ASK FATHER: Did John Paul II really say that not to know Latin is “disgraceful”?

From a reader…


Father, on the sidebar of your blog you have a quote from St. John Paul II about it being a disgrace not to know Latin.  First, where does that come from?  Did he really say that?  And, second, I don’t know Latin well. Does that mean I’m partly a disgrace?

Good questions both.

Let’s start with the first.  What did John Paul say?

“Let us realize that this remark of Cicero (Brutus  37, 140) can be in a certain way referred to [young lay people]: ‘It is not so much a matter of distinction to know Latin as it is disgraceful not to know it.'”  – St. John Paul II

If you don’t know Latin, are you a disgrace?  John Paul quotes Cicero in Brutus on the matter, which means that Cicero was talking about his own day.  Today we might say that anyone who does not know English is a disgrace.   Does this literally mean “anyone”?   Cicero’s Brutus is a dialogue work about Roman oratory.   So, already we are narrowing things down to those who ought to be schooled in rhetoric, not the average fishmonger at the docks near the Tiber.

Let’s put this another way.   There are those who are obliged to know certain things pertinent to their trade.  For example, electricians need to know about watts and amps and volts and different types of wire and their uses as well as how to connect things together.  You would hold in contempt an electrician who couldn’t talk to you about amperage.  Consider a Chemistry teacher.  Would you respect a Chemistry teach who hadn’t learned how to describe the table of elements?  How about a surgeon who doesn’t know gross anatomy.

What about a Roman Catholic priest who doesn’t know a) his Latin Rite (because he doesn’t know the Extraordinary Form) and b) Latin (the language of his Rite).

We could extend that to just about anyone in a teaching profession in a serious field such as history, any languages, literature (not “gender studies”, etc.): Latin is fundamental stuff.  It was.  It is.  It shall ever be.

Latin doesn’t only open up new sources of learning, it opens up new pathways of thinking.

Would a housewife be a disgrace without Latin?   She would be immensely improved by it, especially if she has children to educate.

No one is improved by the lack of Latin.

Next question, where did John Paul II write that quote?  In an address to participants in the annual Certamen Vaticanum in 1978, early in his pontificate.  HERE

Let’s read the text together, shall we?  My emphases:


Monday, 27 November 1978

Our revered Brother and dear Sons, who devote yourselves to cultivating and promoting the Latin language, we willingly greet you individually: our revered Brother Cardinal Pericle Felici, who is known to be an expert in the language of the Romans; the Council and members of the Foundation called “Latinitas”, which was set up with a certain foresight by our predecessor of happy memory Paul VI. Some of these in our Secretariat of State are engaged in drawing up documents in Latin. We greet also the winners of the 21st competition “Certamen Vaticanum”.

We highly praise this “Certamen Vaticanum” which in the past was established with the approval and assistance of Pius XII, since it encourages the study of Latin so that one may deepen one’s knowledge of it and promote its use.

There is no one who is ignorant of the fact that this age is less favourable to the study of Latin, when men today are more interested in science and technology and consider the vernacular to be more expressive. Nevertheless we do not wish to ignore the important documents of our predecessors who time and again emphasised the importance of Latin even in this age, especially in so far as the Church is concerned. For Latin is in a way a universal language cutting across national boundaries and as such the Apostolic See still constantly makes use of it in letters and acts addressed to the whole Catholic family.

One must also point out that the sources of the ecclesiastical disciplines are for the most part written in Latin. But what must be said of the outstanding works of the Fathers and other writers of importance who use this tongue? One ought not to be considered a master of learning who does not understand the language of these writers, but who must rely only on translations, if any exist. These rarely bring out the full meaning of the original text. For this reason the Second Vatican Council rightly advised students of sacred studies that “they should acquire a command of Latin which will enable them to understand and use the source material of so many sciences, and the documents of the Church as well” (Optatam Totius, 13).

We address ourself especially to young men so that in this age in which as is well known the study of Latin literature and of the humanities is neglected, they should readily accept this Latin heritage, as it were, which the Church considers very important, and work hard to make it fruitful. They should realize that this quotation from Cicero applies in a certain sense to them: “It is not … so great a distinction to know Latin as it is a disgrace not to know it” (Brutus, 37,140).

We exhort all of you here present and those who are helping you. to continue this noble work and to hold high the torch of Latin, which is also a bond between men of different tongues, although it is confirmed within narrower limits than it was in times past. Be assured that successor of Saint Peter in the supreme apostolic ministry wishes every success in your efforts, is helping and encouraging you. The Apostolic Blessing which we willingly impart to each and everyone of you in the Lord is a sign of this.

And, of course, it is available in LATIN.  HERE

Latin cuts across physical boundaries and the separation of time.  Since it is now no longer developing, as modern languages do, its stability is a great advantage for conveying clear concepts.

I remind the priestly readers that when giving blessings in the older, traditional manner, you must use Latin of the blessing is invalid (so says the Rituale Romanum).

Noverint ii hoc Ciceronis effatum ad se quodam modo referri: “Non… tam praeclarum est scire Latine, quam turpe nescire”.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Littlemore says:

    I was mindful of this at the Mass in the EF the other week, the Mass has a small congregation of regular people who are Polish, Indian Portuguese and English. It’s on Saturday morning but we are striving to move Mass to Sunday. The majority of the parish are non committal about the Mass. We’ve approached the Bishop to ask for a parish in the town for liturgy to be traditional ( North of England & now 1 parish as the 6 parishes have amalgamated), but it seems the time is not right.

  2. Littlemore says: We’ve approached the Bishop … but it seems the time is not right.

    If you approach the bishop, that’s what you are going to get. You need a parish priest, a pastor of a parish, on your side. He can do it under Summorum Pontificum.

    People keep going to the bishop, as if this were still the time of Ecclesia Deiinstead of Summorum Pontificum. What do you expect from bishops? This is why Summorum Pontificum is so important. You go to the bishop if and only if there is no other way forward, there are no friendly priests available at all.

    Of course some priests are going to be incredibly deferential to the bishop, usually out of fear of reprisals. But, the parish priest, under Summorum Pontificum, has the ability to put a TLM into the parish schedule without the bishop’s previous permission.

  3. Littlemore says:

    Thank you Fr. Zuhlsdorf. From your advice, it seems that there is an impasse, as I’d spoken to the Parish Priest ( it is he who says the EF Mass weekly) who advised me to write to the Bishop. It appears that we must pray to the Holy Ghost and be patient, it will all turn full circle, but after my lifetime.
    A paradox, at the other end of the diocese 90 miles away, there are 3 to 4 EF Sunday Masses within a 30 mile radius

  4. Littlemore says: at the other end of the diocese

    Yes, that is how it is… now.

    Keep at it. Organize. Develop a network. Get more people involved.

    Communicate to the priest that you, your group, will take care of all expenses, do all the work, get all the vestments, do all the setting up and taking down.

    Keep at him. With your group, organize “spiritual bouquets” for the priest. Get your group involved with parish events. Be the first to volunteer.


  5. The Cobbler says:

    “Does that mean I’m partly a disgrace?”

    Well, that depends: are we talking about you, or about not knowing Latin? No intention of glibness, to be clear; it would be different, for instance, to say “People who do not know Latin are a disgrace.”

    My own Latin is rather minimal. One thing I do know is we’re not Protestants, dividing people up into the saved and the reprobate before the day of the harvest (funny how Protestantism is supposed to be Bible-based and there’s that parable about the wheat and the weeds). We judge actions, habits and maybe even attitudes (skills, including language skills, fall under habit in a sense but also under circumstance in a sense), rather than people.

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