The Catholic University of America

Teaching Latin in the Modern World 

The Proceedings of the Workshop on the Teaching of Latin in the Modern World, conducted at
The Catholic University of America, June 12 to 23, 1959

Edited by Martin R. P. McGuire, PhD
The Catholic University of America Press
Washington 17, DC
Appendix C, pages 246-57


In 1958, the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities issued a Letter to local Ordinaries on the proper study of Latin.  It is published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, L (1958), 292-295. While the document is primarily concerned with the Latin curriculum, and especially with the methods of teaching Latin, in seminaries, it contains much that applies to Latin and the teaching of Latin in Catholic secondary schools and colleges in general.  Before discussing the document further, however, it will be well to present its full text in English translation.

The Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities
Letter to Their Excellencies, the Local Ordinaries, on the Proper Study of Latin

"We consider that, in doing all in your power to give a sound training to young seminarians, you are fully aware how much the Church insists by her precepts that those aspiring to the Priesthood should be carefully imbued with a knowledge of the humanities in general, but especially with a good knowledge of Latin.  We know very well that Latin is signally proper to the priest, for it is the language which the Church requires him to use when as the vicegerent of Christ before God he is performing his sacred functions.  There can be no doubt whatever, therefore, that, by virtue of the nature of his very office itself, he should not merely know Latin, but should know it as perfectly as possible.

"In our time, however, the opinion has become widespread that ecclesiastics are no longer so well trained in those noble studies through which their predecessors in the past won for themselves the admiration of all.  The observation is now often made and heard in various places that recently ordained priests are so deficient in Latin that they are not only unable to speak the language with any facility or write it correctly, but they cannot understand even the easiest Latin author.  The reason for this decline will be evident to anyone who examines, however cursorily, our young students who are trained at the present time.  It must be admitted frankly that even in our own seminaries there has been a marked decline in the study of Latin, and in our days these institutions have often lost the splendid reputation they once enjoyed for their ability to combine so successfully the cultivation of letters and the love of goodness and virtue--an achievement which made them such authoritative examples to others.  Unfortunately, our age seems to esteem and avidly desire more than all else the material advantages and comforts of life and, in a spirit of contemptuousness, to despise the love and study of arts and literature.

"Let no one think that we are exaggerating when we complain of the decline of Latin in our seminaries.  It will be sufficient to cite a few examples from the evidence which this Sacred Congregation has in its possession.  The Apostolic Visitors who recently made a thorough investigation of the program of studies in the Seminaries of the various countries have furnished us with very depressing information on this score.  In fact, some were so disturbed by the increasing decline, that on their own initiative they called our attention to this matter of such grave importance.  These men are worthy of trust because of their very positions, all without exception occupying high offices: rectors of universities, heads and professors of seminaries, and also certain laymen of great influence and zealously interested in the welfare of the Church.

"But we have been moved most by the representation of numerous bishops, who at length and in almost identical terms warn of the damage that the Church will suffer unless timely and efficacious remedies are applied.  In their complaint on the sad condition of Latin, they maintain that the ignorance of Latin must be regarded as chiefly responsible for the fact that the students of our seminaries seem less interested in the theology and philosophy or study these disciplines only in a superficial manner.  For, unless seminarians really know Latin well (as the bishops rightly emphasize), they have no access to the writings of the Holy Fathers, the definitions and decrees of the Councils, Papal documents, opinions of theologians, in a word, to the great and rich mass of writings which constitute the whole Tradition of the Church.

"Therefore, this Sacred Congregation has not hesitated to take cognizance of such numerous and important appeals which have come to it from everywhere, and, with full confidence that this will be useful and welcome to all, it has decided to assemble in a brochure a number of splendid documents pertaining to this matter which have been issued by the Sovereign Pontiffs since the middle of the last century.  Any one who reads this brochure will easily see the great force of the arguments presented in favor of the careful and diligent study of Latin on the part of our youth.  We have brought in the Sovereign Pontiffs as our speakers, so that all concerned may see without any uncertainty what must be done, and so that there may not be any delay in putting into effect most zealously what the Church herself commands through the voices of the Popes.

"For the fuller attainment of our purpose, it will be useful to call attention to the remedies to be employed for curing the evil. Those selected, it will be noted, are few in number, but they are ones which are to be regarded as especially efficacious.

"I. Without question, for giving Latin its old strength and prestige, it is necessary first of all to select teachers carefully.  It is obvious that no progress in the study of Latin can be hoped for as long as unqualified teachers are assigned to the work of instruction.  The Apostolic Visitors are unanimous in affirming that the deplorable situation in respect to Latin has arisen repeatedly through the fact that unqualified teachers are set to teach that language.  Ordinaries, therefore, should see to it that students are places in the hands of competent teachers only, and particularly of those who have been solidly and carefully trained in their discipline at the university level and who have acquired skill in the art of teaching.  If teachers of this kind are lacking, every effort must be made to prepare them.

"II. In order that Latin may be more easily and thoroughly mastered, the young seminarians must become well grounded, from the beginning of their literary studies, in the elements of this language.  But a right method of instruction must be chosen and followed, whereby this discipline will be so taught that they will study it and love it, and through their love of it learn it well.

"Some teachers follow a forbidding system, devoting too much time and care to philological investigations and cramming the minds of their pupils with learned and almost endless lucubrations.  Is it any wonder that young students exhibit indifference and dislike when they are exposed to such a mass and weight of learning?  Others, on the contrary, like to adopt certain modern methods of teaching, and think that their pupils, when they have mastered a modicum of rules covering writing and speaking, should plunge as soon as possible into the reading of the great Latin authors.  The result is that the learners, who are not yet instructed in the basic elements, are prevented by all kinds of difficulties from being able to get a correct understanding of what they read.  Hence, boys are made weary of their vain and profitless efforts and become so discouraged that they despair of ever being able to learn Latin.

"Since whatever exceeds due measure is always harmful, we ought to follow the mean.  Accordingly, the appropriate and effective form of Latin training will be that which--with sufficient attention being given to the inculcation of the rules of grammar and to elementary Latin composition--will lead gradually through frequent exercises to the overcoming of difficulties and the correct understanding of Latin authors.

"What authors are to be chosen?  We ought not rest content with the great Classical authors alone, but we ought to esteem highly all writers of Latin who by the purity of their vocabulary, by their polished diction, and by their whole style deserve a place close beside the masters of the golden age.  For Latin never fell so low as not to have at times outstanding representatives equally distinguished for their style and their learning.  Therefore, let the pupils draw examples and inspiration from good Latin writers of all periods.  In this way they will discover a well established truth, namely, that Latin is not a kind of dead or lifeless thing covered with the dust of ages, and hence completely useless for life in our time, but rather an instrument and vehicle of wisdom and culture which, under the leadership and tutelage of the Church, has developed and shaped our secular civilization.  Latin, therefore, rightly retains its strength and effectiveness even at the present time.

"III. Finally, it remains for us to recommend strongly that pupils be given adequate opportunity to learn Latin.  To know its rules and to become proficient in its use requires much time and labor, for there are many difficulties to overcome.  Accordingly, what can be said in favor of those programs of study--in force in certain seminaries--under which so few hours in the curriculum are assigned to Latin?  Some offer the excuse that they must yield to grave necessity, for they say that, unless their pupils follow the program of studies prescribes by the government, they cannot acquire academic degrees that are publicly recognized.  This excuse, however, cannot be accepted.  The Church, in the education of its candidates for the priesthood, has and pursues its own special purpose.  Therefore, it follows its own laws, which it cannot abrogate in any way.  Furthermore, it is well known that there are seminaries in which young students do learn Latin and at the same time earn academic degrees.

"We have thought it necessary to address this communication to you.  Its contents would seem, certainly, to be of such importance and authority as to merit your most serious care and solicitude.  We are fully confident that in your seminary everything will be arranged to bring about prompt conformance to these rules and exhortations.

"Relying on this hope, we send you our best wishes and greet you cordially in the Lord.

"Given at Rome, in the Palace of St. Callistus, on the Feast of Christ the King, October 27, 1957.
J. Cardinal Pizzardo, Prefect
C. Confalonieri, Secretary"

The first part of the Letter expresses the deep concern of Rome over the decline of Latin among candidates for the priesthood as reported by the Apostolic Visitors and by many bishops on their own initiative.  It is emphasized that a good knowledge of Latin is absolutely essential for the priest, not only for carrying out his sacred functions, but also to enable him to read firsthand the works of the Fathers, papal documents, conciliar decrees, and theological and ecclesiastical writings in general.  The lack of a sound knowledge of Latin, furthermore, has already impaired the proper study of philosophy and theology.  The first part of the Letter closes with a strong recommendation to read the accompanying brochures prepared by the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities which contain a series of papal pronouncements on the value and necessity of Latin for the Church herself and a collection of appreciations of Latin as the foundation and unifying element of Western civilization.

The rest of the letter deals specifically with ways and means for combating the present decline in the knowledge of Latin among seminarians and priests.  This section of the document gets to the heart of the matter and deserves the most careful study on the part of high school and college teachers and administrators as well as on that of professors and heads of seminaries.  The remedies and recommendations are presented in three main sections.  Accordingly, they will be presented here and discussed in the same order.

I.  Competent teachers are the prime need.  Nothing can be done unless Latin teachers are really competent to teach their subject.  Poor teaching was reported unanimously as the chief cause for the poor knowledge of Latin exhibited by seminarians and newly ordained priests.  It is significant that the Letter stresses a long a thorough training culminating in university studies as the indispensable preparation for Latin teachers.  The Letter clearly indicates that even teachers of Beginning Latin should have this kind of solid training.  The writer of this article welcomes this recommendation most heartily.  On the basis of long experience, he has become convinced that Elementary and Intermediate Latin and Greek should be taught by exceptionally well-trained and experienced teachers.  Strictly speaking, a teacher of Elementary Latin should have completed six to eight years of Latin at the high school and college level and obtained a Master’s degree in Classics at a good graduate school before entering the classroom.  Such a teacher, as the Letter also emphasizes, should have skill in the art of teaching.

II.  The Letter stresses the need of employing a sound method in Latin instruction and advocates the golden mean in this matter.  The student should not be overburdened with needless philological erudition of various kinds.  On the other hand, the teacher, under the influence of "modern" methods, should not skim over or neglect the rudiments of grammar and attempt to begin reading Latin authors too soon.  Students with inadequate preparation are inevitably faced with serious difficulties in trying to comprehend a Latin writer and soon become frustrated and discouraged.  "The right and effective form of training will be that which--with sufficient attention being given to the inculcation of the rules of grammar and to elementary Latin composition--will lead through frequent exercises to the overcoming of difficulties and the correct understanding of Latin authors."

Throughout this section the Letter stresses the necessity of mastering the elements as an indispensable foundation for all subsequent work in Latin.  It is clear that declensions, conjugations, and the elements of syntax must be learned and fixed in the mind by frequent oral and written exercises before much, if any, connected reading of a Latin author is attempted.  While modern devices may be employed in Latin instruction, the fact remains that no one will ever learn to read Latin with facility and accuracy unless he has acquired a solid foundation in grammar.  It is regrettable that what is so obvious needs to be formally stressed.

What Latin authors should be read?  The Letter assumes that Classical authors will be read, but recommends that authors who have written "good" Latin from antiquity to modern times be also included for reading.  Students must be made to realize by concrete examples that Latin has always been and continues to be a vital element in our civilization.  It is interesting to note that the Letter itself is written in a fine, clear Classical style, but is not narrowly Ciceronian in its vocabulary.  Throughout this section emphasis is placed on the writing and speaking of Latin as well as on the reading of Latin authors, as is understandable in a document primarily concerned with Latin instruction in seminaries.

III.  It is strongly recommended that adequate time be assigned for Latin instruction.  "To know the rules of Latin and to become proficient in its use requires much time and labor, for there are many difficulties to overcome."  The hours of Latin instruction must not be reduced on the ground that the program of studies must be adjusted to meet the requirements of the state if degrees or diplomas of the institution are to be officially accepted and recognized.  The Church must insist on its prior rights at least as regards its seminary curriculum.  A good knowledge of Latin is indispensable for the priesthood, and training in Latin must not be sacrificed.

This Letter, as was observed at the outset, is addressed to local ordinaries, and is primarily concerned with the study of Latin especially in minor seminaries.  However, as stated at the outset also, it contains much that applies to secondary schools and colleges.  It will suffice to highlight a few points.

1.  Catholic secondary school and college administrators might do a little pondering on the place of Latin in Catholic education.  Latin is not merely another foreign language to be equated as a required subject or as an elective on the same level with French, German, Spanish, or Russian.  Latin has been a great unifying element in Western civilization and has been, since the fourth century AD, the official and liturgical language of the Western Church.  The matter may be put as simply as this: as long as Latin remains the official and liturgical language of the Church, and, especially, of the Liturgy, Latin must have an essential place in Catholic education in general and should be studied by every Catholic capable of learning it, if he wishes to be regarded as a truly educated Catholic in the strict sense of the term.  The wholesale dropping of Latin in our Catholic high schools and colleges is an interesting phenomenon to the social historian.  It reveals to what extent Catholic education in this country, though freer than anywhere else in the world, can be and has been influenced by its secular environment.  In dropping Latin we are cutting at the very roots of our cultural tradition.  The study of Classical, Patristic, and Mediaeval Latin literature in translation is to be encouraged, but it is no real substitute for Latin literature in the original and should not be thought of or presented as such.  It may be observed, too, that poor training, or the lack of required training, in Latin, in Catholic schools and colleges is having the practical result that an increasing number of young men who wish to become priests discover that lack of Latin is a formidable obstacle.  The writer does not share the opinion of Father Abbott in his very timely and valuable article in America (January 10, 1959, p. 422) that special courses in Latin for men with delayed vocations or in seminaries are satisfactory.  These are essentially "cram courses" which are not equivalent to a regular program of sound instruction spread over a normal period of time.

2.  The writer would like to emphasize as strongly as possible what is said in the Letter about the necessity of competent teachers of Beginning Latin.  Too many teachers of Latin in our high schools are simply not trained to teach Latin, and the results of poor teaching are only too evident.  Poorly trained teachers are necessarily the slaves of textbooks, translations, and keys, and the results are deplorable.  Under such teaching a student may be exposed to Latin for four years and, of course, receive no satisfactory training in the language.  As indicated earlier, the teacher of Beginning Latin should have had good training in Latin for six or eight years in high school and college, and should have received an MA in Classics, as a preparation for intelligent and effective teaching of Elementary and Intermediate Latin.

3.  A great Classical scholar of the nineteenth century once said that if one can find nothing else to talk about he can always talk about the method.  For some years, methods in Latin instruction have been and continue to be discussed ad nauseam, and useful helps for instruction tend to be regarded as magic lamps, as rapid, complete--and painless--solutions for all our difficulties.  As a historian, the writer would be the last to disparage the use of audio-visual materials, the building of Roman homes and bridges, the holding of Roman suppers in full toga, and the rest, but this is not Latin.  When all the pictures fade, and the models are put on the shelves, there are the same old declensions, conjugations, and basic rules of syntax to be mastered, along with steadily increasing vocabulary, if one wishes really to know and read Latin with accuracy.  Furthermore, no adequate substitute has yet been found for constant drill and written exercises, and especially Latin composition, as a means of fixing forms and rules of syntax and of showing concretely the differences between English and Latin idiom.  Without such training, a student will never learn to read and comprehend Latin accurately.  To the writer, half comprehension, or even four-fifths comprehension, is not enough, when the meaning of a significant passage is involved.  It is rightly recommended that reading should be begun as soon as students have the necessary preparation in grammar, and not before.

4.  It is especially important to note that the Classics are not to be put aside, but are to continue to form the basis of instruction on the grammatical side.  Reading of non-Classical authors is recommended provided that they represent "good" Latin.  There is no justification for a present tendency to introduce grammatical constructions from Late or Mediaeval Latin into elementary instruction.  The usages of Classical Latin are clearly regarded as basic at this stage.  The role of Classical Latin in instruction is also emphasized in the Apostolic Constitution, Sedes Sapientiae, issued by Pius XII (May 31, 1956), Art. 43, 3.2: "In accord with the oft-repeated desire of the Holy See, diligent care must be used in concentrating on the study and use of Latin both because of its power in training minds and also because it is the language of the Church.  Students should be versed in Classical and Christian Latin literature at least to the extent that they can read scholarly texts with ease and, when the time comes, may be able to use the sources of ecclesiastical traditions fruitfully."

5.  On the basis of what has already been said, Latin should have an essential place in the Catholic secondary school and college curriculum.  Granted that the curriculum has become crowded to take care of subjects that would seem to be necessary, there remains the basic questions of religious, cultural, and practical values and their order of importance.  In the light of a truly Catholic philosophy of education, is it right that Latin has been so neglected in our curricula during the past twenty years, especially, and that the study of Latin is at such a low ebb in so many schools that pride themselves on being Catholic even to an exemplary degree?


* This translation was made by Martin R. P. McGuire, Head of the Department of Greek and Latin and member of the Committee on Affiliation, as Affiliation Document SC 39:59, and copies are available through the Committee at The Catholic University of America.

1 To furnish their Excellencies the Ordinaries with fuller arguments respecting the study and use of Latin, the Sacred Congregation of universities and Seminaries has sent them two brochures: I. Summorum Pontificum cum de humanioribus litteris tum praesertim de Latina Lingua documenta praecipua; II. Il Latino lingua viva nella Chiesa.  In this second brochure, a number of distinguished men present clear and learned arguments on the importance of Latin.

The following Papal pronouncements on Latin have been assembled and are presented together; Pius IX, Encyclical Singulari quidem, March 17, 1856 (Enchiridion Clericorum, n. 338); Leo XIII, Letter Plane quidem, May 20, 1885, (Ench. Cler., nn. 461-465); Encyclical Depuis le jour, Sept. 8, 1899 (Ench. Cler., nn. 593-596); Pius X, Letter of S.C. of Studies Vehementer sane, July 1, 1908 (Ench. Cler., nn. 820-822); Letter Sollicitis Nobis, Dec. 8, 1910 (Ench. Cler., n. 849); Letter Votre lettre, July 10, 1912 (Ench. Cler., n. 861); Benedict XV, Letter of S.C. of Seminaries and Universities Vixdum Sacra Congregatio, Oct. 9, 1921 (Ench. Cler., n. 1125); Pius XI, Ap. Letter Officiorum omnium Aug. 1, 1922 (Ench. Cler., n. 1154); Ap. Letter Unigenitus Dei Filius, March 19, 1924 (Ench. Cler., n. 1189); M. P. Latinarum litterarum, Oct. 20, 1924 (Ench. Cler., nn. 1200-1202); Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei, Nov. 20, 1947 (A.A.S. 39 1947, 544s.); Address Magis quam Sept. 23, 1951 (A.A.S. 43 1951, 737); Address C’est une grande joie, Sept. 5, 1957 (A.A.S. 49 1957, 845-849).

Translator’s note.  The brochure Summorum Pontificum . . . was published by the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities, Rome, 1957, pp. 15.  The brochure Il Latino . . . was published by the same Congregation, ibid., 1957, pp. 39.  Among other selections, it contains a passage on "Latin the Liturgical Language," taken from Cardinal Gibbons, Faith of Our Fathers.