The phoney war in the Church: five linguistic thoughts on THAT interview


Like speed, language is also war. It’s the stuff of propaganda. It’s the stuff of rousing pre-battle speeches and of post-battle excuses. It’s the handiwork of spies and the tool of diplomats. Yes, language is war in every possible way.

Language is like an ensign or a set of colours. Let me give you an example. When I first married my wife, I moved to South London and we attended a church which had a very fine priest. Sadly he retired shortly after I arrived in the parish and he was replaced by another priest – a withered-looking Irish man who seemed allergic to people. I saw the cut of his jib, however, right from the first Mass I attended at which he was the celebrant. Following the Offering Prayers, he said to the congregation: ‘Pray, sisters and brothers …’ Afterwards I said to my wife, ‘That’s the signal, we know where he is coming from now.’ My wife was skeptical, however, and little did either of us suspect the next chapter… Which occurred when we wanted our baby baptized. ‘Oh, you don’t need to rush into things,’ he said. ‘It’s a big thing welcoming a new person into a family, so it can be organized later. We don’t want to be injudicious [sic].’ My wife was on the verge of tears and desperate to argue the case. I just looked at him and thought to myself that I knew half a dozen priests who would baptize our child the next day if I asked them to.

But you see, it was all in the language. I knew what clan he belonged to almost from the minute he spoke. It doesn’t always work that way, but sometimes it is just very clear …


And so we come to THAT interview. I keep coming up against the argument that Pope Francis is working marvels for the image of the Church. His tangible support for the poor is extraordinary, people say, and nobody can criticize him from that. St Francis of Assisi has always been popular even with people who instinctively loathe Catholicism, so placing his papacy under that sign was, from a PR perspective, shrewder than shrewd – or, to use an old favourite, ‘more cunning than a fox who has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.’

But since language is war, let me state some of my difficulties with the interview in terms of its language. We don’t have much more to go on at the moment:

The language of mercy – for that is how it has been justified – has led to colossal misunderstandings in the last seven days. Pope Francis is loved but for all the wrong reasons: because it is thought his words open the door to the relaxation of “bedsheet dogmas” or open the sanctuary gates to the swish of women in chasubles. In other words, if he has one thing in common with Pope Benedict, it is this: he is misunderstood. But here is the difference: Benedict was misunderstood and hated while Francis is misunderstood and loved. And why? On matters of sexual ethics, Benedict told the hard truth but tempered it with kindness. Francis is all kindness and seems to assume that because he is a “son of the Church”, nobody will mistake his meaning. But really, if you’re the Vicar of Christ, would you rather be hated because you told the truth (albeit kindly), or loved because someone thought you were changing the truth? And while we’re on the topic of telling people they are loved rather than telling them off, the biggest popular devotion in France in the 19th century was that of the Sacred Heart – an iconic expression of God’s love for every individual – and the Republicans still loathed and persecuted the Church! Sometime, you just cannot win.

The language of latitude. We have to put an end to the growing false memory of Benedict which even the language of Francis is contributing too. Pope Francis has spoken about “small-minded rules”. I would love to ask him what rules he is thinking about. The Church purged itself of a shed-load of small-minded rules after the Council. Recently, Catholicism has been characterized not by small-minded rules, but by a minimalist approach to the law. Legalism has been out for decades.

Likewise, Francis’s concerns over what we might call “campaign doctrines” (abortion, etc) is perturbing. When he says that the Church’s pastoral ministry cannot just be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines” (just after mentioning gay marriage and abortion), it is as if he is blaming the world’s inability to understand the Church on those who have given their lives to fight the genocide of the unborn or defend Christian marriage. His language aims of course at toning down dogmatism; yet, its moralistic expression (“the Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed”) implies that the Church has gone about banging on about abortion like some revivalist temperance preacher. If you find any priest thumping a pulpit over abortion or over any sexual sin, do let us know. In fighting with this caricature as if it’s true, Pope Francis does nothing other than flatter those who have carefully crafted such an image out of half lies and distortions.

The language of omission – this is a tricky one since no interview is exhaustive. Still, it is always interesting to see how key questions are characterized by those who speak. On the Extraordinary Form – which, in another linguistic coup, is now being called the Vetus Ordo (because it is no longer deemed extraordinary, just old) – the pope says, “I think the decision of Pope Benedict [his decision of July 7, 2007, to allow a wider use of the Tridentine Mass] was prudent and motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity.” But, that is only half the story. Anyone who reads Summorum Pontificum will find that is it not only a matter of traditionalist sensibilities. Rather, it is a question of preserving the heritage of the Church. Rather, it is a matter of influencing the Ordinary Form (in a reciprocal relationship theoretically). Like all the language issues I have pointed out, this crucial omission is deeply connotative. If the Extraordinary Form is about sensibilities (as Francis says here), then it is simply a sideshow for traditionalist nostalgia. If it’s a heritage for the entire Church (as Benedict wrote), then it cannot be swept under the carpet. So what does Francis think exactly?

And by the way, was there in the interview any mention of cracking together the heads of those responsible for covering up abuse or for slowing down its expurgation? While we are on the topic of omissions, why did he have nothing to say about that – a subject on which the Church’s leaders have tended to be silent…? Why mention devolving the CDF’s doctrinal work but pass over the biggest scandal of recent times? It’s not as if, in not mentioning it, he can keep it out of the headlines…

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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2 Responses to The phoney war in the Church: five linguistic thoughts on THAT interview

  1. Giovanni A. Cattaneo says:

    I think that the fight it self is clear sign of how bad things have gotten when it comes to Church teaching and how wide the chasm between the post conciliar hierarchy and the faithful is. These are the true abundant fruits of the council.

    Springtime indeed.


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