By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Latin, Heresy and Meaning

There are ___ words with Latin origin in this essay.(I'm still counting)
I found out that the issue of popularizing the Latin Mass is not an easy thing to ponder about. First because I don't speak Latin although as someone with a law background I once committed a few maxims to memory (and they are there somewhere in the depths of my mind although I suspect Harry Potter's spells are easier to recall at this point). But second because I have never attended a pure, honest to goodness, authentic Latin Mass.

Reviving the Latin Mass ought not to be anything worrisome for many Catholics after all, like old buildings and religious artifacts and relics, it is just that, a symbol of the past, an old ritual which lends our religious rites a modicum of quaintness, if not relives a tradition. Or is it?

Some have opined that the Pope's reaching out to the Lebferve flock is a sure sign of his turning away from Vatican II. But the way I see it, the problem with assigning a whole lot of meaning to Pope Benedict's announcement last week is that it can just as easily contribute to the reinforcement of such (if any) real intentions.

I figured that if we were to consider "meaning" as mediated, that it rarely ever is a product of only one point of view, even Latin deserves a fair trial. :-)

Latin has its own history. We often hear its "dead" but that's not entirely accurate. It's really easier to think of it as having mutated, or branched out, or if you like those sort of movies - the living dead. (Ok I'm trying to be funny)

English, most linguists would agree is the most living relic of Latin. Apart from English, the family of languages with Latin origins include German, French and Spanish. But for the most part, 3/4 of English is influenced or words with Latin origin, making it the most influenced by Latin of all the current "Western" languages here mentioned.Read more here...

What is Latin also depends on when it is you are referring to by way of history, usage and well, influence. Even Latin was influenced heavily by Greek, particularly the Classical Latin we often hear referred to by way of the literary achievements (Ceasar, Cicero).

The use of Latin (as opposed to Greek) marked a turning point for Catholic church history. At a certain point in history, Latin was also more popularly spoken than Greek which was the preferred language by the clerics, of course largely due to the fact that early translations of manuscripts in Armaic and Hebrew were in Greek. (Now remember that when we don't understand a word of what is spoken, not only because it is foreign but rather sounds too complicated, we say "that sounded Greek to me," not Latin. Well maybe we say it because we know of Greek and Latin...well its dead isn't it? It depends but I digress...)

Yes, in the old days, Latin was THE language of the faithful and Greek, only understood by a few clerics. Translation into Latin (again, not classical, but popular, vernacular) Latin became a necessity when more of the faithful, particularly in Africa, spoke it and not Greek.

Of course which Latin to use became a complex issue of various considerations: closer to classical style, which was of course preferred by the learned scholars, and had a distinctively upper class origin, as opposed to the vulgar Latin, which suffered from too many sub-set “Latin” languages that lacked the form and consistency of classical style Latin.

There were reportedly so many translators of the scriptures from Greek to Latin that even St. Agustine noted that while there were only a handful who translated the scriptures from Hebrew to Greek, it was impossible to count those who translated the scriptures from Greek to Latin. At this point, its easy to picture the story of the "Tower of Babel," but with all of the people speaking in different kinds of Latin!

Its a great metaphor for the world we live in where English itself is spoken all over the world but in many different ways. (of course its an incomplete story because so many more languages do not derive from these Western languages but I'll try to get to that later).

One Catholic Encyclopedia also tries to explain the historical import of Latin's survival as Church language through the dark ages:

"Hardly had it been formed when church Latin had to undergo the shock of the invasion of the barbarians and the fall of the Empire of the West; it was a shock that gave the death-blow to literary Latin as well as to the Latin of everyday speech on which church Latin was waxing strong. Both underwent a series of changes that completely transformed them. Literary Latin became more and more debased; popular Latin evolved into the various Romance languages in the South, while in the North it gave way before the Germanic tongues. Church Latin alone lived, thanks to the religion of which it was the organ and with which its destinies were linked. True, it lost a portion of its sway; in popular preaching it gave way to the vernacular after the seventh century; but it could still claim the Liturgy and theology, and in these it served the purpose of a living language. "

Indeed, on this profound level, Latin, as a language, symbolizes the Catholic church's linkage with the past, way back to the original scriptures. True the original scriptures were Armaic, and Hebrew and then translated to Greek but up until this point, "Church Latin" also came to symbolize more than this tie with original scripture. When authors say "Church Latin" survived the "dark ages," it doesn't get any easier to explain does it?

"Dark ages" or the "antiquity" (depending on what you mean historically or when) after all also has its own "historical meaning."

The "term" for the dark ages is of course (from the perspective of Catholic history) associated with the decline of the Roman Empire that is the lack of Christianity.

Interestingly enough it was also used (secular fashion) to describe the "death" of Classical Latin, according to the Italian Scholar, Petrarca the years, 474-1000. For Petrarca, the Roman Empire was not Catholic expansion but rather literature and the arts.

By the time of the renaissance, what the "dark ages" were (and when it was exactly) was of course expanded by the rationalists (the age of reason) and used it widely to refer to the overly religiously influenced middle ages. Religious reformation also contributed to the term's usage to refer to the Catholic Inquisition.

Now reviving the Latin Mass per se ought not to have any other meaning apart from what we as celebrants will make of it. Of course the trouble is, the way the "Tridentine Mass' is structured, we aren't really celebrants in the same sense we have been able to assume after Vatican II. Therein lies the rub: we won't really know what the religious authority meant to do by reintroducing the Tridentine Mass until they tell us so. Somewhere I remember having read about being inclusive but what this inclusion entails is yet to be seen.

Plus of course without clearing up what was precisely the meaning of Vatican II’s move towards inclusion (masses in the vernacular, challenging the ,anti-semitism of preserved Latin in the Tridentine Mass itself!), we lose a lot on making sense of this entire issue of reintroduction!

We also ought not to forget that “translation” in the Catholic church’s past often meant ,heresy --- that it was itself an act proscribed by the official church. When ,William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English (and he was a Theologian!), he burned for it at the stake!

Archbishop Lebferve considered many of Vatican II reforms too much like “Protestantism.”

In the meantime, the more I read about Latin (its history and its syntax), the more I am fascinated by it. Not a few of my favorite English writers were probably learned in Latin, one of them who comes to mind is James Joyce.

One of the more interesting reflections I have about old languages (Latin included) is the difference between ways of using language over the ages. Yes, I'm back to quoting Marshall MacLuhan (who also probably knew Latin, being considered Joycean himself). Latin of the antiquity and beyond that was a spoken language more than a written one but certainly having been recorded and preserved in writing was eventually key to its "survival."

If I remember my McLuhan right, spoken language also relies on "meaning making" that involves the act of listening and hearing unlike the written word. Hot media like the phone give us more of the "personal" touch than the "cooler" media like TV. To actually hear the voice and character of the person you talk to, not really just because you are able to "hear" words but experience how they say it (and vice versa), makes this medium a "hot" one.

Now the TV "communicates" but it doesn't really leave too much room for exchange or for that matter, THOUGHT. It feeds really. (Don't get me started on how much like vegetables especially kids end up like when always left in front of the TV. This was probably the look on the students' faces MacLuhan first noticed!)

But even the way we "read" now is different from how others "read" and "wrote" before so even if we are just talking about one language, following MacLuhan, there would still be losses in translation.

One more thing I find fascinating is that a long time ago, language, that is speaking and writing were synonymous with thinking.

Articulation and meaning-making going hand in hand in our own age has become such a rarity.


How then have we come to this, a discussion of Latin, which I do not speak or read and write, in English, a language, which is not even my country’s native tongue?

Am I a whole other being in my own tongue, the language I speak everyday to my closest, most intimate relations? One thing I know is that when I speak and think in Filipino, I am usually in the present, in active state, of the here and now.

So despite my Filipino grammar teacher’s better judgments (I had consistently low marks in Filipino and high marks in English), I am very much attuned with my “native presence” and acutely aware of the depth of my inner and outer connections with the language they almost taught me to detest.

I know how clumsy I feel “in it” whenever I try and express myself in profound thought, or even with depth of feeling. The only thing it seems appropriate for given my tremendous insecurity with it, is the chore of everyday living. (But living in such a binary surely has to suck big time on one significant psychological level but even I know I lack the knowledge to grasp this sort of realization. I’ll leave that to Sikolohiyang Pilipino).

I speak and write this language - which somehow often feels like it can best mirror the thoughts that (I want to say run on a rampage) flit and flicker in my mind or does it really?

Now I know what prompted James Joyce to say this about “readers” of English was basically his critics (specifically H.G. Wells) “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives” but it sure feels familiar.


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