Catholic Phoenix


Nihil Sub Sole Novum … Unless, of Course, It’s New to Me

Earlier this week Magnificat sent me an e-mail advertising their new "Magnificat Pew Cards," which contain all the responses for the new translation of the Mass. They appear to be well done, and I plan to buy the smallest pack of 50 (my 49 closest friends should consider themselves lucky). I sense that most Novus Ordo goers are excited about the new translation, which, in case you didn't know, is being rolled out during Advent this year. But not everyone is excited. (This is not surprising.) One frequent complaint among English speakers seems to be that the new translation, in seeking to be a more faithful translation of the Latin, uses some unusual phrasing and ornate language (for example, revising the Nicene Creed to replace "one in being with the Father" with the more precisely accurate "consubstantial with the Father"). There is much that could be said about that particular gripe, and some have said it quite well.

But it occurs to me how easily we Catholics forget the old Scriptural truism: nihil sub sole novum—"There is nothing new under the sun." (Eccl. 1:9.) Language wars in the Church are certainly no exception. I've been reading Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by the noted linguaphile Nicholas Ostler (a thoughtful gift to me from our very own Denys Powlett-Jones). As the title suggests, Ostler tells the story of Latin as one might trace the life of a person, from the language's birth to its infancy, and on toward the death that never seems to come. It would, of course, be impossible to tell this story without discussing Christianity's influence on Latin, and vice versa. In Ostler's telling, as Christianity made the remarkable transformation from a small and insignificant minority to the dominant force in the Roman Empire,  "the majority of its followers in the west were inevitably soon to be people whose first language was Latin." But "Christianity still had a liturgy, and a canon of scriptures, that were overwhelmingly provided in Greek." As we know, western Christianity would eventually drop the Greek and assert Latin as its primary language. It cannot be overstated how big a change this was, at least for the Roman elite, who had always viewed a dual command of Latin and Greek as the mark of an educated man. Thus, it was only natural for Christians to fiercely debate the merits of the Church's move toward becoming monolingual in Latin. The Latinists would, of course, claim victoria for the next sixteen-hundred years.

It might not be obvious at first, but modern Catholics should take note that the early Church's move toward Latin was actually a move toward the vernacular—that is, the everyday language of western Christians. Ring any bells? "This way of thinking resonates with the usual modern view" says Ostler, "both for inward understanding, and for outward show, the clarity of the vernacular is seen as desirable. And since that vernacular was also at the time the official language of the whole western Empire, a decision to move away from the traditional Greek and into plain speech had apparently few disadvantages in diminishing the unity of the Church, at least in the west." In other words, the unity of the Catholic Church was originally achieved, at least in part, by making use of the vernacular in the liturgy. Granted, it was the everyday speech shared by the majority of Christians at the time. "In this, the move was easier than the decision taken at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (Vatican II) in 1962–65 to drop the use of Latin from the Roman Catholic Liturgy."

Ostler doesn't elaborate on that last point, as it would be outside the scope of his book and maybe his expertise. But it raises for me the very serious question whether our modern-day move toward the vernacular could be characterized as an attempt to achieve Catholic unity. We should at least ask whether unity has, in fact, been the outcome. If nothing else, I'm reminded that Catholics fighting over language is nothing new, even that language wars are in some sense desirable. The arguments about the new Mass translation show that we still care about how best to express the Truth. Both sides in this ongoing struggle ought to give the other at least that much credit.

So what of the Greeks? Ostler tells us that when the Roman emperor Julian (361–63) tried to favor Greek over Latin during his ill-conceived attempt to reinstate paganism as the official Roman religion, Greek Christians took great offense. Apparently they did not appreciate having their language relegated to "the language for pagans par excellence." Religion had always been an important part of Greek identity; it was something they treated with great seriousness. As Ostler wryly observes, the Christianization of Greece in the fourth century AD "would offer [the Greeks] scope for almost endless doctrinal dispute: henceforth the Greeks would be able to combine the two traditional Greek propensities, for worship and for argument." I see a moral there for us: as we Catholics strive to preserve our Roman heritage through language, let us not fail to appreciate that we still have a little Greek left us in us, too.

(All quotations are from the paperback edition of Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler (Walker & Company,  New York, 2007).)

3 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Michael Demers

    Let me see if I got this right, it would be better to drop the Latin and switch to English since it’s the lingua franca of today.


  2. TeaPot562

    @M. Demers:
    “lingua franca” translates as French language. A couple of centuries back, every educated person in western Europe had a knowledge and speaking ability in French.
    In the 20th & 21st Centuries, that would be English. By the 22nd Century, perhaps Chinese.