About Universae Ecclesiae and the Latin language

Over at Over at Fr Hunwicke’s Liturgical Notes I noted this from a few days ago.  A good read and with my own emphases and comments:

Universae ecclesiae, C S Lewis, and Bl John XXIII

I referred not long ago to the amusingly delicate way in which UE referred to the scandal that for more than a generation those being formed for the priesthood were – in flagrant disregard of CIC 249 – not made fluent in Latin (I am assured that things are better now). [Where?]

As long ago as 1933, C S (‘Patrimony’) Lewis advanced the suggestion that the attacks – even then – upon the position of Latin and Greek as the basis of education, might be part of a plot devised in Hell to subvert the Faith. In The Pilgrim’s Regress he reminds the reader that “till recently” members of our society “had been made to learn” these languages “and that meant that at least they started no further from the light than the old Pagans themselves and had therefore the chance to come at last” to saving Faith. “But now they are cutting themselves off even from that roundabout route … and suppressing every kind of knowledge except mechanical knowledge“. [Perhaps today we might say “knowledge of how to use electronic gadgets”.] He believed that this shift had much to do with the need of the educated classes to cope with the increasing disinclination of the lower orders to work in domestic service, and added “No doubt the great landowners in the background [scilicet devils] have their own reasons for encouraging this movement”.

You will not be surprised to be reminded that His Abysmal Sublimity Under Secretary Screwtape strongly advocated the policy of preventing each generation from learning from its predecessors: [Sounds like the results of a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.] “Since we [devils] 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.” That is why the demise of sacred languages among the clergy and the clerisy is such a triumph for our Enemy.  [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

Older readers may be reminded here of the teaching given to the Universal Church by Bl John XXIII in Veterum Sapientia. Here I have a problem. I would love to share all the important bits of this encyclical with you, but, after doing the two clicks necessary to bring it up on my screen, I realised that pretty well every word of this document is the purest gold. So … here are just a very few words in order to stimulate your resolution to do those two clicks yourselves. “No-one is to be admitted to the study of Philosophy or Theology except he be thoroughly grounded in [Latin] and capable of using it … wherever the study of Latin has suffered partial eclipse … the traditional method of teaching the language is to be completely restored. Such is Our will … the major sacred sciences shall be taught in Latin … if ignorance of Latin makes it difficult for some [seminary professors] to obey these instructions, they shall gradually be replaced by professors who are suited to this task …” What a good and holy old man he was!

‘Liberals’, of course, might point out that this document is not ex cathedra. I agree, because I think the word gradually is unnecessary. [ROFL!] As for sedevacantists who deny that the author of these wise words, Bl John XXIII, was truly pope, well, what I say is Burn the lot of them. It’s the only sort of language these people understand!*

*In case foreigners are distressed by the bloodthirstiness of my language, I should clarify the literary register, the genre, of the last paragraph. It is ‘humour’; and is in the spirit of the English satirical magazine Private Eye, which makes much comic use of the formula in my last sentence. (This is deemed, I believe, to be a phrase commonly used by London taxi-drivers in the course of their demotic exchanges of view with their ‘fares’.) I am not really in favour of burning anybody. Honest!

The document Fr. Hunwicke refers to, Veterum Sapientia, is not just any old document.  It is an Apostolic Constitution.  An Apostolic Constitution is the high form or level of a document the Church issues.  It isn’t a message, or instruction, or exhortation, or even an encyclical.

On the Vatican website, Veterum Sapientia is available to read only in Latin.  English?  Go here.

On the Vatican website, Summorum Pontificum is available to read only in Latin and Hungarian.

What sort of silly game is this?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Mundabor says:

    I have written a blog post about veterum Sapientia some months ago, with excerpts (numerous; the document being so good) of whatI thought most relevant. I allow myself to give the link here in case someone finds the condensed version of some use.


    My umpression is that this beautiful document is deliberately ignored; that it is, in fact, one of the most neglected official documents of the Church.


  2. Jim says:

    Is there a way one can teach oneself Latin ? Any good suggestions ?

  3. Henry Edwards says:

    One the comments on Fr. Hunwicke’s post:

    Veterum Sapientia was indeed a remarkable document. It may not have been infallible, but, I think uniquely in the history of Papal documents, Bl John XXIII signed it on the High Altar of St Peter’s in the presence of the entire college of Cardinals and as many of the hierarchy as he could gather. He tried to give it all the force he possibly could without making it actually ex cathedra. The trouble was that it was already too late.

    One may wonder if subsequent history might have been different had John XXIII not died soon thereafter, and instead had lived to see through the Council he had convened.

  4. moconnor says:

    Jim, Rosetta Stone is one of the best language learning tools, but if you want to start right in with Church Latin (differs to a degree from Classical Latin of Antiquity) try Collins – A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin, published by CUA Press. There is also an answer key published.

  5. Andrew says:

    (I am assured that things are better now). [Where?]

    In places regarded by many (by most) as unworthy of their attention. But the few who have the calling to ignite the fire of Latin, the very few, find out where to look.

  6. Martial Artist says:


    I have also found Wheelock’s Latin quite useful for learning Latin, although its focus is classical Latin, which, as moconnor states, does differ to a degree from Ecclesiastical Latin. There is also a separate Workbook for Wheelock, which one can purchase to have additional practical exercises keyed to each chapter. The workbook must be for the specific edition or some of the items may not match up to the main text. I believe the new 7th edition is due out this summer.

    Wheelock is intended for use both as a basic Latin textbook and for use in untutored study. I suspect that the most difficult aspect of getting started in Latin is that, unlike English, where word order dominates in making sense of a sentence, Latin is a relatively highly inflected language, the endings of the words tell you what grammatical role (subject, object, verb, direct object, indirect object, etc.) they play in the sentence and word order is not significant to the inherent meaning of the sentence. Fortunately, it is only the endings of the words which are changed in Latin, not the beginnings, which latter is the case with all of the Celtic languages, so pronunciation and identification of the cognate for a word is not the problem in Latin that it is in the Celtics.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  7. Norah says:

    Just a thought….. When the Vatican issues a document containing an instruction re something to be done, wouldn’t it be a good idea somewhere down the track to check and see if the instruction contained in the document was actually being carried out? It’s motherhood 101 – when you tell the kids to tidy their bedroom, after allowing some time for compliance go and check if the room is tidy and if not instutute consequences.

  8. James Joseph says:

    Fr. Z.

    Folks today don’t even know how the differences between the types of tomato, eggplants, and peppers, let alone how to prune a fruit tree, or hunt for wild asparagus and strawberries.

    If you can’t get them to go the extra mile to fill their bellies with nourishing food, how in the world are we supposed to expect them to go the extra mile for Christ and speak to Him in an intimate language?

  9. Denis Crnkovic says:

    Of course, ignoring the directives of the Holy See results from the prideful assumption that “what the Pope says is all good and fine, but it doesn’t really apply to us, who are more enlightened than the old men in Rome.” This attitude toward authority is deeply, deeply rooted in our 20-21st century collective psyche (Yes, I am making fun here of those who think that the power of the mind is superior to the power of the soul). Ask yourselves, “How many times have we circumvented the directive of our bosses because we know what they say is all so much bull? How many of us have listened cynically to the speeches of our candidates for politcal office, knowing that they are cleverly and flat-out lying? How many of you students out there ignore the professor’s instructions because you know that what he has asked of you is “just busy-work”? We live in a culture that prides itself on its ability to personalize everything, including the pseudo-truths that we learn from satanically inspired “democratic” dissent. So it was – and is – with Apostolic Constitutions: it is very easy to simply shrug off the wisdom of a Papal pronouncement because we are trained to do so. Do not deny that you have heard more than one so-called authority question (“in the sprit of loyal opposition”) the real Authority of the Church’s teachings on faith, morals and, yes, right practice (orthodoxia). For some reason, the vast majority of Catholics, good and faithful, have come to think that they have a choice, a pseudo-democratic “vote,” in determining how the Church orders Her public works, including how she must educate her duly ordained ministers. Those who ignored and continue to ignore Veterum sapientiae and CIS249 show all the symptoms of the mistake of rejecting the wisdom of the Pontifs and Councils in favour of the individual’s pride: “I know better,” they would aver, “I am more competent,” “I am more in tune with ‘the people'”. Yet the latter excuses really translate into “I am better,” “I am covering up my ignorance and laziness,” and “I am selfishly asserting my own point of view for my own comfort.”

    P.S. @ moconnor and @ Jim: Rosetta Stone (I humbly dissent) isn’t a very good system for learning any language, much less a great language like Latin. For the latter, I recommend any of the mid-twentieth century text books. In that regard moconnor is right; a good text like Collins is very helpful, though incomplete in terms of the grand sweep of Latin. Oh, and don’t forget to do the English-to-Latin translation exercises. The absolute best way to learn any language not native to you is to do accurate and good translations into the target language. And have an expert cheque it.

    As for Father Zuhlsdorf’s question “Where?”: at place like the Lutheran liberal arts instituion where I teach (not Latin or Classics, though) . The Greek and Latin programs are very strong and nationally recognized as one of the best in the U.S. Unfortunately all of this is “lost” (okay, it’s not “lost” in man ways) on our secular-minded students and faculty who have little idea of the essential importance of Latin culture for the Church, since thay are not Catholic.

  10. Young Canadian RC Male says:

    To all, I am currently doing slow, but meaningful self-study of classical Latin by rediscovering my High school Latin course, Cambridge Latin (that’s right, it’s made by the university in Britain!). The main series is a set of 4 textbooks (with a possible 5th as shown on their website) but the real challenge is getting the Teacher’s manual with the answers. Indigo/Chapters came through for me on Unit 1 and it’s manual so far. It’s quite fun at the beginnig as the 1st book is set in Pompeii with a Roman family and uses short sentences to start, with noun, verb, adjective and progresses to more complex passages adding in more cases, declensions, etc.

  11. FranzJosf says:

    Well, the Holy See could begin by demanding her translators learn their craft, eschewing idealogy. I’m still hacked that, as Fr. Z noted, the official English translation of UE has something about ‘pastoral’ need (for seminarian training in the TLM) instead of what the Latin actually says: ‘…as the situation demands.’ There is no reference to pastoral anything in the text. The true meaning has been subverted by the translator. Or could it be that the translator didn’t have an axe to grind? That he simply plugged in the buzzword out of habit? If so, sorry commentary on the general culture of the Holy See. Maddening.

  12. disputationist says:

    Isn’t it kinda funny that you think its outrageous that a document extolling the virtues of Latin, is available only in Latin? Same with Summorum Pontificorum.. should be food for thought for those who think we should do away with the vernacular masses entirely.. [Its Pontificum (3rd declension). I don’t think obscuring Magisterial documents of the Roman Pontiff is in the least funny. Your sense of humor is as odd as your punctuation.]

  13. Dave N. says:

    @ Jim:

    I learned with this text a number of years ago and absolutely loved it:


  14. robtbrown says:

    Henry Edwards says:

    One may wonder if subsequent history might have been different had John XXIII not died soon thereafter, and instead had lived to see through the Council he had convened.

    VS was promulgated about 6 mos before the VatII opened, which indicates to me that it was an attempt to preempt what Rome recognized as the considerable anti-Latin forces that were heading to the Council. If memory serves, Iota Unum says that after Veterum Sapientia was promulgated, the Germans showed their sustain, and Rome promptly backed down–curious behavior from a Beatus.

    I do think that Fr H is exactly right when he says that VS was too late.

  15. Henry Edwards says:

    Dr. Brown,

    Good reminder, that even in those supposedly halcyon days just before Vatican II, a pope could not get it done just by saying it. Which might be a good lesson for those who insist that our Holy Father should just go ahead and do it now–e.g., declare the Novus Ordo experiment at an immediate end–oblivious to the fact that today the Church is even fuller than then, with people who will simply ignore whatever he says that they don’t like. So, however much moral and even legal authority the Vicar of Christ has, he has very little actual power to change immediately any of the things most of us here would most like to see changed.

  16. John Nolan says:


    Latin Grammar and Second Latin by Cora and Charles Scanlon, originally written in the 1940s, republished by TAN books in the 1970s and now reissued. The first covers the Missal and Breviary; the second is in preparation for the reading of philosophy, theology and canon law. Inexpensive ($18 apiece). An excellent resource.

  17. Henry Edwards says:


    I’ve waded through Wheelock’s Latin (whose modern editor was a faculty colleague), but as a quick start (which a Latin teacher likely would not recommend) for an adult Catholic layman wanting a bit of Latin for liturgy and prayer, I frequently suggest (to TLM newcomers) Ralph McInerny’s

    Let’s Read Latin: An Introduction to the Language of the Church

    “At last, a user-friendly introduction to Church Latin using church and scriptural
    documents themselves, allowing the student to build up knowledge with meaningful
    texts. All paradigms, grammar, and vocabulary are included, and the texts are explained line by line. A 60-minute audio CD is included to aid in pronunciation. Let’s Read Latin is for students of all ages, and a boon to home-schoolers too.”

    Actually, it doesn’t use “documents” but simply familiar Catholic prayers–one per half-dozen page lesson–to get you started immediately, actually praying in Latin. Each lesson explains just the Latin grammar and vocabulary needed for it’s particular prayer–the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, Magnificat, Apostles Creed, and Salve Regina in the first 40 pages.

  18. Centristian says:

    I found these words of Pope John’s from “Veterum Sapientia” to be particularly resonant:

    “Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular.”

    This observation of Pope John’s stands in very stark contrast to many of the voices of our day that insist that, precisely because the Church was founded by Christ the Lord, it should divest itself of dignity and should not appear to be noble or majestic…that instead it ought to be everywhere vernacular and should comport itself just like any merely human society.

    It isn’t only the precision of the language or the unity that it’s liturgical use brings to the Latin Church that render the Latin language indispensible, it is the dignity and majesty that Latin imparts to the sacred liturgy. Pope John XXIII says that the Church and the liturgy are characterized by dignity, nobility, and majesty because of Jesus Christ, not despite Him.

    It seems to me that the vocations shortage can only begin to turn around when the Church embraces that concept so well articulated by Pope John, and decides once again to celebrate rather than eschew her noble traditions and her liturgical majesty. The image of the priest today is a sad and sullied one, even taking the abuse crisis out of the equation. It is viewed as an unfulfilling, toothless, and finally pointless vocation. There doesn’t appear to be anything about the modern priesthood that should compell ambitious, idealistic young men to consider a vocation. Why should any man, after all, agree to sacrifice so much for so little?

    The restoration of Latin and dignity to the liturgy would go a long way towards making the priesthood seem like something worth aspiring to, again, as it was for so many generations of Catholic young men. If the Church were to re-establish a priesthood trained in Latin and traditional Roman worship, I have no doubt that it would begin to attract interest again. If young men sitting in the pews were, every Sunday, to look up at the altar and hear the priest reciting prayers of the Mass in Latin, and celebrating the Mass with all due dignity and propriety, the seminaries, I have no doubt, would begin to fill up again.

    As Pope John reminds us, “the greatest impression is made on the mind by those things which correspond more closely to man’s nature and dignity. And therefore the greatest zeal should be shown in the acquisition of whatever educates and ennobles the mind. Otherwise poor mortal creatures may well become like the machines they build — cold, hard, and devoid of love.”

  19. terryprest says:

    In 1899 Pope Leo XIII warned against the attempts of the then (very hostile) French Government to do away with a Classical education. See in Depuis Le Jour at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_08091899_depuis-le-jour_en.html
    He described such attempts by the French Government as ” inspired by utilitarian motives and working to the detriment of the solid formation of the mind. ” (The same French Government motivated by anti-clericalism of course went very much further in its attempts to break the Church)
    He described Latin as “the key, so to say, of sacred science ” and Latin literature as one of “the depositaries of those masterpieces of sacred science which the Church with good reason counts among her most precious treasures.”
    He called on the French clergy to imitate “the priests of Jerusalem, who, saving the sacred fire of the temple from the barbarian invader, so hid it as to be able to find it again and restore it to its splendor when the evil day should have passed.”
    Presumably that is why Blessed Pope John XXIII as a Church historian was very adamant about the study of Latin.

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