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Latin (Ecclesiastical)

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Latin (Ecclesiastical)

Ecclesiastical Latin
Church Latin
Liturgical Latin
Native to Never spoken as a native language; other uses vary widely by period and location
Extinct Still used for many purposes, mostly as liturgical language of dioceses of the Roman rite of the Catholic Church.
Language family
Writing system Latin
Official status
Official language in Holy See
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist List
The spread of Christianity in Europe to 600 AD — the dark pockets represent initial enclaves
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Ecclesiastical Latin (sometimes called Liturgical or Church Latin) is the Latin used by the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church in all periods for ecclesiastical purposes. It is the pronunciation commonly taught and used in Italy. Having developed as a style of Late Latin called sermo humilis, used to preach and otherwise communicate to the people in ordinary language, it can be distinguished from Classical Latin by some lexical variations, a simplified syntax in some cases, and, commonly, in modern times, an Italianate pronunciation. It appears in various contexts, including theological works, liturgical rites, and dogmatic proclamations, and in various styles: as syntactically simple as in the Vulgate, as hieratic as in the Roman Canon of the Mass, as terse and technical as the language of Aquinas' Summa Theologica, and as Ciceronian as in Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter Fides et Ratio. In late antiquity and in the early Middle Ages the intended audience or use determined the style the ecclesiastical writer employed; in modern times it depends on the context. Christian Latin refers to the Latin employed in their preaching and writing by Christians of ancient times. As Latin in modern times is used as an official language of the Holy See, Ecclesiastical Latin is the only surviving sociolect of Latin spoken in modern times.

Scope and usage

The Church issued the dogmatic definitions of the first seven General Councils in Greek, and even in Rome Greek remained at first the language of the liturgy and the language in which the first Popes wrote. During the Late Republic and Early Empire periods, educated Roman citizens were generally fluent in Greek, although state business was conducted in Latin.

The Holy See has no obligation to use Latin as its official language and, in theory, could change its practice. However, such a change appears unlikely in the foreseeable future. As a language no longer in common use (a dead language, though some would dispute whether it should be called "dead"), Latin has the advantage that the meaning of its words is less likely to change radically from century to century. This helps to ensure theological precision and to safeguard orthodoxy. Since Latin is spoken as a native language by no modern community, the language is thought to be a universal, internally consistent means of communication without regional bias.[1] Accordingly, recent Popes have reaffirmed the importance of Latin for the Church and in particular for those undertaking ecclesiastical studies.

Especially since the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965, the Church no longer uses Latin as the exclusive language of the Roman and Ambrosian liturgies of the Latin Church of the Catholic Church. As early as 1913, the Catholic Encyclopedia commented that Latin was starting to be replaced by vernacular languages. However, the Church still produces its official liturgical texts in Latin, which provide a single clear point of reference for translations into all other languages. The same holds for the official texts of canon law, and for all other doctrinal and pastoral communications and directives of the Holy See (and the Holy Father), such as encyclical letters, motu propriae, and declarations ex cathedra.

After the use of Latin as an everyday language died out even among scholars, the Holy See has for some centuries usually drafted papal documents and the like in a modern language, but the authoritative text — the one published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis — generally appears in Latin, even if this text becomes available only later. For example, the writers of the Catechism of the Catholic Church drafted it in French, and it appeared first in that language in 1992. But five years later, when the Latin text appeared in 1997, the French text underwent correction to stay in line with the Latin version. The Latin language department of the Vatican Secretariat of State (formerly the Secretaria brevium ad principes et epistolarum latinarum) is charged with the preparation in Latin of papal and curial documents.

Occasionally, the official texts are published in a modern language, including such well-known texts as the motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini[2] (1903) by Pope Pius X (in Italian) and Mit brennender Sorge (1937) by Pope Pius XI (in German).

The rule now in force on the use of Latin in the Eucharistic liturgy of the Roman Rite states: "Mass is celebrated either in Latin or in another language, provided that liturgical texts are used which have been approved according to the norm of law. Except in the case of celebrations of the Mass that are scheduled by the ecclesiastical authorities to take place in the language of the people, Priests are always and everywhere permitted to celebrate Mass in Latin."[3]

Comparison with classical Latin

The written Latin of today, as used for Church purposes, does not differ radically from classical Latin. Study of the language of Cicero and Virgil suffices adequately for understanding Church Latin. However, those interested only in ecclesiastical texts may prefer to limit the time they devote to ancient authors, whose vocabulary covers matters that, although of importance in that period, appear less frequently in Church documents.

In most countries, those who speak Latin for liturgical or other ecclesiastical purposes use the pronunciation that has become traditional in Rome, giving the letters the value they have in modern Italian, but without distinguishing between open and closed "E" and "O". "AE" and "OE" coalesce with "E", and before these letters and the letter "I", the letters "C" and "G" are pronounced /t͡ʃ/ and /d͡ʒ/, respectively. "TI" followed by a vowel is generally pronounced /tsi/ (unless preceded by "S", "T" or "X"). Such speakers pronounce consonantal "V" (not written as "U") as in English, and double consonants are pronounced as such. No distinction is made between long and short vowels.

However, ecclesiastics in some countries follow slightly different traditions. For instance, in Slavic countries and in German-speaking ones the letter "C" before the front vowels /e/ and /i/ commonly receives the value of /ts/ and speakers pronounce "G" in all positions hard, never as English J. (See also Latin regional pronunciation and Latin spelling and pronunciation: Ecclesiastical pronunciation.)

Language materials

The complete text of the Bible in Latin (revised Vulgate) appears at Nova Vulgata - Bibliorum Sacrorum Editio.[4] An edition at,[5] has the text of the Latin Vulgate, flanked by the Douay-Rheims Version (based on the Latin) and the King James Version of the Bible. Another site[6] gives the entire Bible, in the Douay version, verse by verse, accompanied by the Vulgate Latin of each verse.

In 1976 the Latinitas Foundation[7] (Opus Fundatum Latinitas in Latin) was established by Pope Paul VI to promote the study and use of Latin. Its headquarters are in Vatican City. The foundation publishes an eponymous quarterly in Latin. Other initiatives of the Latinitas Foundation include the publication (in Italian) of the 15,000-word Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis (Dictionary of Recent Latin), which indicates Latin terms to use in referring to modern ideas, such as a bicycle (birota), a cigarette (fistula nicotiana), a computer (instrumentum computatorium), a cowboy (armentarius), a motel (deversorium autocineticum), shampoo (capitilavium), a strike (operistitium), a terrorist (tromocrates), a trademark (ergasterii nota), an unemployed person (invite otiosus), a waltz (chorea Vindobonensis), and even a miniskirt (tunicula minima) and hot pants (brevissimae bracae femineae). Some 600 such terms extracted from the book appear on a page[8] of the Vatican website.

Current use

Latin remains the main official language of the Holy See and the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.[9] Up until the 1960s (and still later in Roman colleges like the Gregorian) Roman Catholic priests studied theology using Latin textbooks, and the language of instruction in many seminaries was also Latin. The use of Latin in pedagogy and in theological research, however, has since declined. Nevertheless, Church law requirements that seminary formation provide for a thorough training in Latin still remain.[10] Latin was still spoken in recent international gatherings of Roman Catholic leaders, such as the Second Vatican Council, and is still used at conclaves to elect a new Pope. The Tenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2004 was the most recent to have a Latin language group for discussions.

Although Latin is the traditional liturgical language of the Roman (Latin) Church, the liturgical use of the vernacular has predominated since the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council. The Church law currently in force for the Latin Church stipulates that the Sacrifice of the Mass may be carried out in the Latin language or in another language provided that the liturgical texts have been legitimately approved.[11] The exclusive use of Latin in liturgical celebrations is retained in an authorized extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, commonly called the "Tridentine Mass".[12]

See also

Christianity portal



  • The New Missal Latin by Edmund J. Baumeister, S.M., Ph.D. Published by St. Mary's Publishing Company, P.O. Box 134, St. Mary's, KS 66536-0134, USA
  • A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin by John F. Collins, (Catholic University of America Press, 1985) ISBN 0-8132-0667-7. A learner's first textbook, comparable in style, layout, and coverage to Wheelock's Latin, but featuring text selections from the liturgy and the Vulgate: unlike Wheelock, it also contains translation and composition exercises.
  • (a course in ecclesiastical Latin).

External links

Latin and the Catholic Church

  • (in Latin here)
  • Una Voce - International organization promoting the Latin Tridentine Mass
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church in Latin
  • Fr. Nikolaus Gihr The Language Used in the Celebration of the Holy Mass"
  • Philip Goddard [1] Plain Man's Guide to the Traditional Roman Rite of Holy Mass (examination and explanation of Latin as used in the Traditional Catholic Mass).


  • The Bible in Latin - official text of the Roman Catholic Church
  • bilingual Bible
  • Latin Bible (Vulgate text) in parallel with the English Douay-Rheims and King James Bibles
  • of the 1970 Roman Missal, Latin and English texts, rubrics in English only


  • Latin-English pre-Vatican-II Breviary

Other documents


  • - Ecclesiastical Latin course

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