Where Has All the Latin Gone?

November 2007By Mark Cole

Mark Cole writes from Warren, Pennsylvania. If you would like to receive a trivial Latin e-mail on a highly occasional basis, please contact him at

It hardly seems necessary to note that Latin no longer occupies the same place within the Catholic Church that it once did. Not that the average Catholic worries much about it; all he's noticed is that the Mass is no longer said in Latin. Yet the decline of Latin reaches deeper into the heart of the Church than that, deep enough that it has changed the Church in profound ways.

Consider one obvious example: the Catechism of the Catholic Church was composed in French, released in multiple translations within a very short period of time, and then, after several years of disputes over certain passages, the Church finally prepared a Latin "typical" edition, on which all the other versions were supposed to be based. Sadly, this is not an anomaly. The same unwieldy process has become the norm for Church documents (although in most cases no corrected vernacular translation will ever replace the original versions).

Latin was once more than just the language of the Mass. Latin underlay the entire culture of the Church. It was the language in which the popes wrote their encyclicals, the language used by philosophers and theologians, the language of Canon Law and Church documents, of St. Jerome's Vulgate Bible. Priests and religious from all over the world spoke to one another in Latin. The writings of the great Western saints and spiritual masters, the rules of religious orders, and the Western Church's vast treasury of hymns, poems, and prayers were all composed in Latin. Beneath it all lay the solid bedrock of Roman culture -- of Virgil, Juvenal, and Cicero -- which the Church had cherished almost as tenderly as her own offspring. Latin was the true language of the Church, a language that could always be relied upon to convey precise information because its meanings were fixed.

We tend to think that a translation is the same as the original. However, no matter how good a translation may be, some of the original meaning always gets lost along the way. An old Roman proverb put it more starkly: translator, traitor. Latin only makes this problem worse with its rather small vocabulary and often startling number of alternate meanings. These meanings can diverge extravagantly from the English-language meanings associated with the same concept, leaving the translator to sort out which best fits the original intention. The Latin author might even have had more than one of these meanings in mind. In some Church documents, words have been so badly translated that they obscure or even reverse their original meaning (I refuse to speculate whether this is deliberate or not!).

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Thanks for an excellent article. I couldn't agree more about the importance of teaching our children the Latin language. In our parish school (a Pre-K through high school institution) each student learns the basic Latin prayers (the Ave Maria, the Pater Noster, etc.), and attends daily Mass (which once a week is celebrated in Latin). In order to graduate from our high school each student must have completed three years of Latin, and many of them take a fourth year. I know ours is not the only school with Latin as its language requirement, and I have every confidence that the situation will improve in the next generation or two. Posted by: FrPhillips
November 07, 2007 07:31 AM EST
I agree with all that was said! Here in my area Redding, California the 2 Catholic churches will not say Latin so I have to go to a private Catholic Chapel who's priest says the High/Low mass in Latin and we have incense too. The other Catholic churches are like none-Catholic churches. Talking, no wearing hats or scarf on the head of women. No kneeling. etc..
Robert Mercer
Posted by: rhmercer
November 08, 2007 03:46 PM EST
I agree with all that has been said by everyone thus far. Our children (and their parents... like ME!) need Latin instruction badly.

I recently attended my second Extraordinary Rite liturgy with my family. I am hooked!

Most important for me is the fact that the priest celebrates ad orientum, and that the tabernacle is front and center in the front of the Church. If Jesus Christ is Lord, and if He is truly present in the Eucharist, then we ought to worship in a way that communicates this Truth. It is time for us to make sure that the tabernacles are restored to their proper location in ALL of our Churches.

I want to be able to put down the missal and understand and particpate without it. Learning how to partipate in the old rite takes effort, but the beauty and transcendence of the liturgy make the effort all the more worthwhile.
Posted by: eakter
November 19, 2007 06:23 PM EST
I agree completely with the underlying premise that the Church needs a Universal Language to convey its profound doctrines without error. I also agree that the lack of a Universal Language (with the decline of the de facto Latin standard) has indeed allowed egregious abuse in the Liturgy. At the risk of earning heaps of righteous ire, however, why Latin? Yes. Granted, there is Tradition, but instead of trying to "revive" a "dead" language (as some have called it), why not simply select another "live" tongue to be the new official lingua franca of the Church Universal? As part of the promulgation of the new Universal Language, all doctrines (and the Catechism) would be officially translated into the new lingua franca from the old (Latin). My humble suggestion for this new lingua franca would be English, as the same reasons for originally selecting Latin (Roman Empire political preponderance) now may arguably apply to America (or at least the "English Speaking Democracies" as a whole). This is not meant in any way to take away or diminish the profound sense of reverence which accompanies the Latin Tridentine Masses I have attended. I suspect the source of that reverence is not in the language used, however. Posted by: crideout
December 07, 2007 06:16 PM EST
Interesting aricle and good comments. When I went to Catholic school in the 40/50's, I learned the latin responses as an altarboy starting in the 4th grade. In highschool, we were required to have at least 2 years of latin. Latin is the basis for many of our words as the author states re the culture. I was always comfortable with the latin mass. When I went to college, the local church used to say mass so fast (low mass 30 minutes) that I gave up using the missile. They had many masses to say and sometimes had more than one going on in the church at the same time. I remember being surprised by a fellow engineer who commented on my ability to respond to the latin phrases in the mass. I didn't realize that some did not understand any of the latin. When we changed to english, I wondered why we didn't simply change the language but not the liturgy but it did allow many to understand what was being said who could not before. However, when I traveled abroad, I now could not understand any of the mass - before I understood all of the mass except for the homily. Now that we are hearing a lot about the Tridentine Mass, I realize how much I prefer the latin mass and how protestant (for lack of a better word) the mass has become - even though one who did not know the latin can now participate more closely. As the Pope said, the current mass seems to dwell more on the liturgy and the actors involved than on the real point of the mass. It has lost solemnity. Posted by: wunsch
December 21, 2007 02:06 PM EST
I don't know what my wife and I did right, but our youngest daughter, now 15, told me that her favorite subject is Latin (private school, of course). She began this year, and apparently the new approach to Latin is much more user friendly than in the 60s and 70s. They have mock newsreels with current events delivered in Latin, and a whole variety of smart multi-medial materials. She is eager to get to Latin IV by her senior year in order to read the Aeneid in its original Latin.

Oh, and if you're ever in London, the Westminster Cathedral has a truly excellent Latin Mass Sundays at 10:30. It should not be missed!
Posted by: NickPalmer3
June 10, 2009 04:41 PM EDT
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