Teaching Latin to High School Students

Proficiency and knowledge of the Faith can come by way of the Church's treasures



Previously I addressed teaching Latin to Catholic grade school students. Now I’ll address teaching Latin to high school students who are Catholic.

As previously described, I used the Bible, Latin hymns, Latin prayers, and the Latin Mass to help teach Latin to Catholic grade-schoolers. But what about Catholic high school students? Unfortunately, their texts do not use the Bible, Latin hymns, Latin prayers, the Latin Mass – even in Catholic high schools. Rather, they will receive the same “classical” education in Latin that has been taught for centuries. This is heavy on grammar, light on Latin roots of English words, and above all heavy on pagan Roman authors: General (and later Emperor) Julius Caesar’s history of his military conquests in Gaul (now France); Virgil; and Cicero. And they may read the poets Horace and Ovid, the historians Livy and Sallust, and playwrights Terence and Plautus.

Fine. If we want our Catholic high school students to receive a classical education, then they can read these authors. To be practical, Latin language contests and Advanced Placement examinations expect this. But cannot Catholic high schools march to a different drummer?

For example, where are the high school level Latin textbooks that draw on Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), bishop of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of Grace, author of the magnificent Confessions and City of God, and lengthy works on Genesis and the Psalms, and dozens of sermons and letters? He was regarded in his own time not only as a master of the Catholic Faith but a master of the Latin language, even by the pagans. Consider, for example, the availability to high school Latin teachers of this 1984 text, in Latin, with English language footnotes detailing Augustine’s extensive use of Latin rhetorical devices: J. Campbell, The Confessions of St. Augustine: Selections from Books I-IX.

Also consider the availability to high school teachers of the 2012 book by Peter G. Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns. Many of these hymns are from the Roman Breviary, the daily, indeed hourly, prayer of the Church.

And also consider the availability of numerous texts in Latin of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.), the “Angelic Doctor.” He wrote in very fluid, precise Latin.

I say this: Catholic high school students who take Latin should become proficient in reading the language. They can become proficient by reading the Roman pagan authors about Roman wars and gods and goddesses and philosophy. But they can become equally proficient in the language, and learn their Faith at the same time, by reading Augustine and Aquinas — and Ambrose and Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux and Bonaventure and Duns Scotus and Anselm and Thomas á Kempis and Thomas More.

If that is too big a dose of philosophy and theology, Catholic high school students can read St. Albert the Great (1200-1280 A.D.), who wrote about botany, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, zoology, physiology, and more, and Roger Bacon (1214-1292) who wrote on physics, optics, mathematics, and more.

In an earlier day, Catholics who attended college, particularly Catholic colleges, might have read these Catholic authors in English. That’s not true today, whether they attend secular or Catholic colleges. At least we could make it possible for students in Catholic high schools who study Latin to read them.

Let the AP exam be revised, or an alternative one be created, for Catholic students who become proficient in Latin by reading the Catholic authors who wrote during the one thousand years after classical Rome, 500 to 1500 A.D.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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