Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Sharon Kabel on a Supposed Saying of Pope Pius XII

Our friend Sharon Kabel has just posted another one of her useful and interesting research pieces, this time on a saying ascribed to Pope Pius XII: “The day the Church abandons her universal tongue [Latin] is the day before she returns to the catacombs.” I had read this once before, and was recently going to use it in an article. When I went to look for it in what I thought was the source, the encyclical Mediator Dei, I discovered that it was not there, and in fact, could not trace it to any of the Pope’s published writings or discourses, so I asked Sharon if she could verify it. She posted the full results of her research on her own blog two days ago, and kindly gave us permission to reproduce them. She gives a bit more than I include here, but the sum of it is that while these words are consonant with Pius XII’s thoughts as expressed elsewhere, the exact quote cannot be verifiably ascribed to him.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
“(The) encyclical Mediator Dei is the source that is most commonly given for this quotation, but one will search in vain for the quotation in that document. Pius did, of course, discuss Latin in Mediator Dei with the famous quotation: ‘The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth.’ (parag. 60) So the sentiment of the original quotation about catacombs is not implausible; it’s simply not confirmed. It’s not in Mediator Dei, and checking something said ‘days before his death’ is above my pay grade and time-traveling abilities.
In the course of checking my usual sources and databases for any relevant keywords, I found several unrelated but interesting uses of the phrase ‘returns to the catacombs’... (but) I can’t confirm that Pope Pius XII ever said, “The day the Church abandons her universal tongue [Latin] is the day before she returns to the catacombs.” There is no evidence he said it, but it is not completely unlikely.
What I did find is a related quotation that has not made its way into any mainstream outlet, as far as I can see. Pope Pius XII, in an Apostolic Letter, said Latin is not a dead language and must be ‘preserved in its force and in its clarity.’ He stressed that the fact that Latin is ‘covered by the dust of centuries’ does not justify calling it a dead language. The Pontiff said it especially deserved to be preserved because it is an instrument which serves to provide understanding of the wisdom of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
... I also checked the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. The closest match that I found was from a letter in May 1958, ‘De Latina Lingua Rite Excolenda.’ (On the cultivation of the Latin language.) ‘Ex omnis aetatis igitur viris litteratis exemplum simul et incitamentum capiant discipuli, qui hac ratione certis innixam argumentis hanc detegent veritatem: linguam Latinam non esse mortuum quiddam vel exsangue saeculorum pulvere contectum** ideoque ad vitae disciplinam prorsus inutile, sed instrumentum atque sapientiae humanitatisque vehiculum, quibus, Ecclesia duce et magistra, noster civilis cultus effictus et conformatus est: eam igitur iure meritoque firmam etiam hodie servare vim et efficacitatem.’ (Let students therefore take from the literary men of every age both example and encouragement, and by this consideration, they will discover this truth which depends on certain arguments: that the Latin language is not something dead, or bloodless, covered over with the dust of the ages, and therefore wholly useless for the study of life, but rather an instrument and vehicle of wisdom and good education, by which, under the leadership and authority of the Church, our civil society was formed and strengthened, and therefore rightly and worthily preserves even today its vigor and efficacy.)
I asked a classicist friend to focus on phrases that I thought used “dust” and “clarity”. He translated two relevant phrases as, “that Latin is certainly not dead or buried in the lifeless dust of ages”, and “therefore rightfully and deservedly to keep this force and power enduring even today.” Given the nearly identical keywords and the date of this letter, it seems reasonable to think that this May 1958 letter from Pius (as yet untranslated in full) ... perhaps may have inspired the alleged catacombs quotation.”

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