A recent article in Slate reported on an order from the Vatican that the traditional Latin Mass of the Catholic Church could only be conducted when particular conditions were met. Formerly the decision to use the mass in the "original language version" would have been up to the individual priest; now the decision has been kicked upstairs to the level of bishop. The article I link to is only one of a flurry of articles from sundry writers. Even more recently, a New York Times opinion piece came out very strongly on the matter: Pope Francis Is Tearing the Catholic Church Apart.

There is more at issue than the question of one language versus another in the Catholic Mass but that's the issue of interest in the Lounge. The interplay of language and religion is always a subject of fascination, and I've written about it before. Religion as we know it and practice it today would be impossible without the medium of language. Language is a human invention. Is religion a human invention? Surely it is in its implementation. But adherents of all faiths believe that their religion, whatever its human and cultural trappings, is a connection to something that came before language and that is grander than any mere human invention. So the question becomes, how do we fit language to the task of opening a channel to someone or something that is so much bigger than language?

The quick and easy answer is by not overthinking it. Language is ideally suited to all human communication endeavors, and therefore there's no reason that speakers should not use the language that comes most naturally to them, their first language, for communication with the Divine. Surely that's what we all do when we need to call on a higher power at short notice, and the thousands of ordinary expressions in all languages that invoke a deity attest to this.

But communication with the Divine is an extraordinary thing, and so most religions have specific, prescribed forms of language for rituals, prayers, rites, and the like, often in a language not familiar to those who participate in the activities. Case in point: the Latin Mass of the Catholic Church, which surely had a unifying purpose when it was developed centuries ago but now seems to be a source of division between the Vatican, who wants to regulate when and how the Mass can the conducted, and a community of Catholics who feel that it is their most authentic form of worship.

For some context, consider a few other linguistic twists and turns among the world's religions. The Hebrew Bible (which may be called the Old Testament or the Tanakh, depending on your frame of reference), is studied in its original language (mainly Hebrew) and used in that form in Jewish worship at the most conservative end of Judaism. Orthodox Jews hold that the Torah (first part of the Hebrew Bible) was divinely revealed to Moses and that the laws contained in it are binding on them. Reform Judaism, on the other hand, uses vernaculars alongside or instead of Hebrew passages, and does not regard the Hebrew-encoded laws of the Torah as binding.

The Christian Bible, as you probably know, is the world's most translated book; owing mostly to proselytizing efforts. Though written originally at different times and places in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek, it is regarded by many as a seamless whole in translation. There is no obstacle to regarding the Bible as the inerrant word of God, if that's what the believer is looking for. Yet you do have to wonder what God is really saying when even among English language versions of the Bible the translations can be starkly different. The many competing English Bible translations can even be rated on a scale, allowing the faithful a wide range of choice between what the Bible actually says and what some people think it means.

Here's a passage from the most liberal interpretation of the Bible, called The Message, in which I have bolded passages that are not represented in the original language but that the translator perhaps thinks give added value to his version:

Count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens — give a cheer, even! — for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble. (Matthew 5:11-12)

But translations such as The Message with its freewheeling approach aren't representative of Christianity generally. It's more typical of Christianity, and indeed of all religions, to take a more conservative approach to scriptures, holding text and meaning as close to the original as possible.

The Qur'an exists in many "translations" but there's no consensus that any of them is authentic. The Qur'an is only chanted and taught in the original version, a language that is now popularly called "Classical Arabic" but that is based on the dialect of Arabic that the prophet Muhammad spoke. Across the Muslim world the Qur'an (in Arabic) is regarded as the final revelation of God.

Buddhist scriptures exist in many languages and each of them has some content that is not found in the others. Proponents of the various schools of Buddhism naturally regard their version as most authentic, perhaps none so vehemently as do followers of the Pali Canon, the version that is recorded in the language closest to what the Buddha actually spoke. Chanting is a feature of most Buddhist practice today and it is usually done in the canonical language of the various Buddhist sects, whatever the vernaculars of the practitioners may be.

And so to return to the controversy over the Latin Mass: is it peculiar that some Catholics are strongly attached to a form of worship in a language that Jesus didn't speak and perhaps knew only a few words of? Latin, albeit in a form that predates the ecclesiastical Latin of the Mass, was in fact the language of Jesus's persecutors. In that respect, it has a unique and odd relationship with Christianity's main man on the ground.

But setting aside the historical analysis, there's surely an argument that tradition looms large in what worshippers hold dear, and the imposition of authority over the language of their preferred form of worship must wrankle. It's a little like telling someone what they can and can't eat, when they already have an experience-based grasp of what they like and what's good for them.

While Ecclesiastical Latin is not anyone's first language, it may well be the medium through which a number of Catholics feel a genuine connection with the Divine. Depriving them of this experience by diktat seems like a surefire way of alienating them from the authority of the church, even though it is only by virtue of the church that the Latin Mass exists. So in this case, the retrofitting of human language to a divine purpose has some problematic loose ends that are beginning to show up many years after the fact.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 2nd, 1:57 PM
Comment by: Mike R.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa: To err is human to edit, divine thus sayeth Gramaraly whom I worship.
Tuesday September 7th, 4:45 PM
Comment by: Deborah Gavrin F.
Wrankle? So odd to see a typo in the Language Lounge!
Wednesday September 8th, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for catching that one, Deborah. I sense interference (in my brain) from wring, wrest, and mostly from wrangle. Mea culpa.

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