In the 1973 film Catholics, Martin Sheen – playing a Jesuit come to bring a remote traditionalist monastery to heel – informs the abbot that Vatican IV has forbidden the Latin Mass and the Sacrament of Confession, except for mortal sins. Author Brian Moore’s dystopian vision has not come to pass, and one reason to doubt that it ever will is that if a future Pope wished to call a General Council, let alone two, the assembled bishops would not be able to communicate with each other. Unlike in 1962, when the Second Vatican Council opened, they do not have a common language.
Benedict XVI called Latin “the language of the Church”. In the Sword of Honour trilogy, Evelyn Waugh imagined a Catholic British Army officer arranging a Requiem Mass for his wife, who had been killed in the Blitz. He addressed the local, Croatian, priest in Latin, there being no other common language. CS Lewis conducted an extended correspondence in Latin with an Italian priest, now canonised, St Giovanni Calabria, for the same reason. By the time of Vatican II fluency in Latin among prelates could no longer be taken for granted, and a lot of work was done by experts to compose speeches and brief bishops about the significance of debates. At least in the 1960s hundreds of such experts existed. Today, they do not.
Readers might assume that the Church can carry on as a kind of religious United Nations, with scores of translators in little boxes telling assembled bishops what is being said. But the real work at the UN and similar institutions is done in committees, where business is conducted as much as possible in a single, mutually comprehensible language. Senior diplomats, naturally, are able to communicate fluently in the most important languages of international institutions, above all in English.
The world’s bishops are not diplomats or linguists, and they have no common language. In Roman synods they are divided into language groups, which means that they will never effectively communicate with those they may most need to hear: those with significantly different cultures, experiences and insights. The melding together of different views is not done by the bishops in discussion, but by the synod secretariat, in drawing up draft documents in Italian, which are then translated into various other languages. Hearing a translation of a translation of other bishops’ views, which may have been expressed in a second language the first time round, is a hardly a meeting of minds. This process is a terrible way to form a consensus, or draft a theologically precise document.
Proposing Latin as a means of communication may seem quixotic, but the problem with it – that many people would have to learn it – would not be avoided by choosing a modern vernacular. Should we work for the day when seminarians, and other educated Catholics, can exchange ideas in Italian, English or Spanish? We might as well learn Latin.
Latin’s advantages are huge, since it has been the Church’s language of administration, law, and teaching for 15 centuries. It is impossible, in fact, to engage seriously with historic Catholic thought and culture without Latin.
Furthermore, precisely because it is no one’s cradle language, it gives no nation an unfair advantage. Italians and Spanish-speakers may find learning it a bit easier, but English-speakers receive a special benefit from engagement with language with Latin’s more formal grammar. They needn’t torture themselves with Cicero’s convoluted perorations or Virgil’s metrical metaphors, however, any more than business users of English need to study Chaucer. Latin need not be hard.
This year, Pope Francis promulgated a new document on seminary education, Veritatis gaudium. It demands, like its many predecessors, that future priests learn Latin: not for the liturgy, but to the far higher standard required for studies. The few seminarians who actually do get a bit of Latin can learn some interesting things. While modern Church documents are drafted in a vernacular language, they generally have to be translated into Latin to go into the Church’s official records. This seems to have become an opportunity for a final review of the contents: things are toned down or tightened up.
This process came into public view when it was revealed that the first, French, edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church took a significantly more accommodating line on lying than the later, but official, Latin version. On other occasions, a progressive spin has been given to texts when the official Latin is turned into English and other vernaculars: most notoriously with the documents of Vatican II, and with the “old ICEL” translation of the Mass.
The problem is not Latin: the problem is the process of translation to and from a language that most educated Catholics cannot understand. It will not be solved until there is a language which most educated Catholics do understand. The Church needs a common language. The Church needs Latin.