A linguistic concern occasioned by an important debate over synodal proposals
On the Church’s short list of “Crucial Concepts to be Taught Right”, the relationship between personal conscience and objective moral norms ranks pretty near the top.
Among instantiations of chronic confusion regarding the relationship between conscience and doctrine, that which infuses the debate surrounding contraception has become, I am sorry to say, a classic. Add that Humanae vitae is to be addressed (if briefly) by the upcoming Synod of Bishops (itself already mired in controversy) and one may be tempered to despair that anything useful will come on these matters at this time from that institution. But try one must to teach the truth clearly no matter what the circumstances, and so I pause to remind that clear teaching requires, first, clear language. Literally.
First Things has just published “An Appeal” to the approaching Synod for clear teaching on conscience formation. The authors of the appeal and an impressive list of co-signatories raise serious questions about certain expressions being proposed by synodal authorities to set out Church teaching on conscience. Meanwhile other leading thinkers in this area (e.g., Dr. Janet Smith) question their questions. So far, this is the stuff of which great debates in the Church consist. I am not qualified to weigh in on this one and so refrain from even trying.
But I can’t help noticing, with regret, that both sides are debating points being made (or not?) in an English translation (accurately rendered?) of an Italian original (is it ‘the original’?). And I wonder, since when has Italian become the international language of Catholic doctrine?
It is one thing to accept the practical necessity of Italian for running the Vatican bureaucracy (or not running it, as the case may be). But it is quite another to have Italian serve as the vehicle for proposals officially expressing Catholic doctrine, doctrines that are, by their very nature, not national or ethnic, but Catholic and therefore, to recall the etymology of the very word “Catholic”, universal. If the relationship between conscience and moral norms really ranks near the top of topics to be taught correctly in and by and to the Church, then should debates about the written expressions of such a topic turn on appreciating the Italian way of phrasing such teachings? I trust the answer to that question is self-evident.
Without getting into whether Latin is the “official language” of the Church (I happen to think it is not and will defend that thesis in an upcoming article), Latin is unquestionably the primary language of the Catholic Church and, for well over a millennium, it has been the international language of formal Church teaching. The doctrinal clarity and ecclesiastical stability that comes with the use of Latin must never be surrendered. Fundamental assertions about fundamental aspects of Church teaching should be made solely in the one language that is fundamental to the Catholic Church, Latin, on which assertions, I say, let vernacular debates blossom with fruitful abandon.