Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Latin, RIGHT!

Someone posted a question on Steve Ray's message board about what we should call ourselves. Are we simply Catholic or are we Roman Catholic? Which term describes us best? Many expressed concern about the origin of term "Roman" Catholic, saying it arose as a slur by the English who separated from the true Church. Others pointed out the Church herself uses Roman Catholic in various documents. Some said "Catholic" says it all. And still others felt the need to be more specific by saying "Catholic, Latin Rite". One clever individual said we are actually the First Apostolic Full Gospel Church of Jesus Christ Unreformed, Roman Assembly.

All of this has nothing to do with my topic here, other than the fact it gave me the idea for my title. Last Friday evening as my family perused a restaurant menu looking for meatless dishes to comply with our Lenten abstinence, my son wondered why it is okay to eat fish on Friday when many consider fish to be meat. He got this question from one of his high school buddies and could not provide an adequate reply. I was stumped also but I knew there must be a reasonable answer, and I found one courtesy of Jimmy Akin's web page. (

All Church law is written in Latin. On Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, we are required to abstain from eating carnis, which we translate as meat in English. In Latin, carnis literally means a land-dwelling, warm-blooded animal. Fish are neither land-dwelling nor warm-blooded, so they are not considered carnis. All carnis is meat, but not all meat is carnis. Therefore, under Church law, it is acceptable to eat fish on days of abstinence even if one considers fish to be meat.

To remain closest to our Catholic roots, we need to understand Latin. Vernacular translations employ dynamic equivalence, meaning the literal language is modified to convey the thought in wording more easily understood. This is okay, but it requires passing the text through the eyes and mind of the translator for interpretation. The resulting text has been filtered by the views of the interpreter, and therefore is no longer seen in its most pristine original form. Hymn translations are subjected to even greater alteration since words are sometimes changed to fit the music or to make it rhyme.

In the carnis example, there is no common English word that means warm-blooded, land-dwelling animal. The translators chose the word meat. It is close enough to convey the intent of the law, but not literally exact. All translations require substitution of words and ideas which may not have literal equivalents. To dynamically translate an idea correctly, the translator must correctly interpret what the author was thinking, and choose words that convey that idea as closely as possible. Subtle differences are inevitable. As writer James Kilpatrick once pointed out, the English language allows us to measure meaning by the micrometer.

Today, some forty years after Vatican II, we are still awaiting a good translation of the Latin Mass. The Vatican wants all translations to follow literally from the Latin. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a committee of English-speaking Bishops, has been working on a revised Lectionary for several years. They are still finding it difficult reach a consensus.

This is why so many conservative Catholics love the Latin Mass. Latin expresses Catholicism in its purest form, a form universal (i.e. catholic) to the Church in its fullness or entirety. It's our faith expressed free of another's interpretation. We may not understand every word, but we know it is original in its pristine form, and it is right.