Pope ditches Latin as official language of Vatican synod

As Reuters reports, “Pope ditches Latin as official language of Vatican synod.” The change was announced at the beginning of the deliberations this morning.

Hmmm, if I were a participant I would have wanted to know ahead of time to brush up on Italian.

And I have mixed feelings about Italian being the language of the synod, though I get it that that’s the working language of the Vatican. For my part I think I’d do better in Latin than Italian.

Not because my Latin is so great, but because my Italian is so bad.




  1. I think about George Weigel’s proposal to make the working language of the Vatican English a couple years back…

    That would at least have the virtue of a large share of prelates likely to be conversant in the language. But talk about cultural resentments…”American imperialism at work again.” Those resentments would not be unfounded.

    Well, I suppose the Italians and Curial prelates will be happy. I don’t know about anyone else.

  2. I question the frequent assertion that Latin is somehow less equivocal, more precise, less mutable than other languages — Pope St John XXIII’s claim notwithstanding.

    Even if Latin itself had stopped changing — not the case — the statement might be true for someone who reads and even speaks Latin, who is well read in classical and patristic and scholastic sources, as well as modern Vatican use.

    Otherwise, the Latin and Latinate words that some kick around (sacerdos, idoneus, alter Christus, advert, derogate …) are a source of imprecision rather than clarity.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #6:
      The claim that Latin is less mutable doesn’t hold up. Even for the large parts of the Latin language that haven’t changed in the last thousand years, the people using the language have of course changed. The meanings that people attach to words are always influenced by their social context. It is a very naïve hermeneutic to think that meaning is stable because the words are.

  3. On the one hand, the loss of functional Latin among our prelates is a fait accompli, so while my hope would be that we would collectively resolve to heed our own canons and ideals by restoring Latin’s unitive capacity I find it perfectly understandable and acceptable as a pragmatic, interim solution to use a more commonly understood language. That’s the positive comment, negative to follow.

  4. Be that as it may, the move to substitute Italian strikes me as defective in two ways. First, because it appears to have been imposed as a surprise on already-assembled prelates. Not only would this gall me if I showed up, like Fr. Ruff, with quite decent Latin compared to rudimentary Italian, but also because the supposed “pope of synodality” didn’t even bother to ask for a show of hands as to who might support such a move. Are we to expect collegial action on major issues if something as simple as the working language has been overturned without so much as a straw poll? In fairness, perhaps this was conducted behind the scenes; if so, the failure lies more with the Vatican press office in failing to make this clear.

    The second flaw is that, if Latin is to be replaced, it ought to be replaced by something that most nearly approximates its function as the (ecclesially) universal language. The worldwide TOTAL of Italian speakers (native and second language ca. 85 mil.; per Wikipedia) is dwarfed just by the NATIVE speakers of English (ca. 360 mil.), let alone the combined total with secondary-language English speakers pushing anywhere from ca. .5-1 bil. One might argue that curial bishops present together with many bishops using Italian picked up while doing necessary Roman business still makes Italian a better language for gathered prelates despite the raw numbers of Catholic Italian speakers, but again this seems to work against the goals the Holy Father is supposedly pursuing. One of his major themes is that of encountering and respecting the “peripheries” of Church and society, but the use of Italian at international gatherings is highly “centro-centric,” designed to ensure a curial and European domination of the proceedings. Bishops from Asia and Africa are far more likely to be conversant in English – and thus capable of managing synodal heavy-lifting – than to be well-versed in a relatively parochial Romance language.

  5. As long as I can get an accurate translation in English, then whatever language the Church wishes to speak in officially doesn’t matter… for its pronouncements.

    My Latin is a little suspect but English gets to my head and heart much faster. I imagine those who live in Italy must really appreciate the real time listening ability of working Church language.

  6. I agree with Aaron’s comment number 9 on both fronts: First, it seems weird to spring this so late in the game. Second, English rather than Italian makes much more sense for a working language.

    Suppose that the announcement had not been made and that Latin had remained the official language. What would have happened?

    I cannot imagine that more than one or two participants at the Synod can actually speak Latin. Perhaps none of them can.

    Would a participant who speaks, say, only English, convey comments to a translator, who would then translate into Latin for the official record? Would someone else thenrender the Latin into, say, Polish, for another participant? If the translators were only as good as those who gave us the current English Missal, the results could be interesting.

    Just to test this, I asked Google Translate – as a proxy for ICEL/Vox Clara – to translate the following sentence, a simplified quote from a bishop, into Latin:

    Some people also expect the Church, which they consider a moral authority, to legitimize their new situation.

    Google immediately yielded:

    Quidam etiam sperare Ecclesiae auctoritas moris, quam existiment ad praedicandam in novum.

    I then asked for this to be translated back into English, and got:

    Some even hope for the authority of the Church to die than to think that to preach in a novel.

    Could the ICEL translators possibly have done better?

    Two serious questions to close this comment. First, how does “Latin as the official language” actually work in a Synod? Second, could the reason for choosing Italian be that Pope Francis is himself comfortable in that language, where he would not be in English?

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #11:

      As to how things would actually work in a Latin Synod, the brief reports I’ve seen suggest that this is largely a documentary matter – circulating texts for comment and revision – while only a select few would actually speak Latin (perhaps for the introduction of the proceedings and other official business of the Synod bureaucracy).

      As to your second question, I certainly suspect that Pope Francis’ own comfort level factored into the choice of Italian over English, but because the status as curial langauge also weighs strongly in favor of Italian I’m tempering that suspicion.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #12:
      How about two working languages, Spanish and English? That would cover almost everyone, I would think. And they could provide top-notch simultaneous translation in just these two languages, which would simplify everything. Also for the media!

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #19:
        Pas de tout. But I have to be careful. I would put a smiley in if I knew how!

        The French are touchy on the subject of language as are many in Quebec. You will see that NATO always displays its name also as OTAN, WHO as OMS etc.
        I did hear once that the Vatican used to draft official documents in French rather than Italian so that the draftstmen had the discipline of working in a language that was not their own.
        I wonder if speeches at the synod would be better if each speaker had to use a language other than their own.
        PS: Have you ever had to deal with the Flemish?

      2. @Peter Haydon – comment #23:
        Oh yea, I was just in Belgium the week before last. I can read Dutch/Flemish because it’s between German and English (closer to the former), but the pronunciation of it is just crazy and makes me laugh. So I was able to say “Ik spreek geen Vlaamse,” and I found that everyone instantly believed me. 🙂

  7. Why would anyone expect the working language to be anything else but Italian? Klingon’s lexicon is not suitable for Catholic theology and canon law. Italian it is, then 😉

    At least this move will ease L’Osservatore Romano’s reporting (well, the synod proceedings which are publishable.)

    It’s important to remember that Italy still has the highest number of prelates per country. I do think that some of the sessions could be conducted in Spanish and/or English, but these sessions might have to be translated into Italian for the local media and a good number of prelates. That seems to be a lot of extra work.

  8. Communities like my own, the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), whenever we have international meetings, chapters etc use simultaneous translations. The working languages are English, Spanish and Bahasa-Indonesian. But most SVD’s are relatively fluent in at least two or three modern languages, following wishes of our Founder. Much to the distress of our dwindling number of German confreres, however, we no longer use German as a working language. I doubt that our founder, St Arnold Janssen, a priest of the diocese of Muenster, is turning in his grave. One of the first subjects he sent a young confrere to study was linguistics.
    At a recent Vatican gathering for neophyte Bishops, one of the attendees was Bishop Bernard Taiji Katsuya, Bishop of Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido (Japan), and there was simultaneous translation, so he was able to put up regular reports on FB and the diocesan web-page. Bp Katsuya is a composer/lyricist, with at least one CD to his credit, who likes to move around on his Harley.

  9. If Francis is attending these sessions, I’m curious to see if he’s also trying to read behind the lines of what is being said. Written words are fine, but how they are said can also convey meaning. Any one of us can say the “company lines” of the Church, but sometimes the when and how of said phrases can convey another message. If Latin can be precise, as some suggested, maybe it’s the imprecise language he wants to hear, in order to get a real feel as to the minds of the attendees. Since Latin isn’t a primary language anymore, people read the text, which might lose inflections of speach and the like. It might also be that people want the Latin to actually hide behind it.

  10. #21…yes and pretty insightful considering the Pope’s initial words about dropping the worry of offending the Pope with what you want to say.

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