On Latin

A thread on Latin at PrayTell: dead language or what?

caesarLatin was my first foreign language in high school. A neighbor kidded that I was training for the priesthood. My dad grumbled and muttered something about the medical profession.

When I was entering my junior year, a friend from Latin II and I were called down to the office. “We’re a Catholic school,” the vice-P said. “And we feel obligated to provide Latin III if anybody wants it. So unless you gentlemen want to transfer into another language class, you’re all that’s left for the third-year class.” My friend and I looked at each other. We had mercy on the administration. And so I traded Caesar’s conquest of Gaul for a basic tourist’s vocabulary of German.

Latin III died in Fall 1974. I don’t know if it ever came back.

As for the Church, I remember schismatics and clingers-on to the old Mass making Latin their last hill on which to stand. My clear recollection is that Latin got its bad rep from the people who wrapped themselves in its banner. Jonathan Ziegler at PT wonders:

I don’t deny that Latin has become a shibboleth of ideology in the church, but I wonder how it came about that way. Is this paralleled with other religious communities and their holy languages? It’s confusing to me because I know lots of very liberal high church episcopalians for example, so it’s hard for me to understand why preferring Latin automatically puts you on one side of the political fence, when otherwise you can support married and women priests, etc..

In 2015, the schismatics have rather declared themselves in or out of the Church, and the post-conciliar resistance has become fairly respectable in many official church circles. The boundaries of the liturgy wars don’t quite coincide with the culturewar: this is true.

I was thinking back to GIA’s rollout of Taize in the early 80’s. The original “yellow” edition had a lot of Latin, plus other languages. but it was followed quickly by the “orange” book, which was all or mostly in English–at least the more popular pieces.

I think another challenge for the advocacy of Latin as a sacred language is the whiff of gnosticism associated with a lingo that must be translated and explained by a class of educated insiders.

Speaking for myself, I don’t mind working at languages. It’s almost as fun as music. But are we now living in an age where it’s still prudent to expect people to work at worship? If all the world is Latin Rite or else, there’s a certain impetus to adapt. Today, if worship is unintelligible, then it’s competing with intelligible options in other languages, and other Christian traditions, or even “none.”

My sense is that the burden is on Latin: the music and spoken texts better be exceptional. Perhaps in 1970, that was less than necessary. Today, there’s no lack of outstanding church music in the vernacular–especially if you know where to look. And I’ve seen quite a bit of Latin chant over the years. Some pieces may have survived for centuries, but not everything in the repertoire is great music. So my question with Latin might be: why bother?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to On Latin

  1. Liam says:

    Fortunately, people are familiar with the vernacular of the people’s parts in the Ordo Missae, and they are repeated frequently, so a lack of understanding of the Latin meaning is less of an issue in that context (they don’t need to understand how to conjugate to understand the meaning).

    I am a stickler on the value of providing translations of propers or anthems in programs/worship aids, though.

    I do find that use of Latin in places it formerly hadn’t darkened for decades has increased. It’s not a flood, or even a river, but it is a greater stream, not a trickle.

  2. entheos1249 says:

    Because it is our cultural liason to the Ages. Our longevity as the Church built on the Rock finds proof in the Latin texts for books, Liturgy ….and so on. This is a useless argument when you end your article with a crass “why bother”. Why did you bother to diddle this when you have no convincing argument. Any fool can prattle. Just look at the media.

    • Todd says:

      Jesus declared Peter the Rock, but his language and culture was Palestinian Judaism. The Christian liturgy was originally in Greek, and when it was translated into Latin, it was more of a people’s Latin. Not a high liturgical language. But a vernacular.

      I asked “Why bother?” because it’s a question for people, an open question. This is a blog for discussion, and even implied name-calling is acceptable, where on other blogs, it might not be.

      The stream Liam speaks of is real. But it’s not a gusher. Does it add to Christian faith? Is it the same for Greek and the Orthodox?

      • Liam says:

        Actually, it wasn’t quite the people’s Latin. That’s a misunderstanding.

        Latin is part of our birthright. The faithful have right to not be estranged from it. I don’t view Latin magically, but I find arguments for exclusive or nearly exclusive vernacular as strained as those for exclusive or nearly exclusive use of Latin. Both turn Latin/vernacular in to shibboleths, either intentionally or in practice.

  3. charlesincenca says:

    One simple answer for one simple question I’ll offer, Todd. Put aside all of the philosophical issues and remember that the magisterial documents from 1903-c.1970 afford the ancient tongues’ principal place in the liturgies of the Universal Church. I’m not using that reality as a proof text sort of reaction. We have to, at most points in our belief and practice, acknowledge or refute the Magisterium, our Traditions and Authority that are given to us. You, of all bloggers, delve into all of that systematically. So the question should be simply “Why?”, not “Why bother?”

  4. Todd says:

    Just recall: I’m not the one that needs conversion. I use it, and have used it congregationally for over thirty years. People in the pews, especially those who do not have an experience of 1903-1970, may well ask the question.

    As for the documents of 1903-1970, not all of them are in full effect anymore.

    • Liam says:

      Well, you said *your* question might be that. Hence, the valid reactions to your posing of it that way. I don’t think it was particularly worthy of your standards.

      People may ask lots of pragmatic questions. Why can’t the homily be done in 2 minutes? Why do you use refrain Glorias that prolong it? Why are we sinigng at all? Can’t you do this or that at another Mass instead? Why why why?

      The answer is some variation on “there’s always room for better practice” or “the Church envisions this as a legitimate option and, unless we exercise the option with some regularity over an extended period of time, we won’t have gathered sufficient empirical evidence for its appropriateness or inappropriateness here” et cet.

      • Todd says:

        Got me.

        Since I’m fine with using Latin when appropriate, I suppose my question for more is “Why bother?” And I know a lot of people who get testy with what I do use. And I think Charles’ question is better, to just ask why. There are reasons, perhaps stronger in monastic, or some academic communities, to use Latin.

        Agreed with your statements on exclusivity.

  5. Atheist Max says:

    Latin is used by the church because of its precision. No other language so fits the particulars of legal articulation.

    That being said, Latin was my first foreign language in high school also. My father believed it would make learning other languages easier. It was an over-rated argument.

    But nobody cares anymore. Because Latin is roughly translatable (as are other languages) with a few clicks of software. We are witnessing not only the end of Latin but the end of the argument for Latin.

  6. David D. says:

    I don’t follow your schtick here AM but Latin is not a foreign language, it is a classical language.

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