VATICAN CITY -- For more than 1,500 years, Latin was the language of the educated Western world. It was the repository of scholarship, the official language of the Roman Catholic Church and the tongue in which even the uneducated whispered their prayers.
But it is in important ways an endangered language even among the cardinals and bishops of the church.
The Rev. Reginald Foster, an American Carmelite priest, is one of the Vatican's chief Latin scholars and teaches the language at the Pontifical Gregorian University, an elite church school that trains potential cardinals and popes. Of its 3,000 students, he says, "maybe 100 would know Latin in any serious way."
"Think about it," he says in the classroom where he teaches. "St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Descartes -- it's all in glorious Latin. Every educated person in the church, especially clerics, should be trained in Latin because it contains the whole civilization of the Western world.
"Latin is the key to this civilization -- without it, you're out of the stream."
His concerns are not those of a man worried about his job. No one is predicting that Latin is about to be replaced as the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. It has been the official language of the church in the West since the third century, when it supplanted Greek. (And Greek had replaced Aramaic, the language of the first Christians.)
Latin was the language of Newton, Spinoza and Erasmus. Galileo used Latin to describe the way he constructed his telescope. Galvani used Latin to describe his experiments with electricity. John Milton is remembered for his "Paradise Lost," but he was also Oliver Cromwell's Latin secretary, and in Italy it was for his Latin poetry that he was acclaimed.
Latin was the official language of the Hungarian Parliament until the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. It was the official language of the Polish Kingdom until neighboring countries temporarily erased it from the map of Europe in 1795.
"A man who can speak Latin," the English novelist Daniel Defoe marveled in 1728, "may travel from one end of Poland to another as familiarly as if he was born in the country."
It also made its way to the New World. In the Library of Congress are Latin texts once owned by Thomas Jefferson, with Jefferson's notes in Latin written in the margins. John Adams and John Quincy Adams corresponded in Latin as well as English.
There are 1,500 years of church history and law written in Latin. But the Pontifical Gregorian University no longer requires its students to learn the language of the texts, because of decisions made in 1963.
That year, the Second Vatican Council dropped the requirement that Latin be used for Mass and the other sacraments. Latin remains the official language for important church documents and procedural and administrative matters, but no longer a language that every priest must know to carry out his duties.
"Italian is going, French is going, but English is coming on because the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese all know English, and the Germans know it better than we do," Father Foster says.
"Latin today [gives] a crude calculation of age: Bishops over 45 or 50 can still follow a Latin address. Below that it's getting thinner and thinner."
Church scholars view Latin's decline as a sort of cultural amnesia, an illness that could could eventually cause the Western world to lose the means to stay in touch with the roots of its civilization. It's an argument that transcends the church to encompass all academic scholarship.
The Rev. John Navone, an American Jesuit who teaches biblical theology at the university, poses the problem with questions:
"How could anyone claim to be a serious Shakespeare scholar without a profound knowledge of English?" he says. "How could anyone claim to be a Moliere expert without a deep knowledge of French?
"So how can anyone claim to be conducting serious scholarship in Western literature, philosophy, history, theology or so many other fields without mastering Latin?"
Father Foster finds little comfort in Latin still being taught in the secular world, because that interest has little to do with the church. Nor is he comforted by the attempts to revive Latin within the church, efforts that he says are led by ultraconservatives seeking a return to some mystical golden age.
"These groups are actually hurting the Latin cause," says Father Foster, a staunch defender of the Second Vatican Council despite its effect on the language that is his life's work. "Mention a Latin Mass in the United States and bishops think, 'Oh, no, these are the John Birchers of the Catholic Church, trying to cause trouble again.' "