Latin: Inclusion or Exclusion?
Sat in Church today, it crossed my mind that I should get around to blogging the Pope’s decision to allow the use of the Latin form of the mass. Having chatted to various people (none of them Catholics, I hasten to add), it seems that opinion is divided on whether this will help or hinder the Roman Church, or indeed whether it will strengthen the hand of those in power, or empower Catholics around the world to communicate with each other.
The positive side of the argument runs on 2 main points; first, that many want the return of this form of the mass and second, that its a happy medium for congregations faced with linguistic diversity, a kind of Esperanto for Catholics. I suppose there’s something to be said for a church responding to the needs of its members, particularly given that many of those requesting the Latin are young people, which might be hard to understand.
In an RC church with multiple masses each week, there’s no reason one shouldn’t be in Latin. And if some of the youth like it, why not give it to them? After all, the RC church is very short on young people and can’t afford to ignore their needs. But is it really what they need? And is it going to draw their friends towards the church as well? Does it not highlight the extreme cliquishness of some churches, unable to speak the language of those around them in a more literal sense than the average Anglican Church.
The ‘common language’ argument certainly fits when you have Polish Catholics pouring into Western Europe, and some London RC churches now packed with people who don’t speak much English. Short of finding Polish speaking priests, Latin is a good leveler, a common language. My concern here is that Latin is not, and has not ever been, understood by all that many people. Whether people have understood generally what the mass is saying is not really the issue. If people do not have enough understanding to begin piecing together the underlying theology, then people are still being excluded, even if there is parity between the ordinary attendees of both communities.
To me, the use of the Latin is a difficult issue. On the one hand, its a very beautiful experience, and brings some of the mystical dimension back into worship which has gone missing in recent years. On the other, when much of the congregation cannot understand the words being used, the advantage given to those who can understand is vast.
Historically, the use of Latin enabled the Catholic church to maintain its power structures, and it should be no surprise that many people worked tirelessly, risking their very lives, to bring a vernacular (local language) translation to the people. Using Latin seems to me a bit of an affront to the memories of those who gave their lives that we might have an English bible.
If we want the ordinary working class and peasant folk of the world to develop deep theological understanding and insight into the nature of God, then we must expect to use the language they converse in regularly. Otherwise, they will continue to rely on the knowledge of those selected by the elite to be educated and to guard it. This isn’t some kind of Dan Brown conspiracy about things being taken out of the bible, this is the simple fact that, for many centuries, the masses couldn’t even study the bible for themselves.
I was told a liberation theology interpretation of the tower of Babel which viewed the creation of a single language as being a route to control and domination, which God decided to do away with, in favour of many languages, encouraging free thought and diversity. I can’t help but feel that Latin has been used like the single language God decided to intervene against in Genesis. Like French in the African colonies being used to make everyone think and feel French, Latin has been used to spread the cultural baggage of Western Christianity, rather than the liberating message of a Christianity which respects different cultures. Yet it still enables communication and dialogue where the multiple languages did not, something the church desperately needs.
So while it will bring comfort to many, the reintroduction of the Latin may sadly bring with it a return to the hierarchy of knowledge; to an imperialist church where those in power can more easily twist the words to suit themselves. A difficult one to call, with huge implications either way.