This guest article comes to us from Mr Andrew Meszaros, moderator of the Miami Chapter of the Familia Sancti Hieronymi, an organization which seeks to cultivate the use of Latin as a sacred and liturgical language, but also a living language of particular importance for Catholics.
One such major trend is the heritage of the Roman civilization and its language, and their role in shaping our history and our thinking from antiquity to this day, “pointing to the universality of the human spirit, whose basic needs” as Pope St John Paul II stated “are the same in the most disparate cultures.” (Fides et Ratio 72) This cannot be dismissed. He goes on to say, “The Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought. To reject this heritage would be to deny the providential plan of God who guides his Church down the paths of time and history. This criterion is valid for the Church in every age, even for the Church of the future.” (ibid.)
The Latin language is like a major river of knowledge that has watered many people and nations in the course of its long history. And as Pope Benedict XVI writes, “the Church of Rome not only continued to use Latin but, in a certain way, made herself its custodian and champion in both the theological and liturgical sectors as well as in formation and in the transmission of knowledge.” (Motu Proprio Latina Lingua) That is why “the Roman Pontiffs ... have assiduously encouraged the knowledge and dissemination of Latin.” (ibid.) It should also be pointed out that the Second Vatican Council, whose authority is often falsely invoked by those who wish to abandon the usage of Latin in the Church, stated plainly that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy No. 36).
Moreover, it is a serious misconception to think that a translation of one language into another can produce a perfectly equivalent meaning. Each language carries within itself a unique mode of expression which cannot be reproduced in any other language. Would anyone consider teaching English literature by studying Hungarian translations of English works? If absolute correspondence existed among languages, it would be very easy to reduce all of the world’s languages into one. But languages differ not only in sound, not only in form, but above all, in their mode of expression. Hence, vernacular languages can never be turned into some equivalent counterparts of Latin.
Three specific qualities, as St. John XXIII explained, make Latin eminently suitable for being the Church’s language: Latin is universal, it is immutable, and it is sacred. (Veterum Sapientia) As previously mentioned, it is universal as a substantial heritage of mankind across many and diverse regions and across many centuries, embracing the entire Christian era from its beginning to the present.
It is immutable since it is not a national tongue of any particular ethnic group subject to constant change. Today, students of Latin are learning the same language as the one spoken by Cicero two thousand years ago, while in four centuries Shakespearean English has changed so much that presently our students often need a translator to understand it.
Finally, Latin is a sacred language. It was prepared through divine providence (divinitus provisum est: Pius XI - Officiorum Omnium) to be transformed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and become the language of the Church’s social foundation on the rock of Peter in Rome. The entire terminology of our religion took shape in Latin and its full meaning can only be appreciated in Latin: humanitas, persona, virtus, aeternitas, gratia, sacramentum, natura, matrinomium, incarnatio, misericordia, and the list of words goes on. Even if we could somehow reinvent the wheel, so to speak, and set up some modern language as a new norm (imagine how well that would be agreed upon) it would create an enormous rift with the past. Languages are not interchangeable. It is not possible to jump from one language to another and to retain a consistency of thought.
In view of the above, it would be absurd to think that the Church might abandon the study and use of Latin, which “is a most suitable bond that binds the Church’s present age with the past and with the future.” (Veterum Sapientia) That is why the “Roman Pontiffs have so often extolled the excellence and importance of Latin ... warning against the dangers that would result from its neglect.” (Veterum Sapientia).
Finally, those who frown at Latin should take to heart the words of Pope Pius XI: “For any member of laity, who is at least somewhat literate, the ignorance of the Latin tongue, which we can call a truly Catholic language, indicates a certain lack of affection towards the Church.” (In quopiam homine laico, qui quidem sit tinctus litteris, latinae linguae, quam dicere catholicam vere possumus, ignoratio quendam amoris erga Ecclesiam languorem indicat. Officiorum Omnium).