Rorate Caeli

Formation of the Clergy in Latin and for Latin

The always delightful and insightful Fr. Hunwicke of the blog Mutual Enrichment has frequently written of the binding auctoritas or authoritativeness of Tradition as a measure for subsequent papal and conciliar acts—a sentiment with which Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI would certainly concur, given his pointed remarks on papal absolutism in The Spirit of the Liturgy. 

Fr. Hunwicke recently addressed the catastrophic loss of Latinity in the Western Church and the puzzling, not to say vexing, issue of why Church leaders seem so bent on ignoring, if not contradicting, the explicit teaching of St. John XXIII, Vatican II, and Canon Law as to the training of clergy in competent Latin:

In Veterum sapientia, which S John XXIII signed on the High Altar of S Peter's in the presence of the body of Cardinals, that great Saint had insisted that the Latin language must remain central to the culture of Western Christianity. That Letter is not primarily about the language of worship; it desires Latin to remain a living vernacular for the clergy and not least for their formation; and it is explicitly based upon the belief that, by being latinate, a clerisy will have access to a continuity of culture. As C S Lewis's Devil Screwtape confessed, "Since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another". Both in secular culture and within the Church, there is a risk that the educated class will be cut off and imprisoned in the narrow confines of a particular culture—victims of its particular Zeitgeist. A literate clerisy is one that reads what other ages wrote, which means that it will at least be able to read Latin; and the sign of such a clerisy, in practical terms, will be that it can with ease read its Divine Office in Latin.

It is in this context that we must see the requirement of Vatican II (SC 101): "In accordance with the centuries-old tradition [saecularis traditio] of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in reciting the Divine Office". And it is highly significant that it goes on to make any use of the vernacular an exception which bishops can grant only on an individual basis. One might plausibly surmise that this exception may have been envisaged as useful in areas where resources for clerical formation were limited. I wonder how the Council Fathers—or a sizable proportion of them—might have reacted to the information that in less than a decade the bishops of Western Old Europe (whose culture both religious and secular had been based upon Latin for nearly two millennia, the continent of the great universities in which the civilisation of the Greek and Roman worlds had been transmitted) would regard both this conciliar mandate, and the directions of Optatam totius on seminary training, as an irrelevant dead letter.

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Recently, one of our English Catholic archbishops, in an engagingly matter-of-fact sort of way, explained why he would not require all his clergy to learn how to celebrate the Vetus Ordo. Among other (very understandable) reasons, he also gave this one: "You have to be practical as well. There is the Latin to learn ...". Really? What an interesting cat to let out of the bag! So, despite Canon 249, the clergy have not learned Latin as part of their seminary formation? One can hardly blame the present generation of English bishops for a problem which may have arisen more than half a century ago. But it is a problem which has not, I gather, entirely gone away. Surely the bishops have some say about the syllabuses taught in seminaries? Surely they have some responsibility for the formation of their own clergy? Are they happy that seminaries are run in a way which pays only very selective regard to the Magisterium of S John XXIII, so recently canonised, and of the Second Vatican Council (vide Optatam totius 13, on the role of Latin in seminary education)?