Pope Benedict XIV on Tongues: Technical Notes

Technical notes on the translation of Pope Benedict XIV’s treatise, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione as it relates to the gift of tongues.

Translating Pope Benedict the XIV’s gift of tongues coverage was a difficult challenge. First of all, it is because it is a late Medieval Catholic work. I am not familiar with the rites, traditions, or intellectual thoughts of this community. It was an eye-opener as the translation process proceeded to show how the Catholic writers of this era were intellectually and theologically engaged. Benedict the XIV demonstrates a rich wealth of Catholic thinkers, writers and leaders dwelling on the gift of tongues. So much so, this treatise should have always been a primary source by any academic investigating the subject.

This silence of Medieval Catholic thought has erroneously led me to believe that this genre had nothing valuable to offer in the theological realm relating to the Christian doctrine of tongues. My attempted translation of Pope Benedict the XIV exposed such a trespass in my thought.

The Protestants during this era make absolutely no mention of these great Catholic thinkers, nor do these Catholic thinkers make any reference to any Protestant thinkers in their works. The lack of cross-citation by both parties shows how deep the resentment towards each other was. I never knew how deep this was until the translation of Benedict’s treatise. This also uncovered my own trespass in this area: both my Evangelical and Jewish teachers have almost exclusively exposed me to either Protestant or German influenced academic writings.

The gift of tongues has been a controversial subject for over one-hundred years in modern Christianity. Why did this work remain so obscure and never made it into the regular discussion? That is a question that I repeatedly ask and answer throughout the Gift of Tongues Project — ancient writers such as Augustine, Nazianzus, Bede, Michael Psellos, Thomas Aquinas, John Lightfoot etc., who have made a serious contribution to the topic but rarely, if ever, are cited. This neglect is related to ignorance of historic literature, access to source materials, and now, apathy.

The lack of English translations is the most serious contributor. Only about 20% of the Church Fathers have ever been translated into English, and those that have been, are often condensed or abridged. This leads many eager students of the Bible to believe that the historic Church was silent on the subject of tongues and, therefore, irrelevant.

This ignorance was further embedded because of the problem of access. Even if a person had the ability to read Greek or Latin, the access to original materials was extremely difficult. Before the advent of Google Books and the like, there was no universal method to peruse books such as Pope Benedict’s De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione. I wouldn’t have found it, nor known about it had it not been for Google Books. In the pre-internet days, even if I knew about its existence, it likely would not have been sourced by me. This book would be too old and would require reading in a library’s rare book collection reading room and would not be available through inter-library loan. The only option would be to fly to the city which had a library that held this book and research it there; that is if, of course, permission was granted. Certain credentials, such as an M.A. or Ph.D., or faith affiliation may be required of the institution to use their materials.

These difficulties previously made it almost impossible to do a proper study on this subject.

The third factor is apathy. The Pentecostal/Charismatic appetite for historical research is very diminished. The last decade has enabled the incredible widespread availability of manuscripts and ancient books unheard of in the vestibules of history. This condition should bring about a resurgence in ancient studies within the confines of Christianity. However, there has been little or no impact. In the case of my the Gift of Tongues Project, the availability of ancient materials is wholeheartedly embraced.

The type of Latin was a challenge to translate for two reasons. I am not familiar with late Medieval Latin which has different nuances to fifth-century Latin writers such as Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Medieval Latin has progressed and has new forms to recognize. Plus Benedict the XIV extensively quoted many authors in his era. These quotations often had different style and influences. Some writers had Spanish or Portuguese as their mother tongue, and I think this crept into their Latin writing styles.

The Latin contained words that refer to classic Catholic thoughts, rites, practices and legalities that I have no familiarity with, nor could any succinct references to their meanings be found. For example, the reference to “Rotae Auditores.” The term is obvious from the context that it is some high-ranking Catholic authority, but any subsequent search for an English description has not outlined a clear meaning. So, this Latin term is left unchanged in my English translation. This is the same for “Postuloribus.” This noun is rendered every time by Benedict in the ablative. The “Postuloribus” refers to some kind of office that examines the authenticity of miracles attributed to Saints. At least, that is what it appears to mean in the text. I cannot find a clear definition for this as well. So, it is left in its ablative original state in the English translation. It should be put into a nominative form for better usage in the English tongue, but the ablative just sounds nicer.

One of the first challenges of this translation was Benedict’s word choice for the word language: idiomata instead of the traditional word, lingua. This led into an interesting foray into Medieval thought. This journey starts with the thirteenth-century English philosopher and Franciscan Friar, Roger Bacon who distinguishes between language (lingua) and cognate languages (idiomata).(1)Henry Osborn. The Medieval Mind: A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages. The Floating Press. 2013. Pg. 825 This brings us to the same century with the renowned Italian writer and poet, Dante, best known for his work, Divine Comedy. He wrote a treatise on the history of languages called, De vulgari eloquentia — an attempt to give respectability and acceptance of local languages in relation to the dominant and assimilating Latin language. He too, used ydioma (2)his way of writing idioma among other definitions to describe language after the fall of Babel. Before the fall, he used lingua.(3)My own reading from De vulgari eloquentia and also recognized by the Dictionary of Untranslateables: A Philosophical Lexicon. (A translation of Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophy) Barbara Cassin, ed. Transl. by Steven Rendall, Christian Hubert, Jeffrey Mehlman, Nathanael Stein, and Michael Syrotinski. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2004. Pg. 549

The whole discussion in the thirteenth-century on idiomata is a simplified attempt at understanding languages and their cognates. The concepts discussed by Bacon, Dante and Medieval commentaries are abstract and hard to understand to the modern mind. It didn’t bring closure to what I thought Benedict intended.

Further contemplation was required and I speculated. Did Benedict understand idiomata in the way Dante or Bacon promoted it? Or did the Medieval Latin language simply have a preference for idiomata as the standard word for language at the time with no other baggage? Would Benedict have chosen idiomata over lingua because it meant a greater miracle? One has to take this theory to its evolutionary point. If one miraculously spoke only in the most original languages, not cognates, then that would only be a few languages spoken, and they would hardly be understood. For example, If one spoke in cognates, such as Attic, Doric, or Ionian Greek instead of the older Mycenaean Greek, which Medievalists may argue as the original source of the Greek language, then the people in that particular Greek region would understand. The greater miracle would not be in speaking a language but in the cognates.

If this was the way that Benedict understood the use of idiomata then this brings about a second difficulty. How does one translate idiomata? There is no English equivalent. I searched for how other translators translated this text in different texts and a 100% simply used language as the English equivalent. I followed the same pattern as these other translators and used language. It is the best that can be done given the limitations of the English language in this matter.

The astute reader who is comparing the Latin text to the English translation may find the translation of the Latin word “mysteria,” too amplified. In majority of cases it has been translated in my translation as, “ insights and things that transcend normal intelligence.” The standard translation would be mysteries which refer to some mysterious, esoteric knowledge that only a special inspired person or institution could possess. In the English mind it is something that a cult or secret society would practice. I don’t think this was the intention of Benedict at all. He simply believed mysteria to mean something that would be too advanced or over the heads of those who were unfamiliar with the Christian message. To dive into the realms discussing the Trinity, propitiation, substantiation or other in-house discussions would dissuade new entrants, and so these type of discussions should be reserved for mature Christians.

The infinitive as a means of indirect discourse was used extensively throughout with se but then rules were broken too where eum was used at least once instead. Other times the subjunctive was used to acheive the same purpose.

Benedict refers to books and people never heard of before. These are authors and books totally neglected in the Protestant and German writings. People like Suarez, Cardinal Baronius, Scacchus, Thyraeus, Viguer, Salmanticenses, Mathauccius, Optime Silvius, Bagatta etc., I have been able to find some original author’s books referred to by Benedict, and a first glance shows some well-thought reasonings on this topic – much better than the majority of Protestant thinking in this era.

I don’t know who these people were or their English equivalent surnames. I left their names untranslated.

The translation is based on De Lambertinis Opus De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione. Aldina: Prati. Volume III. New Edition. 1830. Pg. 547ff. Where the page was hard to read, a second, different edition was consulted, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione. Volume 3. Rome: Nicolaus et Marcus Palearini. Academiae Liturgicae Conimbricensis Typographi. 1748. Pg. 724ff.

The 1830 edition was preferred because the print copy was easier to read. The book had transferred some older glyph types (especially the ‘s’) into modern typographic conventions.

For the actual English translation go to Pope Benedict the XIV on Tongues: the English Text.

For the actual Latin copy go to Pope Benedict the XIV on Tongues: The Latin Text



Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.

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