BUT if the case be thus with the Latin versions, how great are the contempt and profanation shown in the French, German, Polish, and other languages ! And yet here is one of the most successful artifices adopted by the enemy of Christianity and of unity in our age, to attract the people. He knew the curiosity of men, and how much one esteems one’s own judgment; and therefore he has induced his sectaries to translate the Holy Scriptures, every one into the tongue of the province where he finds himself placed, and to maintain this unheard-of opinion, that every one is capable of understanding the Scriptures, that all should read them, and that the public offices should be celebrated and sung in the vulgar tongue of each district.
But who sees not the artifice ? There is nothing in the world which, passing through many hands, does not change and lose it first lustre: wine which has been often poured out and poured back loses its freshness and strength, wax when handled changes its colour, coins lose their stamp. Be sure also that Holy Scripture, passing through so many translators, in so many versions and re-versions, cannot but be altered. And if in the Latin versions there is such a variety of opinion among these turners of Scripture, how much more in their vernacular and mother-tongue editions, which not every one is able to check or to criticise ? It gives a very great license to translators to know that they will only be tested by those of their own province. Every district has not such clear seeing eyes as France and Germany. ” Are we sure,” says a learned profane writer,(Montaigne. Essaies I. 56) “that in the Basque province and in Brittany there are persons of sufficient judgment to give authority to this translation made into their tongue; the universal Church has no more arduous decision to give; “it is Satan’s plan for corrupting the integrity of this holy Testament. He well knows the result of disturbing and poisoning the source; it is at once to spoil all that comes after.
But let us be frank. Do we not know that the Apostles spoke all tongues ? How is it then that their gospels and their epistles are only in Hebrew, as S -Jerome witnesses (Prol. in Matt.) of the Gospel of S. Matthew; in Latin, as some think concerning that of S. Mark; * (* In Pontificali Damasi. The Saint mentions the opinion, be he himself held the now universal sentiment of Doctors that S. Mark wrote in Greek.[Tr.]) and in Greek, as is held concerning the other Gospels? which were the three languages chosen at Our Lord’s very cross for the preaching of the Crucified. Did they not carry the Gospel throughout the world ? and in the world were there no other languages but these three ? Truly there were and yet they did not judge it expedient to vary their writings in so many languages. Who then shall despise the custom of our Church, which has for its warrant the imitation of the Apostles?
[ Of this we have a notable trace and evidence in the Gospel : for the day Our Lord entered into Jerusalem, the crowds kept crying out Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he that comet& in the name of the Lord: hosanna in the highest (Matt. xxi. 9.) And this word, hosanna, has been left in its integrity in the Greek text of S. Mark and S. John, to signify that it was the very word of the people. Now hosanna, or hosaanna (for one is the same as the other in this language, the learned tell us) is a Hebrew, not a Syriac word, taken, with the rest of that praise which was given to Our Lord, from the 117th Psalm. These people then were accustomed to recite the Psalms in Hebrew; yet the Hebrew was no longer their vulgar tongue , as one may see by several words said in the Gospel by Our Lord, which were Syriac and which the Evangelists have retained : as Abba, Haceldama, Golgotha, Pascha, and others.Learned men tell us that these were not Hebrew but Syraic, though they may be called Hebrew as being of the vernacular tongue of the Hebrews after the captivity of Babylon.]
Now for this, besides the great weight it should have to put down all our curious questionings, there is a reason which I hold to be most sound it is that these other languages are not fixed, they change between town and town; in accents, in phrases, and in words, they are altered, and vary from season to season and from age to age. Take up the Memoires of the Sire de Joinville, or of Philip de Comines, and you will see that time has entirely altered their language; and yet these historians must have been among the most polished of their age, both having been brought up at Court. If then we were to have (particularly for the public services) bibles each in our own tongue, every fifty years it would be necessary to have a revolution, and in every case with adding to, or taking away from, or altering, much of the holy exactness of the Scripture, which could not be done without a great loss. In short, it is more than reasonable that so holy a rule as is the holy Word of God should be kept in fixed languages, since it could not be maintained in this perfect integrity within bastard and unstable languages.
But I inform you that the holy Council of Trent does not reject translations in the vulgar tongue printed by the authority of the Ordinaries; only it commands (Reg. iv. Indicis.) that we should not begin to read them without leave of superiors. This is a very reasonable precaution against putting this sharp and two-edged sword ( Heb. iv. 12) into the hands of one who might kill himself therewith. But of this we will speak by and by.
The Church, then, does not approve that everybody who can read, without further assurance of his capacity than that which he persuades himself of in his own presumption, should handle this sacred memorial, nor truly is it right that she should so approve.
I remember to have read in an Essay of the Sieur de Montaigne’s (see above), “It is certainly wrong that there should be seen tossing about in everybody’s hands, in parlour and in kitchen, the holy book of the sacred mysteries of our belief. . . . It is not casually or hurriedly that we are to prosecute so serious and venerable a study; it should be a reflective and steady act, to which should always be added that preface of our office: sursum corda, and for which the body itself should be brought into a behaviour which may betoken a particular attention and reverence . . . and I moreover believe that liberty for everybody to translate it, and by this means to dissipate words so religious and important into all sorts of languages, has much more danger than profit.”
The Council also commands (Sess. ii) that the public services of the Church shall not be celebrated in the vulgar tongue, but in a fixed language, each one according to the ancient formularies approved by the Church. This decree takes its reasons from what I have already said; for if it is not expedient thus to translate, at every turn, province by province, the venerable text of the Scripture, the greatest part, and we may say all, that is in the offices being taken from the Holy Scripture, it is also not becoming to give these in French. Indeed, is there not a greater danger in reciting the Holy Scripture in the vulgar tongue at public services, on this account that not only the old but little children, not only the wise but the foolish, not only men but women, in short both he who knows and he who knows not how to read, may all take occasion of erring, each one as he likes? Read the passages of David where he seems to murmur against God concerning the prosperity of the wicked; you will see the unwise people justify themselves by this in their impatience. Read where he seems to demand vengeance against his enemies, and the spirit of vengeance will cloak itself under this. Let them see those heavenly and entirely divine loves in the Canticle of Canticles; from not knowing how to spiritualize them these will only profit them unto evil. And that word of Osee (i.2): Vade et fac tibi filios fornicationes, and those acts of the ancient Patriarchs, would they not give license to fools ? But pray give us some little reason why we should have the Scrip tures and Divine Services in the vulgar tongue. To learn doctrine thereby? But surely the doctrine cannot be therein found unless we open the bark of the letter, in which is contained the intelligence: I will show this directly in its place. What is useful for this purpose is not the reciting of the service but preaching, in which the Word of God is not only pronounced but expounded by the pastor. And who is he, however well furnished at all points (tant houppe soft il et ferre), who can understand without study the prophecies of Ezechiel, and others, and the Psalms? What, then, will the people do with them when they hear them except profane them and cast a doubt on them.
At any rate we who are Catholics must in no wise bring down our sacred offices into vernacular languages; but rather, as our Church is universal in time and in place, it ought also to celebrate public offices in a language which is universal in time and in place, as is Latin in the West, Greek in the East; otherwise our priests could not say Mass nor others understand them outside their own countries. The unity and the great extension of our brethren require that we should say our public prayers in a language which shall be common to all peoples. In this way our prayers are universal, by means of the number of persons who in each province can understand Latin, and it seems to me, in conscience, that this reason alone should suffice; for if we consider rightly, our prayers are heard no less in Latin than in French. Let us divide the body of a commonwealth into three parts, according to the ancient French division, or, according to the new, into four; there are four sets of persons: the clergy, the nobility, they of the long robe, and the people or third estate. The three first understand Latin or should understand it, if they do not rather make it their own language; there remains the lowest rank, of which, again, a part understand; and truly as for the rest, if one do not speak the jargon of their country, it is only with great difficulty that they could understand the simple narrative of the Scripture. That most excellent theologian, Robert Bellarmine, relates, having heard it from a most trustworthy source, that a good dame in England having heard a minister read the twenty-fifth chapter of Ecclesiasticus (though they only hold it to be an ancient book, not a canonical one), because it there speaks the wickedness of women, rose up, saying: What !-is this the Word of God? of the devil rather. He quotes from Theodoret an excellent and true word of S. Basil the Great. The chief of the Emperor’s kitchen wishing to play the sage, began to bring forward certain passages of the Scripture: “It is yours [said the Saint] to mind your dishes, not to cook divine dogmata” as if he had said : Occupy yourself with tasting your sauces, not with devouring the divine Word.