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Why on Earth Should I Learn Latin? – Part 3/3

This is the final part of a three-part Rose. Each part consists of a 20 minute blog post (mixed video and reading) followed by a 20 minute study session. All three completed are a single rose.
For the introductory page to the rose, click here.

Reason #3 – Universality

Universality as a concept is not difficult to explain. In the world we have lots of languages. That makes it harder to communicate with other people sometimes. Communication is easier when everyone speaks the same language. Therefore when the whole Church prays or receives doctrine in one language it unifies us. This unity is helpful because the Church is universal – and having a common language around the world both strengthens that universality from within and makes its witness to the outside world more evident.

That much is so obvious that it barely even needs saying. But taken only on a practical level, it’s maybe not overly convincing in the 21st Century. After all, we have google translate, and enough people speak English – in the Western world at least – that one is generally not floundering entirely in other countries (even if a second language is handy). Isn’t a universal language specifically for the Church a bit much to be working out in the middle of all the other competing priorities the Church has to be getting on with in Her mission?

To really think about that question adequately, we need to make sure we are firmly grounded in what the Church’s mission is. We also need to be sure that we are thinking about the desirability of universality on God’s terms and not those of man. This is important because there is a biblical precedent for everyone having a universal language: Babel.

If you feel patronised by being asked to watch the above video, remember we’re all little children before God! And I thought it was a handy wee summary… anyway the point here is that though universality is a blessing, its existence amongst human beings in and of itself is not necessarily always good. When it is divorced from moving the human person to live in a way that is both grateful to God and intended to glorify Him, it can be unimaginably harmful. When you read the Scriptural account, you see that the confusion of languages in Babel was not intended so much as a punishment as a pre-emptive act of damage limitation:

“And [God] said: Behold, it is one people, and all have one tongue: and they have begun to do this, neither will they leave off from their designs, till they accomplish them in deed. Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another’s speech.  And so the Lord scattered them from that place into all lands, and they ceased to build the city.” (Genesis 11:6-8)

The people, in their pride, were moving further and further away from God. Confounding their tongues was a mercy because it stopped them from seeing through their designs – which ultimately would have been only to their own detriment, in as much as it would have led them away from God. Remember that in context Babel takes place after the story of Noah, and God has promised not to destroy the earth by flood again. In order to avoid having recourse to that kind of intervention, it seems He is willing to allow for a certain amount of disunity and disparity amongst human beings, precisely to prevent them from getting carried away with seeing through their own harmful designs.

In the video, it is pointed out that God had a plan to come down to earth, so human beings shouldn’t be trying to build up to Heaven. Our life on earth is not given in order to attain to earthly glory, or any glory of our own making. Rather by recognising our own nothingness and God’s glory we are called to submit humbly and lovingly to His Will and in so doing to receive in love all that He wills to give us. It’s the same thing with languages. The scattering of Babel happened for a reason, and if we’re going to overcome the problem of linguistic disunity it has to be done by the means God chooses to provide – and not our own human inventions – or we risk making the exact same mistake that was made by the builders.

Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it. (Psalm 126:1)

And if this all sounds a bit overstated or irrelevant to us, let’s take a look at another cartoon video – but this time one made primarily for adults:

This video is given because it helps to translate the humanistic ideas behind the tower of Babel into something more recognisably modern. But we need to apply it to our understanding of the reasons Latin is specifically set apart as a language to unify the Church. That is to help us differentiate between a secular and a sacred universality.

So we’ve learned a bit about Esperanto, and there are loads of things in that video that sound really good! Uniting people, breaking down a language barrier to build unity, facilitating communication in a way that is fair to everyone… What’s not to like? The problem, spiritually speaking, is that this effort is entirely man made, and if it succeeded conclusively would effectively say to God exactly what the Tower of Babel was intended to: “We don’t need you, and we’re working towards our own collective glory instead of recognising yours.” That might seem like a bit of a harsh assessment of something with no explicit blasphemy – but let’s think about things for a moment with open minded frames of reference.

We live in a world that is increasingly desensitised to the kind of order that holds God’s rights over men in any real regard. As Catholics we might recognise and and accept that we can speak objectively about crimes against humanity – terrorism, racism, abortion, etc. – but when it comes to God being God and that, in and of itself, imposing limits on humanity’s right to seek its own ends… Everything tends to get subjectivised and we tend to assume that we have less authority to say that something just isn’t right. Even arguments against things like gay marriage have to be brought back to their societal impact for us to feel that we have any right to put them forth – it is no longer enough to simply say ‘It is wrong because God doesn’t want it.’

Now for this tension to exist between the Church and the outside world is one thing – and to a certain extent seems to be inevitable in a fallen world. But the Church’s essential authority is not of this world. Therefore it ceases to be authentic if it doesn’t make appeal to God…

Let’s look at Latin in this light:

  • It wasn’t constructed for human usage, it was chosen by God (as we have explored previously). Providence arranged it to rise to prominence and fall out of general usage in such a manner that Ecclesiastical Latin could develop as something set apart for the Church.
  • In so far as Latin has a connection to earthly glory, it is to a glory that has passed away, rather than one that is being striven for. Incidentally, in the course of its passing Rome provided the ignominious tools by which the Son of God would redeem us, binding its history in a particular way to that of Salvation. And it will always be thanks to a conversation with a Roman Governor (perhaps in Latin) that we will have Jesus’ saying recorded that His Kingdom is not of this world.
  • Nevertheless, Latin does have that place in history and as such is not and cannot claim the ‘neutrality’ or freedom from imperalism that Esperanto strove for. And if that sounds like a bad thing to you, remember again that Esperanto was very popular with Anarchists and Communists! Human beings are not ‘neutral’. We come with different backgrounds, different cultures, different sexes, different perspectives and different callings. And that diversity is beautiful. Universality should be something capable of embracing these things without being defined by them. Latin has this capacity precisely because it has an objective life of its own.

The above points may seem abstract or theoretical in their application to a language, but remember what we covered in part two about the effect of language on culture. The things we do and the reasons why affect us spiritually, even if our assumption of their underlying epistemology is entirely incidental and unintended. These Faith Formation Roses are designed to give you things to think about in this area, not to make pithy arguments that can ‘prove’ my point offhand. You must discern… and to finish this segment I want to throw out one further consideration to round off our discernment.

“The day the Church abandons Her universal tongue is the day before She returns to the Catacombs.” (Pope Pius XII)

I find this quote really interesting. And actually it’s difficult to find in an original context so the attribution is somewhat alleged on my part – nonetheless I want to consider the claim’s grounding!

On account of the universality that it has facilitated for centuries, Latin is often held up as being God’s answer, given to the Church in Christ, to the curse of Babel. His way of providing a concrete, stable, universal language by which the Church is once again united. That’s lovely, but there is actually another phenomenon that makes claim to the same idea: the gift of tongues. Now exploring that claim is not the purpose of this blog – but I think its essential tenets are obvious. The Apostles miraculously spoke in many languages and thus were understood by natives from many countries…

As to which of these two make the greater objective claim to being God’s ‘answer’ – way outside the scope of this blog. However I’d like to make a brief synopsis of Church History that I think is interesting! N.B. this is a CURSORY glance – properly including sources and quotes would take too long – but maybe we’ll do a Formation Rose (or series) on Charismatic gifts sometime and go into more depth!

Anyway! Acts obviously pretty much kicks off with Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, and thereafter is replete with miracles etc. – the first public one being speaking in tongues! The witness of the early Church Fathers (eg. St. Iranaeus c.130-202 AD) indicates that this thing seemed to continue for a while but then not be so familiar (at least by the time of St. John Chrysostom, c.347-407 AD). Let me place a couple of historical landmarks in the middle there. First of all, in the 3rd-4th Century Liturgy began to move into Latin and it became the primary language of the Church. And in 313 AD the edict of Milan pretty much put an end to the persecution of Christians, within about 10 years Christianity becoming the religion of the Roman Empire. Thus begins Christendom, and Latin remains the Church’s language as things evolve.
Interestingly enough, Christendom as we knew it kind of hits into a demise as we head into the 20th century, with a huge bout of monarchy abolitions. Also early in that century, Pentecostalism starts – with tongues. Then in the latter half of the same century, Vatican II, a vernacular liturgy replaces Latin and almost simultaneously – BOOM guess what makes its way in a widespread manner into the Catholic Church?!

What on earth is my point? Well firstly not that tongues and Latin are mutually exclusive – however much it may seem like it in our clicky Church – I for one pray in both!! However they have distinct gifts. It seems to me that God will overcome the curse of Babel in His Church one way or another, however He has different ways of doing things. Of course miracles and Divine Intervention are GOOD – however as a general rule, it’s probably advisable not to completely overlook the more normative, structured means of striving to open oneself to God’s Grace in favour of being entirely dependent on the spectacular. This is the case for a few reasons, but notably because it tends to ground the soul in humility and because it seems to make the life of grace accessible to a wider number of people.

Christendom wasn’t perfect – you don’t get a system that is this side of eternity. But if you completely overhaul a society in which Christian faith is woven into the fabric of its structure (with however many dropped and broken threads), do not expect to replace it with an idealised secularism that welcomes the Church alongside it and respects what She thinks – for example about sexual morality or killing children. If the Church is going to influence society She has no choice but to do so on Her own terms – because those terms are determined by faith in the Unchangeable. Ultimately, to a greater or lesser degree, society will be formed by faith in Christ or opposed to it. If one wants to live a relatively peaceable life as a Christian in a world which fosters values grounded in faith, Latin is the prayer language, historically speaking, which bears the precedent – and, one could argue, the seal of God – for this state of affairs. If prayer changes things, and it does, not only that we pray but how we pray matters. And if you want to change not only your life and your walk with Jesus but the world and the Church, it is helpful to have at least few simple Latin prayers in your arsenal – because they carry with them that context. That is to say the context of a universality that looks beyond itself to God.

So that’s the end of this blog series – study session below to round out the rose!

If you’re convinced, great – OREMUS!
If not, no worries, I’ll see you in the Catacombs 😉

Final Study Session!

For Study Session #3, we’re going to do things a little differently. Up until now, we’ve been working through the blogs and then studying writings that back up or develop what has been said in order to deepen our understanding. This time there is no presentation of new material, but it’s time to take 20 minutes to recap what we know.

Take 20 minutes to answer the following questions. If in 20 minutes you don’t get through all of the questions it still suffices for the rose. If you get through all questions in less than 20 minutes, go back and go deeper! It will probably help you to take a pen and paper and jot down at least brief notes in response as you work through them, however this is not required so long as you spend the time with the questions and answers. It’s not an exam, and it’s definitely not closed book – so go back through the materials you’ve read as much as you like! That said, answers to the questions may not be given directly in those materials. The aim is simply to encourage one to consider deeply what has been learned.

  1. What do you consider to be the three main reasons that Pope St. John XXIII gives for upholding the usage and study of Latin in the Church in Veterum Sapientia?
  2. What does (or might) Latin’s efficacy as a prayer language (e.g. in spiritual warfare) tell us about God’s choice and purpose for it?
  3. Considering the materials you have read, did Vatican II itself intend to ‘do away’ with Latin?
    Could anything be done do bridge the gap between the documents and the experience of the Council by (a) the Church as a whole (b) individual parishes (c) you personally?
  4. Write a list of your favourite saints, like a proper mini litany – not just a few! Make a little mark beside those who spoke the same language as you as their mother tongue. Now from what you know about Church history, make a different little mark beside the name of any of them who prayed in Latin. Jot down any thoughts you have about the value of language and universality.
  5. Make a list of the best reasons you can think of to not learn Latin, and the best reasons you (now) have to learn it. Pray about the two lists and about how God is leading you personally. The aim of this rose isn’t to convince you you should learn Latin, it’s to invite one to consider the richness of the reasons the Church proposes it. However the Church proposes a lot of things and we don’t have time for everything! In freedom, decide what – if anything – might be your next step with Latin.

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