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The vernacular in, Latin out. Why?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 04, 2015

I’ve changed my mind about not delving into the liturgical arguments in the discussions on the liturgy at Vatican II. I did not quote many of these in my ongoing extracts from Henri de Lubac’s notes on the Council, because the arguments are pretty much the same now as they were then. But on reading further, I began to see a pattern on the question of the optimum language for the liturgy which is worth writing about separately.

I know that some Catholics remain very attached to Latin in the liturgy. The arguments in favor of it are easily summarized and a significant number of the Council fathers did make those arguments: In 1962, these arguments were as follows: First, Latin facilitated the universality of the Church because it enables every Catholic to worship in the same language; second, Latin had been used to good effect for a very long time, with the result that there was a great wealth of liturgical material in that language; third, the use of Latin made it easier to avoid certain dangers of change and experimentation which are congenial to the modern mind; fourth, the continued use of Latin in the liturgy would make it easier to maintain Latin as the official language of the Church.

There was merit in all of these points. However, it must be said that the first conveniently ignored other rites, traditions, and accommodations already in force in non-Western regions. Moreover, the third argument reflected a dominant fear of the pre-conciliar generation, the fear of running new risks (as I explained in Vibrant Catholicism, 1: Lamenting the entire 20th century). The great weakness of this attitude was its presumption that maintaining the status quo was not itself a grave risk—which was the whole point of Pope St. John XXIII in calling the Council. (Perhaps I should also mention that, as far as I can tell, no Council father made the argument, often heard later, that saying prayers in a language one did not understand created a more mysterious, reverent and transcendent atmosphere.)

Reasons for Change

In contrast, the reasons for selectively or broadly replacing Latin with the vernacular in each region were more varied, and were endorsed by a substantially larger number of the bishops. As background, two fundamental historical shifts have to be understood. First, although there had been a period of early-modern and modern history in which the vast majority of educated persons (in the West, at least) were basically familiar with Latin, that period was now past. For some centuries after Latin ceased in any sense to be the language of the people, it was still used heavily in science, medicine and law by a Euro-centric world, and all academic students were educated in the great Western liberal arts tradition, including constant study of Latin.

But by 1960, this had changed dramatically. Latin was no longer a significant component of contemporary education, though it was still studied a little by more students than bother with it now. The world was rapidly losing its Euro-centric focus. Scholarly publishing in both books and journals was done in multiple vernacular languages. And of course the international diplomatic language had not been Latin for a long time; it had changed first to French and, by the mid-20th century, was rapidly changing to English. As the dominant language of commerce (for the moment), English is still expected to be in use at least as a second language everywhere in the world. By 1960, then, few educated men and women under the age of 40 had any significant familiarity with Latin, and this familiarity was also conspicuously absent in seminarians.

Second, while the Church had been obviously Euro-centric during much of the modern period, making Latin a more natural fit, this situation was also changing rapidly. Emerging Catholic communities in Africa, Asia and elsewhere—including many whose languages consisted of very different alphabets and sounds, with no Latin roots at all—were becoming more important to the Church by the day. For these, Latin was a significant burden—not conducive to piety as it might be in just the right circumstances, but clearly an obstacle to it. But the Curia was still very Euro-centric. De Lubac reported that non-European members of the various congregations were frequently not even informed of meeting times, so that practical decisions were almost always made by the Italians. Sadly, Latin was rapidly becoming the language of ecclesiastical insiders—the language of the club.

Finally, we need to remember that the question of Latin covered much more than the Ordinary of the Mass, with which people might be expected to become familiar over time. It also affected the Proper of the Mass (the parts that change day to day), the Mass readings (the Lectionary), the other sacraments (which were experienced very infrequently), and the Divine Office (which priests and religious were required to pray daily). So there was much to consider.

Sample Comments

In this context, we can understand a sampling of arguments made by the Council fathers in favor of the vernacular (as quoted or summarized from their individual interventions at the Council in Henri de Lubac’s notebooks):


Adam Kozlowiecki (Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia): Let the episcopal conferences have the right to introduce the vernacular “for practical reasons”…. “Holy See, Holy See…”; it is unsettling: “I do not fear the authority of Peter, but I sometimes fear Peter’s secretary.”

Laurent Satoshi Nagae, bishop of Urawa (Japan): In regions where the roots of the languages are not Latin, it is necessary that all chants be in the vernacular language; the prayers also, not just the common prayer.

Bishop D’Souza, from India: Certain current rites no longer have any significance for our people; an adaptation is necessary. The question is of very great importance. It is absurd to pronounce very beautiful texts in an unintelligible language, and there is in this the danger of an appearance of magic, as in other religions. All the formulas of the sacraments must be understood. It is intolerable that some among us are still so attached to outdated forms, for the dominatio linguae Latinae (domination of Latin); they forget that sacramenta sunt propter homines (the sacraments are for men [and not men for the sacraments, referring to Christ’s comment on the Sabbath]).

Cardinal Frings (Cologne): In the name of the conference of all German-speaking bishops: It is regrettable that people no longer know Latin; the Church can do nothing about it; therefore, it is necessary to free the young clergy from a burden that is too heavy: let the episcopal conferences be able to permit the vernacular language. (Applause, especially from rows of the young bishops.)

Card. Léger, archbishop of Montreal: Let priests be able to use the vernacular language [in the Divine Office]: so many do not know the Scriptures and the Fathers that they read every day in Latin! (Applause.)

Card. Döpfner (Munich): We all desire Latin to remain; we are working for that end; we would like to put Veterum Sapientia [John XXIII’s apostolic constitution on the study of Latin] into practice. But in many regions the young men come to us without knowing a word of Latin; I am not exaggerating. If we impose Latin on them, the number of priests, already insufficient, will be reduced by half. Already several acts of the Holy See have started the necessary evolution; there is nothing surprising if the council advances down this same path…. Döpfner, in conclusion, entreated certain bishops not to think only of the situation in their own territory, but to have regard for the needs of the universal Church (applause).

Card. Albert G. Meyer (Chicago): [This is] a very important thing for the spiritual life of priests. Let us permit the vernacular language for the private recitation of the office. Let the council concede this, not only because of the ignorance of Latin, but majoris pietatis causa [for the sake of greater piety] (applause).

Bishop William Connare (Greensburg, PA): In the name of numerous priests everywhere in the world, let them be allowed to recite the office in the vernacular. The breviary would not be published in vernacular language without the approval of the Holy See: so, there is no risk of error. Whatever we might wish and whatever we do, everywhere in the world a good number of priests do not know and are no longer able to know Latin.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Reuss of Mainz: He spoke about the residential chapters; the nuns who understand nothing in Latin. Let the clerics have the office in the vernacular language, generally, and not by special permission. Otherwise, it will be merely mechanical and tedious repetition, not spiritual prayer, and their spiritual life will not be nourished.


This background and these extracts should create a greater understanding of the Church’s decision to foster wide use of the vernacular throughout her rich and varied liturgical life.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 17 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Jun. 13, 2015 2:38 PM ET USA

    As one growing up and attending a Catholic school in the 1950's and early 60's, I remember hearing that with Latin we'd know we were in a Catholic church anywhere. It unified us [universal] as being one with our fellow Catholics worldwide. Maybe the young seminarians / priests should be encouraged to learn Latin. It can be useful to the lay person who has a missal with both the vernacular & Latin side by side.

  • Posted by: MAG - Jun. 11, 2015 3:16 PM ET USA

    I think some of the more strident reactions should be contextualized: Those of us who support and prefer the Extraordinary Form are sometimes marginalized even by our priests and bishops. Thus there's a bit of "sensitivity", which may generate over-reactions. On the other hand - the arguments for the vernacular over Latin is a bit like crying "this is hard and it makes me sad." And they don't stand up to historical facts (e.g., evangelizing Japan)

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 11, 2015 12:52 PM ET USA

    I respect those who have love for the Latin Mass, and I love the Mass in any other language. This is no big deal at all. Thank God for the vernacular in the Liturgy.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 11, 2015 10:43 AM ET USA

    I have to say that I am astonished by the reaction to this article, and by the several lengthy "refutations" of it in the Traditionalist press. All I did was summarize the arguments for and against a greater use of the vernacular that were made at Vatican II, along with providing some of the historical background that was relevant to this potential change. I took no position on the matter myself; the sole purpose was to promote broader understanding of why changes were made. Of course, no one can object to those who state, in various ways, that they would have preferred that the question of language had been settled differently than it has been. What is revealing is how many people have attacked me as an enemy of the Faith simply for summarizing various arguments made at the Council on this issue! Clearly, in such cases, personal attachments have destroyed reason.

  • Posted by: FrPhillips1125 - Jun. 09, 2015 10:54 PM ET USA

    I am a long-time supporter of this site, and always find things both useful and interesting here; however, I must say that I am surprised and disappointed to read this particular commentary by Dr. Mirus.

  • Posted by: ClanRangel7484 - Jun. 09, 2015 10:34 PM ET USA

    This article brings me great sadness. Latin is our sacred language and deserves to be respected as such. The laity deserve to have the treasures of the Church not only preserved but handed on to future generations.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Jun. 08, 2015 1:21 AM ET USA

    My family lived in Europe in the late 40s and we had to learn a second language to attend boarding schools. So many changes in culture and language so foreign to a young pre-teenager and then a teenager! But, when we attended Mass anywhere in Europe, it was in Latin and the same as at "home" in the U.S. What a blessing! We felt a closeness, a familiarity, in this universality of the Church. We were "at home" when we entered the churches and assisted at Mass.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 07, 2015 12:33 PM ET USA

    "I know that some Catholics remain very attached to Latin in the liturgy." Such an offhand characterization lumps pre-conciliar Catholics with those of us who have reclaimed our rightful patrimony in the implied category of "troglodyte." Some of us at least prefer to think of ourselves as "those who condemn the attenuation of the Mystical Body of Christ from the liturgy that She developed organically over two millenia."

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jun. 05, 2015 11:23 PM ET USA

    I went to high school in the mid 50s in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and all college prep students took to years of Latin. If the archdiocese was requiring Latin in its high schools I find it hard to believe that they weren't teaching Latin in their seminary.

  • Posted by: billG - Jun. 05, 2015 7:52 PM ET USA

    Most of these extracts refer to the Office, not the liturgy. If Card. Dopfner really believed he would lose half his seminarians over learning Latin, how genuine were their vocations in the first place. The imposition of the vernacular was far from John XXIII's mind when he wrote - “In the exercise of their paternal care they (the bishops) shall be on their guard lest anyone under their jurisdiction, eager for revolutionary changes, writes against the use of Latin... in the Liturgy."

  • Posted by: BobJ70777069 - Jun. 05, 2015 5:52 PM ET USA

    To check my memory,I went back to Sacrocanctum Concilium Secs 36 and 54. Having re-read them, I still believe that use of the vernacular was permissive, not directive.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Jun. 05, 2015 5:50 PM ET USA

    The comment of "filioque" is one of the best. Not just Muslims and the Jews, the Russians do the same and with great prayerful disposition. Formal prayers in vernacular or Latin are rarely given our full attention. "Ecclesia supplet" has a special meaning as we go through the formal worship of the Church. I have a series of experiences that I would like to share with you, but space does not allow. Simply put, your observations are as shallow now at the Council.

  • Posted by: filioque - Jun. 05, 2015 3:10 PM ET USA

    Almost the entire liturgical and musical patrimony of the Roman Church was tossed aside and we were told it was worse than useless. Here, have some St. Louis Jesuits. Surely there was a better way to address whatever real problems existed.

  • Posted by: filioque - Jun. 05, 2015 3:08 PM ET USA

    No one criticizes Jews around the world for studying Hebrew so that they can read the Scriptures and pray together. They even rejuvenatrd it to be the official language of Israel. No one wonders why Muslims everywhere learn Arabic so that they can read the Koran, which is not supposed to be translated. But let a Latin Rite Catholic learn a bit of Latin (we aren't talking Cicero here) and the derision flows.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 05, 2015 11:28 AM ET USA

    Latin? I don't read, write, or speak Latin. Yet I attend the Latin Mass. Why? Certainly not because it is said in Latin. Latin is a burden for me. I attend the FSSP Mass because its nature is a different theology from that of the vernacular Mass. After my hiatus from the Latin Mass during 1970-1995, it took me about 10 years to become convinced that the theology of the extraordinary form significantly differs from that of the ordinary form. My preference is for that of the former.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Jun. 04, 2015 5:29 PM ET USA

    When did these bishops' "may use the vernacular" become "must use the vernacular"? I wouldn't begrudge folks their vernacular if they did the same for those of us who prefer the mystery, continuity, precision, etc., of liturgical Latin. It was the de facto (oops!) forbidding of Latin that makes me suspicious of the vernacularist ideologues (I have no bone to pick with those who simply prefer the vernacular). Thank you, God, for Pope Benedict and Summorum Pontificum.

  • Posted by: JosephAnthony - Jun. 04, 2015 4:59 PM ET USA

    To the third ("the use of Latin made it easier to avoid certain dangers of change and experimentation which are congenial to the modern mind") should be added the danger of bad theology being introduced into the translations (as happened!) and liturgical praxis being lost with the change of custom. All those reasons are good reasons. Those familiar with Latin Liturgy who travel know the joy of stumbling upon a Mass in Latin in a foreign place.