The Venerable Latin Diploma

Charles Busch, Class of 2018

“Tradition is the soul of a college.” At least that is what was written in this paper in 1930 in response to a student movement regarding the language of diplomas at Catholic University. From our founding, all degrees were issued in the tongue of both Church and academia, the timeless Latin. Originally, diplomas acted as a type of transcript. Students would draft the text themselves, and then ask the university president to sign and seal it when attempting to continue studies or gain employment at another university. Due to the great language diversity in Europe, and the prevalence of Latin in colleges, these documents were regularly written in Latin. In 1930, a law school student failed to convince the CUA administration to make our degrees in English, but his dream was only deferred until 1969, when popular request changed the language.  While there are some advantages to an easily understandable document highlighting one’s achievement, this piece of paper is more than mere utilitarian wood-pulp. At commencement, we dress as if we are in the Middle Ages, medals are worn by academics whose job descriptions have changed little throughout history. We do not graduate “with honors,” we graduate “cum laude.” Tradition is indeed the soul of a university.
There is something transcendent about one’s academic career. The quest for knowledge remains a timeless pursuit. We have struggled to maintain our traditions here. Class blazers have come and gone.   Homecoming bonfire has been lost to history. No longer are Freshman Rules written or enforced, and cigars never find themselves on the hand of Leo XIII. Few know all the words to our fight songs, let alone what composed our original seal. However, tradition at Catholic University is not all lost. Old customs have been revived and new ones created. From class rings to President’s Society and Mass of the Holy Spirit to convocation pins, we are working hard to build a culture of CUA that will last long beyond our time here. In 2003, prompted by student initiative, our diplomas were redesigned to give them a more traditional appearance.   While this change to our degrees was a step in the right direction, we can go further by permitting students the privilege of having their diploma written in the treasured Latin language to share in the common bond of CU graduates of years past. Furthermore, many universities such as Princeton, Yale, Seton Hall, Fordham, Boston College, and even Georgetown currently have Latin degrees. This goal is not the agenda of a small minority. In fact, a poll of over 300 students and alumni showed 57.5% preferred Latin, compared to 35.6% who preferred English, and 6.9% who had no preference. At present, I am working with members of the Student Government Association to submit a proposal to the Academic Senate to consider changing the language of our degrees. Some traditions do not last, nor should they, but the treasure of having a Latin diploma should be revived – after all, we are The Catholic University of America.

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