Why did the Catholic Church use Latin for 2000 years?

When I was a fundamentalist I used to hear the Catholic Church had the Mass in Latin to keep people in darkness and from understanding what was going on.
Why did the Catholic Church use Latin for 2000 years?

Deleted, post twice.

I am not an expert. I’m sure others are much more familiar with the history. Latin was not always the language used in the mass. The shift to Latin was for uniformity in celebration, and if the shift was early it was because it was still a living language of the Roman Empire at the time. While I can understand the criticism, at the same time it seems beautiful to think of the mass being celebrated exactly the same way, even in language, worldwide. Keep in mind Latin was the official language of the Church even in later centuries (a common language known by members of the Church everywhere) and it was also a lingua franca even among the more educated of the laity.

That’s not to say I think it should be exclusively in Latin today or that it’s the best choice for all times and places, but I would not cast the use of Latin in a malicious or conspiratorial light.

Latin was replaced by the vernacular language after Vatican II. I grew up in the Catholic faith, went to Catholic school from 1st grade through High School. I learned Latin in grade school and high school. However, even for those who did not, our prayer books/ missals contained all the prayers of the Mass in Latin and in English, side by side. No one was “kept in the dark” by the use of Latin. When traveling to any foreign country, I could attend Mass and understand perfectly since the Mass was exactly the same everywhere. the Catholic Church is ONE, worldwide. Hope this helps you. :slight_smile:

Rather the reverse. The Catholic Church used Latin to ensure understanding. And even then it was not that in the beginning.

The earliest language the Church used was Greek. Precisely because IT was the language of the common man of the Empire at the time. When Greek started to be supplanted by Latin, the Church naturally followed suit.

Latin remained the standard for anyone could read. This ENSURED understanding, not hide it. In later centuries, when it was a dead language, it remained in use because it no longer evolved, so its words were extremely precise. This is why Latin remains the standard texts for Church documents to this day.

The Church still uses Latin as her official language for all documents, including the Missal (the words of the Mass). All of the others are translations. There are many reasons. A few:

  1. Latin is a dead language. Words in Latin do not have meanings that change. It is a precise language and very suitable for documentation.
  2. It is the root language of many of the languages in parts of the world where there are large numbers of Catholics.
  3. A Catholic can travel to any other place and still understand the Mass if it’s in Latin. Not so for the vernacular. Most Americans can’t understand the Mass even if they go to a Church across town that uses the Vietnamese vernacular or the Spanish vernacular, let alone travel to another country.

This is absolutely correct. Anyone who could read, could read Latin. And since books were extremely expensive (Bibles cost more than 3 years of wages before the printing press) it was very practical that they be in one language so they could be used for decades or centuries by anyone.

You have to remember, it took monks working months to produce just one Bible. So they wanted their effort to be as accessible as possible. So they were in Latin so that every literate person could read it.

Think of a small town in an out of the way place, who has little money. Their parish priest dies, and they need another. The bishop sends them a priest, but he doesn’t read their language although he can understand it some. But he CAN read the Bible, and the Mass is still said perfectly, and the readings from the Bible are accurate, and the faithful, who have heard Latin since they were young, can understand.

It’s only in the last 100 years or so, with the advent of modern entertainment devices, that people have stopped learning even basic latin.

Remember that the many Church groups, such as Cathedral schools, would try to teach others Latin in latter centuries, when the Language was no long the tongue of the people. They didn’t get to everyone, mostly for practical reason. If they were trying to keep people in the dark, than why did try to teach the language, so that people could understand?

Christi pax,


You are wrong here. Koine Greek was the vernacular and lingua franca only in the Eastern part of the Empire. The Western part was using Latin.

  1. It was the vernacular language in the time of the Roman Empire.

  2. Latin remained the standard written language for a millenium after the Empire’s collapse.

  3. Other European languages in the Middle Ages were not formalized enough and did not follow the precise rules of grammar, spelling, etc. They would not have suited theological texts, where every shade of meaning matters.

  4. Embryonic Romance languages of the Mediterranean (predecessors of modern Italian, Spanish, Catalan, etc.) all descended from Vulgar Latin. In the early stages of their development they were not very distinct from Latin; and I bet the Mass was still comprehensible for the commoners.

  5. One official language facilitates uniformity of the Church thinking and practices.

  6. Diversity of liturgical languages would not have provided for the unity of the Church.

  7. Translation of Scripture always involves subtle change of meaning, which might be dangerous at an early stage…

Allow me to quote Bishop J.C. Hedley in his book The Holy Eucharist:


One of the most striking features of the Western
Mass is the use of the Latin tongue. This usage, as it
need not be said, is derived from the Church of Rome,
the mistress, and, to a large extent, the founder of the
Churches of the West…
To any one who looks calmly at this question, it will
appear evident that the use of one unchanging and uni-
versal language in the Liturgy was a moral necessity, if
there was such a thing as one universal Church.
The forms and prayers of the Liturgy are intimately con-
nected with the Faith. Just as the Church’s canons
and definitions must be expressed in an official language
that must remain the same through all the alterations of
written and spoken tongues that time may bring about
or diversity of nationality develop, so her liturgy, which
embodies great dogmatic truths that every age and
country must acknowledge and make use of day by
day, must be expressed in an idiom which will not be
exposed to the danger and inconveniences of perpetual

Had the Church from the beginning adopted
the principle of a vernacular Liturgy for each nation or
people, one of two things would, by this time, have
happened in eveiy case; either the original liturgical
forms would be as obsolete and as difficult for the
people to follow as the English of Alfred or the French
of the early Normans, or else there would have had to
be alterations and adaptations in every century. Now
it would have been morally impossible thus to keep the
liturgical prayers on a level with the changing and de-
veloping language of the peoples of Europe. The task
would have been too vast, and too hard to organise.
Misunderstanding, heterodoxy, heresy, arising from the
incompetence or the wilfulness of translators and adap-
tors, would have taxed the vigilance of the Church’s
pastors to such an extent that disaster would only have
been averted by a standing miracle.
The spirit of nationalism, which must always be one of the dangers
against which the one universal Church has to contend,
would have found in the manipulation of a vernacular
liturgy endless opportunities for loosening the bonds of
As it is, the Latin unites the Western Church
together in one Catholic body with a union which is
that of a family or a household. Every Catholic is at
home in every Catholic Church of the world. More-
over, the Latin keeps the whole Church in union with the
See of Rome, the source and principle of Catholic unity.
The grand dogmas on which the Liturgy rests, and
which are interwoven in its very substance, remain for
all generations in that form of sacred words which the
teaching Church has authorised. Unity of belief and
fixity of expression must always be found together.

Emphasis mine.
Remember this was the era before mass (little ‘m’) communication.

Before the educational system in America became a “system” controlled by the government, to be educated meant learning Latin and Greek.

“Without Latin, I would not be as effective, as creative, or as articulate as a professional. Latin – as well as Greek and the classics in general – is essential to a true education as it provides a coherent matrix for learning and a context for all knowledge,” - See more at: educationworld.com/a_curr/curr357.shtml#sthash.4sdbOegG.dpuf

People who insist on one language just show their ignorance. I do not know how many times I was told Latin is a dead language and therefore a waste of time studying it. Glad I ignored the ignorant.

Yes :thumbsup: How can you appreciate your own langauge if you have no other language to compare it to?

Furthermore, to understand English, studying old English, old Norse, French, and Latin are basically a necessity.

Finally, there are wonderful, beautiful, and ingenius things that Virgil does in Latin that are impossible to do in English :slight_smile:

Christi pax,


When someone makes a claim like that the first question I have is, what is your evidence? Is there any actual evidence of this or is it just a claim? For instance many atheists will say the Christian Faith was invented to control people. Is there any evidence of this? Is there a document exposing the plot? Or is it just a wild accusation? I think in the case of Latin you’ll find this is just a wild accusation. There is no evidence for the claim but there are good explanations for how Latin came to be used.

I’d also point out I’ve been to a bilingual Mass a couple of times. At both there were portions I did not understand because Spanish was being used. I would much prefer a common language be used so that we all could understand.

Also, do fundamentalist services have translators on hand to accommodate anyone who might attend? If not are they trying to keep non-English speakers in the dark? Using the vulgar language is less of a problem for fundamentalists since for them the church tends to be just the local community. This is not so for the Catholic Church which is worldwide and even locally very often has people who speak a different language.

As I understand Greek is also an excellent language. We can see a deficiency in English in regards to the second person. In modern times we use ‘you’ for both the second person singular and plural. There can be great confusion reading Holy Scripture in modern English because of this.

I really struggled in English until I got to high school. I could speak it well enough but I didn’t understand the concepts they taught in class. When I took Latin English grammar finally began to make sense. When I learned German later my understanding of English improved even more. Please don’t let my current skills, which have atrophied, as demonstrated no doubt by various posts, reflect poorly on this claim!

Latin was the administrative language of the Roman Empire. Adopting Latin was therefore the easiest way to create a bureaucratic framework that nicely dovetailed with the Empire. And, given that Latin because the language of an educated elite, maintaining it served the purpose in restricting the corpus and knowledge of the faith to a class of a selected few.

Wow, great information.
Thank you.

She didn’t. You may notice that many terms that the church uses like Eucharist and baptize are Greek. Syriac which is also called Aramaic is the oldest language still in use in the liturgy. If you go to American Catholic Church the Eucharist is always done in Syriac I imagine it would be the same for Syriac Catholic or a Syriac Orthodox Church. I’ve been to a Syriac Orthodox Church since none of it was in English except for the homily I couldn’t tell you what was said

Because latin comes from the oldest language on the planet.



DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.