Latina lingua, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent motu proprio establishing the Pontifical Latin Academy, is a great gift to the entire Church. It recalls that almost unknown document of Blessed John XXIII, Veterum sapientia , a document many people in the Church had given over for dead. But it also plans for the future. Now, of course, those who are unfamiliar with Pontifical Academies may not entirely be sure what they do. Often they serve as high-level think-tanks for scholars in the Church. One thinks of the prestigious Real Academia Española or the Academie française, and posits that the Church may, with this new initiative, have a decisive rôle in the preservation and propagation of Latin.
The establishment of the Pontifical Latin Academy complements the work already being done in the Secretariat of State and the Institute for Higher Latin Studies at the Salesianum in Rome. But it also ups the ante, so to speak, in giving a forum for scholars. I also think that it has the opportunity to be a part, not only of the New Evangelization, but of the outreach the Holy Father has so adroitly encouraged among non-believers, such as the Courts of the Gentiles.
Catholic intellectuals have often bemoaned their increasing isolation in academia. As many abandoned Latin as a force of energy in the life of the Church, in many places the only people who kept Latin alive were academics in classics departments in institutions of higher learning. While there have always been some Catholics among them, Classics is now often a discipline where to be an orthodox Catholic is frowned upon. Yet the Catholic Church, more than any other grouping in society, is poised for a renaissance of Latin learning, language and scholarship. This encouragement from the Magisterium of the Church is a clear indication that classics studies are important to the Church, that vibrant intellectual scholarship (as opposed to ideologized hack “scholarship”) is part of the Church’s understanding of her role in promoting the artistic and intellectual patrimony of humanity.
But there are still far too many quarters in the Church where Latin is still derided, not just in the celebration of the sacred liturgy, but even in attempts to study it. How many parochial schools and colleges require any Latin at all any more? Even in Italy, where the famed liceo classico turned out generations of top-notch Catholic classicists, pressures increase to move away from classical instruction in schools. In many Catholic seminaries, even after repeated requests from the Holy See, seminarians are lucky to get two years of Latin at the most. In many American seminaries, lip service is paid to the idea that Latin is part of the curriculum, but ask a third year theologian to translate an easy passage from the Liturgia horarum, even with a dictionary, and the results are often less than adequate.
In the meantime, Reformed seminaries spend much of their time teaching their future pastors Greek and Hebrew, so that they can all read the Scriptures in their “original languages” (although that description is itself open to debate). Classics departments all over the world continue to churn out competent researchers and teachers. But how many Bishops demand that their seminarians know Greek, Hebrew and Latin at the level to do serious reading? How many Bishops have sent young priests to study theology and canon law, only to discover that they do not have the tools in classical languages to do their work properly? How many departments of theology have to water down their requirements because more and more students, and even professors, cannot read Latin? How many Bishops send their young priests to do advanced work in the classical languages, to teach in seminaries, colleges and high schools?
Like many other young priests, I feel like I am spending a lot of time catching up. I had two years of Latin, a year of Greek and a semester of Hebrew as an undergraduate. But when I went off to the seminary, I was constantly dispensed based on the fact that I did well in those classes. But I knew that I was woefully unprepared to do the work that I needed to do. I was fortunate enough to do two years with the famous Reginald Foster in Rome, but when I wanted to do more, I was told by my seminary superiors that it conflicted with my house job as architriclinus, so I had to abandon my Latin studies to keep the kitchen going. Now, while I do not regret all the time I spent in the kitchen during my seminary years, a skill for which I am eternally grateful, I always felt like, had I been able to complete Foster’s five year cycle, I would be in much better shape to do my studies. When I went off to do my doctoral studies, I had to do my work in modern theology, because my grasp of modern languages was much better than my classical languages. But it still limits me. I am reading Augustine’s De civitate Dei in the Loeb edition now, and constantly refer to the English. Would I even have been allowed to be ordained years ago without being able to read Augustine without translation, much less be granted a licentiate and doctorate in sacred theology?
I mention all of this, because I have talked with many young clergy and laity who are theologians who feel this lack of tools to do serious work. I am now a parish priest, so my Latin is sufficient to celebrate the Extraordinary Form and teach the school kids (who have 4 years of Latin) how to sing Gregorian chant for Mass. But what about my friends who want to be theologians in the heart of the Church? What about my priest confreres who want to be able to serve the Church, and need a better level of classical languages in order to do so?
I am very excited about the possibilities of the Pontifical Latin Academy. But I also hope, maybe against hope, that it might be the beginning of a movement to train classicists to serve in dioceses, schools, universities and seminaries. Will it be just another team of scholars who engage in purely academic discussions about Latinity (as wonderful as that is), or will the Church be able to use it to restore Latin’s rightful place to the Roman Church, something that cannot be done without addressing the real and practical issue of having enough clerical and lay leaders in the world who actually know Latin?