Why does the Catholic Church still care about Latin?

ROME — Existing in some form since several hundred years before Christ, the Latin language seems like an unlikely subject still to be generating brand new research, especially among young scholars.

Nevertheless, the theme this year of the Vatican’s humanities-themed contest, the Prize of the Pontifical Academies, is all about Latin. And the final winner – awarded more than $21,400 – will be chosen by Pope Francis.

So why does the Catholic Church care so much about promoting the Latin language? For quite a few reasons it turns out.

“In the Vatican some of the more important documents issued by the Pope and the Holy See are officially written in Latin,” Father Roberto Spataro, secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Latin, told CNA. The Church’s standard version of the Bible, called the Vulgate, is also in Latin.

Apart from this very practical reason, he said, through Latin we are also able to be in touch with the vast heritage of the Church throughout the ages and “discover that this very language has long been the medium of dialogue between faith and reason.”

The 2017 Prize of the Pontifical Academies is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Academy for Latin, or Pontificia Acadamia Latinitatis, which was founded by Benedict XVI in 2012 through the motu proprio Latina Lingua.

“Pope Benedict … wanted to inspire the universal Church lest it forget Latin is the key of an immense treasure of wisdom and knowledge,” Spataro said.

This is the Church’s most recent document affirming the importance of the study and preservation of Latin, but by no means is it the only one.

In 1962, St. John XXIII issued the apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia, in which he “solemnly stated” that Latin has three distinctive characteristics making this ancient language the “rightful language for the Roman Catholic Church,” Spataro said.

Just as the Church is by nature ‘catholic,’ or ‘universal,’ the Latin language is also international, not belonging to one country or place; and because it is no longer a living language, it is also immutable.

This “makes it perfect for dogmatic and liturgical assessments as such intellectual activity requires a lucid language that leaves no ambiguity in expression,” he explained.

And finally, “it is beautiful and elegant, and the Church is always a lover of arts and culture.”

Organized every year by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the 2017 Prize of the Pontifical Academies is on two themes: Methodological proposals for teaching Latin today, and the reception of ancient Christian Latin between the medieval and modern eras.

The first topic “is reserved to institutions (academies, schools, associations, foundations, research groups etc.) that are engaged in formative activity among the youth,” the Prize’s press release states.

The second is for scholars between the ages of 25 and 40 who have produced doctoral theses or publications on the theme in the…

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