A Latin Lover in the Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI’s complex critique of the global economic system in his latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), released a couple of weeks ago, is described in Saturday’s New York Times as “remarkable but poorly written.” This is surprising, comments the Times’s religion writer Peter Steinfels, because the German-born pope has “often shown himself [to be] a graceful writer.”

Criticism of the document’s style — called “a tough read,” and “molasses-like” — are based on the English version and beg two questions. First, given the enormous amount of expert input required, how much is in the pope’s hand? And second, what language did he use in the first place? The pope has been known to write his texts in German, Italian, and English. But whoever finds the English “hard going” should try the Latin version. The American Carmelite monk Reginald Foster has done just that. In fact, he actually helped translate it.

Producing the official Latin version of any Vatican document is the work of a department that until recently rejoiced in the grand title of Secretariat of Briefs to Princes. Father Foster, now in his late-60s, joined the department whe he was 29 years old and soon became its star performer, working on the prodigious flow of Vatican Council II documents requiring Latin translation. Encyclicals, which invariably take as their title the opening three words of the Latin text, call for extra-careful handling, because they are messages to the faithful from the pope himself and become part of papal teaching on a particular religious or social issue.

Last year, Foster, possibly the world’s best known Latinist, worked from his sickbed on Caritas in Veritate, and came up with phrases like “creditorum confessio” for credit crunch and “apotecarum insolubilium” for subprime mortgages, as well as translations for such terms as “outsourcing” and “market economy” with which the encyclical is liberally sprinkled.

Father Foster’s Latin summer courses in Rome — in which he rails against the bad habits of Vatican Latin, which he calls “spaghetti Latin,” and sings the praises of Cicero, his classic hero — attract Latin enthusiasts from all over the world. Attendance is free, but you’d better be able to hold your own “sub arboribus” (under the trees) during the Latin conversation sessions held in a Roman park, or around the table in a local trattoria.