13 July 2020

Christine Mohrmann

Today is the Year's Mind of a woman who could fairly be considered the greatest mind in Catholic historical studies of the last century.

Christine Mohrmann (1903-1988) took a Tardis (a type of British Time Travel Machine) back to the earliest Christian centuries, travelling via philology. Her minute and erudite study of Christian Latin (and Greek) enabled her to demonstrate that it was a distinct dialect of Latin which grew up ... and, to a degree, was consciously devised ... by the Christian communities. She rescued it from the contempt of all the poor little schoolboys who had been brainwashed into thinking of Latin as meaning the "Classical" Latin of Cicero, so that any prose that differed from Tully's was to be deemed degenerate.

This was not a new error. When Urban VIII, Papa Barberini, 'reformed' the Breviary hymns in the 1630s so that they looked as if they had been written by Horace, he was victim of the same disastrous mistake. Vatican II wisely ordered that the texts of the hymns should be restored to their original state (obviously, nobody revealed to the Council Fathers that, within five years, recitation of the Office in Latin would have all but disappeared).

But those tinkerings were confined to the Corpus Hymnorum. In Mohrmann's own days, the great perpetrator of this same superstition was a fly-blown German Jesuit called Bea. In collaboration with Pius XII, Papa Pacelli (whose influence on the Liturgy was the beginning of the rot), this person produced a new translation of the Psalter which defenestrated the Latin of the Fathers, of the Vulgate, and of the Liturgy. It was approved for optional use. To this day, if you buy a second-hand breviary from the 1940s or 1950s, it is important to check that it does not include the Bea Psalter. Incidentally ...  good news ... that Psalter was implicitly consigned to the bin by the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. (The 'Neo-Vulgate' authorised by S John Paul II does not contain so much as a hint of the disastrous Pius XII/Bea project.)

Mohrmann's studies led her to a strong belief in the necessity for a special priestly hieratic language in the Liturgy (an idea which might not have seemed outrageous to Orthodox Jews!). So (with exceptions such as the lections) she was strongly opposed to use of the vernacular in Liturgy. Not absolutely opposed; it was just that she felt that no modern European vernacular was anything like ready ... that is, sacral enough ... to be employed at the altar.

By the 1960s, direction of the (originally admirable) bandwaggon labelled "Liturgical Movement" had fallen into bad hands. Most of its adherents were by now second rate and semi-literate camp-followers out to make their careers. Even the ones, like Dom Bernard Botte, who were not illiterate were academically flawed. In Botte's case the root problem was his conviction that a weird document then mistakenly identified as the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus was the Liturgy of early third century Rome, a view widespread in the 1960s but now no longer held. As a result of this mistake, the "Second Eucharistic Prayer", now almost universally and exclusively used by Modernist clergy, was put into the Missal, and a rite for the Consecration of Bishops was, scandalously, inserted into the Pontifical, displacing the immemorially ancient Roman Prayer for making bishops.

The Enemy had so far corrupted Catholic Academe that the work of Mohrmann -- and its practical implications -- were ignored, just when they were most needed, throughout the Conciliar and post-Conciliar periods.

What a neat, what a decisive triumph for Evil.

Her seminal 1957 work Liturgical Latin Its Origins and Character can still be purchased: I know, because, a few years ago, a kind benefactor sent me a copy, reprinted by "Maximus Scriptorius". I was thus enabled to dump the tattered photocopies upon which I had previously relied!

She was, she is, a very great woman. May she rest in peace.


Nicolas Bellord said...

Interesting. I studied the evolution of Latin to Modern French in the late 1950s which explains why I had not heard of Mohrmann if she only published in 1957. The theory that I was taught was that Latin was slowly evolving from a morphological language (depending on word endings) to a syntactical language depending on word order. The result was that Late Latin was much easier to read and write which seemed to me to be an improvement rather than degenerate with the result that Church Latin is much easier that the language of Cicero etc. I suppose one could say that most Latin speakers were becoming Christian at the same time but I wonder why she calls it a dialect as if there were other contemporaneous dialects which preserved classical Latin. Of course there were those who deplored some of these changes such as St Augustine but I wonder whether he was not writing Late Latin rather than the Classical version?

FatherTF said...

The book you mention can also be downloaded in various formats free of charge at the Internet Archive. Here is the link: Liturgical Latin Its Origins and Character.

Richard said...

Here is my contribution to an otherwise scholarly conversation: I know French, but all the Latin I know comes from reading the Le Barroux bilingual Psautier Monastique. It has always puzzled me that many or most of the psalms are quite easy to understand, but my attempt at Virgil failed utterly and absolutely on page one. You have gone some way towards explaining why this should be.

mike said...

may I ask you for the history of the priestly vows taken on Maundy Thursday. I had an embarrassing moment when I had a very good priest who was my confessor weekly for 3 years tell me in tears of the problems he had each chrism mass placing his hands in the bishop's and promising an implicit obedience to him and not to a defense of the Church against modernity

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Mike: You are confusing the 'renewal' at the Chrism Mass with the oath at Ordination. It is the latter which is made between the bishop's hands.

Oliver Nicholson said...

Am I right that the rite of placing hands between the Vice-Chancellor's hands on admission to a degree as practised at Cambridge is related to the ceremonies for admission to a mediaeval guild ?

Alan said...

I understand (but can't now cite a source) that the reason for the much earlier beginning of vernacular literature in the Germanic languages is that they are clearly NOT Latin. Our ancestors strode around proclaiming "Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum..." while Italian contemporaries muttered, "Merda!Parlo un latino maccheronico."

Alan said...

I understand (but can't now cite a source) that the reason for the much earlier beginning of vernacular literature in the Germanic languages is that they are clearly NOT Latin. Our ancestors strode around proclaiming "Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum..." while Italian contemporaries muttered, "Merda!Parlo un latino maccheronico."