A thousand causative factors have led to the present clerical abuse crisis in the Church. But I believe there is one contributing spiritual factor that holds a critical place in the rise of the clerical problem: the absence of Latin in the Latin Church.
This spiritual factor is causative in a way that all spiritual causes operate: as a hidden and remote influence, noticed mostly by its absence. The snow that melts on top of a mountain, for example, makes its long journey downward to water the plains at the mountain’s base. The moisture and irrigation in turn bring forth fruit and life in the surrounding fields. The snow is a distant, but very real, cause of the life that flourishes in the terrain below, but it is a hidden cause. If its waters were absent, however, the entire ecosystem would be desolate.
The loss of the exorcistic power of Latin has created a spiritual vacuum in the liturgy and the overall life of the Church that has been filled by many of the worldly desolations of the Church’s current crisis. This is not to deny the essential holiness of Christ’s Church and the promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance through history. It is simply to recognize that the Church’s mission fields can be rendered parched and lifeless when certain elements of her life are lacking. Latin is one of those essential life-giving elements.
When we speak about spiritual power we must take into account that language always matters in this regard. God could have communicated His truth to us in any form, but He chose to do so through His Word. The living Word, Jesus Christ, has been offered to billions of souls in human words – human languages – that have spiritual and moral power to the extent that they faithfully communicate the divine Word. St. Paul says that “faith comes through hearing” (Romans 10:17), which presumes that the Church’s evangelization is carried out through a proclamation of words in various human languages.
Holiness is not an inherent quality of any language, including Latin. Rather, a language’s sacred character derives from its constant use as a language of worship and, usually, of scripture. Hence, ancient Hebrew and Koiné Greek (used in the Old and New Testaments) are sacred languages, as well as Syriac, Old Slavonic, Aramaic, and other ancient languages that have pedigrees in liturgical traditions that date back centuries.
Christ’s Church, His Bride, is a living reality and also speaks a language. That language is Latin, the official language of the Western Church. Her ability to communicate verbally could have been in any language God wanted it to be, but that unique relationship between Bride and Bridegroom developed and has been carried out in the Roman Catholic Church by means of the Latin language literally for twenty centuries.
As a side note, a perceptive viewer of Mel Gibson’s Passion movie would have noticed that the scene in which Jesus spoke to Pilate was conducted entirely in Latin. Though it is not noted in the historical record, it is an intriguing possibility that Jesus spoke to Pilate in the Procurator’s own native language! The Lord wanted to make sure that Pilate got the point.
Two Critical Moments
To illustrate the dynamic power of Latin better, let us compare two critical moments of modern Church history that should be familiar to most readers. In the year 1884, certain individuals in the Vatican witnessed the frightening scene of Pope Leo XIII collapsing at Mass after seeing a vision of the devil challenging Christ for dominance of the Church in the 20th Century. Pope Leo, who certainly lived up to his name (“Lion”), responded to the alarming vision by composing the famous Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel and mandating that it be prayed by all the faithful at the end of every low Mass thereafter. It is true that most of the faithful prayed the St. Michael Prayer in the vernacular, but its original language is Latin, and its very purpose is exorcistic. The prayer was added to the Church’s official exorcism ritual by one of his successors. The common factor of the Mass, the St. Michael Prayer, and the exorcism ritual was Latin, the official language of the Church’s prayer.
Fast forward through the terrible 20th Century to the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29) at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1972, a mere seven years after the close of the Second Vatican Council. By that date, the liturgy had been gutted, and the Latin language – together with a good number of the Latin-based traditions and feasts, devotions and customs – had been jettisoned without remorse by the modernizing clerics of the Council. In his sermon for the feast, the reigning Pontiff, Paul VI, pronounced a frightening indictment on the Council’s aftermath: “From some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered into the temple of God,” he grieved. (Donald McClarey provided CS readers with a good commentary on Pope Paul’s sermon here.)
Then and Now
A then-and-now comparison reveals the stark contrasts between these two eras of the Church. In one era, Latin was the central language of prayer and doctrine; in the other, it was replaced by the vernacular. In one era, Satan was attacking a spiritual citadel from the outside; in the other, Satan had gotten inside the citadel.
Latin as a so-called dead language was the Church’s immovable standard by which ideas could be judged against any Protestantizing tendencies in teaching or worship. Latin was also a unifying force against the myriad cultural differences in a Church that was present in every part of the globe. Latin brought the light of truth from the heart of the Church to the world. Fifty years ago every Roman Catholic priest of the Latin Rite studied Latin, and most priests took their theological courses in Latin. Suffice it to say that, today, the vast majority of clerics cannot read or speak the Church’s sacred mother tongue let alone read her precious historical documents in their original language.
Exorcisms in Latin
The spiritual power of Latin is most evident in the Church’s exorcism ritual. It is important to note that most exorcists favor the use of the traditional Latin ritual (as opposed to the more recent vernacular translations) because Latin seems to have a greater power over demons. These priests are always careful to say that the language of the ritual is less important than the authority of the Church that sanctions the action. That is entirely true. Christ’s grace flowing through the spiritual authority of His Church is the power that casts demons out, and any priest who attempts an exorcism outside that authority is deprived of the spiritual strength needed to come against the principalities and powers of Hell. Not a good idea.
Yet, it is also true that exorcism is essentially a prayer, and Latin has a potency that gives the exorcism ritual an extra degree of power in the spiritual realm. Fr. Gabriel Amorth, the former Chief Exorcist of Rome, was exasperated when the centuries-old Rite of Exorcism was revised and allowed to be prayed in languages other than Latin. To him, it was a weakening of the spiritual power of the prayer.
Exorcist priests have told me that the Latin language literally torments demons during the ritual. It may be compared to the difference between feeling heat and feeling fire on one’s skin. One exorcist said that he was once conducting an exorcism when the demon tried to get him to change languages by criticizing his Latin pronunciation! In these priests’ estimation, demons will do anything to make the Latin stop.
Anecdotes aside, what is increasingly evident is that exorcisms are on the rise. The Vatican now has an established course at one of its universities in Rome to train exorcists, and the episcopal conferences of several countries (including the US) have instituted similar courses due to the local need for exorcism and deliverance prayers. Even the secular media is reporting on this trend.
Latin in the Mass
And here we come to the Mass. What are we to say about the removal of Latin as the standard and exclusive language of the Mass, a change that also relegated the St. Michael Prayer to the realm of private devotion? According to our thesis, when the exorcistic power of Latin was removed from the Church’s greatest prayer, she was terribly weakened and became vulnerable to any other spiritual influence. Hence, Pope Paul would lament the smoke of Satan entering the “temple” soon after Latin went away, and forty years after that (2002) the Boston Globe would win a raft of Pulitzer Prizes for reporting on the epidemic of clerical sex abuse in the Church (most of which, we are told, happened in the ‘80s and ‘90s.)
Many prelates, clerics and theologians since the seventies have criticized Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) because they adamantly refused to accept the legitimacy of the changes in the Mass. They have been reviled as schismatics by modernist clerics because they hold the line on the Latin Mass and the entire Tradition of the Latin Rite. For the record, the SSPX members are neither in heresy nor in schism and are only considered as being in an “irregular” status with regard to Rome.
Which leads to a logical question: If “regular” is defined by the enablers of the current abuse crisis – prelates such as McCarrick, Wuerl, Cupich and company – should we not then consider “irregular” a badge of honor? For fifty years the heroic men and women of the SSPX have been keeping Latin alive in the heart of the Church, despite the greatest calumnies to their reputations and efforts. We owe them the deepest gratitude for seeing with absolute clarity what has been obscured by the smoke of Satan for so long.
In 1999, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave every exorcist permission to use the traditional exorcism ritual in Latin instead of the revised vernacular version. In 2007, as Pope Benedict XVI, he then issued the marvelous document, Summorum Pontificum, recognizing the inherent right of every Catholic priest to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass. (Incidentally, the date of the document’s issue was 07/07/07.) Since that time a whole new generation of priests has been re-introduced to the glories of the Latin Mass and many of them have embraced it with a passion. A number of religious orders that exclusively celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass have also been established and are flourishing, while virtually everywhere else in the Church priestly vocations are on the wane.
In sum, there is a renewed spiritual wellspring flowing down once again from the heights of Heaven, which is having an enormous purifying effect on the Church. I believe that the number of Latin Masses now being offered, with the prayer of St. Michael, as well as a significant increase in the number of exorcisms is purging the Church in a baptismal sense, or at least the priesthood, which needs it the most. It is a painful process, yes, but it is also a very good thing.
A little over a decade after Summorum Pontificum was issued, we are witnessing the dissipation of the smoke of Satan, and some of the most pernicious demons that have gained entry into the sanctuary are now being driven out of the temple. As I said, Latin has exorcistic power.