Ex Cathedra

Does the Vatican conduct all of its official business in Latin?

Pope Benedict XVI

A letter written in 1985 and signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reveals that the future Pope postponed defrocking a priest accused of molesting children. The letter, recently released in court documents, was written in Latin. Does the Vatican use Latin for all of its official business?

No. While Latin is the official language of the church, modern languages are much more common in day-to-day church correspondence. Vatican officials usually write (and speak) to each other in Italian. When writing to bishops in other countries, they’ll often use the language of that country—French for France, English for the United States, etc. Latin is generally reserved for letters that are especially important or official as opposed to casual correspondence. For example, Latin is customarily used when the Vatican issues a final decree resolving a dispute, like a ruling on a marriage annulment—or a request that a priest be transferred. The official versions of church documents like papal encyclicals are also written in Latin and then translated into other languages. Latin is used often enough that the Vatican has an entire office dedicated to preparing church documents in Latin, known as the Latin Language Department of the First Section of the Secretariat of State.

Latin was the exclusive language of the Catholic Church until the early 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council gave priests the option of conducting Mass in the vernacular. Since then, fewer and fewer members of the church hierarchy have mastered Latin. The Code of Canon Law technically says that priests must “understand Latin well,” and most seminaries teach future priests at least basic reading chops. But in practice it’s not a requirement for ordination. (It is required, however, if you want a degree in Canon Law, since official church documents have been written in Latin dating back centuries.) That said, Pope Benedict has resisted the drift away from Latin. As a cardinal, he opposed the de-emphasis of Latin in church doctrine and has since revived the Latin Mass. He can also speak the language. In 2008, the Vatican started posting its Latin documents online. There’s even a Vatican organization called the Latinitas Foundation dedicated to promoting the study of Latin in the church.

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Explainer thanks Robert Araujo of Loyola University and Mary Ann Walsh of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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