Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cardinal Hume and the Popes on Latin

I recently came across this inspiring little quotation from the late Basil, Cardinal Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, sometime Abbot of Ampleforth. I can't find it on the internet, I assume it's come from one of his books or talks.

'It does not matter, to my mind at any rate, whether we sing in Latin or in the vernacular, but it does matter that our worship be done with dignity and reverence.'

This is a puzzling statement. It seems to have the same logical form as this:

'It doesn't matter how fast you drive, as long you drive safely.'

It denies what no-one claims, that Latin is the only determinant of the dignity and reverence of worship (that it is a necessary and sufficient condition), just as no one claims that speed is the only determinant of safe driving. But it presents this thwacking of a straw man in such as way as to imply something quite different: that Latin makes no contribution to dignity and reverence in worship (like the claim that speed is irrelevant to road safety). 'It does not matter...'? The quoted statement airly dismisses the possibility as not worth considering: our attention is drawn away from the irrelevant issue, Latin, to the relevant issue, dignity and reverence. Can we conclude that Latin is irrelevant to dignity and reverence, from the statement? Not strictly logically, but somehow the view that it is relevant is made to seem silly. This is a rhetorical trick.

What did Bl Pope John XXIII say about Latin? He wrote an Apostolic Constitution on the subject in 1962, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, 'Veterum Sapientia'. Here are some choice quotes:

On ancient languages in general: By their use in sacred liturgies and in versions of Holy Scripture, they have remained in force in certain regions even to the present day, bearing constant witness to the living voice of antiquity.
On Latin specifically (quoting Pius XI, here and later): Its "concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity" makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression. ...

Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular. ...

In addition, the Latin language "can be called truly catholic." It has been consecrated through constant use by the Apostolic See, the mother and teacher of all Churches, and must be esteemed "a treasure ... of incomparable worth.". It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church's teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity. ...

The employment of Latin has recently been contested in many quarters, and many are asking what the mind of the Apostolic See is in this matter. We have therefore decided to issue the timely directives contained in this document, so as to ensure that the ancient and uninterrupted use of Latin be maintained and, where necessary, restored.
So you might say that the use of Latin would be a way of making an act or worship more dignified, more reverent, for at least four reasons: through its inherent 'majesty', its connection with antiquity, its universality, and its consecration by long use by the Church.

Cardinal Hume could not have failed to have been familiar with this document. But he chose, not only to ignore it, but by implication to ridicule the views of people who took the immemorial teaching of the Church on the subject of liturgical language, which it reiterates, seriously.

Also tossed aside by Cardinal Hume are the views of Pope Paul VI. As I have recently reported on this blog, his neglected Instruction Sacrificium Laudis of 1966 both begged and commanded religious superiors to retain Latin and the fullness of their traditional offices. On Latin, he wrote in particular:

For this language is, within the Latin Church, an abundant well-spring of Christian civilisation and a very rich treasure-trove of devotion.

Oh, but 'It does not matter': to your mind, Cardinal Hume, not to that of the Popes.


  1. John L3:50 am

    It did matter to Hume of course ... as anyone who tried to get mass said in Latin in his diocese would have found out.

    A crucial part of the importance of Latin is that it is impossible to have a human community without a common language. It would be impossible to hold an ecumenical council now, because the bishops would not be able to speak to one another, as they do not share any common language. So the revival of Latin as a spoken language as well as a language of learning is essential for the Church.

    1. I received something similar from Cardinal Hume when I requested permission for an occasional Tridentine Mass in our London parish before the Pope Benedict granted us the indult. The Cardinal said that the language of the Mass did not matter. What mattered was the reality of the Mass.