Catholics overly sensitive about their “triumphalist” past. There is some truth to this. Catholics in the past often touted Latin as if it were the universal language of the universal Church rather than the Western Church. The “Latinization” of several Eastern Churches in the past attests to this fact (though this phenomenon is more complicated than some would think). In any case, Latin is not the only sacred tongue of the universal Church, since most of its early definitions of faith are in Greek (and in the Roman liturgy in the form of the Kyrie).
But the reaction against Latin, which seeks to completely replace Latin with the vernacular, perpetuates the errors of Latinizers by imposing an alien tradition on what is unique and valuable to another tradition, on one crucial aspect of its essential form. One can love one’s tradition, value its uniqueness, without disparaging that of others, imagining it is either totally meaningless or that it should absorb every other tradition in Borg-like fashion. The Western Church’s mother tongue is unique and invaluable, and failing to uphold it is like watching Notre Dame Cathedral burn down and thinking, “No big deal. It was old anyway.”
One might not be convinced by all this and still think the Church Catholic can get along fine without Latin. One must admit that there is some truth to this. Latin is only a necessity for the Western Church. We have no promise from our Lord that there will always be a Western Church, only that the universal Church itself will be preserved.
But then that is precisely what is at issue. Some today appear to want anything identifiable as “the Western Church” to disappear, perhaps because they view its past as irredeemably tainted by racism, colonialism, sexism, triumphalism, or other “isms.” The increasing efforts, even by the Vatican itself, to strip the Roman Church of its historical forms and create a generic Modern Church for Modern People, suggest such a motive.
This would be a disaster, in my opinion. Stripping the Western Church of its most recognizable features will only hasten its demise because then it would become indistinguishable from any other institution. Catholics are supposed to believe that Christ founded a visible Church, one that is recognizably distinct from “the world.”
That is why, as far as possible, the most ancient traditions of the universal Church should be preserved, including those of the Latin tradition. The Christian faith is not historically formless clay that can be reshaped at will without consequence. Only by maintaining its historic forms can it hope to survive and flourish; and in that sense, Latin is still very much necessary for Western Rite Catholics to know, and cherish.