A Tale of Two Linguists

The Second Vatican Council declared the Latin language to be one of the treasures of the Western Church, and decreed that it would remain the official language of the Church's liturgies, even while permitting local Ordinaries to permit the use of vernacular languages. My regular readers will remember that I am myself something of a fan of the Latin language, but my own view is that aesthetic preferences about languages should not be--indeed, cannot be--normative for everyone.

The truth of this was brought into higher relief for me this past week, when I had occasion to hear from two different amateur linguists regarding the use of Latin by the Western Church. One of them, a professor of Old Testament at the Pontifical College Josephinum and something of an all-around genius, told me that he thinks there is no future for the Latin language in the Church's liturgy and that, at least since the time of St. John Paul II, it has been declining as the de facto language in other official Church circles as well. His opinion was that this is a good thing, and he is frustrated that there are still some young students at the Josephinum who continue to cling to hopes that it will enjoy a renaissance along with the Extraordinary Form.

The other is a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminar in Detroit, who recently wrote the following in connection with Pope Francis' recent Motu proprio, Mitis iudex:
I can't help noticing, with regret, that both sides [in the discussion of the import of Mitis iudex] are debating points being made (or not?) in an English translation (accurately rendered?) of an Italian original (is it 'the original'?). And I wonder, since when has Italian become the international language of Catholic doctrine? 
It is one thing to accept the practical necessity of Italian for running the Vatican bureaucracy (or not running it, as the case may be). But it is quite another to have Italian serve as the vehicle for proposals officially expressing Catholic doctrine, doctrines that are, by their very nature, not national or ethnic but Catholic and therefore, to recall the etymology of the very word "Catholic", universal. If the relationship between conscience and moral norms really ranks near the top of topics to be taught correctly in and by and to the Church, then should debates about the written expressions of such a topic turn on appreciating the Italian way of phrasing such teachings? I trust the answer to that question is self-evident. 
Without getting into whether Latin is the "official language" of the Church..., Latin is unquestionably the primary language of the Catholic Church and, for well over a millennium, it has been the international language of formal Church teaching. The doctrinal clarity and ecclesiastical stability that comes with the use of Latin must never be surrendered. Fundamental assertions about fundamental aspects of Church teaching should be made solely in the one language that is fundamental to the Catholic Church, Latin, on which assertions, I say, let vernacular debates blossom with fruitful abandon.
I think both of these amateur linguists are wrong, but each for different reasons. The Old Testament scholar has confused an aesthetic preference for a normative one, while the canonist has confused, well, a lot of things, but mostly he is confused about the Latin language's ability to do the job he wants it to do. So here are my thoughts on these issues and, even though I am actually a professional and not an amateur, I'm not going to pretend that my opinions on matters of language have any real normative force beyond the confines of my own Weltanschauung.

To start with the Old Testament scholar: I agree with him that the demand for Latin in the liturgy has been on the decline among the faithful, and I also agree with him that affection for the Extraordinary Form is also in the decline. I suspect, though we did not discuss this, that he and I would also agree that such affection is misplaced. However, there are some parishes (St. Agnes in St. Paul MN comes to mind) where very effective use of Latin in the Ordinary Form makes for some magnificently beautiful liturgical experiences. My own view is that this is a great thing, but mainly for those who happen to have aesthetic preferences leaning in that direction. I don't really see any compelling reason to make it the norm for all parishes everywhere, since it is simply a fact (sadly) that Latin is not understood by very many people--including many priests--and if the proponents of the Extraordinary Form did not like it when the Ordinary Form was imposed on them everywhere then they should have no reason to think that they ought to impose anything on anyone either. So my own view is, and has long been, that making Latin liturgies available is better than making them mandatory, whether in the Extraordinary or the Ordinary Form. They should at least be available where sufficient numbers of people desire them, because this is an aesthetic preference just like the desire for hymnody at Mass (something not mandated by the GIRM).

That issue, then, is a strictly aesthetic one, as far as I'm concerned. But the issue of Latin as the language of canon law or doctrinal teaching is not a strictly aesthetic one, and there is more philosophical bite to this problem.

I agree that the Church has no "official language" in the contemporary sense of that expression, but having said that there is no mistaking the fact that Latin has long been, and will continue to be, the most important of the languages in which the Church chooses to express herself, if only for reasons of historical continuity, a methodological principle that clearly guides many of the Church's policy-making decisions. Canon law is almost always promulgated in Latin, but not because Latin is the official language of the church nor because Latin has any special claim to superiority in the expression of legal norms. Our canonist suggests that there are two principle reasons why Latin should, nevertheless, continue to be used "to make fundamental assertions about fundamental aspects of church teaching": (1) Latin [preserves] "doctrinal clarity"; (2) Latin [preserves] "ecclesiastical stability". I put "preserves" in square brackets because our canonist does not use that term, instead he says that "with Latin comes" these things, which is ambiguous between the idea that Latin brings these things along with it (where they might not have existed) and the slightly different idea that Latin keeps these things in place (where they have always been). I think "preserves" will work well enough for both, though it is also somewhat unclear.

With regard to "doctrinal clarity", one must immediately point out the paucity of the Latin vocabulary when it comes to matters of doctrine. It was, for example, the lack of a well-worked out vocabulary of procession in Latin that caused the controversy over the Filioque. The Greeks had at least four different words conveying different shades of meaning that Latin tried to compress into the single verb procedere. The resulting schism was undoubtedly grounded in many other issues, mostly political, but there is no denying that the theological differences between East and West that had been accumulating over the centuries were at least in part due to the inability of Latin to provide the "doctrinal clarity" that was already present in Greek. As a matter of fact, what most admirers of the Latin language seem to be most drawn to is not its clarity, but its ambiguity--this is what makes Vergil the greatest poet in the Western canon, according to many of his interpreters: his ability to express a wide variety of ideas in a very small number of words.

The Filioque is only the tip of the iceberg in this regard, but the notorious ambiguity of Latin, combined with its meagre philosophical and theological vocabulary, is only half the problem with our canonist's (1). The flip-side of this question is the simple fact that, if what one wants is "doctrinal clarity" there is no reason why Latin in particular ought to be the default language, because once you decide that there is to be a "default language" then any language will do, especially a language like English, which continues to evolve in a natural way via the use of native speakers who are able to deliver whatever clarity is required simply by explaining, in their native tongue, what they mean by a given expression. There are no native speakers of Latin, so there is no one who has the sort of linguistic authority to say "this is how I am using the term because this is how it is used in the course of natural usage"--all that can be said is "this is how I think previous users of the term meant to use it, and so that is how I am going to use it." But that does not deliver any kind of special "doctrinal clarity" that is proprietary to the Latin language per se. There remains, however, the idea that keeping things in Latin will mean that, at the very least, we're all still talking about the same terms that were being used in the previous centuries and, hopefully, the same concepts as well, concepts that we don't want to mess up by trying to translated them into our modes of expression.

This may be what our canonist was hoping to get at with his (2). This issue of "ecclesiastical stability" is rather interesting, because it can be taken in either an aesthetic or a doctrinal sense. Certainly the use of Latin throughout the Latin rite would make for some stability with respect to liturgical practice, but that is an aesthetic issue and not one that our canonist is trying to address. Rather I think he has in mind the sort of doctrinal stability that is alleged to come along with clarity and the continuity that I was just discussing. There are a number of objections that could be raised to this point. On the one hand, if we are talking about church polity, it is not clear that either clarity of language or continuity of use will be guaranteed by Latin any more than by any other language, since I have already suggested that Latin is not sui generis in the clarity department and even when there is great clarity of meaning people in general still find ways to get into disputes about normative matters. This disagreement will not be eliminated by continuing the use of Latin, since our canonist himself has already complained about the fact that discussing issues at two or three removes from the original is a dangerous way to proceed, and all discussions about the meaning of Latin terms are by their very nature already at a remove from the original, since there are no native Latin speakers. Everyone, even the fluent Latin scholar, has a different language template in place through which his understanding of Latin is filtered.

Our canonist softens his view, somewhat, at the end, by suggesting that his proposal is really only that, since Latin is the historically most important language of the Latin church, it should remain so, and debates can be in any language you like. This reduces Latin to a kind of antiquarian curiosity, and seems to me to vitiate any claims about its inherent clarity and ability to create stability, but I'm happy to agree that it's nice to still be able to buy books written in Latin, if that's what one likes to read, and I do. So if our canonist is admitting that, after all, it's really an aesthetic question, then perhaps we aren't so far apart after all, and de gustibus non disputandum est.


Marty Eble said…
While my Latin has become very very rusty over the decades, I still occasionally read from my copy of Alexander Lenard’s “Winnie Ille Pu” for entertainment and bring out during the Christmas holiday my little book of Latin Christmas texts, including a translation of the famous editorial of Francis Pharcellus Church which began “Virginia, your little friends are wrong.”

The proposal “let us make Greek the theological language of the Church” is not on the table. As your allusions to the Filioque controversy hint, that would have a lot of merit. Nor is there any particular merit to the use of Latin liturgically if the purpose is to communicate to the congregation. Its primary advantage is that those who do liturgy in Latin take liturgy seriously, which precludes banjoes or slide shows.

From a purely aesthetic perspective I would favor French in the liturgy.

But your canonist has the better argument when it comes to Latin for the promulgation of texts intended to define and bind.

Latin is the language of law, as Greek is the language of philosophy and theology. The Romans built the foundation of modern legal systems just as the Greeks established the underpinnings of what most westerners consider philosophy. Roman legal maxims are still in use - “justice delayed is justice denied”.

In a quick survey of filings in any court one would encounter “a mensa et thoro”, “actus reus”, “ad litem”, “animus nocendi”, “certiorari”, “compos mentis”, ..... “volenti non fit injuria”.

The reason these terms are used as legal jargon is because (a) the Latin language is dead, (b) therefore the terms are fixed in meaning, (c) because of the history of western law, those meanings are fully explicated in decisions and treatises going back two thousand years, and (d) therefore ambiguity is nearly eliminated.

English and Italian are evolving; new words are coined and old words change their meaning. For example in the 18th century the word “awful” shifted in meaning from ““inspiring awe” to “really bad”. In a recent experience teaching Koreans and Vietnamese English the word “polish” was discussed. Is it a noun, adjective, or verb? Is it pronounced “pole ish” or “pall ish”?

That sort of thing will hardly do for the promulgation of texts intended to define and bind. We need only read decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States to reach that conclusion. Within the Church, we need only see the mischief caused by poor translations of various documents - those of Vatican II, the Roman Missal, Canon Law.

My own copy of “The Code of Canon Law in English Translation” is the translation approved by the Episcopal Conferences of Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and South Africa rather than the American version, which is rife with omissions, errors, and apparent additions. For serious consideration my best Commentary is an English translation of a Latin original, with the Latin text for reference.

For the purposes of promulgating liturgical, theological, teaching, and legal documents within the Church, Latin has the best claim of the available languages to freedom from ambiguity and grounding in historical continuity for the Western Church. For the East, Greek does much the same thing.

Once we get all that out of the way, your canonist and I are satisfied, and we can throw the Latin raw meat to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the Canon Law Society of America, and other parties and pundits to spend a few decades mistranslating the originals and arguing over the results.

Popular Posts