Of Latin oddities

I can’t resist this one from Dr. Peters:

Lighter fare: [thanks for the homage] can bad Latin save a papacy?
by Dr. Edward Peters

I got an odd one a few days ago (okay, I get lots of odd ones, but this one kinda struck me), namely: that Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was invalid because of mistakes he (allegedly) made in the Latin of his resignation letter. [Yes, that’s odd.] My correspondent claims two medieval Church laws in support of the claim, one of which I could track down: Lucius III (reg. 1181-1185), dec. Ad audientiam, c. 11, X, de rescriptis, I, 3 (or Friedberg 20 fbo those for whom QLD citations are impenetrable).

Now, granting that Ad audientiam does attach negative canonical consequences to bad Latin, the context of that question was documents whose Latin was so bad it that raised questions of authenticity (this, of course, being a practical concern in an age of ecclesiastical forgeries). Looking lightly at some commentary on Lucius’ decretal (always fun to have an excuse to do that!), [Who doesn’t turn to Lucius for light reading?] it seems that debates arose over how bad ‘bad’ needed to be before it was too bad, over what kind of bad could be ignored or rehabilitated, and so on. Interesting stuff, granted, but it’s all moot.  [In a related issue, how bad do a cardinal’s arguments have to be before they can’t be rehabilitated?]

When the great Gasparri [Cardinal Pietro] prepared canon law for its first codification at the beginning of the twentieth century, he had before him, among other things, the whole of Gregory IX’s decretal law (which contained Lucius’ letter on bad Latin along with nearly 2,000 other provisions on nearly 200 other canonical topics). And guess what?Ad audientiam did not make it into the 1917 Code, although almost every other norm de rescriptis did, in some form or another, get carried into codified law. Nor was Ad audientiam resurrected for the 1983 Code.

What the 1983 Code does say, as did the 1917 Code, is this: “Only those laws must be considered invalidating … which expressly state that an act is null …” (c. 11). Because no canon of the 1983 Code, under which Benedict XVI submitted his resignation (c. 332 § 2), addresses the quality of the Latin used in papal documents, let alone does any canon make the Latinity of papal documents go to their validity, I say, odd question answered: bad Latin does mean that one must remain pope. [Whew!  Otherwise we might be in serious trouble in a few more years.]

PS: Now that we’re thinking about it, winking at bad Latin (assuming btw that Benedict’s was bad Latin, I wish I could write it as well!) probably makes sense these days. Consider: when the 1983 Code came out, it was marred by more than 100 typographical errors. I would hate to think we’ve all been spinning our canonical wheels since then!

PPS: Don’t even ask about mistakes on the Vatican website.  [Pretty awful.  I recently had to do some proofreading for some Latin Church documents for a book and… sheesh.   They sometimes scan, you see, with OCR and the people posting the texts don’t know Latin and/or don’t proof read.]

There are all sorts of funny stories out there about clerics and their lack of Latin.  My favorite is about the simple country priest who walked out to meet the bishop who was riding out on the appointed day for a parish visitation.  As the parish priest drew close to the bishop and the rest of his retinue, to the astonishment of all, Father, after greeting the bishop bowed low to the bishop’s horse.   “Why, Father,” quoth the bishop, are you bowing to my horse?”  The priest, momentarily flummoxed, responded “Your Grace, do we not say every day during Holy Mass, ‘equum et salutare‘?”


Yes, folks, be sure to tip your waitresses.  I’m at HaHa’s in Cleveland next week.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I am glad to read this after a hard test on Commentarii de Bello Gallico, bad Latin is something which comes naturally to me.

  2. The Masked Chicken says:

    Okay, now I’m confused. Shouldn’t that bold sentence read:

    “….bad Latin does not mean that one must remain pope.”

    Was that slip wishful thinking?

    The Chicken

  3. Legisperitus says:

    Vere dignum et iustum est.

  4. rosaryarmy says:

    I’ve seen some awful translations on the Vatican website- I printed out a commentary by JPII on Gaudium et Spes for my students, but unfortunately “Constitution” was translated as “Constipation.”
    http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/magazine/documents/ju_mag_01051997_p-28_en.htm (paragraph 3)

    I feel like there’s a joke about binding and loosing in there. :)

  5. Luvadoxi says:


  6. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Masked Chicken, it might have been Freudian, but it definitely was a slip. I fix it, and added and “not”.

    My current favorite Latin story (from Reggie Foster): He asked, What does “saltem ad validitatem” mean? “Oh! I know!” said a student, “Salt is necessary for validity!”

  7. mparks says:

    Speaking of invalidating language, could you please do something for the “materially” invalidating language of the English version of the new marriage vows???? I have known Catholics who really believed that they had to keep their vows “all the days of my life” regardless as to whether the other partner died!!! This gave pause, of course. On the other hand, the vow itself being false, to what extent can ‘ecclesia supplet’ kick in?

  8. rcg says:

    Didn’t you once post a video lampooning ‘O Fortuna’ and how it could be mis-heard? If not, you should look it up on youtube. Very funny and not too scatalogical for a mature family.

    [It rings a faint bell.]

  9. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    mparks, interesting. will look. (btw, they are promises, not “vows”, and ecc sup is not involved in any case); reg, twasn’t me. :) edp.

  10. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    “They sometimes scan, you see, with OCR and the people posting the texts don’t know Latin and/or don’t proof read.” I’ve heard that, if you are doing your work with due diligence, it can be easier to proofread accurately against your copytext if you don’t know a language as you will not get distracted by the meaning of the text and run the risk of unconsciously correcting it mentally while missing an error.

    [It might be. However, I think you would have to know something about the language.]

  11. Seamus says:

    I believe it was St. Boniface who wrote to the pope and was assured by His Holiness that he needn’t doubt the validity of baptisms by a semi-literate priest who had been reported to Boniface, who intended to do as the Church does, but was using language that (because of his incorrect noun declensions) literally meant “I baptize you in the name of the fatherland, the daughter, and the ghost of a saint.”

  12. wmeyer says:

    Can anyone here speak to the quality of the Latin in the documents of Vatican II on the Vatican site? I have had cause to question a good deal in the English.

    OCR errors have a particular flavor, which varies to some degree with the face and size of the font being scanned, as well as with the quality of the printing and paper. With a given scanner and document, a pattern becomes apparent. I believe that in the more recent OCR software, however, if you apply corrections in the text within that software, those are used to refine the OCR process. Of course, that “refinement” may also be a degradation, if you err in applying the corrections.

    Having done a good deal of scanning, and some of it of books (which I then corrected, as needed), I can speak to this issue with some confidence. The process, however, becomes tedious rather quickly, which may be why so many Kindle books are such a mess.

  13. Was not Pope Benedict XVI’s first homily in Latin? I’m pretty sure his is better than the vast majority of ours.

  14. The Masked Chicken says:

    ‘Who doesn’t turn to Lucius for light reading?”

    I just realized the pun. Was that on purpose? Ohhh, bi-lingual punnery. Okay, can I play? Not bi-lingual, but rhymery: What do you call a Sicilian Crustation?

    The DNA sequence for making a chicken is a galliformula (a little biology humor, with Latin).

    No, no. I can’t…help my self…must stop. Next, will be Latin puns…

    The Chicken

  15. Legisperitus says:

    Seamus: I can deduce “in nomine Patriae, et Filiae,” but wouldn’t the ghost of a saint also be “Spiritus Sancti,” which is correct? Well, unless it was a female saint, which would make it “Spiritus Sanctae.” That would fit the pattern of ending everything in “ae.”

    Somewhere I read that St. Gregory the Great, in his letters, would sometimes apologize for the poor quality of his Latin. Of course in his historical situation he might have been speaking early Italian without knowing it!

  16. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    wmeyer, yes, several of us can, and we would say, it’s bad. not just bad scanning and obvious typos, maddening as those are: but more, some texts are positively and significantly altered from how they appeared in say, the AAS or other official sources and how they appear at dotVA. Just compare P6’s CREDO of the People of God in print and on-line. Case closed.

  17. Sonshine135 says:

    I can barely write English, and it is my native tongue. I’d be in real trouble if someone asked me to write Latin properly.

  18. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Fr. Z, with respect to proofreading, commented, ” However, I think you would have to know something about the language.”

    I’m not sure: I used to chat a lot with a proofreader (for the OUP), and I think he had done proofreading of languages he did not know.

    I suppose, in such a case, with maximum efficiency, you would have the text set for printing in perfect conformity with the copytext it had been set from – but, you would not be able to discern any error in that copytext itself: if it did have an error, you would in fact be scrupulously seeing that that copytext error got into print! On that level, of intelligent handling of the copytext, it would certainly be better if you understood at least something of the language involved.

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