Is Latin a “Sacred Language”? The “Iconostasis of the West”? A unifying, universal language? Or are we being fed a bunch of “Just So” stories? What attitudes might these “Just So” stories be inculcating?

The Use of Latin

While Latin is a defining mark of the Tridentine Liturgy, it can also be used in the Mass of Vatican II. In fact, the original, “typical” edition of the St. Paul VI Missal is in Latin, and the vernacular versions we use are merely translations of it. Traditionalists argue that the use of Latin is one of the superior aspects of the Tridentine Liturgy, while some proponents of the “reform of the reform” think that a widespread use of Latin would improve the Mass of Vatican II. These groups present a wide range of arguments for the superiority of liturgical Latin. Many of these arguments, however, are deeply flawed. Indeed, the actual use of Latin is relatively unproblematic compared to the way these arguments for Latin can warp Catholic views on the liturgy and Church history.

Just So Stories

Many of these traditionalist arguments are “just so” stories. They purport to explain the purpose and origin of the use of Latin in the liturgy, but like Kipling’s famous animal stories, they are merely myths. Latin wasn’t used in the liturgy because it is a sacred language or because it was particularly unifying or because it was “the iconostasis of the West,” any more than the camel has a hump because it said “Humph” so often.

A Sacred Language?

Many traditionalists argue that Latin is a “sacred” language and that the liturgy should use a sacred rather than a common language. According to them, this difference in language serves to distinguish the worship of God from the mundane world of shopping lists, pop music, and idle chit-chat. (More erudite traditionalists classify liturgical Greek, Old Church Slavonic, and Aramaic as sacred languages alongside Latin.)

In an earlier essay, I explained that this idea is profoundly anti-Christian. It is also profoundly nonsensical. Latin came into use, not because it was sacred, but because it was the vernacular. As Koine Greek faded out of general use in the West, the Church shifted over to using Latin. The shift seems to have been well underway by the time of Pope Damasus (Pope from 366 to 384). Incidentally, Pope Damasus commissioned St. Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin, giving us the Vulgate Bible.

Some traditionalists use a modified form of the “sacred language argument.” They admit that Latin wasn’t originally adopted as a sacred language, but they argue that Latin is now a sacred language because it was adopted by the Church. They also argue that the liturgical Latin the western Church began using in the late 4th century was nothing like the common language spoken at the time, but was rather a “high literary form.”

Even this modified form of the argument is very weak. If merely being used by the Church for a long time is all it takes to make a language sacred, English and all the other vernacular languages should become sacred eventually! It isn’t as if Latin was adopted exclusively by the Church, such that it wasn’t used for profane purposes; all through the Middle Ages and into modern times Latin was widely used in education, literature, and diplomacy. As far as the “high literary form,” it is obvious that the liturgy wouldn’t employ Latin “slang,” any more than the current liturgy uses English slang. I’m not sure about you, but in my day-to-day discourse I’m unlikely to use phrases such as “like the dewfall” or “we humbly implore you” or “give kind admittance.” This difference of spoken “registers” doesn’t make the Latin of Jerome and Damasus a different language from the Latin spoken on the streets of Rome, any more than it makes the English of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy’s translation a different language from that spoken on the streets of DC. Whatever some traditionalists may insist, I don’t know how they could prove that the “average Christian in Rome of late antiquity” would have understood the Latin liturgy only “with difficulty.” It would, in any case, have been more comprehensible to this “average Christian” than the Greek it was replacing! (It should also be pointed out in this context that the sharp separation between “high culture” and “pop culture” is a modern phenomenon. Ancient Greeks of all social classes enjoyed the Iliad, and different social classes could share an appreciation of the plays of Shakespeare. In this, as in so many other instances, traditionalists are thoroughly modern, and their modern outlook warps their perspective.)

An Iconostasis?

Another traditionalist “just so” story is that Latin is the “iconostasis of the West.” According to this story, Latin gives a veiling sense of mystery to the liturgy, much as the iconostasis does in some Eastern Rites. The problem with this idea, as mentioned above, is that Latin was not adopted as a veil but rather as a window. If the Church had wanted an opaque and mysterious language, they could have stuck with Koine Greek, or even better, Aramaic. To Europeans, Aramaic was and is more opaque and unfamiliar than Latin, and it is the language that Christ spoke at the first Mass! It is clearly superior both as a sacred language and as an “iconostasis,” but that isn’t why the Church adopted Latin.

Also, the Eastern iconostasis affects the ability of the congregation to see what is happening at the altar, while the use of Latin (at least potentially) affects the ability of the congregation to hear and understand what is being said. Seeing what happens at the altar is much less relevant to participation than hearing. As a matter of fact, all the “spectacular” elements of the liturgy are incidental, and if you’re not sitting near the front, you might not be able to see much anyway. In contrast, the Gospel places a strong emphasis on hearing the word of God. It should also be pointed out that the iconostasis is not a complete visual block; at least in many cases, it is possible to see at least parts of the liturgy. If Latin and the iconostasis really were analogous, then it would follow that a significant portion of the liturgy should be in the vernacular.

Unlike the iconostasis, Latin introduces social inequities into the liturgy. The rich can’t see through an iconostasis any more than the poor can, but Latin was more of a “veil” for the poor and ignorant than for the rich and learned. Proficiency in Latin can be acquired, for those who have the time, resources, and aptitude. Privileging those with access to wealth and leisure is the opposite of the way of the Gospel, which was to be preached to the poor and those who are “foolish” by worldly standards.


Some of the arguments for using Latin are not so much “just so stories” as half-truths. For instance, it is often said that Latin is our heritage, part of our tradition, and should be valued for this reason. The Mass, however, is not primarily about preserving our heritage; that’s not why it was instituted. If we truly wanted to be traditional, we’d go back to using Greek or Aramaic. The Church saw fit at a certain point to drop Greek, even though it was traditional, simply because it was no longer widely spoken.

Traditionalists state that traditions should be preserved, but they certainly don’t want to preserve the liturgy in its current state. They don’t really want to preserve, but rather to restore. Restoration can be beneficial; in fact, it is superior to mindless preservation of whatever happens to be the status quo. Restoration, however, involves an element of discernment, choosing which elements from the past would be beneficial in the present.

As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium:

In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few.” Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation “so as not to burden the lives of the faithful” and make our religion a form of servitude, whereas “God’s mercy has willed that we should be free.” This warning, issued many centuries ago, is most timely today. It ought to be one of the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church and her preaching which would enable it to reach everyone. (43)

Pope Francis points out that different practices may be suitable in different times; also, the understanding of a particular practice may change. Sometimes, this change in understanding can make a previously beneficial practice harmful, as I outlined in a previous essay.

Vatican II

The claim that Vatican II called for Latin, and therefore the vernacular Mass is an abuse, is perhaps the best example of the half-truths that have accumulated around the issue of liturgical Latin. On the face of it, the argument seems convincing. Sacrosanctum Concilium contains the following directive:

Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal seems to agree:

Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, set to the simpler melodies. (41)

Why then is Latin a comparative rarity in contemporary practice? It should be kept in mind that the teachings of an ecumenical council on disciplinary matters, as opposed to doctrinal matters, are not binding on future Popes and Councils. For instance, the First Council of Nicaea is best known for ruling against the Arians. It also, however, promulgated certain disciplinary canons; among other things, it prohibited Christians from kneeling during the liturgy on Easter Sunday. This is obviously no longer in force. Sacrosanctum Concilium’s statement about Latin is a disciplinary pronouncement, and thus able to be set aside. The document even anticipated this; after the above statement on preserving Liturgical Latin, it continues:

These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See. And, whenever it seems to be called for, this authority is to consult with bishops of neighboring regions which have the same language. (SC 36.3)

And in another place, it contains the following provision:

40. In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed, and this entails greater difficulties. Wherefore:

  1. The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should then be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced.

So it clearly states that bishops’ conferences, with the approval of the Vatican, can go beyond what the document itself lays out. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which was promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI, explains that this is exactly what happened in the case of liturgical language:

12. Therefore, when the Second Vatican Council convened in order to accommodate the Church to the requirements of her proper apostolic office precisely in these times, it examined thoroughly, as had Trent, the instructive and pastoral character of the sacred Liturgy. Since no Catholic would now deny the lawfulness and efficacy* of a sacred rite celebrated in Latin, the Council was also able to grant that “the use of the vernacular language may frequently be of great advantage to the people” and gave the faculty for its use. The enthusiasm in response to this measure has been so great everywhere that it has led, under the leadership of the Bishops and the Apostolic See itself, to permission for all liturgical celebrations in which the people participate to be in the vernacular, for the sake of a better comprehension of the mystery being celebrated.

13. Indeed, since the use of the vernacular in the sacred Liturgy may certainly be considered an important means for presenting more clearly the catechesis regarding the mystery that is inherent in the celebration itself, the Second Vatican Council also ordered that certain prescriptions of the Council of Trent that had not been followed everywhere be brought to fruition, such as the homily to be given on Sundays and holy days and the faculty to interject certain explanations during the sacred rites themselves.

It should also be noted that the GIRM calls, not for any specific amount of the liturgy to be in Latin, but merely that the faithful should be instructed in some of the Latin chants for use at international gatherings. It certainly doesn’t preclude the use of Latin in the liturgy, but neither does it mandate it. The GIRM, being promulgated by a Pope, outweighs any particular prescriptions of Sacrosanctum Concilium.


This statement from the GIRM brings up another common argument for the use of Latin; its characteristic as a universal, unifying language for the Church. Like the arguments above, it is another half-truth. Latin never was quite as unifying as claimed to be; such claims have to ignore the position of the Eastern Rite Christians as part of the Church. It certainly didn’t help, but rather hindered, missionary activity in China and other Asian countries, and so worked against the Church’s universal nature and mission. It may have even been a contributing factor in the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent breach in the unity of the Church. Notably, nations that spoke Romance languages stayed with the Church, while European nations that spoke non-romance languages broke away (with a few exceptions such as Ireland and Austria). This difference of outcome makes a certain amount of sense, linguistically. Latin would have been much more comprehensible to those who spoke Spanish or Italian as opposed to those who spoke Norwegian or German.

Today, it is less true than ever. For a long time after the Fall of Rome, Latin remained the European Lingua Franca, widely used as the language of diplomacy and learning. Even 100 years ago, it was still widely understood, both in the Church and in the wider world. Latin learning has declined, however, and this decline has been paralleled by the decline of Europe on the world stage. A new, less European world has emerged, and the election of Pope Francis is one of the signs of this new world.

It is also ironic that those who claim to value the unifying effects of Latin are, in fact, profoundly divisive; the use of Latin is one of the most divisive topics in the Church today.

Flawed and Dangerous Reasoning

The use of Latin itself isn’t harmful; the kind of proficiency the GIRM calls for can be served by occasionally using Latin chants in Liturgy. I’ve seen Latin used in this way, with no ideological motivations behind the use. The arguments above, however, all try to make Latin out to be superior to the vernacular, and all of them are erroneous. The more deeply they become associated with Latin, the more dangerous Latin itself will become. The champions of Latin are actually doing the language a grave disservice by using these flawed arguments. Like Kipling’s original “just so stories,” these liturgical tales are not merely wrong; they help to perpetuate imperialist, arrogant, elitist, and racist mentalities in the Church, mentalities which will destroy the very meaning of the Christian Faith. The Church urgently needs to be freed from these mentalities, just as Kipling’s Elephant Child needed to get his nose free from the crocodile’s mouth.


*Some traditionalists might ask if I really do admit the “efficacy” of liturgy celebrated in Latin. Objectively speaking, the Mass is of infinite value regardless of the language used in its celebration; the use of Latin does not change the essential action of the Mass.

As the GIRM says, however, “the use of the vernacular language may frequently be of great advantage to the people.” This is because various factors, including language, can affect the subjective value of the liturgy as experienced by individuals and social groups.

A parallel example can illustrate this point. During wartime or in concentration camps, the Mass can be celebrated in an extremely truncated manner, without losing any of its objective value. When possible, however, the non-essential elements of the liturgy can add to its subjective value.

Image: Cover art from Just So Stories for Little Children by Rudyard Kipling

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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