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.
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.)
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?