The Church needs to clean up its language

church language

It was encouraging to see the leaders of the men’s and women’s religious congregations in France this past week call for a re-evaluation of the language they use in their communities, especially in how they describe and address those who – like themselves – hold positions of authority.

Their reason for wanting to modify certain words and titles is part of ongoing efforts to correct all elements and situations than can lead to any sort of abuse over people (especially the young) who are in their charge.

But there are other important reasons beyond the seemingly never-ending abuse crisis why all baptized members of the Catholic Church need to clean up the language we use in ecclesial matters in order for our worldwide faith community to be more evangelical, welcoming, and synodal.

Language and Vatican Council II

The late Jesuit historian John O’Malley noted that this already began to happen at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

“It was a language event,” he wrote in What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard, 2008). “The language indicated and induced a shift in values or priorities.”

He argued that this went beyond devising what we often call “pastoral language” and actually formed a “style” of being Church.

“Worlds like ‘charism’, ‘dialogue’, ‘partnership’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘friendship’ indicate a new style for the exercise of authority and implicitly advocate a conversion to a new style of thinking, speaking, and behaving, a change from a more authoritarian and unidirectional style to a more reciprocal and responsive model,” O’Malley wrote.

What is clear, in any case, is that style was a big issue at the council, an issue fought on the seemingly superficial battleground of the vocabulary and the literary genre of the documents, with protagonists perhaps not always realising the profound implications of what was at stake.

The literary style, that is to say, was but the surface expression of something meant to sink into the very soul of the Church and of every Catholic.

It was much more than a tactic or a strategy, much more than simply the adoption of a more “pastoral language”.

The late American Jesuit stated clearly that the council “did not invent” new words or “imply they were not already operative in the Church”, but he argued that, taken as a whole, they “convey the sweep of a newly and forcefully specified style of the Church that the Second Vatican Council held up for contemplation, admiration and actualisation”.

Some Catholics, like the religious congregational leaders in France, it would appear, believe we still have more work to do on our Church vocabulary.

Ecclesiastical titles

Much of the language we continue to use in the Church reflects a mentality or attitude that must be changed. As Pope Francis said in the first interview after his election (with Antonio Spadaro SJ in September 2013), “The first reform must be attitude.”

Nowhere is the more urgent than in our attitude towards clerical authorities and the way we address them. That begins with the pope himself.

His first and most essential title is, of course, Bishop of Rome.

He is also called the Roman Pontiff or Supreme Pontiff (the qualifier is important, because all bishops are considered pontiffs). All other titles are either devotional or honorary.

Even the word “pope” (papa) is non-essential, although it seems the least clerical. It merely means “dad”. You might as well call him “pops”, if that’s your preferred term of endearment!

But, in reality, the correct term would be Bishop Francis. That is the way Paul VI signed the Vatican II documents (Paul, bishop).

Perhaps, the one devotional title for the Bishop of Rome that should be eliminated is “Holy Father”.

Besides that fact that Jesus made it clear that we are to call no one “father” or “master” (see what else he thinks about religious authorities in Mathew 23), he actually addresses God as “Holy Father” (Jn 17, 11).

And so do several of the Eucharistic Prayers from the Church’s liturgy.

In fact, we believe that the Holy Father is the first person of the Blessed Trinity, not the Bishop of Rome. Lex orandi lex credendi, after all.

Addressing our priests (i.e. presbyters) as “father” is also problematic, especially in a Church were full membership and dignity are based solely on Baptism, not sacramental ordination.

We are all brothers and sisters, and calling our male and female Catholic “leaders” such is more appropriate and supported by scriptural references to leaders in the fledgling community of believers.

Sanely, most congregations of women religious dropped the use of “mother superior” many years ago. Maybe it’s time we call all consecrated persons — including our presbyters — sisters and brothers.

The Synod

Pope Francis has undertaken the ambitious project of making “synodality” constitutive of every level of Church life, ministry and governance.

It is one of the hallmarks of his pontificate. He began by revamping and repurposing the Synod of Bishops.

But there continues to be much confusion over the nature of this permanent institution that Paul VI revived and recreated at the end of Vatican II.

The Synod of Bishops is a free-standing body that is called into session (assembly) as often at its president, the Bishop of Rome, shall determine.

It remains (for now, at least) a consultative body with no deliberative power.

Too often, however, Catholics – even at the Vatican and in the synod secretariat (which is NOT part of the Vatican) – use sloppy language to describe this permanent institution as if it were just a one-off event or meeting.

For instance, people regularly refer to “the Synod on marriage” or “the October Synod”. In fact, it is the Synod’s assembly on marriage or the Synod’s assembly in October.

This is a key distinction, and it has important consequences for the possible further development (and reform) of the Church’s governing structure.

Thomas Aquinas, who remains one of the most important theologians in the history of the Christian faith, insisted on care and precision in how we use language and define terms. And the Holy See – especially in the field of diplomacy, drafting of treaties, documents, etc. – has been a stickler about this, as well.

A longtime Roman Curia official told me years ago, “At the Vatican you learn the weight of a comma.” Perhaps, once upon a time. We seem to be quite sloppy in how we use language today. But maybe that is for strategic or tactical reasons.

Inclusive language

The clericalists and male chauvinists in the Church, in any case, have been extremely deliberative concerning words and terminology in the area of inclusive language.

This is certainly the case in the English-speaking world where more traditionally-minded and doctrinally-unbending Church leaders have blocked even efforts to make “horizontal language” (i.e. between members of the human race, compared to the “vertical language” we use in reference to God) more inclusive.

For example, it is quite unnecessary – as well as absurd and perhaps even un-Christian – to continue using the term “man” when one is talking about all humanity, both men and women.

Language evolves over time, as does our understanding of it and what it signifies.

The ongoing refusal to offer translations – of the lectionary, missal, and Church documents – in a sensible form of inclusive language is an impediment to reaching the many women and men who are put off or alienated by the more traditional, patriarchal manner of using language. That includes the incessant references to God as “him”.

And while we’re on the topic of using language in an imprecise manner (sometimes even deliberately), should we also talk about those who insist on preserving the so-called Traditional Latin Mass, which was not eliminated but reformed (simplified and restructured) in the wake of Vatican II?

Many devotees of the Tridentine Mass claim it’s about the preserving the Latin. But don’t be fooled. It’s not.

The reformed liturgy can also be celebrate in Latin. In fact, the prototype for the Roman Missal (which contains the Mass prayers) is in Latin. That’s why we have all these wonderful translation in the modern languages. Read more

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , ,