Benedict XIV on Tongues: Analysis

Discovering and understanding Pope Benedict the XIV’s treatise on the gift of tongues.

an image of a tongues speaker emitting letters in different languages

The exposition on the gift of tongues is found in his larger work , De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione. Written around 1748 AD, this is a critical piece that should be included as a primary source for the gift of tongues discussion.

This official Catholic document on tongues is a very big surprise because it has never been noted in the tongues discussion before. This text was accidentally found while trying to find source works for Anthony of Padua. Pope Benedict XIV’s coverage shows he was one very intelligent person.

Xenoglossia, or in long form, the miraculous and instantaneous speaking in a foreign language not known beforehand, covers the majority of Benedict’s citations of Medieval tongues-speaking Saints. However, he waffles a few times between a miracle of speaking or one of hearing. He also structures his arguments from the thirteenth-century theologian-philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was pivotal in addressing the tongues debate that continued in the Latin Church for over a millennium.

Pope Benedict’s citation of Thomas Aquinas

In order to understand Pope Benedict XIV’s treatise on tongues, it is important to understand the background to Aquinas and the sources he utilized.

Aquinas liked to use logical arguments that reasoned for and against the tongues as either a miracle of hearing or speech and only later does he confide which side he takes. After he narrated both arguments, he concluded that it was a miracle of speaking. This seemed to be a clear point but one which Benedict ignores.

The debate about whether the miracle was one of hearing or speaking started with Gregory Nazianzus in the fourth-century. He posited in his argument a Greek enthymeme: that is two arguments with only one possible solution. The two arguments were the miracle of hearing and the miracle of speaking. The latter argument was the obvious choice to Nazianzus. However, the Latin translator of the text, Tyrannius Rufinus, omitted a key part of the argument that did not display Nazianzus’ preference. This omission was based on the understanding of a Greek particle: αρα was it to be understood as ἄρα or ἆρα? Note the differences at the top in the first letter α in both examples. Most readers probably don’t know Greek or easily see the difference in pronunciation by the differing diacritics between the two. In most cases, this does not matter, but here, it is extremely important. In Tyrannius’ time, he did not have the benefit of diacritics, that is the markings above and below the Greek letters to advise the reader on how to pronounce the text. Tyrannius was not a native Greek speaker and chose the wrong pronunciation, which led to an incorrect translation. The misunderstanding of this particle is not hard to do. I did the same thing while first trying to translate the Greek Nazianzus text with the diacritics available.

For more information see the following article, Nazianzus’ tongues of Pentecost Paradox

This translation led Latin readers, who dominated the greater European world, to think that both arguments were given equal footing. Many thinkers like the Venerable Bede, and Michael Psellos, among others, attempted to resolve the dilemma. All the studies up until now concluded that the debate continued and was finally settled by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century. However, Benedict the XIV’s coverage demonstrates the arguments of hearing or speaking had continued even in the eighteenth-century – far longer than what I thought and had previously concluded.

This work quotes the actual Aquinas text which shows the preference for the miracle of speaking. Benedict does not accept Aquinas’s conclusion, rather he accepts both arguments as being true. He believed the gift of tongues can be both. It can be a miracle of speaking in foreign languages in one instance, and in other cases can be a miracle of speaking in one language with the audience hearing it in their own different native tongue.

He posits examples of scholars holding opinions on this issue. Some align to the miracle of hearing like Vincent Ferrer who spoke in Catalan and the audience heard him speak in their language, while others, like Pachomius, who could speak in Latin and Greek that he did not know beforehand.

The Pope’s methodology for determining whether a tongues miracle had occurred.

This Pope was keen on determining a methodology on defining when an actual miraculous event of tongues occurred. These certain questions and processes must be completed before validating a claim:

  • It would have to pass through a special committee, the Postuloribus and then to a higher-ranking authority, the Rotae Auditores1

  • A testimony by honourable men.

  • If a person is speaking in only one language and the hearers hear him in multiple languages then this process should be employed, “Let other witnesses be brought forward of diverse races who should identify him speaking at that time also and had heard him employ their language, clearly a German with German, Spaniard with Spanish, Gallos with Gallican, English with the English language, and so etc., And in addition everyone must be in agreement in the matter about what God’s Servant had spoken.”

  • If it is done for personal or pecuniary gain, it should be ruled out.

  • It can be counterfeited by demons, this must be ruled out.

  • Signs of conversions from unbelief or sins should accompany. These are one of the more reliable signs.

Benedict clearly states that at least one of the accounts of a Saint speaking in tongues was questionable. He is suspicious of St. Aloysio Bertrando’s account:

“God has devised that we are going to thoroughly learn the Japanese language for the purpose of divine matters. Then we finally will do with zeal the certain work of the matters of Christianity. We indeed move about now among them something like mute statues. For many speak and are stirred with this among us, in fact we are silent to those things of the native speech itself. We have become a child again in the present time in the process of learning the elements in this language.”

Benedict documents one leader, Jacob Picenius, against this being a miracle, while another, Cardinal Gottus strongly refutes Picenius, arguing that perhaps this instance wasn’t a miracle, but God can intervene at a later time. A simple reading of the text gives Picenius a strong edge here.

The Pope on Montanists, private prayer language, the Camisards and more

The treatise has no recognition of the Montanists as part of the Christian doctrine of tongues, nor does it have any recognition of tongues as a private prayer language. He does not associate ecstasy as a prerequisite condition before speaking in tongues. Ecstasy was a common expectation with the Saints, especially propagated by Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth-century.2 The usage of the term Gift of Tongues within his document demonstrates that he did not see a difference between the Corinthian tongues and the tongues of Pentecost. He merged these two accounts together. Neither does he take into account any Protestant scholarship on the subject, or the tongues practices of the Camisard Huguenots that happened in France earlier in his century.3

His work dispelled two myths. The first one related to late Medieval Catholic writers being silent on the gift of tongues. They were not. This myth has perpetuated because so few late Medieval Catholic writers have ever been translated into English.

The second myth has to do with the definition of tongues. It is not correct that the Medieval Church believed it was simply a miracle of speaking in a foreign language not known beforehand. Christine F. Cooper-Rampato used xenoglossia exclusively throughout her excellent book: The Gift of Tongues: Women’s Xenoglossia in the Later Middle Ages.4 Wikipedia defines it is a “phenomenon in which a person is able to speak or write a language he or she could not have acquired by natural means.”5 Some examples of xenoglossia by her, especially that of Vincent Ferrer, who spoke in his native Catalan language and others miraculously heard him in their own, do not fit into this definition. The Medieval Catholic definition was more complex than Rampato assumed.

Why he wrote the treatise on tongues

The canonization and sainthood of Francis Xavier in the 1500s was a source of great embarrassment and a political device used by the early Protestants in demonstrating corruption within the Catholic Church. The treatise was to remedy that such a situation would never occur again.

For more information see Francis Xavier on Speaking in Tongues series.

For further reading:


  1. This is the name used in his text. I don’t have any further information on this high-ranking group
  2. see Thoughts on Ecstasty, Private Revelation and Prophecy
  3. See The Camisards, tongues and prophecy
  4. Christine F. Cooper-Rampato. The Gift of Tongues: Women’s Xenoglossia in the Later Middle Ages. USA: Pennsylvania State University. 2010

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