For our final consideration of Pope St John XXIII’s Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, the 60th anniversary of which is tomorrow, we take a look at some of the practical steps that His Holiness orders to be taken to promote the use and study of Latin.
He begins by citing the provision of the 1917 Code of Canon Law (can. 1364), that students in minor seminaries must learn both Latin and their native language well as part of their course of studies. (In those days, it was more the norm than the exception for seminarians to attend a minor seminary first, especially in Catholic countries like Italy.) Here we may note in passing that the 1983 Code of Canon Law is no less explicit on this same point, although without reference to minor seminaries. “The program of priestly formation is to provide that students not only are carefully taught their native language but also understand Latin well and have a suitable understanding of those foreign languages which seem necessary or useful for their formation or for the exercise of pastoral ministry.” (Can. 249) Pope John emphasizes that “(n)o one is to be admitted to the study of philosophy or theology except he be thoroughly grounded in (Latin) and capable of using it.”
The Pope goes on to order that where Latin has been eclipsed in favor of other subjects in imitation of secular curricula, that it should be restored, and the subjects which had replaced it curtailed, or the course of studies otherwise adjusted as necessary to make sure that sufficient room is given to Latin. He also specifies that theology is to be taught in Latin and from Latin textbooks, as the best means “to safeguard the integrity of the Catholic faith,” and “to prune away useless verbiage.” This was regarded as a matter of such importance that he also orders professors who cannot teach in Latin should be replaced by others who can.
Although he had previous emphasized the suitability of Latin as a language for the teaching of theology, since its vocabulary is not subject to the vicissitudes of change that affect vernacular languages, at the same time, he had also emphasized its role as a bond of unity between Catholics of many different nations. In order that Latin may continue to serve as the “the Church’s living language”, the Pope also orders the creation of a Latin Academy, which would be similar in its function as the Academie Française, providing a universal reference point for the Latin expression of new concepts and things. To this day, in fact, the Vatican publishes a Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis for that very purpose.
A paragraph is also given to the study of Greek, the language of the New Testament and so many of the most important of the Church Fathers, which in turn were among the most important sources for the scholastic theologians of the Latin-speaking Middle Ages.
Finally, the Pope commands the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities “to prepare a syllabus for the teaching of Latin which all shall faithfully observe… designed to give those who follow it an adequate understanding of the language and its use.” This syllabus, known as the Ordinationes, was issued just under two months after Veterum Sapientia, and gives detailed instructions not only concerning the specific texts to be read, but the requisites of how Latin was to be taught and by whom. The first-ever English translation of them was done by our Vice-President, Dr Nancy Llewellyn, and can be read at the following link: https://veterumsapientia.org/resources/ordinationes-eng/