The sex abuse scandal and the debasing of Catholic language

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On Jan. 6, 2002, The Boston Globe printed the first article in its bombshell exposé of clerical sexual abuse and its coverup in the Archdiocese of Boston. The effect on laity and clergy alike was devastating. Initial disbelief soon gave way to horror, shame and anger. Priests were publicly reviled by total strangers. Mass attendance began a precipitous decline from which it has never recovered.

Boston College, in the first of its attempts to assume its ecclesial responsibility and to respond in some small measure to the growing sense of crisis among Boston-area Catholics, sponsored a panel discussion that year to air concerns and seek some perspective and insight. As I recall, there was a theologian, a canon lawyer and a victims’ advocate among the panelists. After their remarks, the floor was opened to comments from the hundreds in the audience.

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Has the language of the Gospel ceded to that of American culture?

Nearly 45 minutes of impassioned interventions from the floor followed. What has remained with me most vividly after 16 years was the last speaker, a distinguished visiting professor of theology. His remarks were brief and tartly articulated, with an evident English accent. He simply marveled that the language employed for the better part of the evening seemed limited to the financial and the forensic. He wondered aloud whether the language of the Gospel had ceded to that of American culture.

I have often thought of these remarks, but never more so than in these days of reignited anger verging on despair, as substantiated allegations of misconduct and abuse by Theodore McCarrick came to light, followed by his suspension from ministry and resignation from the cardinalate.

Once again, much of the language seems singularly inept. It ranges from the self-protective protestation of being “shocked,” to the circle-the-wagons rhetoric of “we’re not all like that,” to the predictably bureaucratic calls for “policies and procedures.” The jargon of George Orwell’s “Newspeak,” imposed by the overlords of Oceania in his novel 1984, now pervades ecclesiastical discourse. Newspeak, Orwell lamented, employs “a continually diminishing vocabulary.”

Today we have ventured far beyond what even Orwell might imagine, as complex thoughts are reduced to simplistic sound bites and squeezed into tweet-ready format, not only in the culture, but in the church as well. Catholicism, which should be the bearer of integral Word and transforming sacraments, too often capitulates to (rather than counters) an ever more aphasic culture. And when words fail, violence often follows.

Today we have ventured far beyond what even Orwell might imagine, as complex thoughts are reduced to simplistic sound bites and squeezed into tweet-ready format, not only in the culture, but in the church as well.

We have seen so clearly that many abusers and enablers have desecrated the vocabulary of the church to protect themselves or hide their behavior. But there are also other ways in which Catholic language is debased. Let me suggest three.

The first is by merely rote repetition. The young Joseph Ratzinger identified the problem in an early essay where he criticized “the loss of credibility incurred by merely handing on formulas that were no longer the living intellectual property of those proclaiming them.” Whether regarding the theological mystery of transubstantiation or the moral mystery of conscience, parrot-like recitation does not honor, but cheapens the reality. The Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan issued a continual appeal for personal “appropriation”: the difficult intellectual and moral exercise that alone promotes authenticity. In a similar vein, Blessed John Henry Newman insisted that appeal to conscience does not countenance willful assertiveness, but entails obedient attention to the voice of the divine lawgiver. Or, in a riff on Lewis Carroll, conscience does not mean “just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

The second debasement of language occurs through a pseudo-simplification of usage—the reductionist strategy of the proponents of Newspeak. If we discern nothing else from the tragic circumstances the church in America is confronting, let it be the realization that any simplistic evocation of “mercy,” without the concomitant recognition of the urgent demands of “truth” and “justice,” is woefully inadequate to a comprehensive Catholic understanding of what is due both God and neighbor.

The Gospel fulfills the Psalms—it does not supersede them. Indeed, the Good News is already present there: “Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed” (Ps 85:10). Surely an eschatological hope; but also a pole star to guide the present.

A third debasement of language occurs through culpable neglect of the inherited treasures of a linguistic tradition. As an example I would point to the virtual disappearance from ordinary Catholic discourse of the language of the evangelical counsels. I speak of their disappearance from “ordinary ecclesial discourse.” (I cannot speak of their specific usage in religious communities that explicitly profess vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience,” though I would welcome instruction regarding the place and extent accorded them in religious formation.)

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These evangelical counsels once held pride of place as the “higher way” undertaken by those who embarked upon religious life and were embodied in the vows they professed.

With Vatican II’s insistence on “the universal call to holiness,” such “hierarchical” discriminations fell out of favor. The pressing issue is whether this spiritual democratization has led to a general elevation or an indiscriminate leveling.

So let us by all means issue a clarion call to holiness incumbent upon all, but also strive to embrace the challenge to reappropriate the language of the evangelical counsels, now recast as evangelical imperatives. For we are all called to the poverty, chastity and obedience suited to our state of life—not by the Catechism of the Catholic Church or even by the Second Vatican Council, but by the Sermon on the Mount. It is Jesus who condemns avarice, lust and self-centered pride. It is Jesus who calls to conversion—not to a better self, but to a new self, refashioned in the image of its Creator.

St. Peter Damian once cried: “Mea grammatica Christus est!” Christ is my “grammar,” my knowledge, my new language. Holiness is speaking, acting, living Christ.

For many years, in articles in America and elsewhere, I have sought to avoid a reduction of religion to morality. I have stressed, following Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, that the heart of Christianity is encounter and ongoing relation with Jesus Christ. There is most assuredly a mystical dimension of Christian faith, not only for the select few, but as the vocation of all reborn in Christ.

But the mystical is not less than the moral, nor independent of it; it brings morality to its fulfillment in the law of Christ. Every baptized Christian is brought into a life-giving and defining relation with Christ. To invoke him as Lord is to surrender ourselves totally to him. This is not a once-for-all attainment; it is indeed a process. But its goal is clear: transformation in Christ Jesus, becoming a new creation in him. As the Apostle told the Corinthians, so he tells us: “You are not your own; you were bought for a price. So glorify God in your body!” (1 Cor 6:19-20).

Called to holiness, as we all are, we take inspiration and guidance from the saints who have gone before us. A great reformer monk and critic of clerical abuse in the Middle Ages, St. Peter Damian, once cried: “Mea grammatica Christus est!” Christ is my “grammar,” my knowledge, my new language. Holiness is speaking, acting, living Christ. If this is not always explicitly articulated, it is always the foundational grammar and measure of all my discourse. What else does discipleship mean?

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J. Calpezzo
1 year 2 months ago

Is this article some kind of joke? Let me c articulate this: priest that sexually assault on abuse anyone should be in prison.. bishops, like Mahony, who tacitly approved of these practices should be defrocked and jailed. Uncle Ted and Cousin Roger are criminals to whom civil law is something to be dodged.

arthur mccaffrey
1 year 2 months ago

Bravo Prof Imbelli! Catholic language has been used to distort or diminish the gravity of child or adult abuse by RCC employees by hiding its seriousness behind a smokscreen of “forgiveness”, and “sorrow” and “repentance”, as if all you had to do—after leaving abused children in your wake—was to go to Confession and get absolution. Or be sent away on retreat by your Bishop with the naive hope that your character disorder would somehow heal itself. How true you speak when you say that “any simplistic evocation of “mercy,” without the concomitant recognition of the urgent demands of “truth” and “justice,” is woefully inadequate…” And yet so much of the language coming out of RCC since 2002 has been use and abuse of “mercy” without a proper acknowledgement that civil secular society demands truth and justice in response to criminality—which brings me to your headline—which is maybe the fault of your editor—but sexual abuse is NOT a scandal—scandals are what happens in Hollywood—sexual abuse is a CRIME, so let’s not debase our language by calling it something else. Scandals can be hushed up with hush money—as many American dioceses have tried to do in their settlements with abuse victims, forcing them to sign non-disclosure agreement as a condition of payment. But Crimes can not be hushed up—especially the crime of abuse of children which cries out to heaven for vengeance. Crimes call for truth and justice, prosecution, sentencing, and jail time.
How many red hats like McCarrick do we see in jail? Even the Australian Archbishop who was found guilty in public court of colluding in clergy abuse is being considered for “house arrest”!
So let’s save mercy for the victims, and seek justice for the abusers—let’s use language like ‘precedent’, ‘setting an example”, showing that the princes of RCC are not “too big to jail”, and that Catholic sin is “not above the law”. As you correctly point out, debased language means debased thought.

Martina Nicholson
1 year 2 months ago

Thanks for this. I agree. Crime, not scandal. AND justice demands that there be prison time. The good news in the review of the unprecedented resignation of the entire Chilean hierarchy, was a single note about a canon lawyer who said that the Pope cannot excuse them all, because someone should have to go to jail for the crime. The true witness IS that jail time: not being able to pull strings, to become exempt from what less powerful people would have to do. The greatest scandal of Boston was that Cardinal Law was not only able to escape that jail time, he was given a pastoral posting in Rome.

Henry George
1 year 2 months ago

I remember being in Rome during the Vatican II council and listening to discussion concerning "Universal Call to Holiness". A Monsignor wondered if this attempt to affirm the
necessity of living out the Evangelical counsels would not diminish Religious life and would
those in religious begin to live an evermore secular life as there was nothing particularly
holy in their vocations.

I don't know what to think when I see Jesuits taking nice vacations, wear clothes that
are not simple, let alone almost never wearing their clerics, having their teeth whitened,
getting fancy haircuts, eating out at expensive establishments and then paying
millions of dollars to the victims of Jesuit molesters with money that should have gone
to the poor.

It is rather sad to see Religious embrace the Modern World via a misreading of Vatican II
and seeking to excuse their sins with modern language.

Thank you Fr. Imbelli for saying what should have been said some 54 years ago.

John Walton
1 year 2 months ago

@Henry -- you obviously have more years of association with Jesuits than me, but I do still retain my first edition "Documents of Vatican II". I remember the garb which the Rector of the Jesuit Community and Physics teacher at my high school wore with frayed cuffs and the black turning the grey of another order. His only vice was Camels. Half a century ago too! I appreciated the article Fr. Imbelli.

Ellen B
1 year 2 months ago

Since language was a part of the article, I'm going to focus on language for a moment. How on earth was anyone shocked or surprised? There were rumors, payoffs & survivors out there. There are those who knew and helped McCarrick - writing checks, handling NDA's, hearing complaints and doing nothing that are JUST as guilty as McCarrick.

In the past the Catholic church declared itself to be teacher. What do the continued abuses & cover-ups teach the members of the congregation? Nothing flattering for the clergy. They look like thieves who are only sorry that they got caught.

If priests everywhere want to be viewed in a positive manner & as teachers they should be clamoring for the Catholic Church to stop hiding. People who were paid off need to be released from their non-disclosure agreements. The amounts, dates & priests involved in payoffs need to be published. Only by finally accepting full responsibility can the church be saved. Otherwise, the clergy is guilty for every person who turn away from the faith.

Ellen B
1 year 2 months ago

Since language was a part of the article, I'm going to focus on language for a moment. How on earth was anyone shocked or surprised? There were rumors, payoffs & survivors out there. There are those who knew and helped McCarrick - writing checks, handling NDA's, hearing complaints and doing nothing that are JUST as guilty as McCarrick.

In the past the Catholic church declared itself to be teacher. What do the continued abuses & cover-ups teach the members of the congregation? Nothing flattering for the clergy. They look like thieves who are only sorry that they got caught.

If priests everywhere want to be viewed in a positive manner & as teachers they should be clamoring for the Catholic Church to stop hiding. People who were paid off need to be released from their non-disclosure agreements. The amounts, dates & priests involved in payoffs need to be published. Only by finally accepting full responsibility can the church be saved. Otherwise, the clergy is guilty for every person who turn away from the faith.

sheila gray
1 year 2 months ago

This Survivor would like to propose that for me, a poet and deep lover of language, the greatest debasement of Launguage is Silence. Silence was (& still is) what we usually encounter in response to our allegations and cries in the night. Silence is the sound of cover-ups throughout the world. The ultimate debasement of Language is Silence.

Martina Nicholson
1 year 2 months ago

Thanks for this very moving comment.

A Fielder
1 year 2 months ago

I’m only 48, so I don’t remember when the evangelical counsels were part of “ordinary ecclesial discourse,” neither am I convinced that poverty, chastity in celibacy, and obedience are imperatives. I agree with the author that the CCC is not ultimate authority, especially relative to the gospels, but the CCC (no 1974) does state that God “does not want each person to keep all the counsels.” If chastity has fallen from our discourse, it is probably because the church has neglected character education and the circumspection required of prudence for an excessively physicalist and act based view of morality where relationships, intentionality and context are disregarded as irrelevant. Matt 19:10-12 seems to suggest that celibacy can only be accepted by those to whom it is given. This is hardly support for considering it an imperative. In terms of reviving gospel language, I am in support of appropriating phases like “brood of vipers,” “hypocrites,” “son of hell,” “white washed tombs... full of all kinds of filth.” and “wishing you’ve never been born.” Jesus, the lay man, was not criticizing religious leaders one by one for their personal failings, he was critisising their entire culture, which was apparently rotten to the core.

J Jones
1 year 2 months ago

Sheila, yes!

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