Latin in actu: Writing A Thomistic Christocentrism

Why learn Latin? Besides whatever beauty, delight, and perspective there are to gain, the reason to learn a new language is to communicate with it. In the case of Latin and other “dead” languages, the majority of that communication consists of reading old texts. My recent book, A Thomistic Christocentrism: Recovering the Carmelites of Salamanca on the Logic of the Incarnation, resulted from engaging with theologians of the medieval and early-modern periods via our common language.

For Catholics, there is no need to treat Latin as if it were an intrinsically sacred or even magical language. Nor must we pretend that Latin is uniquely suited to the technicalities of Catholic doctrine. Where Latin really stands out is its shelf-life. For the very reason that it has been used so extensively and for so long, it has become indispensable. Whether Greek might have been better for Scholasticism or Hebrew better for the liturgy is moot. It just didn’t happen that way. But, God works through human causes. History is no happenstance. Therefore, we receive Latin, ordinary language that it is, as a special gift of divine providence (cf. Apostolic Constitution, Veterum sapientia).

The way for us as Catholics today to “communicate” with the majority of our predecessors is through Latin. To the extent that our ancestors’ voices have been preserved, most of their words remain in Latin. While many of them—like us—spoke any number of languages, they speak to us today mostly in Latin.

The great Scholastic theologians of the high middle ages often pushed Latin to its limit. While this drew criticism from those more sensitive to humanistic concerns (e.g., Erasmus in his Moriae encomium),1 the language proved hardy enough and supple enough to bind the academy of western Europe and beyond together for centuries.

In the case of the theologians whose theory I defend in my recent book (the Salamancans), how they used Latin is clear. Their twenty-folio-volume course of theology is written in a mostly predictable and functionary style—with the occasional burst of passion or entertaining side-remark.2 It’s Latin that gets the job done. The beauty of their work lies more in the ideas being expressed than in the prose itself. However, this is not to say that the Salamancans were incapable of real Latinity. Nullo pacto! The flowing, poetic dedications and prefaces to their work refute that claim. Only a language seized by rigor mortis never changes register. The Salamancans, like other Scholastics, show just how active their Latin was. They knew that, like everything else under the sun, there is a time to write purple and a time to write plain.

The particular theory that I defend in the recent book was first expressed, of course, in Latin replete with technical terms. The English theological copia verborum is embryonic by comparison. The text also reflects the characteristic Scholastic attention to formal logical patterns. They might attack an opponent’s consequentia (logical entailment) or argue de primo ad ultimum (invoking the chain rule) to connect conditional premises into a syllogism. The Salamancans press all of it into service for a worthy end.

The argument in their disputation De motivo Incarnationis, the theory I defend in this new book, is that Jesus in his humanity is first in God’s plan for history, that everything else was intended for him. Thus, he is the goal of everything else God has ever done. In their terms, he is the finis cuius gratia (“the end for-the-sake-of-which”). At the same time, they say, God the Son would not have become human if humanity had never sinned. In other words, Jesus’ actual coming into the world is precisely for the redemption of humanity. This makes redeemed humanity the finis cui (“the end to-which”), the beneficiary of Christ’s coming. Finis cuius gratia and finis cui are two components of the overall reason why God made the universe: Everything is for Christ, but Christ is simultaneously for the redemption of humanity.

The disputation De motivo Incarnationis amounts to about 0.5% of the Salamancan Cursus theologicus. The full course of theology took almost a century to complete, with companion courses in philosophy and moral theology appearing as well. Three generations labored to produce these works, the earlier probably realizing they were unlikely to see the final results of their efforts. Through Latin, their contribution lives on alongside countless other monuments to Catholic thought and experience.

1 “Illud ipsa quoque nonnumquam ridere soleo, cum ita demum maxima sibi videntur Theologi, si quam maxime barbare spurceque loquantur, cumque adeo balbutiunt, ut a nemine nisi balbo possint intelligi, acumen appellant, quod vulgus non adsequatur. Negant enim e dignitate Sacrarum Litterarum esse, si grammaticorum legibus parere cogantur. Mira vero maiestas theologorum, si solis illis fas est mendose loqui, quamquam hoc ipsum habent cum multis cerdonibus commune.”

2 Such as when upbraiding John Duns Scotus and Francisco Suárez or punning that on a certain point of controversy Vincent Ferrer was “non tam ferreus” in his Thomism.

Participant Review of VS Latin Immersion Workshop

Although I had studied Latin before, the Veterum Sapientia Latin Immersion Workshop was a whole new experience. The workshop aimed to create a weeklong bubble of Latin in order to let us learn by listening and communicating in Latin, as we might learn any other language. As you might imagine, this was at times challenging, especially for a rusty Latin student—try carrying on table conversation while trying dredge out of your memory Latin words like ‘last year’, not to mention the perfect of disco, all the while realizing that you never learned the word for ‘cup’, and can’t remember how the number ‘two’ declines! In spite of this, by the end of the week, I was carrying on simple conversations in Latin. Speaking also gives you an opportunity to use some of those first and second-person forms that you might otherwise ignore—such as ‘vocāris’ or ‘loquebāmur’. The teaching methods at the seminar were excellent, and used a bit of sign language, gestures, written words, pictures, activities, and other methods to help our memories and to accommodate varied learning styles. While some classes were held in common, we also spent part of the day divided into groups according to our proficiency level, allowing everyone to improve their skills, wherever they might be starting from. One of the tenets we learned in the introduction was to remember ourselves “inter amicos”, and this was certainly true. Everyone tried to help one another learn, with a lot of patience for the beginners!

I would recommend the seminar for those who want to deepen their knowledge of Latin and to learn not only to read, but also to listen, understand, speak and write it themselves.

Sr. Mary Micaela Hoffmann, RSM
August, 2021

Veterum Sapientia Latin Immersion Workshop (July 25-31, 2021)

Dear Friends,

Laudetur Jesus Christus! Registration is now open for this year’s Veterum Sapientia Latin Immersion Workshop, which will be held from July 25-31, 2021 at Saint Joseph’s College Seminary in Mt Holly, NC.

Details and registration here

Support a Seminarian

Tuition for the summer workshop is $650 at the individual rate. A group rate is offered at $590 per person when two or more people associated with the same institution or school sign up.

There are many seminarians that would greatly enjoy and benefit from the week of Latin formation who cannot afford it. Please consider sponsoring a seminarian’s tuition in whole or part.

Offer your support here


The 1962 Vatican Ordinances accompanying Veterum Sapientia.

January 6, 2021.

Enjoy this sneak preview of what we’re pretty sure is the first-ever translation — into any language, not just English — of a momentous Latin document published in 1962 and, strangely, nearly impossible to find anywhere outside the printed or online edition of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official documentary records of the Holy See.

We’ll call it the Ordinances for short. Its full Latin name is Ordinationes ad Constitutionem Apostolicam “Veterum Sapientia” rite Exsequendam, which is literally, in English, Ordinances for the Correct Implementation of the Apostolic Constitution “Veterum Sapientia” — the great papal defense of Latin from which our new Institute takes its name and mission.

Pope John XXIII, in the conclusion of his seven-page Veterum Sapientia said this: We command the Sacred Council to prepare a curriculum for instruction in the Latin language which is to be followed by everyone with the greatest diligence. (1) He signed VS in a solemn ceremony on the high altar of St. Peter’s on February 22, 1962. Less than two months later, on April 20, his order was fulfilled. On that date, the Sacred Congregation for Seminaries and Universities published twenty-two pages of directions, standards and regulations for making Pope John’s vision a reality in the Catholic schools, seminaries, and universities of the world. These directives are not just specific. They’re positively granular in their level of detail and practicality, right down to teaching method, tests, and even homework assignments.

The Ordinances were to have taken effect worldwide beginning in the fall of 1963.  Had they done so, our Church today would be a very different place.  But Pope John died in June of that year, and the Ordinances, together with Veterum Sapientia itself, virtually disappeared, though no subsequent Vatican documents dealing with Latin have ever contradicted or negated them.  

The document below is still a draft. We’ll be publishing the final version on our website on February 22, 2021, in commemoration of the fifty-ninth anniversary of the signing of Veterum Sapientia. But even in draft form, it’s crystal-clear that Pope John meant business. The glittering vision he articulated in VS was no mere nostalgic ode to the Church’s past, but a bracing summons to build Her future. Here are a few essential quotes from the Ordinances:

… the goal is to make [seminarians] able to use this language to learn their major academic disciplines, to write Church documents and letters, and to correspond with their brother clergy of other nations. Finally, at the highest levels, the objective is to make them able to take part in the sort of ecclesiastical debates on articles of Catholic faith and discipline which occur in councils and meetings… (II.i.§2)

This curriculum is to last at least seven years, for young people beginning their Latin classes in seminaries. They are to have no fewer than six hours per week in the first five years, and no fewer than five hours weekly in the remaining two. (II.ii.§1.1)

… the other academic disciplines will have to be sequenced and abridged (and some perhaps cut entirely or left for later), so that our mandate concerning the time to be given to Latin language study may be obeyed in every respect. (II.ii.§2)

Latin language teaching method ought to cause students to acquire the ability to use it. For this reason, the overflowing philological pot-au-feu which makes up nearly the entire menu in schools of the Humanities, especially graduate schools, will have to be thrown out, since it does not give the nourishment one would reasonably expect from such study. (II.iv.§2)

Any textbook used for teaching Latin syntax shall itself be written in Latin. (II.iv.§7)

Get the idea?  There’s plenty more in the document.  Read on!


Ordinances for the Correct Implementation of the Apostolic Constitution “Veterum Sapientia”

(1) Eidem praeterea Sacro Consilio mandamus, ut linguae Latinae docendae rationem, ab omnibus diligentissime servandam, paret, quam qui sequantur eiusdem sermonis iustam cognitionem et usum capiant. VS. 8. AAS. LIV (1962) p. 135.

Remembering Fr. Reginald Foster (1939-2020) by John Byron Kuhner

As yet another salute to the legacy of one of the (if not simply THE) greatest Latinists of the last century, we would like to share with you an article by John Kuhner on Fr Foster. We note this article in particular because it shows the man as he was: a great mind aflame with his passion for Latin mixed with the full gamut of human virtues and vices.

How could such purpose and passion and love not have an effect on the world, and not have value in God’s sight? Remittuntur ei peccata multa, said Jesus of one of his saints, quia dilexit multum. “For him many sins are forgiven, for he loved much.”

Papal Telegram for the Passing of Fr Foster

Sent December 26, 2020  Telegram by +Parolin to Fr. Saverio Cannistra OCD, Superior General of the Carmelite order, offering the Pope’s condolences on the death of Fr. Reginald Foster.

Summus Pontifex Franciscus nuntium accepit Patrem Reginaldum Foster OCD de hoc mundo demigrasse ad Patris domum transiturum qui complures annos in secretaria Status exegit quique innumera documenta pontificia Latinae linguae fulgore collustravit quam etiam copiose frequentibus discipulis ac largiter assiduus tradidit ipseque precatur ut meritis cumulatus a Domino ad confertam mensuram recipiat mercedem. 

Petrus SRE Card. Parolin

Secretarius Status


Pope Francis has received word that Fr. Reginald Foster OCD has departed this world on his way to the House of the Father.  [Fr. Foster] served for many years in the Secretariat of State and illuminated innumerable pontifical documents with the brilliance of the Latin language, which he also taught fruitfully to a great many students with generous care.  [His Holiness] prays that [Fr. Foster], heaped with his merits, may receive from the Lord recompense in due measure. 

Pietro Cardinal Parolin

Secretary of State

Comment by Nancy Llewellyn:

Reggie would like this Latin, apart from the regrettable “ad domum” early on. He’d certainly appreciate both the choice of the verb demigrare and its elegantly contracted perfect infinitive form demigrasse (instead of the uncontracted demigravisse). He’d also like the coupling of it with that transiturum – a future participle expressing purpose, which offers a bracing dose of futurity in contrast to the past (demigrasse). In classes at the Greg, Reggie not infrequently would run across some phrase expressing purpose and stop everything to run us through at least seven or eight different ways to say that same thing using different structures.

He’d appreciate the light-filled imagery of Latinae linguae fulgore collustravit and the physicality of that cumulatus combined with such a non-physical thing as meritis.   Oh, and did I mention it’s just one huge sentence?  He’d like that too. 

Kudos to the Vatican scribe who wrote this. NEL

Passing of Fr Reginald Foster, OCD

VSI Vice President and co-Founder Nancy Llewellyn on the passing of her mentor and teacher, legendary Latinist Fr. Reginald Foster OCD.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei.

I’m trying to absorb the news of the death of Reggie Foster yesterday morning. Hearing it, I felt at once how fitting it was, and is, that he should have done so on Christmas Day — passing thus to God under THE great sign of hope and of light in the darkness, second only to Easter. My thoughts are scattered, and yet I know I must sit down and put them together now. It’s something I’d meant to do for some years, and especially after seeing him for the last time in November 2019, on his 80th birthday. If I’ve done anything good for Latin in my own career, it’s because of him, more than any other. SALVI certainly would not exist. VSI would not exist. So many works of others — Paideia being one — would not exist. And still other initiatives out there that do not owe Reggie their beginnings nevertheless could not, I daresay, have grown and prospered but that they were peopled and supported by so many Old Fosterians. More to write. More to say. And yet, for this first moment, enough.

Links: Vatican News

Fr. Foster’s personal website: