“Veterum Sapientia” (1962) was a decree issued by Pope John XXIII to return the Catholic Church to a study and grounding in Latin. It was never put into effect. Instead a year later the Second Vatican Council dropped even the requirement that mass be said in Latin at most Catholic churches.
You used to have to know Latin to become a priest. In the old days in Western Europe that was true for doctors and lawyers too and for the same reason: all the important books in those fields were written in Latin.
But Latin has fallen. In the the 1800s popes still wrote directly in Latin and as late as the 1950s it was still common for priests from different countries to talk to each other in Latin. But by the late 1900s the catechism was written French and translated into Latin. Likewise, Pope John Paul II wrote in Polish and then translated.
It is still the language of record but no longer a working language.
Pope John XXIII watched the fall of Latin and through this decree in 1962 tried to stop it. He died a year later and the decree was in effect dropped.
But why stick with Latin? Here are John’s reasons:
- It is dead: The meanings of words hardly change, so it is great for writing about doctrine that is supposed to be unchanging down through the ages.
- It goes way back: Augustine, Aquinas and many others have been writing about Catholicism in Latin since forever. That allows you to follow and understand its debate of ideas in its native language all the way back, almost to the beginnings of the Church. And, beyond that, Latin and Greek take you back to the New Testament itself and the world of Greek and Roman ideas it grew up in.
- It is universally acceptable: The Church’s faithful speak all sorts of languages. It needs a single language to clearly lay out its doctrine, a language that does not favour one language or country over another. John says that Latin provides that.
- It is a sharp, clear language to write and think in: People who have had a Latin education always seem to say this. John says it too.
- It is God’s will: John sees it as no accident that the Church was seated in Rome. That made Latin, not Greek, its main language, which in turn allowed it to bring the Roman Empire to Christ.
Most of these reasons favour Greek even more strongly, but because of the Church’s history, Latin has become its native language. Latin is what it has thought in and expressed itself through for most of its life. To give up Latin would be to cut off the Church from that past.
An aside: John pictures the veterum sapientia (ancient wisdom) of the Greeks and Romans as providing the soil for the Christian faith to take root in. But that apparent rootedness took hundreds of years of debate and thinking and a good bit of book burning and school closings to achieve.
- John XXIII: Veterum Sapientia – full English text
- The Latin part of the Vatican website
- Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Language of African Literature
- Chinua Achebe: The Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature
- St Augustine
- Bloom: On Translating Plato - a great example of what gets lost in translation