Lingua Latina, the internet and the Popes

According to Vatican Insider, the information service of the daily newspaper La Stampa, the Pope is expected to issue a new motu proprio (a papal rescript ‘of his own accord’) entitled Foveatur lingua Latina (‘to promote the Latin language’) by which a new pontifical academy, Pontificia Academia Latinitatis, will be established to further the understanding and use of the Latin, (vide update, infra).

The new Academy will assume the role of the Latinitas Foundation which was established in 1976 by Pope Paul VI with the Pontifical Chirograph Romani sermonis with the objectives of promoting:

  • the study of the Latin language, classical literature and Medieval Latin; and
  • the increased use of the Latin language by publishing texts in Latin and other suitable means.

However, The Tablet notes

‘it has been seen as an ineffective office run by a small group of (mainly Italian) specialists. As the Pontifical Council ‘Latinitas’, the organism will gain additional members from all over the world, including cardinals, bishops and Latin specialists.’

The Latinitas Foundation will continue to publish the ‘Latinitas’ magazine and organize ‘Certamen Vaticanum’ an international Latin poetry and prose competition, although its role of translating modern words into Latin will be subsumed by the new academy.


Latin is the language of the authoritative versions of the official documents of the Holy See and has been used as the official liturgical language for over sixteen centuries since the Church changed from Greek to Latin under Pope Damasus (+384).

The primacy of Latin within the liturgy was confirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1963 in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum concilium, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canon 928 states:

‘The Eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in the Latin language or in another language provided that the liturgical texts have been legitimately approved.’

In Dominicae cenae Pope John Paul II noted:

‘The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself’

and in Sacramentum caritatis Pope Benedict XVI, wrote of his wish for a greater use of Latin in liturgical celebrations, especially during international gatherings, saying:

‘ . . . . . .  I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant’

It is reported by Vatican Insider that the initiative for the new Academy was ‘put forward by the Holy Father’ and promoted by the Vatican dicastery for culture.  Its members will include eminent academics of various nationalities, whose aim will be to promote the use and knowledge of the Latin language in both ecclesiastical and civil contexts, including schools.  However, their task will not be easy.

Although Pope John XXIII stressed the importance of Latin and established it as the eternal language of the Church in the apostolic constitution Veterum sapientia on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, post-conciliar liturgical reform removed it from common use.

With regard to its use in a civil context, as with any ‘dead language’, this is dependent upon the development of neologisms and even papal documents have proved problematic.  Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical Caritas in veritate concerned the social impact of the economic and financial crisis, and some of the Latin terms used drew criticism from the Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica.

The Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis contains over 15,000 translations of moderns terms into Latin, and whilst internet terms sometimes prove problematic, it does include:  exemplar luce expressum, (photocopy); bracae línteae caerúleae (blue jeans); brevíssimae bracae femíneae (‘hot pants’); and fiscāle prétii additamentum (VAT).

However, it is important that where translation is undertaken, it is carried out accurately.  Caron suggests that the widely-held belief that cremation ashes could not be present at the funeral Mass was due to a mis-translation of the guidance from the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, [M B Caron, ‘The Cremation Conundrum’, (1998) 58 The Jurist 226].


Foveatur lingua Latina is available on the Vatican web pages in a number of languages, including English.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Lingua Latina, the internet and the Popes" in Law & Religion UK, 5 September 2012,