Should Italian be the language of the Roman curia? Yes.

Since Mark just posted on Italian, I figured I would too, albeit in a different context.

Everybody is talking these days about what to do to reform the Roman curia. George Weigel has offered some suggestions of his own at First Things. One change he would like to make is to replace Italian — the common language of curialists — with English. Here are some excerpts from Weigel’s remarks:

Thus a first, specific suggestion for curial personnel reform: strict term limits, by which men and women of proven ability from all over the world would come to Rome to serve the universal Church for a maximum of ten years before returning to their local churches. Service in the Roman Curia would cease being a way to punch one’s ticket for higher ecclesiastical office; it would be a sacrifice.

Then there is language. It’s sometimes assumed that the majority of curialists will always be Italian, which means that Italian-language competence is essential to effective curial service. But why must the majority of curial workers be Italians? The U.N. draws its personnel from New York, Geneva, Vienna, and other locales from all over the world; English is the working language; why should the Roman Curia be different? Because it’s in Rome?

I included the first paragraph to give the background for the second. Here are some rambling thoughts on Weigel’s proposal…

Yes, it’s precisely because the curia is in Rome that the language should be Italian. It would be rather impractical for non-English, non-Italian speakers who come to work in the curia to have to learn both languages.

But why, you might ask, should they learn both? Why should they learn Italian if their work is to be conducted in English, as per the Weigel reform? Because they are in Rome and the inhabitants of Rome — I know this may come as a shock — speak Italian. 

True, many Romans do speak English, but those who do speak it do not always speak it very well (or gladly). Also many of the signs in the Eternal City are not in English (e.g., senso unico), the newspapers are not in English, and, generally (and understandably) life in Rome is not lived in English.

Were the curia to adopt English as its official language (and its staff not trained in Italian), we would have every reason to believe that it would become a linguistic and cultural ghetto. The non-Italian speakers in the curia would assimilate to Italian life only with difficulty, which would likely contribute to a negative experience during their time there. Ten years in Rome with a minimal Italian vocabulary? Sounds dismal.

Furthermore, not knowing the local tongue, the apostolates these curial workers could undertake in the evenings and on the weekends would be quite limited.

There is also the perception of American cultural imperialism. Not all Europeans resent that the culture and language of the U.S. have been for many years slowly eroding native cultures of the Old World but many people do (and perhaps should). Undoubtedly, many people would likewise see (whether rightly or not) the curia’s adoption of English as its official language as just the latest outrage in the McDonaldization of Europe (and the globe). If respect for the curia is already low in Europe, this may lower it further. The McCuria?

So why not have the curial workers learn Italian along with English? I said a moment ago that it would be impractical. Two obvious problems on this front are the extra expense and the extra time spent learning a new language. The extra expense and time could easily be avoided — just keep Italian as the language of the curia.

But even if the curialists did learn Italian too, that would not necessarily erase the probable resentment that would arise over the fact that this body’s official language — this important body located in one of the great centers of Italian culture — is English.

Now, Weigel may say that I’m thinking too narrowly here. The Church’s horizon isn’t Rome, Italy, or Europe, but the world. Thus, he goes on:

[T]he Roman Curia exists to support the bishop of Rome in his mission as universal pastor of the Church and its personnel should reflect that global mission—as should its working language. It will take some time to change this, to be sure. But the first head of a curial department who insists on conducting the department’s business in the world language—English—will be doing the entire Church a big favor by modeling a different, more universalist approach to running the engine room.

First, rhetorically speaking, for an American to declare that English is the “world language” and, on this account, to urge a particular group to learn it, well, that’s just a bad move. Whether or not it’s true that English is the “world language,” Weigel will certainly come off as an arrogant Yankee to a lot of people (— I’m only talking about impressions, obviously not facts).

Second, is Weigel trying to drop a not-so-subtle hint to the Holy Father? I have heard — although I do not know this for a fact — that Jorge Bergoglio speaks very little English. Well, he better start learning if he wants to be able to communicate with the “new curia.”

Third, papal and curial documents are already regularly translated into English — and many other languages — although admittedly the Vatican could do a better job about getting all of the documents into the various languages spoken by Catholics and in a more timely manner.

Of course the Church has a universal mission. But the majority of the globe and the majority of Catholics do not speak English and perhaps never will. The most important communication that the curia has with the rest of the Church and the world are the many official documents the dicasteries publish. But, as I have just mentioned, these are already translated into many languages (but, again, there is inconsistency and a better job could be done with it). Should we now translate them only into English since it is the “world language”?

Do you want to speak to someone in the curia but you don’t speak Italian? Rome is full of interpreters. Would you prefer to speak to the person without an interpreter? If you plan to make this a regular habit, learn Italian.

If there are problems with the curia, the language isn’t one of them. But it could become one of them if English were made the official language, or so it seems to me. If Mr. Weigel wants affirmative action for non-Italians in the curia, fine. No problem there. But the non-Italians can learn Italian just as their predecessors.

Don’t get me wrong. I love English. It’s my mother tongue. But imposing it on the Roman curia as an integral part of a reform effort seems silly, not to mention deleterious. And don’t get me wrong about George Weigel either. He is an intelligent man, a faithful Catholic, and I agree with him on many things — but not this one.

(At the risk of seeming to adopt a double standard, I would say that Latin is not subject to all of the same considerations. It has a privilege of historical provenance that English does not and never will have. It will always, in some fashion, be “the Church’s language” even if it was never in the past nor will be in the future a “world language.”)