The Suffering World blog has an excellent article on the place of Latin in the Catholic Church:
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It matters whether we are talking about liturgy or other matters. We tend to think of the liturgy in such questions, but Latin is the official administrative language of the Church, but in reality day-to-day business in the Curia is conducted in Italian. So why publish documents in Latin? I think the point must be one of universality – the Church is Catholic, and so although it is perfectly possible to produce localised versions of all Church documents, it is crucial to have a normative and culture free type from which translations can be made. ‘Culture free’ will raise eyebrows, since many critics of Latin in the Church see it as too Euro-centric. Yet what seems important to me is that Latin is today more culturally independent than any other language in use, by virtue of its being a ‘dead’ language. Even koine Greek is so similar to modern Greek, and bears such a line of historical continuum with the current language, that it does not have the independent quality of Latin.
Moreover, the shift to Latin from Greek, contrary to popular opinion, was not a matter of intelligibility, at least as I understand it. From what I’ve read on the subject it is more a matter of that as the Church became identified with the Roman empire, it was a matter of convenience to subsume the legalese of the empire. This makes sense, as by this process the Church became linguistically catholic as well as theologically! This does not make it comparable to a proposed shift to the vernacular (or the actual one in the liturgy) which is often argued for on the grounds of intelligibility. One must take into account such factors as the importance Latin was afforded in terms of citizenship: just as the empire brought new citizens into allegiance with Rome linguistically, there seems to be case for saying that the Church does the same. Put another way, we go to Rome in terms of a cultural/linguistic shift, Rome should not have to come to us.
I think these same arguments extend naturally enough to the liturgy. I have said before that I am broadly in favour of, say, the readings being offered in the vernacular at some point in the liturgy, because although it is not the function to provide a ‘Bible-study’ class to the congregation, no one can convince me it is a bad thing for us all to have the chance to mull over the texts at the time. Translations in hand-outs can do the same job, but that gets expensive.
But on a practical level, as Fr Ray said in a recent post, it does of course help for international migrants to know that they can go to Mass anywhere in the world, and it will be the same. So we return to the catholicity of the Church’s outward appearance -these things matter.
When the ‘centralised’ language is lost, local cultural variations (which will always exist anyway, it’s human nature and not necessarily bad in itself) are allowed to come more to the fore; and we risk splinter-churches. The mess we’ve been having with ICEL translations is a classic case of bad motivations driving a shift in theological sensibilities: and so we end up with a horrible rupture theology and bad catechesis dominating the English-speaking Church.
In any case, historically speaking, the Mass that we celebrate in the Western Church is characterised far more by the input of the Roman (Latin) culture; and as I have blogged about before, this does not represent what someone once decided made a suitable translation of an existing Greek form of the liturgy (though no doubt that also took place), but rather a composite of various prayers put together over a period of time and ossified at Trent. The Latin of the liturgy is not a real language that belongs to any one epoch, but is an encapsulation of the Church’s tradition and development. It is, in other words, a potent symbol of what Catholicism is.