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Cor ad cor loquitur: what does the papal visit motto really mean?

It’s time to end the dispute over the meaning of Cardinal Newman’s tag

By on Friday, 13 August 2010

A document bearing Newman's coat of arms with the tag Cor ad cor loquitur beneath (Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

A document bearing Newman's coat of arms with the tag Cor ad cor loquitur beneath (Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

Odd theories and bizarre interpretations are par for the course for anything related to the Church. The upcoming beatification of John Henry Newman is no different. Attention has focused on the two Latin tags associated with the cardinal: one on his tombstone – ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem – and the other on his coat of arms: cor ad cor loquitur.

Some have gone as far as to claim that the first of the two refers to Newman’s “secret” relationship with Ambrose St John, the Oratorian with whom he was buried. Unfortunately for those hoping for hidden messages, the tag, translated as “out of shadows and illusions into truth”, is likely to refer to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It is also, clearly, a poetic description to Newman’s spiritual journey.

There is much dispute about the meaning of cor ad cor loquitur. This was Newman’s motto and is the theme of the Pope’s visit to Britain next month. A reader recently wrote to The Catholic Herald disputing the visit organiser’s translation, “Heart speaks unto heart”.

He suggested that a more idiomatic translation would be “what comes from the heart goes to the heart”. But this is not a translation but a paraphrase that significantly alters the meaning of the sentence. The grammar of the tag is clear: cor ad cor loquitur can only be “heart speaks to heart”.

To understand Newman’s motto fully we must go back to St Francis de Sales’s original phrase: cor cordi loquitur. The translation into English is exactly the same: “heart speaks to heart”. So, why did Newman change it? The word ad in Latin is used more often in relation to objects or places, and perhaps it is this more firmly grounded tone that Newman sought in altering the phrase, an implication of directness of speech, without pretense. It may be for this reason that the organisers of the papal visit have chosen to translate the phrase as “heart speaks unto heart”, to represent that directness which Newman emphasised.

For those who argue that “unto” is not an English word, sadly the history of the language rather disagrees. The word crops up in Shakespeare (“once more unto the breach”), the libretto of Messiah (“unto us a child is born”), and even in the title of an 1860 essay by John Ruskin (Unto This Last).

So what does cor ad cor loquitur really mean? The phrase crops up at the end of the first chapter of Book VI of St Francis’s Treatise on the Love of God, describing mystical theology and prayer:

“Do you mark, Theotimus, how the silence of afflicted lovers speaks by the apple of their eye, and by tears? Truly the chief exercise in mystical theology is to speak to God and to hear God speak in the bottom of the heart; and because this discourse passes in most secret aspirations and inspirations, we term it a silent conversing. Eyes speak to eyes, and heart to heart, and none understand what passes save the sacred lovers who speak.”

The phrase, therefore, is a description of the personal relationship between God and man achieved through prayer.

  • R.S. Saley

    Thanks for this. I hate to be a pedant, but I want to note that St. Francis wrote “cor CORDI loquitur,” not CORDIS. It's the dative, not the genitive!

    Newman quotes the passage in The Idea of a University II.6: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/article6

    For St. Francis de S's version, see:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=uVtpAAAAIAAJ&p

  • http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/ The Catholic Herald

    Thanks a lot for pointing that out. We've just changed it.

  • http://www.openidfrance.fr/joncraven joncraven

    The tombstone inscription alludes not only to Plato but also St. Paul, I Cor 13:12, “We see now through a glass in a dark manner, but then face to face.” It is an affirmation of how imperfect our knowledge of God is in this life, even for the saints, when compared with the glorious knowledge of heaven.

  • Dick Sullivan

    Cardinal Newman was a lifelong mystic – to him heart speaking to heart was a living experience.
    He even believed that, if you don't have this experience, you'd better be an agnostic.
    An extraordinary number of Victorians were mystics.

  • Robert

    Yes, God speaks to our heart. Could it not refer as well to the pastoral linking of hearts. Newman was a teacher, preacher and paster; he was not a conemplative. Could it also refer therefore to our hearts speaking to other hearts as we teach the faith. He did not see faith as mere intelectueal assent. What do others think?

  • Duncan McGibbon

    In fact St Francis de Sales uses the phrase coeur a coeur twice in the Sixth Chapter of Traite Sur L'Amour de Dieu. In both cases it refers to the private union of the soul with God. Much devotion to the Sacred Heart follows on from this. Yet, as I pointed out in my article, http://www.suite101.com/functions/article/edit.cfm/260355 the passage referred to by Newman comes from a sermon of St Francis given to priests about preaching.There with the help of Beethoven, Newman's motto refers to the message of a preacher's heart going to the heart of the listener.