You will see two conflicting claims made about the continued use of Latin in the Catholic Church. The first is that it is difficult to understand, a source of mystery:
In the Eastern tradition, the mystery of God’s Otherness is expressed by a large part of the service being done behind a wall of icons and a series of veils. The people still actively participate, but they do so fully aware that the God they are worshipping is not immediately accessible to them. In the West, the function of icons and veils is taken in part by language. It emphasizes the mystery and the transcendence of a God who, despite His closeness to us, is still always beyond our reach.
(Christopher Smith, in New Liturgical Movement, 28 November 2007)
The second is that Latin is clear and precise, not subject to the ambiguities and changes of sense of modern languages, and therefore ideal for expressing Church teaching and law.
It is hardly new news that strong claims of both types have from time to time been made by people who know relatively little Latin. A priest theologian observing the Second Vatican Council later commented that “It was not uncommon that glowing panegyrics in favour of Latin were themselves delivered in laboured pidgin Latin, while the most forceful advocates of the vernacular could express themselves in classical Latin.” (Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, as reported in the Western Catholic Reporter 29 October 2012)
In this note, I want to address the second claim: that Latin is generally clear and unambiguous. In many cases, it is not.
I will use a recently-debated text as an example: section 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). In Latin the GIRM is titled Institutio Generalis Missale Romanum; in French, Présentation Générale du Missel Roman [sic, rather than “Romain”; this from the Vatican website]; and in Italian it is Ordinamento Generale del Messale Romano.
The Latin is supposed to be the definitive text. The first sentence reads:
Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.
The first part of the sentence, through possit, is relatively straightforward. On its own, it means: The main altar should be erected away from the wall, so that it is easy to walk around it and to use it for a celebration facing the people.
But then there’s the notorious quod clause; on its own, this simply means: “this is desirable wherever it is possible.” But what does “this” (quod) refer to? Exactly what is desirable wherever it is possible?
Some have read the clause as referring to celebration facing the people – and in fact the official English translation could be interpreted this way:
The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.
Of course this sentence is itself ambiguous. Just what does the “which” refer to? Most English readers would interpret it as referring strictly to celebration facing the people.
But, as a number of commentators have pointed out over the years, if quod is a relative pronoun, then the Latin text doesn’t support this reading. In Latin, the pronoun introducing a relative clause should have the same gender as the thing that the clause expands on or explains. In this case, Quod is neuter, and celebratio feminine.
This leaves several other possibilities. One is that the quod expands only on the first part of the sentence. The whole thing would then mean, roughly: The main altar should be built apart from the wall (this is desirable wherever it is possible), in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people.
Here, the “desirability” extends only to separation from the wall. The only thing desired is that it is possible to walk around the altar whilst incensing it; this could take place in either form of the Mass. Read in this way, the rubric maintains a studied neutrality about celebration facing the people.
A second possibility is that quod expands on the things that are to be made possible (possit), i.e. circumiri (walking around the altar) and celebratio … peragi (celebration facing the people). In less ambiguous English this would read: The principal altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people. These two things are desirable whenever it is possible to provide for them. In this reading, the rubric recommends celebration facing the people, though it does not mandate it.
A third reading is close to the second: here quod is not a relative pronoun at all but a conjunction meaning, roughly, “because”. And in this case, the relative clause could refer only to the celebration, since the conjunction doesn’t change in gender. So it could read: The principal altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, because celebration facing the people is desirable whenever it is possible.
And a fourth reading, again taking quod as a conjunction: The principal altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, because these things are desirable whenever it is possible.
And there may be a fifth, and a sixth.
I think that the first reading is the least likely, more for logical than grammatical reasons. First, the “desirability” of the separation of the altar is already established by the subjunctive exstruatur, which means, more or less, “let it be built”, or “it should be built”. There is no need to add that this is desirable whenever it is possible, unless the authors are using poetic repetition – “it is really, really a good thing if you build the altar away from the wall.” This seems unlikely in a rubric, though not impossible.
Second, the separation is being recommended for a purpose: so that it is possible to walk around the altar and to celebrate Mass facing the people. It would seem bizarre for the purpose not to be included in the recommendation. An analogous expression in English would be: “Dentists recommend that you brush your teeth twice a day so as to keep them white and to avoid cavities.” Would we really assert that the dentists only care about the brushing, and not about the cavities?
Nonetheless the sentence is ambiguous, both in English and in Latin. The French translators hewed closer to the first reading: Il convient, partout où c’est possible, que l’autel soit érigé à une distance du mur qui permette d´en faire aisément le tour et d´y célébrer face au peuple.
Literally, “It is convenient wherever possible for the altar to be built at a distance from the wall; this makes it easy to walk around it and to celebrate at it facing the people.”
The Italians preserved the ambiguity of the Latin by putting the quod clause at the end: L’altare sia costruito staccato dalla parete, per potervi facilmente girare intorno e celebrare rivolti verso il popolo: la qual cosa è conveniente realizzare ovunque sia possibile.
This means “The altar should be built apart from the wall, to make it easy to walk around it and to celebrate facing the people; this is desirable wherever it is possible.”
On 25 September 2000, the Congregation for Divine Worship clarified that “the word expedit does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum [detached from the wall] and to the celebration versus populum [toward the people].” This seems to reinforce one of the latter readings, especially when the letter from the Congregation adds that the rubric “reaffirms that the position toward the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier.”
The ambiguity remains. Relying solely on the Latin, there is no way to work out conclusively “what the rubric really says.” Despite claims that it is inherently clear and precise, Latin, like every language, is easy to write in ambiguous terms. And perhaps this is desirable wherever it is possible.
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Acknowledgements. I found recent comments by Pray Tell reader Shaughn Casey, a Latin teacher, helpful in formulating this note, and also Paul Ford’s 2012 posting, “Mass Facing the People: A Defense.”