Why Study Latin?

This week marked the 50th anniversary of Pope Blessed John XXIII’s Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientiae


– On the Promotion of the study of Latin-

This document is absolutely wonderful. I love it! Pope John XXIII is great. No wonder he is Blessed!

Needless to say, reading through the Apostolic Constitution made me wonder at the irony that the Pope who wrote this was the same one who inaugurated the Second Vatican Council- which in the mind of many appears to have been a council which “did away” with the Latin language altogether.

Of course, that is not at all the case to anyone who has read Sacrosantum Concilium, which commands:

36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.

This makes one suspect that the directives of Vatican II have not really been fully put into general effect yet.

Nonetheless, let us take a moment to reflect on some cogent reasons why Catholic schools need to make a strong commitment to the study of Latin (and if they are really bold- maybe even Greek!).

In point of fact, everyone (I say “everyone” merely for rhetorical effect!) knows that these languages are the languages of classical education. Moreover a strong emphasis on learning the Latin language, specifically, is especially important for those who wish to form their children according to the heart and mind of the Church.  Children should desire to know the language of their mother, and the language of Holy Mother Church is Latin. Among other reasons we find in the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientiae that the study of Latin

“…is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church’s teaching.”

I wonder if Pope John really means “passport?” My understanding is that one cannot generally travel very far without a passport.

From a strictly educational stand point the study of Latin (and Greek) is the most effective way to teach students the grammar of their own language as well as the great majority of the vocabulary in the English language.

Now anyone who cares enough to challenge this point needs to read Dorothy Sayers’ nice little essay entitled “IGNORANCE AND DISSATISFACTION.”

It is the quickest and easiest way to mastery over one’s own language, because it supplies the structure upon which all language is built. I never had any formal instruction in English grammar, nor have I ever felt the need of it, though I find I write more grammatically than most of my juniors. It seems to me that the study of English Grammar in isolation from the inflected origins of language must be quite bewildering. English is a highly sophisticated, highly analytical language, whose forms, syntax and construction can be grasped and handled correctly only by a good deal of hard reasoning, for the inflections are not there to enable one to distinguish automatically one case or one construction from another. To embark on any complex English construction without the Latin Grammar is like trying to find one’s way across country without map or signposts. That is why so few people nowadays can put together an English paragraph without being betrayed into a false concord, a hanging or wrongly attached participle, or a wrong consecution; and why many of them fall back upon writing in a series of short sentences, like a series of gasps, punctuated only by full stops.

Ms. Sayers has many other excellent reasons as well including the one I am about to give – except I will make the point for her in a crass utilitarian manner!

Statistics from the College board continue to demonstrate that students of Latin outperform students of every other language on average by 100 points on the English portion of the SAT. So there! And if you think students of Latin outperform other students on the SAT because they are more intelligent to begin with- then keep that to yourself. It all amounts to the same thing. Either Latin makes you intelligent or the intelligent study Latin.

The study of Latin and Greek is not only the most effective way to teach language itself to the student (no matter what his first language may be) but the study of these languages has a far reaching effect on the entire intellectual formation of the student. Pope John XXIII spoke extensively about this when he said that the study of Latin specifically

“… exercises, matures and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech.”

In short the study of Latin is like brain food! It is pure intellectual spinach. It is like fish! No other language is like it for making people just plain smart.

Why would anyone deprive their children of this treasure?

Why would a school deprive students of this most valuable and effective tool for training the mind?

Why would Latin be an elective at a Catholic school?

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www. OLWclassical.org), former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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3 Responses to Why Study Latin?

  1. John says:

    “And if you think students of Latin outperform other students on the SAT because they are more intelligent to begin with- then keep that to yourself.”
    hahaha I love it! Great post.

  2. Margie says:

    I have learned so much more about language itself by learning Latin!
    I don’t comepletely understand what Pope John XXIII means by the second two sentences of the last quote…could you enlighten me, Mr. Langley? 🙂

    • Mark Langley says:

      Hi Margie,

      well your question goes right to the irony in this whole post. If I was really serious about this, I would have posted my own translations of the citations. The fact that the quotation has the word “values” is sort of a red flag. When is the last time that you translated any Latin word as “Values?”

      Here is the Latin text – containing the two lines to which you refer. Much better!

      Neque vero cuique in dubio esse potest, quin sive Romanorum sermoni sive honestis litteris ea vis insit, quae ad tenera adulescentium ingenia erudienda et conformanda perquam apposita ducatur, quippe qua tum praecipuae mentis animique facultates exerceantur, maturescant, perficiantur; tum mentis sollertia acuatur iudicandique potestas; tum puerilis intellegentia aptius constituatur ad omnia recte complectenda et aestimanda; tum postremo summa ratione sive cogitare sive loqui discatur.


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