Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed - The Language of the Church: On the Perennial Importance of Latin

By Veronica A. Arntz

Pope Francis has repeatedly called the Church to become a “culture of encounter.” What this has come to mean is that we engage other people and cultures, meeting them where they are at, in order to bring them the Gospel message.

While we are always called to evangelize others, this understanding of “culture of encounter” can lead toward watered down catechesis, and a watered down understanding of the Church. Central to discovering the legitimacy of this “encounter” movement is the question of language.

Fundamentally, we may ask the following question: Does the Church have one language or many languages? The premise for the culture of encounter is that the Church has many languages, and we need to speak the particular language of the culture to pass on the faith. While it is obvious that the Church is made up of many cultures that speak many languages, does this necessarily mean that the Church herself has many languages, particularly many languages for the celebration of the Roman rite liturgy? Language can be taken in two senses: internal and external. I would like to argue that the Church has one internal language, which is the essence of her beliefs, and one primary external language, the language of Latin, to express that internal reality, especially in the liturgy. 

The one internal language of the Church is expressed fundamentally in the Creed. The Creed contains all the doctrines of the Catholic Church, although many hidden within the simplicity of the prayer itself: “Credo in Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorum caeli et terrae.” In a sermon to catechumens on the Creed, St. Augustine says:

For this is the Creed which you are to rehearse and to repeat in answer. These words which you have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that ever person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes.

There are a few things to note here. First, the Creed is meant to be rehearsed and recited; when it is recited repeatedly, the words are retained in memory. When the words are retained in memory, they are ingrained into the individual’s soul, so that they become a rule for living one’s life in accordance with the Gospel of Christ. Second, the words from the Creed come from the Scriptures themselves: these words contained in the Creed are not arbitrary or invented, but rather, every part of the Creed can be found somewhere in the Scriptures. This reveals continuity between the Scriptures and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Finally, every person who is a Catholic is to say these words; thus, the Creed is universal in character. It is not meant for one group or culture, but rather, the entire universal Church. When a member of the Church prays the Creed, he or she is praying with all the members of the Catholic Church. In that respect, the Creed transcends time. For this reason, St. Paul writes, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Ephesians 4:4-6, RSV). Thus, because there is one Lord, we have one faith in him, which is expressed in the Creed of the Catholic Church.

The Creed can be considered the “internal language” of the Church because it is a summary of what she believes. Anyone who contradicts this language of the Church by preaching another word is considered a heretic or a schismatic. To be part of the one Church of Christ, it is necessary not only to be baptized, but also to profess the language of the Church. That is why renewing our Baptismal vows involves proclaiming a strong, “I do,” to the articles of the Creed. If we deny any of these articles, then we are denying the internal language of the Church. It is impossible to remain the Church and speak another language than she does, in this respect. One cannot simply say that Christ only had one nature, as the Monophysites did, and still expect to remain in the Church, because such a belief directly subverts the true beliefs of the Catholic Church.

In order to express this internal language, the Church needs an external language. In essence, words are only signs pointing to reality; they are not the reality in themselves. In the Cratylus, Plato (through Socrates) argues that language is merely convention, meaning that words can change meaning over time, and the reality is not present within the word itself. In this respect, one could say that the language of the Church does not matter. Nevertheless, this has not been the primary mode of the Church, even since the time of the chosen people of God in the Old Testament.

The Tower of Babel is an interesting study in language. In the story of the Tower of Babel, the people, who at this time were speaking all one language, say to each other, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). The people are building the tower of themselves and of their own pride; their city will not be dedicated to God, but rather, to themselves.

Because of their pride, the Lord says, “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7). Now the people are no longer one, but many, and scattered throughout the earth, because they were speaking many languages that no one could understand (see Genesis 11:9). In other words, the people no longer spoke one, unified language, and could therefore not understand each other. From pride comes a multitude of languages.

What does this mean for our discussion on language and the Church? In his tractates on the Gospel of John, St. Augustine comments on this passage in light of the command to baptize all nations through the power of the Holy Spirit. Augustine writes:

If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one. The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered. Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride. Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not, this was the doing of charity (In Jo. ev. tr., 6.10).

The pride at the Tower of Babel caused a diversity of tongues, but the humility and charity of Christ, brought all tongues back into unity under himself. The many tongues of the many nations have become one under Jesus Christ. Again, this can be understood in two senses: internal and external. In Christ, there is one faith, and all Christians are required to believe his Gospel of Love. But I would also like to argue that this means there is one external language of the Church. How is the universal Church to communicate if there are many languages? This would certainly cause controversies in the early Church with councils in the East and West. Nevertheless, over time, the Roman Rite of the Church chose the Latin language as her one, external language, which is explicit in her sacred liturgy.

If the Church truly wishes to “encounter” people, then she needs one language that all her members can understand. This does not mean that the diverse cultures within the Church should all abandon their own languages for the language of the Church. Rather, those things that properly belong to the Roman Catholic Church should be in one language—Latin. Particularly in the sacred liturgy, we can see how this is a most useful thing.

When Latin is used as the language of the liturgy, it is set apart from the vernacular and the vulgar tongue of the people. While some may argue that at one time in Rome the vernacular was Latin, we should be clear that the Latin of the liturgy is poetic and elevated; it could hardly be considered the same Latin of the streets. But especially now, in our modern times, when Latin is not spoken, and is indeed considered a dead language, Latin liturgy really is set apart from our mundane world. For liturgy celebrated in the vernacular can all too easily become just like anything else in our lives: there is nothing to set it apart. Particularly since the Second Vatican Council, when Latin was almost entirely abandoned within the liturgy (contrary to the intent of the Council Fathers), have we not seen the liturgy become mundane? Is the liturgy truly seen as something set apart from our daily lives?

Thus, Latin as the proper external, liturgical language of the Church reveals something deeper and more profound about her internal language, for it is in the liturgy that we recite the Creed and encounter the realities of our faith. When the external language of the Church is something entirely other than the language of our daily lives, we recognize something sacred.

The liturgy is not just like a conversation with the checkout person at the grocery store; rather, the liturgy is a conversation with the Omnipotent God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Creator of our individual souls. In the Tower of Babel, the people wanted to create something like themselves, but this caused their language to become confused. Too often, we want the liturgy to become something like ourselves.

We want to understand the liturgy, to participate in it, to make it into entertainment. But this is precisely the problem of the Tower of Babel, and the very same thing will happen to the liturgy and the Church’s internal language: both will become confused. If the Church does not have one external language, then she will find it difficult to accurately and clearly articulate her internal language. If we change the external language of the liturgy, then we will be tempted to change the Church’s internal language, which is expressed in a particular way in the liturgy.

The Church specifically chose the language of Latin to express the internal realities of the Roman Catholic Church. This does not mean that we should no longer do catechesis in the vernacular or stop teaching prayers in the vernacular. What it does mean, however, is that the liturgy, which is the public and external expression of the Church’s internal language, should be in the Latin language, lest we become confused in what the liturgy really is.

It is not each particular Church that celebrates the liturgy; rather, the universal Church celebrates the liturgy in each particular Church. For that reason, there should be one universal language of the liturgy, such that there are many cultures united through Christ in one sacred language. And this one sacred language, the language of Latin, unites the many cultures in the sacred liturgy so that we can truly say that the Church is one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic.