Language Barrier

In Order to Communicate Better, We Need a Point of Reference

I think many are asking today, "What is Pope Francis up to?" Take a look at this picture and try to figure out what it says. For some this will take a second and for others they may never figure it out. Ask yourself, if this sign hung over the door, would this be a place you would enter?


Like never before, the Church needs to be in dialogue with the world. It is in this particular area that Pope Francis has already offered some great insights. As with every form of communication and dialogue, all of the participants need a common point of reference to understand what is being said. Otherwise, it is impossible to have a productive dialogue. Like Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis realizes the language used in a dialogue is extremely important. There is no doubt that he is making every effort to open the dialogue using language that others can appreciate. In this regard, it appears he realizes there are still many barriers that need to be crossed.

Throughout much of his academic career and pontificate, Pope Benedict sought open dialogue with secularists and atheists, and he is still doing so in retirement. In the many dialogues he had, he was a master at expounding on the depth and riches of the theological language that expresses our Faith. The struggle in many of these dialogues has been the linguistic barriers that form around uncommon points of reference. For
Pope Benedict, much of the dialogue required bringing the non-believer to the point of reference from which he was speaking.

Generally speaking, when someone in the Church speaks to someone who is not, the outsider typically reacts as if the Church were speaking a foreign language because, for them, it is. For many decades, especially through public educational systems, there has been a program of verbal engineering that was intended to promote a specifically secular verbiage. This process openly sought to detach the point of reference of traditional moral and ontological referents from their Divine Referent and attach them to secular alternatives. So in this regard, modern language has changed dramatically, and linguistic barriers have formed.

Think of it this way: Imagine if the UN General Assembly did not have simultaneous translators when the world's leaders gathered to discuss an important issue. For the most part, there would be frustration and problems with regard to the proper understanding of what another world leader was saying. Not only would the dialogue become voluminous and unsustainable, any real or effective communication would be impossible. In fact, a lack of understanding among the participants could be disastrous. In this regard, for there to be effective communication, an accurate translation is needed. However, just translating a word is insufficient as a common point of reference is also needed. Words are powerful but without a common point of reference, they are powerless.

By way of example, a word could be translated accurately, but, if the recipient does not have the same point of reference, the meaning could still be lost. If an Italian used the word "mucca," the recipient would hear the English translator use the word "cow." If both have the same point of reference, there would be no problem. But if the listener had no point of reference or knowledge of a cow, this could result in a breakdown in communication. Or if the recipient, through a process of verbal engineering, had always been shown a bull as the point of reference for the word cow, it would change his or her reaction when the word is used. It is important to remember that it is not the word that makes a cow what it is; rather, it only designates what already is. If there is no common point of reference, further explanation would be required so that all parties understand the reality before them.

The same is true when we attempt to speak of eternal realities, especially from an ecclesial point of reference. In any dialogue with the world we need a common point of reference, which is often lacking today. The problem is that many of the expressions the Church uses have been altered by verbal engineers because they wanted to remove the traditional stigma and judgmental tone. For instance, when the Church speaks of virtue, it is an aspect of reality derived from the nature of Man. But a person steeped in a secular worldview may think of a list of desired qualities that have to be cultivated in a person. In such conversations, the Church speaks of the Natural Law. However, a person steeped in a secular worldview may hear it as the law of nature. In this context, the two are not synonymous and point to two very different realities. This has created a problem today because, especially with regard to morality and Sin, the common point of reference is missing.

In following what Pope Francis has been saying, it appears he is trying to bridge the linguistic gap between Church teaching and worldly interpretations. Make no mistake, I am sure he understands both sides very well and is choosing his references very carefully. I am convinced that he is asking pastors around the world to do the same. Yet he is extending the challenge even further because at this point in the verbal chasm he realizes that we are not going to have success if we continue with the status quo or allow ourselves to be cornered into specific dialogues.

Thus, in saying that we "cannot insist only on abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods," it seems Pope Francis is saying that these issues have lost their point of reference in the dialogue, which has made it "impossible" for us to have an effective dialogue today. In the secular world, if you are Catholic and say you are pro-life, they hear that you are anti-abortion. If you say you are pro-marriage and wish to preserve Marriage as ordained by God, they perceive you as homophobic, anti-gay, or out of touch. If you say you are convinced that Natural Family Planning is the only way for virtuous family planning, they accuse you of being anti-women, unscientific, and sexually repressive. It is not that any of these perceptions are true, but that they are the effect of the verbal engineering that has taken place for many years. In this regard, the process of verbal engineering has cultivated a different point of reference that is now quite widespread.

Therefore, what Pope Francis has been doing is opening the door to a new dialogue and allowing the Church to reclaim what has always been Her position… every Catholic must love the sinner and hate the sin. He has not changed any teaching but is changing the current point of reference. The dialogue must begin on this revamped premise. In loving sinners, we embrace them first and let them know there is hope and healing. It is possible for the wounds of Sin to be healed, but it will not happen if the sinner does not find Christ. Too often the popular caricature is that the Church only wishes to condemn sinners, an image that church members have fed at times. However, as the Pope reminded us, every member of the Church is a sinner first and foremost and in need of Grace. It is only through Grace and the pursuit of virtue that the sinner has hope.

If I truly love someone, I want them to receive Christ's Grace. The Pontiff is correct that many need to come to this healing font now more than ever. The ministers of the Church are the guides to that font.

But to be clear, Pope Francis did not say we should leave the sinner in sin or that sin is not important, even though that is what the secular media seem to have heard. By saying, "Who am I to judge," he is saying that our first recourse in the dialogue is to remind everyone that there is Hope, there is Grace. So let's not talk about the sin first; let's talk about the hope given us in Christ, Whose Grace is the source of healing. I believe this is why the Pontiff said, "The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all… In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds." It is during the process of accompanying that the ongoing conversion and true healing take place.

If I am correct, the Pope has been trying to get those on the ecclesial side of the dialogue to follow the RCIA model with the goal of walking with the converted sinner in Mystagogy. To adapt a popular expression, we must not just talk the talk… we must walk the walk -- with them!

For the record, the word in the picture above is a phonetic spelling of McDonald's in Cyrillic letters. If you substitute each of the Cyrillic letters with their latin equivalent, it spells Macdonalds.

And So It Begins

The Onslaught of Evil

Yes, we all like to complain about advertisers who begin showing ads well before a particular holiday. Certainly, these same advertisers wish to strip Christmas and Easter of any Christian message whatsoever. What still baffles the mind is the love they have for the ghoulish festival of Halloween. Not only have the ads for candy been out since mid-August but the onslaught of evil images has started. It is amazing how unfascinated the world has become regard to God but how fascinated it has become with ghosts, goblins, and horror in general.

The Need to Digest

Because a Great Deal Was Said...

In the pope's recent interview, there is a great amount of material that needs to be digested. I also remind myself and everyone who reads the document that it is an informal interview and NOT an ex cathedra statement. In the interview, he speaks of prayer, holiness, and direction. Ironically, the mainstream and secular media have given the impression that every word he pronounced, especially if it is favorable to their agenda, must be infallible. An interview is not a teaching document but a commentary.
Pasted Graphic

That being said, the pope used an excellent image with regard to describe the Church - the Church as a field hospital after battle! He said, "You have to heal the wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds… And you have to start from the ground up." It is a powerful image because there are a great many wounds that have come in the spiritual battle, wounds that are a direct result of Sin. The lives of so many people are in disarray spiritually. The wounds of Sin are deep and need to be healed. These wounds include many sins beyond the few that make headlines. But we must be clear in what he said, heal the wounds… and then talk about the rest of the process.

So why do so many think he gave a blanket permission to allow sinful structures to continue when in fact he did not? Part of healing a wound is to correct what caused the injury. It does not make sense to heal a broken leg if the person continues to engage in actions that will threaten the leg. If the person broke his or her leg jumping off the stairs, then part of the healing process will be to have the person stop jumping. If the person broke his or her leg due to a vitamin deficiency, then the healing would require a therapy that improves his or her vitamin balance. And once the initial healing takes place and the person is able to walk, we must always remember that there will be lingering effects from the injury, that is, an ongoing need to heal.

The same is true with the Church as a field hospital. People do cross the threshold with some very serious wounds. The first response must be to help the person by addressing the pain and alleviating the suffering it has caused. But the second part must be a transformation of the individual and his or her life. That is when Christ must be placed first and foremost. That is when a person will want to get to know Christ. That is when Christ can be accepted as Lord and Savior. The learning process will take time and needs to be handled like the skillful nurse who works on rehabilitation. In this image alone the pope has offered a profound direction for the Church of the new millennium but it is not new or innovative. He has only reiterated what the Church has always been -- a place for spiritual healing and rehabilitation.

Very Clever

Pope Francis the Media Sensation

When I first read the full text of the interview with Pope Francis last week, I immediately picked the lines that would be quoted around the world. My first reaction was to wonder what he was up to. Certainly, he did not need to restate many of the things in the interview, as he has stated them before. I also wondered if his advisers told him it was not a good move to release the document as it will only stir up controversy. To be honest, he did not say anything of grand import in the interview and he did not change anything. But the way he said it garnered a great deal of attention.

Apparently, people from each end of the spectrum laud him and condemn him on the basis of what he said. And I repeat, he did not change any teaching nor did he say anything new, which is the genius of the whole project. What he did was get everyone talking about the fullness of the Church and Church Teaching. He did say that there should be more outreach to the lost and disenfranchised. This is not new as every pastor wonders how best to do so. Now the door is open and the conversation started. In the end, the whole process was very clever on his part.

Back to Basics

More Updates Needed

I realize I have not been making posts of late and I hope to rectify that in the coming days. As with all things, it comes down to time on the schedule.