Latin: Inclusion or Exclusion?

Sunday, 2nd September 2007 at 11:59 UTC 4 comments

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.


Entry filed under: Church, Religion, Theology.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jon Searles  |  Monday, 3rd September 2007 at 8:33 UTC

    Hi Graham. I think the real issue here is that young people may be turning away from the more obvious use of English for masses. English would be a far more obvious choice for any international church, but its reputation is tainted, of course, by its association with Bush and Blair, which will probably not go away immediately simply because it becomes tainted with the association with Clinton and Brown instead. It is the unchristian policies of Bush and Blair, of course, rather than their mere identities (both of them hardcore Christians, actually), which have tainted America, Britain, and the English language, and Clinton and Brown look set to continue those policies. In short, Latin offers an international language which is NOT English, yet is connected to the Roman Catholic church’s heritage, and it is no surprise that that young, traditionally more outraged and politically active members of the church are the ones requesting it.

  • 2. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 3rd September 2007 at 10:58 UTC

    That still doesn’t explain why French, Spanish, Italian and Latin American young people are rejecting French, Spanish and Italian translations. I agree that using English as a common language sucks, but actually about half the worlds catholic’s speak Spanish, so surely that’s a better language to use?

  • 3. Greg  |  Monday, 3rd September 2007 at 11:01 UTC

    I tend to think that youthful enthusiasm for the latin mass has got a lot to do with forming a Catholic identity, in the midst of an increasingly secular society, and an increasingly diverse church. The best solution isn’t therefore to play to the symptoms by reintroducing latin, but to cut off the source of the problem by forming a new Catholic identity around more substantial stuff than a language.

  • 4. Duck  |  Tuesday, 4th September 2007 at 12:24 UTC

    Using a Latin Mass, with all the high-church stuff that can go with it, is another way to mark off a separation between ‘church’ and ‘not-church’.
    Church shouldn’t be equivalent to a relaxing Yoga class. Church isn’t there just as a ‘feel-good’ ‘experience’, & shouldn’t forget about afflicting the comfortable. Smells’nbells, or your church’s equivalent thereof, have a place. People need experiences of what’s beyond the everyday. But… using ritual to hide from the everyday doesn’t work if that’s all you do.
    If you don’t really understand the words, how can you be challenged by them?


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