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The Apostolic Constitution ‘Veterum Sapientia’ (Part 2)

Gregory DiPippo

As we noted recently, in a few days’ time, we will mark the 60th anniversary of the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, from which our institution takes its name. The Pope who promulgated it, St John XXIII, has often been misunderstood as one who wanted to uncritically open the Church up to the modern world, as if nothing but good could come from doing so. What he says about Latin in the Constitution, however, reveals this for the misrepresentation it is. It would be better to say that while St John did want the Church to take what was best from the world, he was much more concerned that the world should benefit from what was best in the Church. This would, of course, include all that the Church had done for so many centuries to preserve and promote the use of Latin as the vehicle by which its spiritual patrimony was conveyed to and shared among all Her children.

After speaking therefore, of the educational value of Latin, he declares his intention and resolve to “restore this language to its position of honor, and to do all We can to promote its study and use.” And since “(t)he employment of Latin has recently been contested in many quarters … (W)e have therefore decided to issue the timely directives contained in this document, so as to ensure that (its) ancient and uninterrupted use … be maintained and, where necessary, restored.”

The Pope goes on to repeat his own words delivered three years previously to a congress of Latin scholars.

“It is a matter of regret that so many people, unaccountably dazzled by the marvelous progress of science, are taking it upon themselves to oust or restrict the study of Latin and other kindred subjects. … … Our own view is that the very contrary policy should be followed. The greatest impression is made on the mind by those things which correspond more closely to man’s nature and dignity. And therefore the greatest zeal should be shown in the acquisition of whatever educates and ennobles the mind. Otherwise poor mortal creatures may well become like the machines they build — cold, hard, and devoid of love.”

His Holiness deems this a matter of such importance that he goes on not only to command religious superiors of all kinds to promote Latin in accordance with the Holy See’s directives, but also to forbid anyone to write “against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the liturgy”, or to misrepresent “the Holy See’s will in this regard.”

It will certainly not escape the reader’s notice that these are not the words of a man too enamored with the modern world to embrace the ancient world.

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