How Latin Became Right-Wing

Photo by David Roberts; original from Museum of New Zealand via rawpixel



I liked printing AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam) at the top of my grade school assignments. All for the greater glory of God. In other words, ego could be cast aside. You tried your hardest and let the chips fall. Latin felt like an extra layer of purpose, a way to transform even the dumbest spelling bee. Nonetheless, by high school I was yelling at my mother, “I’m not studying a dead language!”

Liturgically, even the pope wants Latin dead now—or at least quiet for a while.

And I—I feel the need to pause and look over both shoulders before I admit this—have regressed to loving it. The old Latin Mass especially. Which lands me squarely in the camp of those who loathe this pope whom I, fallen-away Catholic though I be, adore.

Pope Francis sees groups of conservative Catholics using the Latin Mass as a machete, hacking away at the “destabilizing” reforms of Vatican II and the urgent contemporary need to move beyond old stalemates and obsessive preoccupations. This summer, he issued a decree, requiring any priest to obtain permission from his bishop before celebrating the Latin rite. The Latin Mass was widening the rift between various groups of Catholics, he warned, encouraging “disagreements that injure the Church.”

“Let’s not mince words,” theologian Peter Kwasniewski writes, furious at Francis for threatening the “foundation of the faith” by discouraging the Latin Mass. “This is a declaration of total war.”

I scurry back across the dividing line, rushing toward my comrades, ashamed to still love what is now a rite of protest. The Latin Mass lasted four hundred years, uniting Catholics into a global church that could practice as one, undisturbed by the Babel of everyday languages.

Francis’s restriction on the Latin Mass did not land softly. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano slammed him as a “non-Catholic pope.” Cardinal Raymond Burke, once of St. Louis, nailed a nineteen-point critique to every wall he could find. Other detractors used that smug refuge of devout ideologues everywhere and insisted on praying for him. Praying, in other words, that he will come to agree with them. Which is not likely.

Steven Millies, who teaches at the Catholic Theological Union, says “the move may be the most important action Francis has taken in an eventful papacy,” and may prove to be its defining moment. How odd and inevitable, that the question of language should rock the very foundations of the church, turning the most conservative away from the highest authority of their faith and rendering them more Protestant in their efforts to purify Catholicism.

The words of God—how shall they be spoken?

Ecclesiastical Latin was, all too often, a language of power and exclusion, arrogance and obfuscation. Some people like arrogance; they like feeling obedient to an authority they need never question. I feel the opposite: how wonderful it would have been if we had all been forced to learn Latin. I would have had to swallow my teenage gripes about a “dead” language and learn how much life it still held. More laypeople could have questioned and challenged priests the way Jews do their rabbis. Next, we could have all learned Hebrew and Aramaic, and blind obedience would have vanished, because once you know a language, you know the complications of translation and context, and nothing is simple anymore. Learning Latin could have been like learning to read: a dangerous and useful beginning.

The other, less cerebral appeal of Latin, though, is how soothing those rounded, resonant sounds can be when you do not understand their meaning. Like ocean waves, they give the brain a rhythmic, soothing background that quiets anxiety. It becomes easier to be still, to think, to pray. You use your own words because that is all you can command.

The contemporary Mass is all about communion; highly social and often oriented to social justice, it leaves little room for solitude and contemplation—just a few seconds on a kneeler, or an hour alone afterward as the church empties and goes dark. As usual, we are out of balance—first too much time locked out of the inner sanctum and relegated to our private mumbled prayers, and now too much time forced into a mustered warmth and joy and ten committees.

What I loved about Catholicism was its tolerance for mystery. Sometimes we need to remember how much we do not understand, rather than flattening the entire Mass into everyday language. Latin is a secret code, and it is enough to know a few words to prove you belong to the club. The “vernacular” that Vatican II urged is the language of ordinary life. Its use both includes and humbles churchgoers. I was just old enough to remember women in white lace veils and men in dark suits, genuflecting with performative drama. After Vatican II, you broke bread with a scruffy gathering of sinners and saints. Vernacular language is your mother tongue; Latin had more to do with patriarchy.

For centuries, Latin gathered the heavy vestments and heady incense of power around the priest, who literally turned his back on the less educated congregation. The Latin Mass risked lulling its participants with a litany of (to them) nonce words, asking only that they perform certain actions when a bell rang or the priest gestured. Part of the brain could turn off, which is the danger of many religions but also their solace.

Yet there is magic in ancient, little-used languages. Like rusty gates to a secret garden, they invite you into an extraordinary experience. Why do so many beautiful traditions become tainted by the flaws and confusions of the next era? Why not weave Latin and the vernacular together? And why do we allow issues to be clumped together so awkwardly—what on earth does the old Latin Mass have to do with approving of same-sex marriage or swallowing a birth control pill?

Acta deos numquam mortalia fallunt. Mortal actions never deceive the gods.

Toni Morrison loved the Latin Mass, too—I am relieved to learn this. Hardly a right-wing conservative, she paid close attention to all sorts of languages, codes, and meanings. Faith, by her definition, “distances us from an egocentric and predatory life, from ignorance and from the limits of personal satisfactions.” After Vatican II, she wrote, “I suffered greatly from the abolition of Latin, which I saw as the unifying and universal language of the Church.”

Not anymore.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.