Book Review: With Latin the Service of the Popes

With Latin in the Service of the Popes: The Memoirs of Antonio Cardinal Bacci by Antonio Cardinal Bacci

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ll never forget my first day of classes at the University of Florida. I had signed up intro French, unaware that I would be forced to converse in that lovely tongue (I was painfully shy and terrified at the prospect). After the first day, I dropped that course (I wound up retaking it later) and signed up for a language I knew I would not have to speak, because it was “dead”: Classical Latin.

Cardinal Bacci would not have approved the method of learning by which I became familiar with Latin, which is one of the nuggets you will take away from this little book. The chief Latinist for four popes in the early to mid twentieth century, Bacci’s memoirs are a window on a vanished world. Latin is still employed in the Vatican but no longer retains its unique status as THE binding language of the Latin Church. In addition to his memoirs, he also makes a strong case that knowledge of Latin is essential for maintaining the precision of Catholic theology and to the cultural heritage of which it forms so important a part. (The sloppiness of much post-Conciliar theology would seem to support this idea.) He also expresses his disdain for the way Latin was taught in schools (the way I was taught at UF) in favor of what he calls the “Humanist” method of learning to speak and use the language rather than study its theoretical rules. All in all, he makes a persuasive case for the continued vitality and importance of the Latin language, at least inside the Roman church.

His book is also revealing of mentality of the Curia in those years, and is fascinating in several ways. His lavish praise of the popes he served reminds one that exaggerated adulation of princes is a feature, not a bug, of any royal court, which the Curia still effectively is. What also comes through is the genuinely admirable qualities of men like Achille Ratti, pope Pius XI, who comes off as hard working, intelligent and dedicated to the Church, in spite of Bacci’s at times over enthusiastic exalting of his virtues.

Bacci’s obvious love of Latin and his pride in the Church and his own achievements is endearing, but also indicative of some limitations in his thinking. One minded to note the faults of the pre-Conciliar Church will find ample vindication here; the insularity of the Roman curia in which Bacci worked comes through on almost every page. He exalts Latin as the universal language of the whole Church, and even the world of letters, but this is only true of the Roman Rite. There are nearly thirty Eastern Churches in communion with Rome, all of whom have their own linguistic and liturgical heritage. I believe that the Latin Rite Church too hastily discarded its liturgical and linguistic heritage in the 1960s, and that it should seek to restore and maintain it. But this is because it is unique to the Western Church, not because it should prevail in every particular Church. I believe Vatican II was correct in exhorting the Eastern churches in communion with Rome to rediscover their own heritage. After all, as Bacci more or less admits, Latin is not the only “universal” language the Church possesses, since Greek is part of its heritage too. Restoring the one does not mean obliterating the other is necessary.

All in all, this is a valuable book, both for its personal reminiscences but also for its contribution to a rediscovery of one of the treasures that Church has to offer mankind. Highly recommended.

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