Sacrosanctum Concilium: The question of language

In popular imagination the move away from Latin in the Mass to modern English is one of the most striking results of the Second Vatican council. Was this change really intended by the council Fathers or was it a mistake? At the council the use of modern language translations was a very contentious issue. The Bishops appear to have had three options;

1. Retain Latin only universally (following Trent),

2. Continue Latin with some limited vernacular,

3. Allow a complete move to the use vernacular.

One person I know quoted the following section of, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in support of the idea that only very limited use of English (or other modern vernacular languages) was ever intended by the council Fathers.

 “The use of the Latin tongue is to be maintained in the Latin rites, except where some special law obtains” (SC 36 §1).

 On the surface the Bishops appear to have voted to continue with Latin. Further research on the background of this question reveals a different answer. The use of modern languages in Mass was especially important to the Catholic Melkite rite who wanted permission to use English in its liturgies in the United States in 1960. The Catholic Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV appealed directly to the Pope and received permission to use English except for the Anaphora (March 31, 1960).

Even before the council there were debates among those who wrote the schema, or preparatory documents brought to the council. The pre-conciliar Commission on the Missions proposed the following principle, “From Scripture we know that all languages are ordered towards the praise of Christ. Such praise is expressed especially in the liturgy, where the law of intelligibility of liturgical language for all gathered was stated by the Apostle. A diversity of customs and of rites has always existed in the Church, showing most clearly the riches of the Church’s unity.” (History of Vatican II, Vol. 1. 217). It would seem the motivation for this was not to reform European liturgies but to advance the gospel in missionary situations.

The pre-conciliar Commission on Liturgy established a sub-commission De lingua latina which was to consider three questions:

 Whether Latin was to be fully retained; whether the use of the vernacular was to be allowed, and how clerics could be trained in Latin in order that they might understand and use it effectively (History, 1.218)


The Secretariat for Christian Unity proposed “the widest possible use of the vernacular” in the Mass and Sacraments. (History, 1.220). Cardinal Bea, the head of the commission, responded vigorously, “We must strongly oppose the idea that Latin is a sign of unity. It is more a sign of uniformity than a sign of unity.” (History, 1.220).

In December 1961, Pope John XXIII entered the debate by writing an apostolic letter in praise of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and its defense of Latin in solemn liturgies. In February of 1962, the Pope signed the Apostolic Constitution Veterum sapientia which encouraged the teaching of Latin in clerical studies.

Many thought this settled the question and the draft schema brought to fathers read, “The use of Latin in western liturgy is absolutely to be preserved” but this was accompanied by continued calls for vernacular in the Mass, in the rituals, and especially in the Divine Office.

An interesting intervention at the council took place on this issue. During the debate, the Melikite Patriarch Maximos IV rose and spoke to the council. He recommended changing the wording of the schema so that it would read that Latin was “the original and official language of the Roman rite” and that Episcopal conferences should have the power in this matter to “decide, subject to approval of the Holy See.” This speech was greeted very favorably. When the final text was approved, the fathers passed over the first request with very little change to the schema but included the second request. Again on a surface reading the council Fathers appear to have voted to continue the Latin tradition with only limited vernacular, but the second change made it possible for local bishops and Episcopal conferences to choose to implement much wider use of the vernacular at their discretion (with Vatican approval).

In order to understand the intension of the restriction; “The use of the Latin tongue is to be maintained in the Latin rites, except where some special law obtains” (SC 36 §1), one must also consider what is written later in the text. There are three places later in Sacrosanctum Concilium which affirm the authority of bishops and bishops’ conferences to make decisions in adapting the use of Latin. Unlike Trent which required uniformity, Sacrosanctum Concilium allows for regional diversity and the possibility for legitimate inculturation into modern languages such as English.

Having said all of this, it is quite clear that the Bishops could not have predicted the sweeping changes that would occur as a result. The idea that the whole church would move to the vernacular rapidly and so completely was I think, not imagined. For example in SC 54 the council Fathers noted, “Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”

In relation to the three options presented above, the council fathers were clearly not trying to maintain Latin only. It is also not accurate to say they were only authorizing very limited use of vernacular. The Council authorized individual bishops’ conferences to decide on the use of the vernacular with the Holy See’s approval. It is also implied that any official changes that were made after the council must have had the Vatican’s approval. Strangely it is also not accurate to say the Bishops intended to allow a complete move to the use of vernacular. It is probably most accurate to say they intended to authorize diversity and the possibility of greater use of the modern languages but envisioned that Latin would continue to be used to some degree. The exact mixture of modern languages and Latin is not specified, but I suspect they intended a considerable amount of the Latin to remain.

Holy Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, Pray for us!

Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.



  1. December 11, 2012 at 4:24 am #

    Gee, what a shock that you would come to this conclusion. And, of course, the use of Latin or English is the most burning problem in this diocese. I would laugh, if it all wasn’t so sad.

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February 22, 2020
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph