The Catholic Church, having understood the Roman Empire with its Latin and Greek languages as the providential context into which the Lord entered the world, took as her primal see the Eternal City. In this process she embraced the Greek and Latin languages as useful tools for communicating her saving message throughout the world and throughout time.
After nearly nineteen centuries of continued use, Supreme Pontiffs began articulating the reasons. Pope Pius XI and later Pope Saint John XXIII argued that the Latin language is ideal for the Church as both are “universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.”1
Perceiving challenges to Latin studies, John XXIII marshaled his full magisterial authority in its defense. On February 22, 1962, on the eve of Vatican II, he signed the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia on the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in the presence of dozens of cardinals, hundreds of bishops, and thousands of priests and seminarians. At the heart of the document he writes:
This landmark document also promised a detailed Latin curriculum to follow, which came in the form of the Ordinationes3 just two months later. This 30-page detailed plan, published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis,4 gives semester-by-semester guidelines and even offers instructions for Vatican visitation teams who will ensure its proper implementation.
Needless to say, the post-conciliar period was not distinguished by enthusiastic obedience to the directives of Pope Saint John XXIII or the Council Fathers of Vatican II in this matter. Latin studies in seminaries, instead of being strengthened, were drastically reduced or even eliminated. The unhappy result is that there are currently no seminaries or houses of formation at all that follow Veterum Sapientia and the Ordinationes to the letter. A handful of traditional seminaries extend Latin studies to three, five or six years, but none conduct their courses entirely in Latin or require their seminarians to speak and write in the sacred language, to mention two of the prescriptions of John XXIII.
Veterum Sapientia and its Ordinationes undoubtedly constitute the most authoritative and explicit plan for Latin studies in the Church, but the will of the Church is also made clear in more recent Magisterial documents. Vatican II’s decree on priestly formation, Optatam Totius, states that seminarians “are to acquire a knowledge of Latin which will enable them to understand and make use of the sources of so many sciences and of the documents of the Church.”5 Latin formation was included in the revised Code of Canon Law which states that seminarians “should understand Latin well.”6 The authoritative document for American seminaries today, the Program for Priestly Formation, cites both Optatam Totius and CIC/83 c.249 and quotes the former in its directive on Latin studies for seminarians:
At no point thereafter were these documents abrogated or even challenged. The sources before, during, and after Vatican II are authoritative and directive in nature, not laudatory or suggestive, reflecting not only the Church’s will but her seriousness on the matter. They remain authoritative, despite the widespread ignorance today concerning them.
1 John XXIII, Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, §4, quoting Pius XI, Apostolic Letter Officiorum Omnium. VSI has a link to the Latin text along with an English translation here.
2 Ibid., §10.