Latinist strikes out

It may still be the Church’s official language but it appears that there are some in the Vatican who don’t know Latin as well as they should. Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio establishing the new Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation had the title Ubicumque et Semper which translates as “wherever and always.” However, Fr. Reginald (Reggie) Foster, the Pope’s former Latinist for 40 years, has said it should Ubique et Semper, “everywhere and always.”

“When do you ever begin a sentence with ‘wherever’? That is a relative particle,” Fr. Reggie said, adding jokingly: “I was ready to hit the translators with a baseball bat.”

However, it is understood that some Latinists had raised it as a problem but were overruled by their superiors.

Source: The Tablet.





24 responses to “Latinist strikes out”

  1. Brian Duffy Avatar
    Brian Duffy

    it is understood that some Latinists had raised it as a problem but were overruled by their superiors.

    I bet it was the dear Antonio or estimable Gallagher.

  2. Jordan Zarembo Avatar

    With all due respect to Fr. Foster, the Classical language should never overrule late Latin and ecclesiastical Latin. While I agree with his assessment in this case, certain “ugly constructions” might be justified in light of previous documents.

    In all, I find the current Vatican Latin quite straightforward and easy to read. There’s a marked tendency to avoid indirect discourse and a great willingness to recast subjunctive clauses with indicative phrases. Nevertheless, if Vatican documents were to return to a wholesale disregard for the personal pronoun in the late and medieval style (for example, an equation of iste with is, already evident in the Vulgate), I would not go bonkers. Sometimes, deviations from an artificial Classical ecclesiastical Latin betray certain valuable nuances of the text. Let Latin breathe, let it live, let it grow.

    On that note, perhaps it is time to ensure that all seminarians can at least translate a Latin proper or a section of the Vulgate before advancing to ordination. I do not consider this a huge hurdle to overcome if seminarians receive three to four solid years in the language. Certainly, “pot: kettle black” — my Greek has always been lousy and my time is at hand to finish my requirement. Nevertheless, the ordination of men completely illiterate in Latin must stop. I am happy to have helped priests through the ordinary of the Mass. However, this training should have been completed during formation and not in casual conversations with laymen.

    1. Cody C.  Unterseher Avatar

      “. . . the Classical language should never overrule late Latin and ecclesiastical Latin.”

      The difficulty with this is that medieval and ecclesiastical Latin rarely conform to the rules of Latin grammar, and almost never in a predictable way. One needs only to read through materials from the turn of the first millennium — e.g. the missives of Cardinal Humbert, or the letters of Leo IX — to realize that just about anything is fair game. The lack of grammatical conformity makes for difficulty reading (which of the seven participles in this sentence is the main verb?) Aquinas, writing later and in a more classical style (in contrast) is usually very careful in his writing, making for exceptionally easy reading. Yet later authors very between complex medieval constructions and obscure vocabulary and what seems overly simplistic. I don’t think one can trace a development in the Latin language that gives warrant through precedent for bad grammar. In this day and age, one would think that a few expert Latinists could be found to help regularize things for official documents.

      1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
        Jordan Zarembo

        Yes, this is quite true Fr. Cody. There is no “bad”, but the perhaps only the utterly confusing. The excitement of irregular Latin should be enjoyed outside of the high stakes of papal pronouncements.

        That said, I do wish that Latinitas and similar neo-Latin initiatives would receive better promotion. Since few if any papal pronouncements are drafted in Latin, it is important that the Vatican encourage new composition and creativity in the language.

      2. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        Since few if any papal pronouncements are drafted in Latin, it is important that the Vatican encourage new composition and creativity in the language.

        Why on earth should it? That seems like a complete non sequitur to me. The fact that few if any pronouncements or other documents are composed in Latin speaks for itself.

        The language has been dead for centuries, and is already being artificially kept alive. Its status as a living language is surely no different from Esperanto? I don’t know anyone who in Latin asks his neighbour to pass the marmalade at the breakfast table, though I’m sure there are some who would like to!

        I have nothing against Latin per se. It is an essential tool, aiding the study of language in general. I also have no problem whatsoever with its use in worship, provided that both laypeople and clergy understand what is being said or sung. But to propose that Latin be developed and given new creativity is something different, given that the language is already dead.

        Regarding the classical/mediaeval divergence, am I the only one who has always felt distinctly uncomfortable singing Credo in unum Deum when every scholar knows that Credo takes the dative case?

      3. Mark Thompson Avatar
        Mark Thompson

        Paul: yes, I think you are the only one. And even if we held mediaeval or late Latin to be “wrong” where it diverged from Classical Latin (a very prescriptivist view that you certainly wouldn’t take with English, would you?), Classical Latin contains examples of credo with in (e.g., Virgil), as well as with the accusative (e.g., Terence, Horace), and in other constructions.

  3. Halbert Weidner Avatar
    Halbert Weidner

    Ubique! Not only do they not know classical Latin, they do not know their Kipling.

  4. Brian Francis Seraphim Duffy Avatar
    Brian Francis Seraphim Duffy

    “But to propose that Latin be developed and given new creativity is something different, given that the language is already dead.”

    Obviously Mr. Inwood hasn’t been keeping up with the current trends in Latin teaching. The younger teachers very much desire to teach Latin as a living tongue and the students appreciate such efforts. I would not be shocked to learn that they indeed teach their students how to ask for marmalade. At the ACL meeting last June I’ve even heard one claim that Latin is better for texting than English.

    Alas, most of these teachers tend to be Unitarians or neo-pagans!

    Although I am stuck with the Jenney texts, I do include lessons on food, colors etc. I may even incoporate selections from the Latin versions of Harry Potter next year. We old fogies have to keep up with our young colleagues.

    BTW there’s a fellow on the net who’s trying to revive Ancient Greek – not impossible since I had a professor who used to chat with his wife in that tongue as well as in Latin. Alas, they were official Episcopalians!

    1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
      Jordan Zarembo

      To come full-circle from Fr. Cody’s comment: I fully support efforts to reintroduce Greek and Latin to the secondary level. I still do quite a bit of classical Latin research. Right now, I’m trying to wring an implausible thesis out of Cicero’s de divinatione. We’ll see where that goes (probably into the circular file). :-0

      Latin education begins with classical era and then branches off into medieval work for some. What bothers me about public high school Latin curricula is the exclusive focus on late Republican and early Imperial work — as if only golden and silver age Latin existed. The AP national secondary exams in the US test a quite narrow range of texts: there’s a choice between an Aeneid exam or an Ovid and Catullus exam. Why not an exam on Plautus, Petronius, or even Martial? The AP secondary curriculum is unnecessarily narrow and fails to expose students to the breadth of the classical language and culture.

      In my Catholic high school the priests taught Caesar sophomore year, Cicero junior year, and selections from medieval texts, office, and gradual senior year. I realize that a secular public school can’t have students translate and sing the O Antiphons. Nevertheless post-classical Christian Latin is an integral part of the evolution of the language. Hopefully one of these days I will be able to teach a course on medieval and liturgical Latin under a religious studies department. To paraphrase John Paul II’s metaphor of apostolicity, Latin cannot “breathe” without the classical “lung” and Christian sacral “lung” breathing in unison. I am convinced that an exploration of late, medieval, and ecclesiastical Latin is possible within even a public university so long as the religious texts are presented as philological specimens and not as devotions.

  5. Bill deHaas Avatar

    Mr. Duffy and Mr. Zarembo – you miss Mr. Inwood’s points (IMO). There is no doctrine in heaven that insists that the church must have latin….latin is not the core of the gospel message. Latin, like any tool, is merely that. Yes, there is history attached; etc. but these comments sperate teaching latin (for a whole host of very good reasons) and what makes up “good, participatory” and full liturgy. You seem to posit that w/o latin there can be no liturgy….we differ on that opinion.

  6. Brian Duffy Avatar
    Brian Duffy

    “You seem to posit that w/o latin there can be no liturgy….we differ on that opinion.”

    Mr. de Haas, I really do not understand how you can make this conclusion based on what I had written since I never even mentioned liturgy. My comments were simply to inform readers about what is presently taking place in progressive Latin educational circles.

  7. Joe O'Leary Avatar
    Joe O’Leary

    One of the first pieces of Latin I learnt was something like “pass the marmelade”

    Caesar adsum iam forte; “passus sum” sed Antone.

    The idea that the Gospel can be communicated to the modern world in Latin borders on lunacy.

    1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
      Jordan Zarembo

      The difficulty of the proclamation of the Gospel stems not from the language but the preparation for the message. Even the proclamation of the Gospel in the vernacular carries a risk of misinterpretation if the proclamation is not immediately followed with a compassionate and understandable exegesis of the text.

      The greatest danger of liturgical Latin is not prayer and worship in a “dead” sacral language. The danger lies in illiteracy, deliberate ignorance, and uncritical attitudes about liturgical text. Recently I was banned from a certain pro-EF website because I defended the replacement of certain anti-Jewish passages in the EF. The moderator simply reiterated a supercessionist position rather than engage the possibility that certain EF readings communicate anti-Judaism. I support Latin self-education through liturgical texts and Latin ritual. However, this learning must be accompanied by a critical evaluation of text and ritual. Unfortunately, I sense that many in the EF community approach Latin Mass as something “mysterious”. This is a very dangerous position akin to the reification of text in religious fundamentalism.

      Mt. 5:24 reminds us that participation in any liturgy for its own sake without consistent awareness of the many valences of liturgical text could well be a privilege of ritual over the welfare of our brothers and sisters.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        Mystery is fine. It’s magical thinking about Latin or ritual or grace that’s the deeper problem.

      2. Robert B. Ramirez Avatar
        Robert B. Ramirez

        There are those who defend Latin without know anything about it except that the Church extols it. That isn’t magic; it’s faith and trust. God bless them for that. If their attempts at reasoned argument are rickety, what of it? No one should be mocked for attempting to live faithfully.

      3. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur


        You’re selling, but I am not buying to the extent we’re talking about folks who go running around decrying others. Simple faith and trust does not excuse that.

      4. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
        Jordan Zarembo

        Robert — we’re all in need of examination and learning. I’ve spent 15 years learning Latin and I still ask for help all the time. What’s bothering me here is the idea that the EF is “something sacred” because it makes someone “feel sanctified”. Yes, the sacraments impart grace. Nevertheless, that does not excuse us from the responsibility to learn about all facets of text and ritual.

        I’m also tired of those who are into the EF for the tat show and not out of a desire to live an examined faith, but perhaps that is merely prejudice and poor argument on my part. Still, liturgy should never be viewed as theater or entertainment. Sadly, some in the EF movement defend the ritual without care for textual meaning and context.

      5. Robert B. Ramirez Avatar
        Robert B. Ramirez

        we’re talking about folks who go running around decrying others. Simple faith and trust does not excuse that.

        Certainly not. On any side.

      6. Robert B. Ramirez Avatar
        Robert B. Ramirez

        JZ — I am sure the creatures you describe exist, but it’s been my good fortune not to have encountered them — or having done so, to have been oblivious to their silliness. Far from caring to “feel sanctified”, I class that with the feminization of liturgy of which so many of the tradition-minded complain. Over-concern with feelings is an artificial, induced response to liturgy and not at all what the Church means us to experience. I might add that it’s very un-Roman. A marvel of the EF, IMO, is that it is at the same time both rich and economical: though crammed with eloquent signs, it asks for nothing superfluous or merely decorative. It’s true that the uneducated eye fails to discern many of these signs – part of the problem being that we live in a time when people no longer know how to read signs and consequently no longer look for them. It is a way of being human that has slipped away in the face of utilitarian, mechanistic thought. This is where homiletics, catechesis, and Catholic culture in general come in. Illiterates of the first millennium understood Incarnation and atonement to a depth and interwoven richness most of us will never grasp. I believe they could have taught us much about textual meaning and content without knowing a word of Latin.

  8. Brian Duffy Avatar
    Brian Duffy

    Caesar adsum iam forte; “passus sum” sed Antone.

    Oh, Mr. O’Leary, I haven’t seen that in ages. Brilliant! I’ll use that for my classes although I’ll change the i in iam to j. Many thanks!

    BTW, I suspect that most of us Latin teachers are a bit moonstruck, but we’re harmless.

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      The full rhyme:

      Caesar adsum jam forti
      Passus sum sed Antoni
      Pompey aderat
      Caesar sic in omnibus
      Pompey in is at

  9. Joe O'Leary Avatar
    Joe O’Leary

    Mr Ramirez claims that modern people cannot read signs — this is not so at all — we are a very semiotically conscious culture — people can see that the fabric of signs put forward in older Catholic cultures belongs to obsolete regimes of representation. Vatican II Catholics, instructed by the vernacular liturgy and Bible are far more versed in the texture of biblical signs than medievals instructed by statues and stained glass.

  10. Shannon O'Donnell Avatar

    >>Ubicumque et Semper which translates as “wherever and always.”<<

    Are you sure it shouldn't be translated, "Whatever"?

  11. Mitch Powers Avatar
    Mitch Powers

    I hve used google translate and texted short Latin messages a few times. You can say more with less words..Of course the person on the other end usually needs to be able to access Google translate as well but it does make for an interesting use. Latin is not as dead as many would like us to believe.

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