Latin - Is it useful today? Why has it been so useful in the past?

How come we hold Latin to be such a sacred language? I understand that it was important back in the time of Saint Jerome, but it doesn’t seem to have the same practicality in today’s world. Saint Jerome translated Greek into Latin because Latin was what people spoke in his day. This is no longer true. So isn’t Latin as a standard for us no longer practical?

Greek was the Church’s language even before Latin was. Yet we don’t hold Greek in the same esteem. I might understand it if Latin was Jesus’ language, but it wasn’t, and we don’t hold Aramaic or Hebrew the same way we do Latin.

Today, is there any practicality for a lay person to learn Latin? It’s no longer the liturgical language. While the Vatican’s documents are primarily in Latin, they always have translations of them into languages that people understand. And in truth, the Vatican officials don’t even actually compose those documents in Latin; rather, they write in whatever their native tongue is and then translate that into Latin.

Could anyone give me opinions on this? Why would a Catholic – an everyday lay person, not a theologian reading Aquinas – benefit from understanding Latin?

Yes, it is worthwhile to learn today. No, I am not a Latin scholar but more of a Spanish dropout.
Latin is the basis for the so-called Romance languages, and even English would not be the rich tongue it is today without an awful lot of Latin roots. There are a lot of Latin words borrowed by modern German, too.
The sciences use a form of Latin for its universality, and the fact that it doesn’t change except for the addition of new words. One of the popes invented one of these words as he blessed a “helicopterum”.:wink:

I think Latin is a very useful language to learn because it is gramatically very precise, much more so than English and even more so than Greek. I think it is very fortunate that it has remained the official language of the Church, and I think that our tradition has been preserved so well as a result.

I do think that everyone would benefit from studying Latin, because it provides you with an excellent framework for understanding any language. I majored in Greek and Latin in college, and even though I never really “use” these languages, I do use the skills I developed in studying them. When I worked in the insurance industry, I had no problem at all understanding the precise language and grammar used in insurance contracts thanks to my classical education.

I work at a continuation high school now, teaching English to kids that couldn’t make it in a regular high school. Guess what? I have started teaching them some basic Latin and Greek to help them understand some vocabulary words that otherwise might seem unapproachable to them. They are really enjoying it.

If you ask a professional linguist he will tell you it is a fallacy to claim that any language is more precise than, or superior to, any other. English might well claim to be more precise because it has a far larger vocabulary than Latin (or most other languages).

Latin survuved as a common language of the Church and of the educated classes in Europe after the fall of the Empire. As such I’m sure it helped preserved Church unity. In the same way Classical Arabic is still the language for discussion among the educated classes in Muslim countries (the versions of “Arabic” spoken from one country to the next are mutually unintelligible).

Is Latin still necessary? No. The Vatican could just as easily use English which is now the world’s lingua franca. Or, for papial documents, German, since that is the Holy Father’s native tongue.

I think the reasons for retaining Latin in Church use are serious, but I’m not sure any major reversion to its use in local worship is practical. Among reasons for keeping it is that like all languages, it presents translation problems (look at the difficulties with the current English ordinary–the Germans have solved this by never abandoning the Latin ordinary) and that it is hand in glove with the Gregorian Chant, especially in the propers (not that the “proper” propers are much used anymore).

On this last point, however, it might interest people to know that a huge portion of the chant, including virtually all the propers plus a large set of texts from the Divine Office, has been set in English by Anglo-Catholics to the original chants.

There was a previous thread on this:

In everyday Mass it is useful as a source of unity, especially when you have Spanish Speakers, Vietnamese, English, etc… This would be extremely useful for uniting Parishes which are pretty much being segregated by having separate Masses for each language.
Los Angeles would be a great place for it, but that probably wont happen unless a lot of prayers are answered.

This doesn’t mean the whole Mass needs to be in Latin but at least some to allow everyone to participate and to actually teach people the language of the Church. If we want “full participation” we should use the universal language of the Church and at least teach parts of the Mass to people so they can participate.

I have been to Masses where there was a little bit of Latin inserted and everyone could participate. (I live in California where there usually is a couple languages spoken)
Now since we are a worldwide church shouldn’t we try and unite more and teach unity more so that we can worship together.
How many languages do you see here?

For some reason it seems that the dissenters really have a distaste for Latin, almost a hate for it. Others have picked up on this as if Latin is something bad, my last RCIA class after the girl I was sponsering dropped out, they were saying “thank God we don’t speak Latin anymore”.
Why? Why the dislike?

Would it be practical\holy for English to be the official uniting language?

In Christ

The sanctity of Latin is rather an illusion. As is the antiquity of the Tridentine rite. Latin was one of the languages on the inscription above the cross, but is not otherwise a scriptural language. The Tridentine rite belongs to the Early Modern period. The passage of years gives them an aura of specialness.

However in my opinion a Catholic school that doesn’t teach Latin isn’t worthy of the name. We do not teach academic subjects only because they are useful, but also because they are of interest. The man with Latin has access to the past in a way that a man who only speaks modern languages can never appreciate. You may hold that history is bunk, but how else are we to challenge the Muslims, Protestants, and atheists?

I wouldn’t hold Latin to be essential. Personally, I have put most of my efforts into Hebrew, though I have school-level Latin. No one can master the sum total of human knowledge. However if you wish to be a thinker rather than just the average bloke in the pew, then you have to take an interest in at least some intellectual subjects outside your line of work. Latin is a very good choice.

The Church as One Family has one common language to as a sign of our union and as a practical
bridge over the language barrier of the truly universal Church.

I thought I remembered being taught it was a “dead language” therfore its meanings do not change over time.

After the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the West, Latin (albeit not a Latin that the Classical authors such as Cicero, Caesar or Vergil would have recognised as fit for literary purposes) was one thing that survived. The Church in the West by then had a tradition of Christian Latin going back 300 years. The vernaculars - the languages spoken by ordinary people - emerged only later; & the literatures in them later still.

IOW, there were good historical reasons for the predominance of Latin in (much of) Western Europe.

Latin also had the prestige of a sacred language, as it had been used for the title over the Cross.

And Catholicism is a tradition-minded religion - so the Vulgate, which had been rather shockingly modern at first, having displaced other versions in Latin older than itself, managed to become traditional as time passed - so that by the time of the earliest fragments of Old French, it was 440 years old; older than the AV-KJV & the Challoner-Reims Bibles are now. So by the time of the earliest fragments of the Bible in French, it was even older. So most Western vernaculars had, by contrast, no status at all in comparison.

Even now, we do a lot of our thinking in Latinised English - which is why it is possible to read of the “porrection of the instruments” The catechist I mentioned this to, refused to believe I hadn’t invented it :slight_smile: - it is Latin English for the “extension of the instruments” (that is, of the paten & chalice) to the newly-ordained priest in the rite of Ordination as it was before 1944.

Latin is necessary to read the learned literature of the years before 1700 or so. Newton’s Principia, published in 1687, was in Latin. Milton wrote in Latin as well as in his own tongue; so did Calvin. As for Catholic theologians, they can’t be understood without Latin - this is as true for those writing in 1940 as for those of 490. Without Latin, a very great deal of the intellectual work of the past is a sealed book.

I’m all in favour of pure, jargon-free, Latin - there is no reason why it cannot be used today.

Si res novas inquiris, spectate illic



Gaudete !

Gottle, Gottle, Gottle!!! Please! Some of us who enjoy reading your posts are reaching that age where we need a bigger font!

As for the above, there was a discussion of this on these forums and someone posted information that this idea was actually condemned. And if it wasn’t, it should have been, not so much as heretical as simply silly. Pilate wanted those who passed by, who COULD read, to be aware of what got Christ crucified, so he posted it in the languages most likely to be read in that region. If it had happened in Egypt, would hieorglyphs have been sacred? If it happened in Babylon, would cuneiform have been holy? It was an accident of empire. The purpose of language is to convey meaning. The above renders Latin no more ontologically sacred than the grafitti in Pompeii renders it foul.

Latin is necessary to read the learned literature of the years before 1700 or so. Newton’s Principia, published in 1687, was in Latin. Milton wrote in Latin as well as in his own tongue; so did Calvin. As for Catholic theologians, they can’t be understood without Latin - this is as true for those writing in 1940 as for those of 490. Without Latin, a very great deal of the intellectual work of the past is a sealed book.

I think this is the main problem with the de-emphasis on Latin that has happened in more recent times. There are a lot of great works out there, from ECF’s to documents from various Roman Congregations to theology treatises and all sorts of other things that have been rendered practically useless to the vast majority of people who don’t even have a basic working knowledge of Latin.

For instance, I found a little pamphlet entitled “Instructio Pro Confessariis” that deals with contraception, onanism, etc. and while much of it is in English there are lengthy quotes from old documents issued by Congregations that are all in Latin, old Papal documents all in Latin, and all sorts of legal terminology in Latin sprinkled throughout. I read it and could get the jist of most of the legal terminology and some of the quotes but the rest is beyond my basic knowledge of Latin and I can not find any translations of these documents.

While they may exist somewhere, the point is that there are lots of pertinent documents that have never been translated out of Latin because at the time everyone that needed to know or had a decent reason to read this stuff knew enough Latin. I’m planning on learning it, but it is certainly more beneficial for everyone to be required to do so whether that is of interest or not. Also, it is always best to be able to read original documents in the original language. Sometimes translations are lacking or in recent times have been subject to certain biases that may hide the original intention and meaning.

I would assert that the Church DOES regard Greek and Hebrew as being important, esp. in the area of biblical scholarship. Latin would have the same importance and, with Greek, would be important in the area of liturgical scholarship. It was also once the mark of the truly well- educated that they had some instruction in Latin.

The Church usage aside…
I took 2 years of Latin in school because at the time (1960), it was a requirement for an academic curriculum.
I will say that it has helped me greatly through the years with the English language.

We can do the Kyrie in Greek, and I think it is a good idea. My parish has started singing the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei in Latin again. The rest of the Mass is in English (NO). It makes for a very reverent Mass and ties us to our roots, so to speak.

I would consider studying Latin to improve my vocabulary, and my abillity to spell, which is hideous. I wouldn’t ONLY study Latin, I would also continue to study Spanish. Of course, if I had my way, I’d be fluent in Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese and Japanese. Oh, and Portuguese. But that’s just not likely.

Rident stolidi verba Latina - “Fools laugh at the Latin language” - Ovid

Non tam praeclarum est scire Latine, quam turpe nescire - “It is not so excellent to know Latin as it is disgraceful not to know it” - Cicero

In all seriousness… the original poster makes some dubious assumptions. The most important papal documents that are addressed for the universal Church (ie: Enyclicals, Apostolic Constitutions, letters) are first written in Latin, then translated to modern languages (ie: English, French). In fact, the Church holds that the original Latin text of such a writing is the only official version, while the translations into modern languages are subject to the Latin original and are merely that… (unofficial) translations. The Popes of the Church throughout the centuries (even up to Pope John Paul II) have continued praising those who study and use the Latin language as doing a great service for the Church. Also to stay true to likelihoods and possiblities, it’s quite likely Jesus spoke some Greek (in Scriptural accounts), such as to Paul on the road to Damascus, and possibly spoke some Latin, such as to the Roman centurion in Matthew chapter 8.

I guarantee you… it’s no accident that Latin is the sacred language of the Holy Church. Divine Providence has given the Church the Latin language to unify and evangelize the world after the earthly ministry of Jesus. Latin was like the “prepared vessel” that allowed Christian theology to be explained and the Gospel of Christ to spread quickly. Latin (in the Church) is the unenvious “non-vernacular” language that does not favor anyone’s native tongue. Sure it’s quite easy for English-speakers in today’s world to say “just speak English” without regard for those who would want the Church to speak in their own native language. But little do most Christians know, nonetheless Catholics or English-speakers in general, that English would practically disappear if one was to remove all the Latin from it, especially if you want to speak about things catholic. You would have to get rid of “resurrection, incarnation, confession, communion, confirmation, sacrament, liturgy, orders, matrimony, procreation, fidelity, beautific vision…” the list goes on and on. One could even argue that without the Latin language, chaos would have long ago ensued in the Church. Latin is the standard for our Liturgy, prayers, and Gregorian chant. The Latin Vulgate bible is the official bible of the Holy Church.

It really is unfortunate that not many Catholics today take to learn our common language. It is the equivalent if Jews did not care to learn Hebrew.

Alright, but my question pertained to practising Catholics. Why would a lay person benefit from Latin with his or her life as an active Catholic?

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