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Pope John XXIII Traditionalist?


For decades Pope John XXIII has been championed by many “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics as the visionary who opened the Second Vatican Council by calling for “aggiornamento”, an updating of the Catholic Church for the modern era.

In the years since the Council a narrative which promotes rupture over continuity has been taught by many within the Church, particularly at the parish level. Many on the left, often those in positions of authority, have presented the faithful with a new form of Catholicism which never existed prior to the Council.

Veterum Sapientia

It is safe to say that very few Catholics today would label Pope John XXIII as a traditionalist. After all, didn’t he first announce the need for a new council only three months into his papacy?

However, consider Veterum Sapientia, Pope John XXIII’s Apostolic Constitution on the study of Latin which was released in February of 1962, just eight months before the opening of the Council. In the years since it’s release this document has drifted into obscurity. In fact the Vatican’s own website does not even provide an English translation of it.

Reading Veterum Sapientia today one might think they are studying the work of an ardent Traditionalist.

Has there been a more definitive litmus test in the years since the Council than one’s view of Latin and its necessity? After all, didn’t the post-conciliar Church honor the the spirit of “aggiornamento” by effectively expelling the lingua antiqua from the everyday life of the faithful?

Unceremoniously Cast Out

Romano Amerio (1905-1997) who taught for decades at the Academy of Lugano in Switzerland, also attended the Second Vatican Council as a peritus (expert). Professor Amerio noted the unceremonious treatment given Veterum Sapientia in his magnum opus Iota Unum:

…(the document) which had been so loudly praised as useful and opportune, was completely wiped from memory and is not cited in any conciliar document. Some biographies of John XXIII do not mention it at all, just as if it did not exist, and never had; while the more arrogant accounts mention it simply as an error.

There is not, in the whole history of the Church, another instance of a document’s being so solemnly emphasized, and then being so unceremoniously cast out so soon afterwards, like the corpse of an executed criminal.

There has been a great deal of attention once again paid to Pope John XXIII this past year due in part to the commencement of the Year of Faith, as well as the commemoration of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and more recently the announcement of his canonization scheduled for April 2014.

In order to provide a more accurate and complete picture of Pope John XXIII and his defense of tradition, it is important to look at the document which has been “completely wiped from memory” in the post-Conciliar years.

Veterum Sapientia -Selected Excerpts (emphasis mine)

“But amid this variety of languages a primary place must surely be given to that language which had its origins in Latium, and later proved so admirable a means for the spreading of Christianity throughout the West. And since in God’s special Providence this language united so many nations together under the authority of the Roman Empire — and that for so many centuries — it also became the rightful language of the Apostolic See. Preserved for posterity, it proved to be a bond of unity for the Christian peoples of Europe.”

“Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples….It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.”

“For these reasons the Apostolic See has always been at pains to preserve Latin, deeming it worthy of being used in the exercise of her teaching authority “as the splendid vesture of her heavenly doctrine and sacred laws…”

“These are the words of Our Predecessor Pius XI, who conducted a scientific inquiry into this whole subject, and indicated three qualities of the Latin language which harmonize to a remarkable degree with the Church’s nature. “For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time … of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.”

“Since every Church must assemble round the Roman Church, and since the Supreme Pontiffs have “true episcopal power, ordinary and immediate, over each and every Church and each and every Pastor, as well as over the faithful” of every rite and language, it seems particularly desirable that the instrument of mutual communication be uniform and universal , especially between the Apostolic See and the Churches which use the same Latin rite.”

“Furthermore, the Church’s language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings.
But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. it has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use.”

“Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular.”

“In addition, the Latin language “can be called truly catholic.” It has been consecrated through constant use by the Apostolic See, the mother and teacher of all Churches, and must be esteemed “a treasure … of incomparable worth.”. It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church’s teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity.”

“It will be quite clear from these considerations why the Roman Pontiffs have so often extolled the excellence and importance of Latin, and why they have prescribed its study and use by the secular and regular clergy, forecasting the dangers that would result from its neglect”.

The employment of Latin has recently been contested in many quarters, and many are asking what the mind of the Apostolic See is in this matter. We have therefore decided to issue the timely directives…so as to ensure that the ancient and uninterrupted use of Latin be maintained and, where necessary, restored.”

“In the exercise of their paternal care they (Bishops and superiors-general of religious orders) shall be on their guard lest anyone under their jurisdiction, eager for revolutionary changes, writes against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the Liturgy, or through prejudice makes light of the Holy See’s will in this regard or interprets it falsely.”

Recovering the Wisdom of Veterum Sapientia

That the Church as been slowly recovering the sentiment and wisdom of Veterum Sapientia was made evident upon its 40th anniversary in 2002 when Pope John Paul II recommended the use of Latin in the Roman liturgy and in seminary training. The Holy Father’s message to a conference being held in Rome at the Salesian University also expressed his desire that “the love of that language would grow ever strong among candidates for the priesthood.”

In agreement with his predecessor, John Paul II affirmed that the use of Latin “is an indispensable condition for a proper relationship between modernity and antiquity, for dialogue among different cultures, and for reaffirming the identity of the Catholic priesthood.”

Pope John XXIII, in defense of tradition, quotes Pope Pius XI in Veterum Sapientia when he states “For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time … of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.”

One wonders just how many “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics have ever actually read Veterum Sapientia.

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