The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 1B--Language as a Indult from Reality

The last post ended with a discussion of language and the importance of having the right language.  Alison picks up with a point that I have never seen anyone else make:

As you all know, the clerical culture within the Catholic Church is an all male affair. Until fifty years ago, it was, and had been for over a millennium, an all male affair whose members were socialised into thinking in a language other than the maternal language of any of them, and who learned to debate and to discuss things in that language. Elaborate rules regarding the agonistic structure of discourse were observed. Debates were syllogistic fencing matches and so on. I don’t think we have any clear idea of our current difficulties in the Catholic Church if we don’t have some sense of the consequences of the astoundingly speedy collapse of Latinity in the west.

"So what?" you might ask.  "Why does it matter that Latin is no longer the language of instruction for priests?"

Languages are not neutral carriers of information.  If you have ever tried to translate spoken words or text from one language to another, you know that you can never perfectly recreate the meaning of the original in the destination language.  It's never exactly right, and the reason it is never exactly right is because there is meaning encoded in the language itself, meaning that can't be conveyed except through the use of the language.  Moreover, languages have structures and characteristics that color the way communication occurs in that language.  In other words, it is not simply that you cannot perfectly translate ideas from one language to another, but the very way you put ideas together is informed by the language in which one is thinking and composing those ideas.

Consider English, the language that this post is written in, which happens to be the only language in which I can speak and write with any competency.  One of the unique features of English as compared to other languages is its enormous vocabulary, due in large part from its liberal borrowing and repurposing of words from other languages.  The result of this vast vocabulary is that for every basic word, there is usually an array of other words that mean basically the same thing.  But not quite the same thing--each of these different variants has a very subtle shade of meaning or a particular context in which that variant is generally used.

As an experiment, I put the word "smart" into an on-line thesaurus. Considering only "smart" when used to mean "intelligent," the on-line thesaurus pumped out 40 synonyms (not including "intelligent," which was used as the definition but should be included).  Each one of them conveys some particular nuance--saying that someone is "brainy" is not exactly like saying they are "canny," which in turn is not the same as saying they are "slick."

That's not to say that only English has synonyms.  The point is that English has many more of them than other languages, which means that it is structured as to allow the speaker to make very subtle distinctions in meaning.  And so, as a result, people that speak English are inculcated into a way of speaking and a way of thinking that incorporates fine-grained meanings and nuances.  A language that lacks these distinctions can't reproduce these subtleties as well, if at all, and so people who work in that language are going to learn a different approach to communication.


Latin is a splendid legal language stressing objective reality in a way that is useful for governing. It came into its own as a language of Empire. It is much poorer at a whole lot of the forms of discourse which have become common since the late middle ages. In particular, it can’t begin to match up to the languages which have flourished since the novel appeared and began to make available to people another way of truth telling and story-sharing. It helped shore up a world, long past its sell-by date, in which a strong distinction was made between the objective (good, reliable) and the subjective (bad, prone to error).

Latin is, in a sense, the opposite of English.  Whereas as English allows you to express a single concept in a multitude of ways (each with its own tone and shading), Latin stresses clarity and uniformity of expression.  That's a enormous advantage if you are looking to communicate so-called "objective" facts, because it removes potential sources of confusion and misapprehension.  Does it really help anything to have a word "rock" and a word "stone" that both refer to a lump of hard mineral?  Probably not.  But is it useful to have a multitude of synonyms for "joy" or "passion"?  It is if you are trying to express the idea that these concepts can be, and often are, experienced in a wide variety of ways in a wide variety of contexts.  English, and other modern languages, can handle that communication task, whereas Latin has a very hard time.

As a result, people who are trained to think and express themselves in terms of Latin--i.e. Catholic priests until around 1970--are going to have a hard time thinking through and expressing these sorts of emotional and personal subtleties.  And, since no one enjoys the experience of trying to communicate something but not finding the words, those deficits will exert a gravitational pull toward a world view that eliminates or marginalizes those sorts of considerations.

But it has become increasingly clear that too strong a distinction in this area is unhelpful. Our subjectivity is an objective fact about us, and we cannot be objective except in such a way as works through our subjectivity. And our subjectivity comes from what is outside us and precedes us. We ourselves are largely functions of public desire.

Pope Benedict was fond of talking about "relativism" and the "dictatorship of relativism."  The idea was that, if one doesn't hold on to an "objective" understanding of the world, then the inevitable result is the triumph of the formless void of chaos in which nothing will be stable in the face of unrestrained "opinion" and "choice."  My experience is that this line of argument was generally greeted with confusion--either people had no idea what to make of it, or else they converted into a facile statement about morality ("well, some people have the 'opinion' that being gay is not immoral, so that must be the sort of relativism the Pope is talking about.")

It seems to me that Pope Benedict's comments are best understood, whether he was aware of it or not, as being about the erosion of the old ways of talking about the world.  That erosion, ultimately, occurred because many people in many different ways have become convinced that this insistence on an objective stance doesn't accurately reflect the world as it actually is.

I certainly am not an expert on post-modernism, but I think the simplest explanation of it goes something like this.  From the "modern" point of view, the world consists of tangible, objective "things" out there in the universe; we take in information about those things via our senses, and we process that information via something called Reason, which allows us to get an intellectual understanding of the things that are "out there" in the world.  Post-modernism comes in and introduces a series of complications to every step in that process.  In particular, the "modern" narrative presupposes a pre-existent, autonomous "I" that is wholly separate from the objective reality "out there."

Girardian theory asserts that there is no such thing as a static, detatched "I."  Instead, "I" is a dynamic reality that is constantly being shaped by, and shaping, the world around it, which Alison collectively terms the "Social Other" (or, in this essay "public desire").  Moreover, if one is a believer, we must also account for the idea that this dynamic "I" is being shaped by the transcendent "Other Other," i.e. God (hence Alison's insistence that we are all "undergoing God").  Trying to peel away the so called "subjective" elements of who we are to reach an "objective" core is an arbitrary, and ultimately rather silly, exercise.  In other words, insisting on talking about the "objective" nature of things is problematic because things are not nearly as "objective" as the folks who insist on objectivity would have you believe.

All this talk of "relativism" and why it is so terrible is in large part the product of being trapped in a kind of linguistic ghetto.  Older ways of speaking cannot help but speak in objective terms, but those objective terms don't really reflect the world as it is currently understood.  Rather than come up with new terms, the solution is to rail against the new way of thinking and insist that everything must be filtered through the lens of "objective" reality.  When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But now, that monosexual priesthood is without a special language, and the deliverances of those formed in the world of Latin and its supposed objectivity, even when they appear in a vernacular tongue, are increasingly incomprehensible to a younger generation. In other words, our monosexual priesthood is without a language of its own, and has had very little access to ease and fluency with the changing shape of the language of everybody else, given how much of that language has developed over the last century or so precisely in the areas of emotional and sexual honesty. . . .

This I think has been part of the problem in being able to talk about these things at all in my Church. There is a huge stress for people caught between two entirely different ways of talking, the one corresponding to the clerical culture, where an ability to avoid emotional and sexual honesty and the language of subjectivity is necessary for survival, and certainly for promotion, and one where an ability to be transparent and honest, to be seen to be vulnerable and to be able to tell a story, are the sine qua non for being thought convincing.

If you listen to a certain kind of traditionalist Catholic, you will certainly hear a lament for the lost "beauty" and "purity" of the dominance of Latin in Catholic worship and Catholic life.  Those sorts of paeans have always struck me as expressions of pure nostalgia and antiquarianism, but reading Alison's essay shows that there is a kernel of an argument to the insistence on Latin.  Insisting on Latin was a way of insisting on, and shoring up, a particular value system and world view.  Simply removing Latin from the culture of priesthood, without changing any of the underlying theology or world view, removed the structural support for the theology.  In a sense, the theology that priests are promulgating has become disassociated from the world they are living in, resulting in a dislocation. Right now, priests have to "code switch" between the language of theology and the language of the rest of their lives.  In theory, if the Church had maintained the insistence of a culture of Latin for the priesthood, then priestly life today would be more cohesive, and thus stronger.

In theory.  The problem with that thesis is twofold.  One, no matter how much you make seminarians learn Latin in school, they are still modern people being raised in the broader culture that they find themselves.  A priest cannot spend 24/7 saying Mass and interacting with other clergy--he has to talk to non-clergy people, go to the store, interact with his parents and family, etc.  As Alison points out, no matter how high you build the walls of the linguistic ghetto, the demands of the outside culture are going to creep in and impact the ability of a priest to function as a regular human being.  The walls are never going to completely protect a priest from having to "been seen as vulnerable and to be able to tell a story."  Especially since, after all, the vast majority of priests are going to be sent out into parishes to minister to non-clergy people of various sorts.  Some measure of code switching is going to be necessary no matter what.

This is particularly true in light of the second problem--non-clergy people have, except for a handful of nostalgists and antiquarians, completely moved on from the kind of world that Latin communicates.  Doubling down and insisting on this way of speaking leads to a clergy class can not talk in a comprehensible way to the people to whom the priest is trying to minister.  And, unlike in previous days (at least in the West), the people in the pews are not going to sit there passively, pretending to understand what the ordained guy is saying and just follow along with whatever he tells them to do.

As the Church has learned from Humanae Vitae. 

Here an example could well be differing reactions to Humanae Vitae. I think that the people for whom Paul VI did the least favours by his 1968 Encyclical were not the married people who were directly affected by it, but rather the celibate caste which was not directly affected by it. Notoriously one of the effects of Humanae Vitae on the Catholic laity, especially in Northern countries where a Protestant-style conscience has been pervasive even in the Catholic Church, was a great crisis of conscience as a generation of lay people learned to disregard the papal teaching. And one of the ways this happened was that a generation of the Catholic faithful learned to talk about their experience, their feelings, their bodies, their commitment and so on in a way which simply sidestepped the rhetorical world of the encyclical. In short, it speeded up the effects of the schism of discourse which is currently operative in the Catholic Church, turning even northern Jansenists into something much closer to Italian Catholics in their ability to love the Holy Father and pay very little attention to him especially when he’s on about sexual matters.

The idea that the vast majority of Catholic laity have "sidestepped the rhetorical world of the encyclical" is the best description of what has happened in the years since '68.  Except in the hothouse of the Catholic Internet, people don't really argue about Humanae Vitae or struggle with it so much as they ignore it, as if  it were an impenetrable background noise.  Notwithstanding the conservative rhetoric that the problem is that Catholics don't understand the Church's position, my experience is that attempts to explain the arguments it makes results in greater incomprehension on the part of the listener, not less.  The more one digs into the arguments of Humanae Vitae, the more one finds oneself in a kind of parallel universe, where words mean different things from their common usage.

Humanae Vitae was the moment where the Catholic laity realized that they could no longer be sure that the pronouncements of their religion, at least with regard to sex, were going to be relevant and applicable to their real lives in the real world.  It's as if people had gone to the same store for hundreds of years and had gotten the same horseshoe every time, only to realize in '68 that no one rides a horse anymore because we all drive cars.  The fact that the store insists on selling you a horseshoe and insists that the horseshoe is the right answer to whatever your particular transportation-related problem happens to be doesn't necessarily mean you will stop going to the store to get nails or lumber or your other hardware needs.  But it does mean that eventually you will realize that fixing your car is going to require going to a different shop, or figuring it out on your own, but in any event you can't expect any help from the old store and it is best just to tune out their insistent pro-horseshoe sales messages.

My point is that an unintended consequence of Humanae Vitae was to give the clergy a thirty-five year indult from reality. . . .  [T]he laity had to work through the issues of conscience and start to develop other ways of talking, including facing up to the demands of honesty and authenticity which the struggle to recover the link between the objective and the subjective brings to the fore, the clergy as a group were able to carry on for thirty-five years with a fictional teaching and without having to work through the issues of conscience for themselves in the same way. 

People living in the real world, driving cars if you will, had to work through the consequences of no longer being able to trust what was coming from Rome, what that meant for them and for their faith, and how they were going to fix their own cars.  The sales staff at the store--the clergy--didn't have to do any of that because they never had to leave the store and they could just cling to the old sales messages about horseshoes.  Now, it is abundantly clear that many clergy privately understood that Humanae Vitae was, and is, a dead letter that few were taking seriously.  But, and here is the key, as celibate men they never had any real motivation to push the issue because none of this affected them personally.  The "liberal" ones just ignored Humanae Vitae and pretended that if they didn't talk about it then the whole thing would just go away (see my comments in the last post about the "Irish" character of the Church in America).  The "conservative" ones tried to toe the line and be as persuasive as they could be in trying to sell horseshoes to people.  Either way, there were no real consequences for anyone within the clergy class resulting from Humanae Vitae.

As an aside, there is another example beyond Humane Vitae that fits this category, and that is divorced and remarried people going to Communion.  All of the talk associated with this issue inside the Church revolves around the proposition that Catholicism has held fast to the proposition that marriages are indissoluble, resulting in discussions of whether this or that proposal will or will not protect this inviolable principle.

Meanwhile, most lay Catholics, and most outside observers who care enough to look into the matter, have come to the conclusion that the Catholic Church already allows marriages to be dissolved via the annulment process.  On Day X two people (who went through all of the proper formalities) are considered by the Church to be married; on Day X+1 those two people are now considered not to have been married, and are free to marry other people.  How is this different from getting divorced?  The official answer--that technically, and only in a way that is visible in retrospect, they were never married in the first place--seems farcical and bizarre.  A couple is married for 20 years and has a bunch of kids and the Church declares that this entire marriage never actually happened?  How does that work?  Only in the world of a particular language structure and set of presuppositions does that make any sense.

As a result, translated into something remotely comprehensible to the people sitting the pews, the rule becomes "you can totally get a divorce and be in good standing with Church, so long as you go through this additional, convoluted, sometimes expensive, and usually embarrassing process that we have set up, the end of which may result in us denying you the Catholic divorce because of Reasons.  But, if we do tell you you are SOL because of Reasons, then we absolutely forbid you to get married again, and we absolutely insist you listen to our judgment on this matter."  It should not come as an enormous surprise that a significant segment of people decide to opt-out of the process and toss this rule into the same bucket as Humanae Vitae.  And, once again, clergy don't have any particular incentive to rock the boat or question the wisdom of the rule or the language structure that mandates it.  They have an indult from reality.

In any event, the days of the indult are over.

I refer to a thirty-five year indult, since that is the time it has taken for what was, as Paul VI knew, implicit in Humanae Vitae to come full circle. While he was mulling over preparation for the encyclical, Paul VI was told that if he permitted a separation between the unitive and the procreative function of sex in the case of heterosexual married couples, he would be depriving the Church of any realistic reason for making same-sex acts intrinsically wrong. And so it has turned out to be. The vast majority of the faithful has not accepted Humanae Vitae, and sure enough, since we are quite logical animals, over time the percentage of straight Catholics practising some form or other of birth control who are willing to judge gay people negatively for acts which are no different from their own in respect to what the Vatican refers to as their “indispensable finality” has diminished steadily.

One of the things that struck me when I read Matthew Vines's book God and the Gay Christian is the degree to which he frames the issue of homosexuality entirely in terms of a series of contentious Biblical texts.  In essence, Vines's book basically says "well, here are all the passages in the Bible that might be used to argue that gay sex is immoral, and here are arguments for why those texts don't mean what you think they mean.  Having no remaining Biblical passages that would say that it is wrong to have gay sex, it must be the case that it is OK."

That is 180 degrees from the Catholic approach to the question.  The Biblical passages are really a sideshow for Catholics--the real issue is an anthropological and philosophical description of the human person, and to what extent that description can incorporate this thing we have come to call same-sex (or bisexual) sexual orientation.  Right now, officially, the answer is "no."  But, Alison points out, that "no" is basically conditioned on, and linked to, maintaining the "no" on birth control.

Conversely, if you don't accept the "no" to birth control, you are predisposed to reject the "no" to same sex sexual orientation.  This explains the otherwise very strange phenomenon of Catholic countries (Argentina, Spain, Ireland) and Catholic voters in the U.S. (almost 2/3rds) being disproportionately out in front of the pro-LGBT rights wave, while the official position of the Church continues to be hard line.  Once you have made peace with ignoring the hard sell to buy a horseshoe, it is easier to ignore a push to buy some other product that you are convinced you don't need.  All of the hard work of recasting one's relationship to the Church had already been done for most lay Catholics in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae.

For clergy, however, this is all uncharted ground.  Being celibate granted them 35 years to ignore the problem that their official theological language, especially about sex, no longer lined up with reality, because none of them were married and none of them had to wrestle with contraception.  But the question of homosexuality hits them right where they live, literally.  As Alison mentioned previously, the culture of the Catholic priesthood basically was a closeted gay male culture.  Now the waves are breaking on shore, attacking or at least calling into question the understood (if unspoken) meaning of the "gay" part, but perhaps more importantly attacking the very notion of the "closeted" part.

Think of it this way.  Before, you would have people who would go into the seminary about whom people would say "Bob would make a great priest, but it is really a shame that he doesn't meet some nice girl and be happy together."  That was not a problem--either Bob would decide he actually wanted to leave and meet that nice girl, or he decided to stay because felt the call to priesthood strongly and preferred that over being married, or decided to stay because he had no interest in the nice girl but couldn't say that.  Now, though, there are some people saying "Bob would make a great priest, but it is really a shame that he doesn't meet some nice boy and be happy together."  Everyone in scenario #3 is faced with an entirely new set of options that they have to work through, options that their training provide no guidance and support in helping to navigate.  That's the internal crisis in the Catholic priesthood, and like all crises, people who are caught up in it are reacting to it in more or less constructive ways.

The pain and anguish behind all this in the clerical life of the Catholic Church is, as far as I can see (and I have met many priests from many countries talking about exactly this sort of thing) the anguish of men who want to be honest, but don’t know how to be so without exploding and losing everything, and yet who scarcely dare to be able to say that “the teaching of the Church is wrong and it is wrong to be complicit with it."

The bottom line is that Catholics, and Catholic clergy in particular, are in a bind because the old ways of talking no longer work and they have not found new ways of talking.  And, as we saw in the last post, if you can't talk about a problem you can't solve the problem.

Fine.  So how can we, or should we, talk about these things?  It is here that Alison turns to theology, which will be the subject of the next post.

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