Latinarum Litterarum: Ubi Clerus, Sequitur Mundus

Western Education and the Clergy

Much ink has been spilled in the past few decades about the so-called collapse of the Western Educational Apparatus.  Throughout the late 20th century, many different authors sounded the alarm.  Most notably were books by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, or Allan Bloom’s famous The Closing of the American Mind, and several other essayists and speakers who wrote their own Jeremiads.

While I think that by objective standards, true educational attainment has undergone a dramatic decline, one under-examined historical point is the state of the education of clergy.

Clergy or a ministerial class in most world civilizations have had superior education to their peers, in many cases so that they could perform difficult tasks for the sake of their people.  Depending on the culture in question, the Priestly and Scribal classes were often interchangeable.  Who can forget their painstaking observations of the stars in ancient astronomy for the sake of charting sacred seasons and divination?  Moving forward into the Middle Ages and beyond, Western Clergy in particular have, until recently, been largely unpraised for their efforts, although that lack has been remedied in part by works like Regine Pernoud’s Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths or the very recent Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build – and Can Help Rebuild – Western Civilization by Father William J Slattery.  We can’t forget that the ‘Clerical Class’ was at the forefront of even the Scientific Revolution, from Copernicus and Mendel to Lemaitre…a fact many secularists, dedicated to the “religion as obscurantism” vision of history and life, conveniently omit.

The education of the clergy is a lagging indicator of the general educational state of a society, but it also can be a leading indicator.

Reform and Education

In the world of ‘Late Antiquity’, in the last days of the Roman Empire, the state began to collapse before repeated economic and political crises, along with repeated invasion by nomadic tribes.  All too frequently, Christian Bishops and Monasteries, especially after the 6th century, became the all-too-rare centers of literacy and governance in a world which was losing both.

Moving into the Middle Ages, typically the clergy were the most educated in a town, and most certainly in the countryside.  They were frequently the only person who could read or write (albeit often at a basic level).  Monks in particular, however, had particular importance in this regard, copying in ancient manuscripts time and again in their Scriptoria, and so leaving a lasting legacy of preserved classical texts.  In a brutal age, the clergy were seen as being the buttress against the encroaching forces of lawlessness and ignorance.  A key feature of the Carolingian Renaissance was precisely the education of the clergy.  The Emperor Charlemagne demanded that clergy be educated in letters, by compulsion if need be.  This laid the foundation of future successes in the courts of Europe and the Universities to come.

By the High Middle Ages, a unique culture of its own had begun to flourish, which continued even into the Renaissance.  The names of the clerics of those days are still known to us as powerful agents of societal change and development: Thomas Aquinas, William Ockham, Gabriel Biel, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, Bartolomé De las Casas, Nicholas Copernicus, Robert Bellarmine, Bernadino of Siena.  All of these men were at the forefront of some of the greatest revolutions the world has ever seen in terms of conceptions of Theology, Philosophy, Human Rights, Political Theory, Science, Economics, Church-State Relations, and more.

The Council of Trent, with its establishment of the Institution of the Seminary for the formal education of the clergy, precipitated a drastic improvement in the moral and intellectual quality of the clergy, which served the world and the Church far into the 20th century.

Ubi Clerus, Ibi Gregis

It is noteworthy that even by the late 19th century, something of a malaise had begun to descend on the state of clerical education: although Leo XIII in his Aeterni Patris spearheaded a revival of clerical study by encouraging a return to Thomism, by the time of Pius X, the rot had already begun to settle in, with the rise of that aggregate of philosophical presuppositions that subsequently came to be termed “Modernism”.  Modernism, then as now, begins with the idea that truth, including dogmatic truth, is relative. Pius X was unable to cure this tendency; it is even a debated question whether his drastic efforts to suppress Modernism may have abetted its growth.

On the heels of this movement, Pius XI, like many of his predecessors, dedicated himself intensely to the education of the clergy, knowing as he did, by history and experience, that where the clergy are well-trained, the intellectual and moral well-being of not only the Church, but all society, improves.

In 20 October 1925, he promulgated his Motu Proprio (a document that a Pope makes his own initiative for some definite action) Latinarum Litterarum, by which he established the School of Latin Letters at the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Athaneum in Rome.  The document is illuminating in that he repeatedly links ignorance of the classics, especially Latin, with a subsequent decline in clerical education writ large.  The scope of his plans were quite ambitious.  He states that experts in Latin should be present in the Roman Curia, Episcopal Chanceries, Religious Orders and other places (1).  He decreed that every cleric have the knowledge and use of the Latin tongue (2).  He recalled that even in Western Christendom, it was the tongue that was the foundation of many of the sciences, arts and humanities (3).


By the time John XXIII in 1962 promoted the study of Latin in Veterum Sapientia, the status of Latin as the predominate language of the Western Church for both her liturgy and common affairs was at a turning point.  Although documents like Sacrosanctum Concilium and the aforementioned Veterum Sapientia supported its preeminence, that is not what happened ‘on the ground’. Thereupon followed a decline both in secular and religious education.  As I said before, I do not know if we can discern a correlation between the loss of the Latin language with a loss in clerical education, and then, by extension, with a subsequent decline in Western Education, but it is curious that all these events happened simultaneously in a sort of malignant symbiosis.  We ought to note, even more interestingly, that many of the opponents of the immutability of Catholic Dogma, and Truth in general, tended to have a practical aversion to the Classics.

Leaving aside the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and other ideas about how language forms thought processes, can it be denied that a language barrier always puts someone at a disadvantage in understanding someone else’s thoughts?  If that is the case in everyday life, how much more is that true in the context of the Church, whose ministers largely cannot understand the native arguments of their own brilliant predecessors?

“The lips of a Priest ought to preserve knowledge…” (Malachi 2:7)

Unlike in the past, nowadays Priests often do not have the most education out of those in their parish or other ministry.  Many people go to higher education, mostly for professional advancement. Very few people, however, go to be educated for the sake of personal development.  They are often the products of government schools and not just parochial ones, and so do not have the benefit of a fully integral education.  I believe this is to the detriment of the whole of civilization.  A great Priest, a great Churchman, who embodies both intellectual acuity, moral uprightness, vision and spiritual depth is becoming increasingly rare, and we are all the poorer for it.  Perhaps such people are comparatively rare, but then again, it seems such figures were not lacking in former times; yet they seem to be vanishingly few today.

Over and above these problems, we have the additional burden of the increasing stigmatization of education and anti-intellectualism in religion.  People prefer, or say they prefer, that a Priest be “pastoral”, as if that were somehow in contradistinction to the intellectual. Gone are the days, it seems, when people would expect that the Priest be a consummate man, both spiritually, intellectually and morally: does being a “nice guy” suffice?

Famously, St. Teresa of Avila said that if she had to choose a Priest to be her adviser, she would always choose the learned one over the holy one.  Granted, there is a type of intellectualism that is full of pride and conceit (1 Cor 8:1), but there is also one that is at the service of the Church and society.

Keepers of the flame

A few years ago I was turned onto the writings of the Irish Priest Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852-1913), who wrote mostly fiction.  His books are entertaining and enlightening windows into Irish rural and clerical society.  In one of his books, My New Curate, he humorously and winsomely depicts the struggles between a young curate and his old Pastor trying to live together in a Parish, a perennial issue if there ever was one in clerical life.  However, what is striking above all is the clerical banter: quotes of Aristophanes and Pindar, references to history, jokes about the weather, the rectory, and their Bishop.  Even with, and perhaps due to all this mental vibrancy, they still find time to see to the material and spiritual interests of their parishioners with great pastoral zeal.  Their education, far from making them persons given to abstraction, made them well-rounded experts in human nature.

At one point, in frustration, the Priests lean back together and speak a Greek proverb:

ΠΑΘΗΜΑΤΑ, ΜΑΘΗΜΑΤΑ.  Roughly, “things suffered are things learned.”

The difficulty of study, the rigors of intellectual formation, and perseverance through them all, help form the character of a person.  It is high time people demand of their Priests – and Priests demand of themselves – the same sort of excellence which earned them such great respect in ages gone by.  In an era of dissolution and demoralization, it may be once again the ministrations of the clergy that save us all from another Dark Age.


1) “ut Romanae Curiae, Cancellariis episcopalibus, religiosis Sodalitatibus adiutores seu offciales non desint…”

2) “velle Nos diximus…ut linguam latinam uterque clerus haberet scientia et usu perceptam…”

3) “[Lingua Latina]…in omnes gentes pervagatissima, Imperii universitati servierat…”