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The importance of words: The key to our Catholic mission

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 31, 2016

I notice that Piero Doria has written a new book (in Italian) on the history of the Second Vatican Council. As an historian who works in the Vatican’s Secret Archives, he probably had access to a good deal of information about what was going on behind the scenes at the time. So I hope it will prove to be an interesting and engaging book.

Another helpful source is the journals kept by the theologian Henri de Lubac, who was an active participant in the Council. Ignatius Press has published these journals. The second volume has just been released, covering the period from October 27, 1963 to the Council’s closing ceremony on December 8, 1965. I reviewed the first of these fascinating volumes (covering the period from July 25, 1960 through September 2, 1963) last year, though perhaps “reviewed” is not quite the right word. I actually reproduced some of the most interesting extracts from the journals, interspersed with my own interpretive comments.

The purpose of all of these exercises in research and interpretation, of course, ought to be to figure out how and why the Council developed as it did and what its decrees mean in the context of their time, so that we can better understand the ways in which the subsequent history of the Church has been faithful or unfaithful to the approved texts. We all have some interest (at once spiritual and emotional) in authentic Catholic renewal, and to some extent authentic Catholic renewal in our time must be judged against the mandate given by the ecumenical council that called for such a widespread commitment to this renewal.

Unfortunately, we all have not only an interest but a vested interest in the Council. Each of us is eager—and sometimes too eager—to prove that the Council did or did not successfully articulate a model for a renewed Catholicism, and that subsequent Catholic history has or has not successfully implemented the Council’s vision. We see this already in the brief news story about Doria’s new book. For example, in the preface Archbishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano calls Vatican II an “event and a prophecy”—an event that fostered the “passage to a new paradigm” of the Church, and a prophecy of the pontificate of Pope Francis, with his great emphasis on mercy.

These judgments may or may not be true. The problem as I see it is that all of our vested interests combine to establish what is by far the most obvious fact about the Second Vatican Council—namely that it cannot be discussed without verbal pyrotechnics. That is the reason I refer to the Council here. It is a perfect illustration of my subject—the importance of words, and their impact on mission.

Another instance of the Same Thing

We have a similar dynamic at work in the reception of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on love in the family, Amoris Laetitia. Some Catholic groups have gone through the text with a fine-tooth comb, taking anything they could find out of context in order to charge the pope with heresy. Others have been more interested in what we might call the “spirit” of the text, insisting that it is the basis for a veritable revolution in the Catholic understanding of both Church and family.

Thus Cardinal Walter Kasper recently boasted that Amoris Laetitia represents a “paradigm shift”, assuring us that “Amoris Laetitia does not change an iota of the teaching of the Church, yet it changes everything” because it shows that in life “there is no black and white but only different nuances and shadings.” And Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Blaise Cupich of Chicago claims that the apostolic exhortation is an “authentic and inspired expression of the Spirit of the Magisterium of the Church,” which has inspired his priests to a renewed commitment to their “social mission to be salt, light, and leaven…preparing the world for the Kingdom of God.”

And you wonder why I blather on about vested interests and verbal pyrotechnics? If you want to know what the Second Vatican Council actually said, I recommend that you start with the series I wrote on the individual documents in 2010. If you want to try to sort out the controversy over Amoris Laetitia, it may be helpful to read my initial analysis, and then explore other commentaries written by Phil Lawler and myself about the same time. But, again, my main purpose here is to call our attention to the importance of words, including the damage that can be done when rhetoric becomes divorced from reality.

Interesting Times

The expression “May you live in interesting times” is supposed to be a translation of an ancient Chinese curse. The only problem with this widely-held theory is that this expression originated in late nineteenth or early twentieth century England, and has no known connection with anything Chinese. In exactly the same way, there are a great many slogans and claims relating to the Second Vatican Council that have no connection to the text promulgated by that august assembly. And even Pope Francis himself seems prone to approve interpretations of Amoris Laetitia that are not specified in the actual text.

Look, rhetorical sleight of hand is an old game now. There is often a “fly by the seat of your pants” approach to the reception of Church documents, and it can take time for people to bring their scorched underwear back down to earth. Meanwhile, things pretty much stink.

Those who want to change the Church in essentially impossible ways constantly rhapsodize in wonderment over the spiritual essence of key documents without paying much attention at all to the texts themselves. Archbishop Cupich captured this technique well when he referred, not to the familiar spirit of the Council, but even more fulsomely to the “Spirit of the Magisterium”. One is in awe of such verbal facility. Are we now to follow the Spirit of the Magisterium, just as in past years we were urged to follow the Spirit of the Council?

This can create all kinds of confusion, which is just another way of saying that pursues its mission in “interesting times”. It is the curse and the glory (yes, strike the match and light the rocket!) of our writers to be wordsmiths in an era of incessant verbal explosions—colorful indeed, but dangerous in the wrong hands (or on the wrong tongues). A great deal of what we do involves patiently restoring the meaning of words so that we can actually understand what the Church has taught, what we are bound to accept, which ideas are dangerous or false, and how important Catholic issues ought to be understood.

I cannot claim that we always get things exactly right. I suspect that’s not even humanly possible. But I can claim that we receive a constant stream of emails from other Catholics, in every corner of the world, who find it easier to stay grounded, to keep their sanity, to practice their Faith, and to live out the evangelical virtue of hope—precisely because of the way we use words here. My best estimate is that if we combine with the free recirculation of our original materials in parish bulletins, newsletters, radio, television, blogs, other websites and social media, we reach something on the order of ten million readers each year, at a cost of less than five cents each.

But one does not reach millions of Catholics without a budget. This year is especially difficult for us because some Catholics have become discouraged despite our best efforts, and because in the United States we are tempted to allocate important resources to yet another highly unsatisfactory Presidential election campaign. The bottom line—entirely without verbal pyrotechnics—is that we need to make better progress toward matching our Booster challenge grant of $50,000.

If we do not match the whole amount, our mission will not survive into 2017. We still have about $11,000 left to match. So if you care about using words wisely and well, please make a generous contribution to our Fall Campaign. Words are extraordinarily important. But they can do good only if they are rooted in the Word Himself.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 02, 2016 10:38 AM ET USA

    The expression “spirit of Vatican II” was supposed to mean something more enlightened than Vatican II itself; an inner knowledge. But in reality it was mainly used to distort what the Council actually said and taught. That phrase has been thoroughly exposed as a verbal fraud and no respectable theologian is using it anymore. I was surprised that Abp. Cupich resurrected the old concept in the form of “the spirit of the Magisterium.” “Magisterium” alone would be perfectly sufficient in his case.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 01, 2016 8:11 AM ET USA

    "Spirit of the Magisterium of the Church" seems to be another phrase that intends to commit the unforgivable sin of proselytism. Just as the spurious "spirit of Vatican II" sought to impose on the Church a message at odds with what the _words_ published by the Council said, the "Spirit of the Magisterium" may be looking to impose a similar type of message. "Don't pay attention to the words; rather, pay attention to _us_." Both Avery Dulles and C. Ratzinger denied a "magisterium of theologians."