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.
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