Krenn again

By Diogenes (articles ) | Sep 13, 2004

Readers of Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall will remember Paul Pennyfeather's first attempts to gain employment after dismissal from his Oxford college:

"Sent down for indecent behaviour, eh?" said Mr. Levy, of Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents. "Well, I don't think we'll say anything about that. In fact, officially, mind, you haven't told me. We call that sort of thing 'Education discontinued for personal reasons,' you understand."

Paul's new employer Dr. Fagan is unfazed by the euphemism ("I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal"), and hires him on the spot. The point is that no one is really fooled by official linguistic evasionese, but that it gives those who wish it a pretext to ignore the sordid reality it imperfectly veils.

We had occasion below to deplore the Vatican's use of the expression "retired for reasons of health" as a public explanation of the removal of bishops guilty of sexual perversion. The frequency with which this less-than-truthful euphemism has been employed in the recent past has resulted in a situation in which it has lost any power of concealment -- having become semantically equivalent to the coarsest of all street-corner taunts: "Yo' mutha retired for reasons of health!" The Vatican's trope differs from the more common vulgarism only in signaling disingenuousness on the part of the speaker.

Paradoxically, were this bit of official boilerplate ever employed of someone of whom it was true, it would be tantamount to a slander. If a man left Oxford because he wished, say, to enter business, it would be libellous to aggregate him to generations of scoundrels by writing "Education discontinued for personal reasons" next to his name. By the same token, if a bishop was really unable to continue in office because of illness, it would be a gross injustice to say he was stepping down on the same grounds publicly given for the Dan Ryans and Patrick Ziemanns and Tom Dupres and Keith Symons, etc., etc. Some readers have suggested that disgraced Bishop Kurt Krenn truly suffers from bodily ailments; if so, how could the Holy See communicate it to us?

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  • Posted by: - Sep. 16, 2004 8:41 AM ET USA

    Operative word in the dismissal letter is "salutem". Some have translated this as "health." But the Henle Latin Grammar translates salutem as: safety, salvation or welfare. Certainly, it was for Krenn's "welfare" that he was removed - - and also for the Church's!

  • Posted by: - Sep. 13, 2004 8:03 PM ET USA

    Bishop Krenn's "bodily ailments" surface at precisely the time the scandal breaks. Yes, "how could the Holy See communicate it to us?". . . believably.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Sep. 13, 2004 7:53 PM ET USA

    This is a very real problem. Since the litigation explosion of the '80's and '90's many companies have made rules that prohibit giving references regarding former employees looking for new jobs. You can't say anything bad but you can't say anything good because that would let somebody you said nothing bad about sue. So you confirm job title and date only. Thereby protecting the bad at the expense of the good.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 13, 2004 5:29 PM ET USA

    Diogenes, I am sure you'll agree that "health" is a multi-faceted term! Perhaps the Vatican could elaborate "just a little more" in their statements. They could try: "retired for reasons of physical incapacitation;" "retired for reasons of mental instability;" or "retired on the advice of legal counsel." Or, maybe just "retired for reasons of physical/mental/moral health" and circle the appropriate identifier.