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.