VATICAN CITY — “Is there no Latin word for tea?” Hilaire Belloc once remarked. “Upon my soul, if I had known that I would have let the vulgar stuff alone.”

Were the English Catholic writer alive today, he would probably find plenty of “vulgar” objects lacking Latin names to complain about. Latin has declined so rapidly in recent years that many believe the language to be effectively extinct, but Vatican officials insist that Latin and Greek remain vital to understanding the roots and origins of Western civilization and the Catholic Church.

So, in a bid to stem the decline, on Oct. 30 the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences launched a competition for journalists. An award will be given to the journalist who best shows an appreciation for Latin and Greek, demonstrates their relevance to Europe’s “cultural and scientific” development, and who brings the languages out of the realm of scholarship and into public understanding.

The winner will be announced in May 2007 and receive a prize of 5,000 euros.

The pontifical committee hopes the competition — the second in two years — will help address a serious problem in European schools and universities. According to committee members, the language’s disappearance is damaging not only to historical studies but also to linguistic, philosophical and theological studies that are the foundation of European culture and represent a cultural inheritance for humanity.

Father Cosimo Semeraro, secretary of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, said journalists have been targeted because of the key role they play as opinion-formers.

“Journalists have the possibility of making clear to politicians and those in government what happens when Latin and Greek are not taught in school and university,” he told the Register Nov. 3.

The competition has a European focus, Father Semeraro said, because the roots of Western culture are found in Europe. But he added that the committee also wants the rest of the world to “think very seriously” about the importance of Latin and Greek.

‘Devotional’ Language

Latin continues to be used in science, academia and law and is often considered the Catholic “language of devotion.” It was the primary liturgical language until the Second Vatican Council and continues to be taught in pontifical universities.

As well, ecclesiastical Latin remains the official language of Vatican City.

In Finland, Latin has undergone a revival.

According to The Guardian newspaper, Finland, which holds the current presidency of the European Union, broadcasts the news in Latin on national radio to a claimed 75,000 listeners. The Finnish presidency also publishes a regular news-in-brief column in Latin.

Greek, the oldest Indo-European language with a documented history dating back 3,500 years, was the original language of the New Testament and was spoken by the apostles to spread Christianity through Greece. Like Latin, it is widely taught at the pontifical universities.

Historically, both Latin and Greek have exerted a major influence on many modern languages, and for over 1,000 years Latin was the political and diplomatic lingua franca of the Western world.

The Vatican’s latest initiative has been welcomed by Greek and Latin language experts. “Certainly, it’s good — the Vatican should be encouraging Latin students instead of fooling around,” said Father Reginald Foster, Pope Benedict XVI’s own Latinist.

Father Foster and other experts, such as Edmund Ditton, professor of Church history and patrology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, say that knowledge of Greek and Latin is crucial to preserving Western culture.

“People today think of themselves as advanced, yet by not knowing these languages, we’ve cut ourselves off from 2,000 years of culture,” said Ditton.

The scholars also insist that the early Church fathers and the Church’s greatest scholars and theologians cannot be properly understood without a grounding in Latin and Greek.

“You won’t know Aquinas and certainly not someone like Augustine — you’ll never get into his mind — unless you learn and understand the only language he used which was Latin,” Father Foster said. “It’s not just about discovering the roots of words; it’s about the way of expressing, the categories, the vision of things which is all Latin whether you like it or not.”

Father Foster is upset at the neglect of Latin in much of the Church in recent years, comparing it to a contemporary musician who disregards classical composers such as Mozart, Bach or Brahms. “The Church is losing,” he said.

The colorful Discalced Carmelite priest, whose reputation as a passionate expert in Latin is known around the world, recently left his teaching post at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (reportedly because he was allowing any student to attend his courses for free) and has now founded Academa Romae Latinitatis, his own Latin academy in Rome.

More Initiatives

Other Vatican offices are also seeking to promote Greek and Latin. The Pontifical Committee for Historical Studies is to hold an international congress in Rome next May on the subject, and the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Council for Culture are working to revitalize the languages in schools, universities and other institutions.

There is also talk of the Pope authorizing wider use of the Tridentine Rite — often referred to as the old “Latin Mass.

Father Foster, however, is wary of the terminology being used to frame the debate about use of the Tridentine Mass.

“It’s not about ‘going back’ to Latin,” Father Foster said. “Latin goes ahead.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.


Details of the competition for journalists can be found on the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences website