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Lighter fare: can bad Latin save a papacy?

October 1, 2014

I got an odd one a few days ago (okay, I get lots of odd ones, but this one kinda struck me), namely: that Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was invalid because of mistakes he (allegedly) made in the Latin of his resignation letter. My correspondent claims two medieval Church laws in support of the claim, one of which I could track down: Lucius III (reg. 1181-1185), dec. Ad audientiam, c. 11, X, de rescriptis, I, 3 (or Friedberg 20 fbo those for whom QLD citations are impenetrable).

Now, granting that Ad audientiam does attach negative canonical consequences to bad Latin, the context of that question was documents whose Latin was so bad it that raised questions of authenticity (this, of course, being a practical concern in an age of ecclesiastical forgeries). Looking lightly at some commentary on Lucius’ decretal (always fun to have an excuse to do that!), it seems that debates arose over how bad ‘bad’ needed to be before it was too bad, over what kind of bad could be ignored or rehabilitated, and so on. Interesting stuff, granted, but it’s all moot.

When the great Gasparri prepared canon law for its first codification at the beginning of the twentieth century, he had before him, among other things, the whole of Gregory IX’s decretal law (which contained Lucius’ letter on bad Latin along with nearly 2,000 other provisions on nearly 200 other canonical topics). And guess what? Ad audientiam did not make it into the 1917 Code, although almost every other norm de rescriptis did, in some form or another, get carried into codified law. Nor was Ad audientiam resurrected for the 1983 Code.

What the 1983 Code does say, as did the 1917 Code, is this: “Only those laws must be considered invalidating … which expressly state that an act is null …” (c. 10, olim c. 11).  Because no canon of the 1983 Code, under which Benedict XVI submitted his resignation (c. 332 § 2), addresses the quality of the Latin used in papal documents, let alone does any canon make the Latinity of papal documents go to their validity, I say, odd question answered: bad Latin does not mean that one must remain pope.

PS: Now that we’re thinking about it, winking at bad Latin (assuming btw that Benedict’s was bad Latin, I wish I could write it as well!) probably makes sense these days. Consider: when the 1983 Code came out, it was marred by more than 100 typographical errors. I would hate to think we’ve all been spinning our canonical wheels since then!

PPS: Don’t even ask about mistakes on the Vatican website.

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