Latin in the Catholic Church, or maybe not…

March 25, 2013 by totalityservices

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Habemus Papam

When the 115 cardinal electors went into conclave recently, one intriguing question was whether the language used between these Church elders would be Latin.

After all, Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church, and all official business of the conclave is conducted in Latin.

Does this suggest that any last-minute horse-trading inside is also conducted in that language? Well, unlikely, other than on occasions where some of the more erudite members of the College of Cardinals might want to prevent their less classically trained colleagues from eavesdropping.

The Second Vatican Council and its very bored attendees

Standards of Latin in the Church have indeed been dropping quite precipitously for a while, as underlined by Cardinal Cushing of Boston, speaking at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), where debates were still entirely in Latin (even the ones criticising this arrangement). The good cardinal protested, feeling all excluded because “It was all Greek to…” him. Apparently, he “had no idea what anyone was talking about because … [he] … had never listened to speeches in Latin.”

The social chit-chat was dire, too. “I was sitting between two elderly, excellent, Italian Cardinals. They didn’t know any English, nor I any Italian.”

He was hardly alone: Bishop Maloof of Baalbek in Lebanon explained that many of those taking part in the Council didn’t understand Latin well enough to follow the debates, and was frustrated enough to add that should he speak in his native Arabic, hardly anybody could follow him, either.

Bishop Francis Simon of Indore, India, came dangerously close to giving the game away altogether when he added that “many bishops now taking part in the Council are using Latin for the first time”.

In light of the above, it seems hardly surprising that the Council went on to sanction the extended use of the vernacular in Church affairs.


The Slippery Latin Slope…

From then on, the bottom really fell out of the high clergy’s knowledge of its official language. When at a full meeting of cardinals in Rome in May 2011, Cardinal Melija started his speech in Latin, he caused widespread confusion and consternation, not least amongst the attending interpreters, who had clearly not signed up for that task. He continued in Spanish, his audience applauded.

At the same meeting, only the Latvian Cardinal Janis Pujats actually delivered his whole speech in Latin … to be asked by a bishop afterwards if it was Latvian.


The Unintelligible and the Mystery of Faith

As a practicing linguist, it pains me to say this, but this laudable effort to use a more widely spoken language may not be working so well for the Church. The truth is that a lack of understanding actually fosters a certain sense of mystery and awe, all really rather crucial when you want to keep the crowds interested.

This was marvellously summarised by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who in 1999 made an impassioned plea to “recover the Latin mass”, because the consequences of the linguistic freedom after Vatican II had been to “destroy the mystery of the Sacred”.

In other words, it’s much more interesting if you don’t understand it; a bit like pop songs in foreign languages really.


Rearguard action on Pagina Publica Breviloquentis, aka Twitter

To back up his words, the Pope jumped into the breach in 2013. After famously joining Twitter a month earlier (handle @pontifex, “bridge-builder”, no meal pictures as yet), he sent his first Latin tweet (@pontifex_ln for the real enthusiasts, but you knew that) on 20 January 2013.

Will this day mark the start of a glorious Latin revival? I wouldn’t bet the house on it, but it certainly sparked some lively stylistic debates amongst Latin lovers (the other kind).

Dies felices, eh, happy days….

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