1. The Wisdom of the Ancients, contained within the writings of the Greeks and Romans, as well as the most illustrious monuments of the learning of those ancient peoples, must be considered to be a sort of dawn which lights the way for the Truth of the Gospel, which the Son of God, “Who is both the judge and teacher of Grace and of discipline, the illuminator and leader of the human race,”1 proclaimed on this Earth. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church, in turn, discerned in the most excellent of the literary monuments of those ancient times a certain preparatory program for souls to receive those Heavenly riches which Christ Jesus, “according to the order of the fullness of time,”2 shared with mortals. Hence it is clear that all this came to pass so that, in the established order of Christian affairs, nothing indeed has perished – nothing true, nothing just, nothing noble, nor anything beautiful – which prior ages had brought forth.
2. For this reason, the Holy Church has cultivated and kept in highest honor the source texts of this wisdom, and especially the Greek and Latin languages, as if they were a sort of golden robe clothing Wisdom itself. Other venerable languages which flourished in the East the Church has likewise taken into Her service, since they have contributed greatly toward the progress of the human race and toward its moral education; these, indeed, have continued to flourish up to the present time in certain regions, both in religious ceremonies and in translating Holy Scripture, as the never-silenced voices of a still-living antiquity.
3. But amid this variety of languages, the one that shines most clearly is that which first arose in Latium, and went on to serve wondrously in spreading the Christian name throughout the lands of the West. Truly, it came about by a divine plan, that the language which through many centuries had united a wide-ranging family of peoples under the authority of the Roman Empire thereafter became the household language of the Apostolic See,3 and, thus preserved for posterity, bound the Christian peoples of Europe together with one another.
By the working of its nature, the Latin language is most suitable for furthering every kind of cultural initiative among all sorts of peoples, since it does not incite jealousy, but is equally accessible to every race of men. It is not partisan, but rather, favorable and welcoming to all. Nor would it be right not to mention that there exists in the Latin language an innate, noble harmoniousness and propriety – “a way of speaking which is dense with meaning, rich, and abundant, full of majesty and dignity.”4 It has qualities within it which are uniquely conducive both to clarity and to seriousness.
4. For these reasons, the Apostolic See has in every age taken zealous care to preserve the Latin language, deeming it a material worthy that She should wear it Herself in the exercise of her own Magisterium, “as if it were a magnificent cloak woven of heavenly teachings and sacrosanct laws,”5 and that Her sacred ministers should wear it as well. Indeed men of the Church, wherever they may be, by virtue of using the Roman tongue, are able to grasp the more promptly all matters pertaining to the Holy See, and more easily communicate both with it and among themselves.
Because Latin is so intimately bound up with the life of the Church, “having a thorough mastery of Latin both through abstract knowledge and practical use is a matter of concern not just to culture and the literary arts, but to Holy Religion as well.”6 Our predecessor of immortal memory, Pius XI, taught this emphatically, having considered the matter both from abstract and practical perspectives, pointed out three specific qualities of this language which are wonderfully consonant with the nature of the Church. He declared that “The Church, as an institution which holds all nations in her embrace and is destined to endure unto the ending of the world, by Her own very nature requires a language which is universal, unchangeable, and not vernacular.”
5. Forasmuch as “every church” must keep itself “in concord”8 with the Roman Church, and since the Roman Pontiffs have a power which is “truly episcopal, ordinary and immediate both in every individual church and in every one of the pastors and faithful”9 of whatever rite, people, or language they may be, it seems entirely proper that there should be a universal and equitable instrument for mutual communication, especially between the Apostolic See and the churches which make use of the same Latin rite. Therefore, both the Roman Pontiffs, whenever they want to instruct the Catholic peoples in some matter, and the various Councils of the Roman Curia, when they are transacting business or issuing decrees applying to the whole community of the Faithful, always make use of Latin, exactly like a mother’s voice in the ears of people to numerous to count.
6. It is right that the language used by the Church should be not only universal, but also unchangeable. For if the truths of the universal Church were handed down in a few, or in many, of the unstable languages of modern times (among which no one excels the others in authority) the obvious result would soon be that the importance of those truths would not be perceptible to all people with equal meaning or equal clarity, on account of those languages’ variable nature. No stable, common touchstone would be available by which the precision of each of the others could be judged. In fact the Latin language itself, having been protected from the kind of changes which constantly arise from people’s daily usage of new words, has to be thought of as fixed and unchangeable; although there do exist new meanings for certain Latin words, they are such as the progress, development and defense of doctrine required, and have now long since been firmly established and approved.
7. And since the Catholic Church, established by Christ the Lord, far exceeds in dignity all human societies, it is certainly fitting for Her to use a language which is not vernacular, but full of nobility and majesty.
8. Moreover, the Latin language, which “we may truly call catholic,”10 since it has been hallowed in perpetual use by the Apostolic See, the mother and teacher of all the churches, has to be treated as a “treasure-house of incomparable excellence,”11 and as a sort of portal through which all can gain access to the Christian truths received from antiquity and to the great source texts of Church teaching.12 Latin is, finally, an eminently appropriate link by which this present age of the Church is marvelously bound together with the ages which preceded it and with those of the future.
9. Nor can anyone be in doubt but that there is a power in the tongue of the Romans and in good literature which has been put there for the specific purpose of shaping and sharpening the pliable minds of the young. By it the chief faculties of the mind and the spirit are exercised, brought to maturity, and perfected. The mind’s acuity is sharpened, as is the power of judgment; likewise childish understanding is set on firmer footings, so that all things may be rightly apprehended and evaluated. Finally, in the most deliberate way, one may learn both to think and to articulate one’s thoughts.
10. All these things considered, it is immediately clear why the Roman Pontiffs have not only, often and vigorously, held up the importance and excellence of the Latin language as objects of praise, but have also prescribed its study and its use by priests both secular and religious, while urgently warning of the dangers attendant on its neglect.
We now, impelled by the same very serious reasons which motivated Our predecessors and earlier provincial Synods,13 intend with firm purpose that the study and cultivation of this language, restored to its due dignity, shall be even more widely promoted. Since in Our own time the use of the Roman tongue has begun to be called into question in many places, and since a great many people have asked for the opinion of the Apostolic See in the matter, We have firmly made up Our mind to ensure, by means of appropriate statutes published in this solemn document, that the ancient and never-interrupted custom of using Latin shall be preserved, and wherever it has dwindled, that it shall be fully restored.
Furthermore, it seems to Us that We already declared with sufficient clarity Our own opinion in this matter, when We spoke these words to an audience of distinguished scholars of Latin:
11. Having therefore carefully considered and weighed up these concerns, and being mindful of Our solemn duty, We now command and order the following:
12. Finally, it is Our will and command, by Our Apostolic authority, that these things which We have ordered, decreed, pronounced and mandated in this Our Constitution shall stand firm and be in force, ratified in every part, all things to the contrary notwithstanding, even those worthy of particular mention.
Given at Rome, in St. Peter’s, on the 22nd day of the month of February, on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, in the year 1962, the fourth year of Our Pontificate.
The original Latin text of Veterum Sapientia was published in the AAS 54(1962) 129-35; and in L’Osservatore Romano February 24, 1962, p. 1-2.
1 Tertullian, Apologeticum [Apology] 21; Migne, PL 1, 394.
2 Eph. 1:10.
3 Letter of the Sacred Congregation of Studies Vehementer sane, ad Ep. universos (1 Iuly 1908), Ench. Cler., n. 820; Cf. Pius XI, Apostolic Letter Unigenitus Dei Filius (19 March 1924), AAS 16 (1924): 141.
4 Pius XI, Apostolic Letter Offιciorum omnium (1 August 1922), AAS 14 (1922): 452-453.
5 Pius XI, Motu Proprio Litterarum latinarum (20 October 1924), AAS 16 (1924): 417.
6 Pius XI, Apostolic Letter Offιciorum omnium (1 August 1922), AAS 14 (1922): 452.
8 St Irenaeus, Adversus Hæreses [Against Heresies] 3, 3, 2; Migne, PG 7, 848.
9 Cf. CIC[/1917], c. 218, § 2.
10 Cf. Pius XI, Apostolic Letter Offιciorum omnium (1 August 1922), AAS 14 (1922): 453.
11 Pius XII, Allocution Magis quam (23 November 1951), AAS 43 (1951): 737.
12 Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Depuis le jour (8 September 1899), Acta Leonis XIII 19 (1899): 166.
13 Cf. Collectio Lacensis, esp.: vol. III, 1918s. (Conc. Prov. Westmonasteriense, 1859); vol. IV, 29 (Conc. Prov. Parisiense, a. 1849); vol. IV, 149, 153 (Conc. Prov. Rhemense, a. 1849); vol. IV, 359, 361 (Conc. Prov. Avenionense, a. 1849); vol. IV, 394, 396 (Conc. Prov. Burdigalense, a. 1850); vol. V, 61 (Conc. Strigoniense, a. 1858); vol. V, 664 (Conc. Prov. Colocense, a. 1863) ; vol. VI, 619 (Synod. Vicariatus Suchnensis, a. 1803).
14 To the International Congress “Ciceronianis Studiis provehendis”, 7 Sept. 1959; in Discorsi Messaggi Colloquidel Santo Padre Giovanni XXIII, I, pp. 234-235; cf. Allocution ad cives dioecesis Placentinae Romam peregrinantes habita [to the faithful of the diocese of Piacenza on the occasion of their pilgrimage] (15 April 1959), L’Osservatore Romano (16 April 1959); Letter Pater misericordiarum (22 August 1961) AAS 53 (1961): 677; Allocution in sollemni auspicatione Collegii Insularum Philippinarum de Urbe habita (7 October 1961) L’Osservatore Romano (9-10 October 1961); Letter Iucunda laudatio (8 December 1961), AAS 53 (1961): 812.
15 Pius XI, Apostolic Letter Offιciorum omnium (1 August 1922), AAS 14 (1922): 453.
16 Letter of the Sacred Congregation of Studies, Vehementer sane (1 Iuly 1908) Ench. Cler., n. 821.
17 Leo XII, Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus (18 November 1893), Acta Leonis XIII 13 (1893): 342; Letter Plane quidem intelligis (20 May 1885), Acta 5: 63-64; Pius XII, Allocution Magis quam (23 September 1951): AAS 43 (1951): 737.
English translation by Nancy E. Llewellyn of Latin original document Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia (1962) by Pope Saint John XXIII. This English translation is copyright; however, the translator hereby grants permission to download, print, share, post, distribute, quote and excerpt it, provided that no changes, alterations, or edits of any kind are made to any part of the written text. ©2022 Nancy E. Llewellyn. All other rights reserved.