It is said that Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance scholar and theologian, spoke Latin better than he did his native tongue, but the days when every educated person in the West spoke Latin as a matter of course are long gone.
Traditionalist myths to the contrary notwithstanding, no one at the Vatican knows enough Latin to compose a long message in that language. And so, papal messages are not written in Latin and then translated into other languages. They are written in modern languages and then translated into Latin and other languages.
Though the Latin text becomes the "official" one, those who interpret papal messages try to find out what the original language of a text was in order to find nuances of papal thought that might not get through the filter of a Latin translator.
Encyclicals are generally known by their Latin title, which comes from the first few words.
There are exceptions, but they are rare. For example, the March 14, 1937, encyclical letter that Pius XI sent to "the archbishops and bishops of Germany and other ordinaries in peace and communion with the Apostolic See" had a German title, Mit Brennender Sorge (With Deep Anxiety), and the official text was in German.
The reason was that the encyclical was a critique of the Nazi regime and was meant to be smuggled into Germany to be read and understood at all Masses the following Sunday, Palm Sunday.
But as a rule, encyclicals have been issued in Latin.
When Pope Francis published his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, which was actually a finalized version of something that Benedict XVI had begun, the official text was in Latin. The Vatican website also carries Arabic, Belarusian, Chinese (traditional and simplified scripts), English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish versions.
However, now that he is writing on his own, Francis has broken that pattern.
While his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium had a Latin title and version, his new encyclical Laudato Si has a title in the Umbrian Italian dialect spoken by St Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century and there is no Latin version of the text. (Neither is there an ancient Umbrian text, so we can assume that the pope was not writing for a medieval Italian audience.)
The only versions on the Vatican website are Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish. Strangely, considering China’s impact on the environment, there is still no Chinese version, though there is one of Evangelii Gaudium.
The most important things about this encyclical are, of course, its content and the way it utilizes input from bishops’ conferences around the world to present that content, giving an indication of how the pope’s commitment to synodality can actually work on the world level.
However, the language matter, though not so important as these, is still significant.
In past encyclicals, popes quoted Scripture, Church fathers, other popes and Church documents. John Paul II had a penchant for quoting himself. In all those cases, the sources were available in Latin.
However, Francis has quoted bishops’ conferences from around the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Japan, the Philippines and the United States. They do not write in Latin.
The pope also quoted Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church, a sign that Francis looks beyond the Catholic community to the larger Church for inspiration, and expects the rest of us to do so too.
As Pope Francis tries to wean the Catholic Church from the top-down, centralized way of life and thought that has characterized it for the past few centuries and bring us back to a more traditional form of Church life, he is looking to the voices of communities throughout the world. That is symbolized in his not using the Vatican’s official language, Latin.
For Latin is more than a language. It is a sign of the centralization of the Church of Rome in Rome. That is one reason that traditionalists hold to it so tenaciously in the liturgy. It is not that they think God does not understand or hear prayers in other languages; it is that Latin symbolizes a model of the Church, a model that has more and more obviously passed its use-by date. Mortus est lingua mortua, the dead language has died.
Just as we now worship in many vernaculars, the new encyclical demonstrates that we now reflect, proclaim and teach in many vernaculars. We even look for sources of magisterial authority in the many places that use those vernaculars.
So, the lack of any Latin in connection with the new encyclical is another sign that we are in a new age for the Church, an age where intelligibility for the world and receptiveness for the leadership are becoming the new norm.
Maryknoll Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com, based in Tokyo.