It was 50 years ago today that Bl. Pope John XXIII published the Apostolic Constitution “On the Promotion of the Study of Latin” officially styled Veterum Sapientia. It is quite short and apparently addressed to seminaries. He was completely ignored. But the late theologian Romano Amerio in his famous critique Iota Unum expounded at some length upon the on the importance placed by the pope on Veterum Sapientia. It wasn’t only about Latin (and Greek) and it wasn’t only about seminaries. It was about the inculturation of ourselves.
By Veterum Sapientia John XXIII wanted to bring about a return of the Church to its own principles, this return being necessary in his mind for the renewal of the Church in its own proper nature at the present articulus temporum.
The Pope attributed a very special importance to the document, and the solemnities with which he surrounded its promulgation in St. Peter’s, in the presence of the cardinals and of the whole Roman clergy, are unique in the history of the present century. The outstanding importance of Veterum Sapientia is not destroyed by the oblivion to which it was immediately dispatched, nor by its historical lack of success; values are not values only when they are accepted. Its importance comes from its perfect conformity with the historic reality which is the Church.
The constitution is above all an affirmation of continuity. The Church’s culture is continuous with that of the Greco-Roman world, first and foremost because Christian literature has been since its beginnings Greek and Latin literature. The Bible comes in Greek swaddling clothes, the oldest creeds are Greek and Latin, the Roman Church is Latin from the middle of the third century, the councils of the early centuries know no other language than Greek. This is a continuity internal to the Church whereby all its ages are bound together. But there is also what might be called an external continuity which crosses beyond the bounds of the Christian era and gathers up the whole of the wisdom of the pagans. We will not indeed start talking about Saint Socrates, but we cannot ignore the teaching of the Greek and Latin Fathers, recalled by the Pope in a passage from Tertullian, according to which there is a continuity between the world of thought in which the wisdom of the ancients lived, veterum sapientia, and the world of thought elaborated after the revelation of the Incarnate Word.
Christian thought developed a content that had been supernaturally revealed, but it also took to itself a content revealed naturally by the light of created reason. Thus the classical world is not extraneous to Christianity. The latter has as its essence a sphere of truths above our natural lights, and unattainable by them, but it includes nonetheless the sphere of every truth which human thought can reach. Christian culture is thus prepared for and awaited “obedientially,” in the mediaeval phrase, by the wisdom of the ancients, because no truth, no justice, no beauty, remain foreign to it. Christianity is therefore in harmony with, rather than opposed to, the ancient culture, and has always been sustained by the latter; and sustained not merely by turning it into a handmaid and making a purely pragmatic use of it, as is commonly asserted, but by carrying it on her bosom, as something that already was, but was to be made even greater by being made holy. I do not wish to disguise the fact that the relationship between Christianity and the ancient world, mutually congenial though they may be, entails some rather delicate questions and requires one to keep a firm hold on the distinction between the rational and the suprarational. It is impossible to sustain Tertullian’s overly quoted formula anima naturaliter christiana, (the soul is naturally Christian) because it amounts to calling something naturally supernatural. One must tread carefully to avoid the dangers which naturalism and historicism pose for a Christian religion which is essentially supernatural and suprahistorical. The idea that Christianity stretches across time and cultural change is nonetheless necessary, true and Catholic, albeit difficult. I shelter under the authority of St. Augustine, when he asserts this continuity in an abrupt and all-embracing fashion, straddling centuries and forms of worship: Nam res ipsa, quae nunc christiana religio nuncupatur, erat apud antiquos nee defuit ab initio generis humani — “For the thing itself, which is now called the Christian religion, and indeed there was in olden times from the beginning of the human race.” (thanks to rorate-caeli for the transcription from Unum Iota)
Wow. Where have we heard something like “affirmation of continuity” lately? And Bl. John XXIII meant a continuity of the entire Western patrimony when he talked about the wisdom on the ancients found in Greek and Latin texts. He even called for Greek in the lower and middle schools so that later on, Catholic students, especially those called to a religious vocation, “can read the Greek sources of scholastic philosophy and understand them correctly; and not only these, but also the original texts of Sacred Scripture, the Liturgy, and the sacred Fathers.” Here lies the authentic Spirit of Vatican II.
Good Pope John is saying that we can’t properly appreciate our Catholic heritage unless we have some Latin and Greek, and that means we can’t properly appreciate our Western heritage either.This has some serious ramifications. During the Great Upheaval of the past few decades (of which your humble correspondent is a survivor) anything that wasn’t understood was discarded. But this had been a longstanding tendency, noted by the great GK Chesterton in his 1929 book The Thing:Why I Am a Catholic:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
Well, despite the admonition of “the most beloved Pope in history”, the modern reformers gaily swept away Latin and Greek (for the most part). Recently though our own Archbishop Carlson has called for a great renewal of Catholic Education in St. Louis – to make the Catholic schools Alive in Christ. Disappointingly, the program seems to stress “twenty-first-century learning” and pan-Christian atmospherics. But he also says “Every person in a Catholic school – regardless of his or her faith tradition or social, economic or ethnic background – should be growing in their understanding and appreciation for what the Catholic Church teaches.” The Pope who convened Vatican II seems to have said that in order to appreciate what the Catholic Church teaches, one must appreciate Greece and Rome and the Western culture that developed into Christendom, and then the development of Christendom itself. But it can’t be properly accomplished unless parents come to understand the importance of a classical, liberal education and start to ask for it and support it. This is an 18th or 19th century education, not a 21st century education. Let us hope that Archbishop Carlson’s renewal has some characteristics of a counter-reformation that produces a timeless Catholic education. While the kids learn respect for the environment, let them also learn the Latin used by Linnaeus in his famous botanical nomenclature. While they learn respect for each other, let them also learn of the Latin of St. Thomas and the meaning of the imago Dei. And let the Catholics among them come to understand and appreciate the rituals of the Latin Rite of the Church, especially in her sacraments.