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The New Pontifical Academy for Latin Print E-mail
By Tracey Rowland   
Thursday, 15 November 2012

Pope Benedict has just announced the creation of a new Pontifical Academy for Latin, which will be linked to the work of the Pontifical Council for Culture. It’s a good moment to do so.

            The study of Latin has been in the doldrums ever since Catholics parted with “the speech of Christian centuries” and became “like profane intruders in the literary precincts of sacred utterance” (to quote from the General Audience Address of Paul VI on November 26, 1969). 
            In the 1960s the study of Latin went out at about the same pace as the practice of wearing hats and gloves to Mass.  In my school in provincial Australia, the subject was entirely dropped from the curriculum and replaced by the more commercially oriented Japanese.  Our local economy ran on coal and beef (which was exported to Japan) and the Iwasaki Resort, a holiday destination for wealthy (predominantly Japanese) golfers. 
            Not only in provincial Australia, but in the world at large, “relevance” was then a buzzword, and being relevant meant being economically competitive or otherwise able to improve one’s standard of living.
            While there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve one’s standard of living, it does become a problem if this objective is treated as a highest good to which all else is subordinated.
            The practice of correlating education to the acquisition of market-driven “skills” has led to a general impoverishment of the cultural capital of the entire Western world.  This is a particular problem for the Church because philistinism is toxic to what Pope Benedict calls “the humanism of the Incarnation.”
            One notable exception who held out against the rising tide of philistinism was the Discalced Carmelite priest, Fr. Reginald (Reggie) Foster (originally from the archdiocese of Milwaukee). He began to teach Latin at the Gregorian University in the 1970s.  Fr. Foster formerly worked for the “Latin Letters” section of the Secretariat of State in the Vatican, which was once responsible for sending briefs to princes. 
            In 1985, Fr. Foster began offering a series of Summer Latin intensives known as the Aestiva Romae Latinitas.  Students from all over the world attended these classes.  He eventually found himself in some trouble with the accountants at the Gregorian for not charging his poorer students.  Nonetheless, he managed to form another couple of generations of Latin scholars who can take up his work at the newly created Pontifical Academy.

            Fr. Foster was fond of reading the sermons of St. Leo of the Great in Latin and so it was highly appropriate that Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio “Lingua Latina,” establishing the Academy, was promulgated on the Feast of St. Leo the Great.
            The aims of the Academy are: (a) to promote the knowledge and study of the Latin language and literature in its classical, patristic, medieval, and humanistic forms, especially in Catholic educational institutions in which both seminarians and priests are formed and instructed; and (b) to promote in different spheres the use of Latin both as a written and spoken language.
            The creation of the Academy represents an endorsement of Pope John XXIII’s 1962 Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia. John XXIII endorsed the use of Latin, not merely as a passport to a proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity, or from a desire for bureaucratic uniformity, but as an element of the Church’s tradition that is valuable for “religious reasons.” 
            He argued that the Church, precisely because she embraces all nations and is destined to endure until the end of time, by her very nature requires a language that is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.  The use of a dead language privileges no particular national group but unites all in a common linguistic tradition. 
            Moreover, John XXIII claimed that it is altogether fitting that the language of the Church should be noble and majestic and non-vernacular since the Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society.    
            In his book on the history of Poland God’s Playground, Norman Davies quotes Daniel Defoe (the author of Robinson Crusoe) to the effect that, in the eighteenth century a traveller could easily move across the length and breadth of Poland without any knowledge of the Polish language.  All one needed was Latin. 
            Latin (along with classical Greek and Hebrew) provides a kind of linguistic glue for the intellectual heritage of the West.  If the Church wants to nourish scholarship and be the guardian of the great cultural treasures of the Christian centuries, then she needs to foster the study of the classical languages.  Pope Benedict is acutely aware of this.
            When he was a Cardinal, Pope Benedict argued that seminaries need to be places of broad cultural formation. He conceded that it wasn’t possible to do everything, but he argued that seminary professors should not “surrender to philistinism.”
            We have a pope who speaks five modern languages and is quite at home with Classical Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.  He plays the piano and is a member of the Académie française, which is arguably the most prestigious academic club in the world. His creation of a Pontifical Academy for Latin is a significant initiative in the battle against what Alexander Boot in How the West Was Lost has called “Modman Philistine’s” attempted destruction of the high culture of the Western world. That culture is rooted in the literature of the cities of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, and, of course, the event of the Incarnation, the centre and purpose of all human history.

Tracey Rowland, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is dean and permanent fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne, Australia). She is the author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II (2003) and Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), among other works.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Jack, November 15, 2012
Perhaps the resourses of EWTN might be used in this very worthy endeavor ??
written by jsmitty, November 15, 2012
Thanks for letting us know about this. This is a long overdue correction to the collapse in classical learning throughout the West. As someone who has taught at different academic levels, I am convinced that the decline in writing skills parallels the decline in teaching grammar rigorously. Schools figured why bother learning the rules syntax in English since a big reason for the traditional approach was that the students would have to be prepared for Latin and Greek grammar--and now if Latin and Greek have gone away we can just focus on "creative expression." Never mind whether students know about subordinate clauses or direct and indirect objects or the like---they can tell us how they feel about things.

And I think that it is a scandal that we have members of the clergy today who don't know a single word of Latin or Greek and thus cannot read the Bible in its original toungue or any of the writings of the Fathers or Doctors which have not been translated (which is most of them!)

God bless this endeavor!
written by Ernest, November 15, 2012
Very nicely presented, Tracey Rowland, especially the brief yet daunting resumé on Pope Benedict.

If I had not studied Latin at St. Don Bosco, I would have had a much harder time with higher sciences and mathematics. When my fellow students were stumped, I relied on Latin roots to comprehend complex ideas never presented with colloquial conversation. Thank you.
written by Patrick, November 15, 2012
Excellent article and good news, although I do have to make one quibble: I'm pretty sure Pope Benedict is not a member of the Académie française. Perhaps you had in mind a different French academic society. The Académie is an authority on the French language and so it is unlikely that a native German speaker would be made a member. Current Catholic members are Jean-Luc Marion and René Girard.
written by Crumb, November 15, 2012
I studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew late in life as a seminarian since it had been long discontinued in my impoverished Detroit High school. You could learn all the latest ways to imbibe, snort or inject in that place, but never a connection to culture beyond that of addiction or covetousness. It was what François Lyotard would later describe as one type of "the Inhuman."

When such places as these high schools are what the society accepts as institutions of education, what hope can most of the poor have to gain access to the riches of Western civilization. The Pope's initiative is wonderful, don't get me wrong, but it is a tiny drop in the Sahara desert, when what is needed is a torrential rain.

Too long have we been like those you do not rule,
on whom your name is not invoked.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you
Isaiah 63:19
written by Achilles, November 15, 2012
Jsmitty, To imagine that you are in charge of forming young minds, it takes my breath away. Might I suggest, assumptions and all, that your presentation here of Grammar is a microcosm of the very errors of thinking you present on these threads?

You suggest a more rigorous grammar, and oh you would be so right if not for your shallow presentation of what grammar is. The moderns have used a microscope to dissect the lowest levels of the true nature of grammar and what you mention is merely the entrails of what the Grammarians called “prosody”. To be rigorous and demanding of such a shallow definition is pedantic at best. So what is grammar if not past participles on dangling modifiers? Well, prosody is the lowest level followed by etymology, analogy- metaphor, literary devices and culminating in exegesis. I don’t have time to go into specifics, but you have illustrated neatly in part what is wrong with modern academics. They mistake something shallow for something deep if they analyze it to death. But really, it is the attempt to answer questions about roots by manipulating fruits.
written by Ib, November 15, 2012

There are five open seats in the Académie française right now. Maybe Dr. Rowland is in possession of knowledge concerning a secret, recent election at the Académie ...

Or maybe it's an error ... (we all make mistakes sometimes) ...
written by james hughes, November 16, 2012
Great article! I absolutely love the Polish people because of my fathers connection with the polish army when they came to Coatbridge, Scotland during WW II. He was able to teach some of them English using the medium of Latin and French because he knew no Polish. That said I recently attended a mass in Polish in Edinburgh but it was a waste of time because I couldn't figure out where we were in the proceedings because I know no Polish. Now had mass been in Latin it would have been a different ball game. I note too that seminarians are required to be well versed in Latin in terms of canon law but it seems that that part of their education may be being neglected. I also noticed that in Finland the news is broadcast in Latin. Hopefully things will improve with the pope's initiative.
It is a great feeling of the universality of the church when you are aware that mass is being said in the same words right round the globe instead of the current 'tower of babel' we get at present. AMDG

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