Let’s Explain Rather than Eject the Church’s Language

The Church in recent decades has found itself in an internal discussion about how best to express its belief about sexual morality, and these conversations have filtered into the episcopate as well. Fr. Gerald E. Murray raises some recent examples in an essay at The Catholic Thing. In an interview with America magazine this summer, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego criticized the Church’s use of language like “intrinsically disordered,” arguing that it will only be misunderstood in today’s culture (and, as Fr. Murray pointed out, prescinding entirely from the question of whether the term is accurate in itself). Bishop Vincent Long of Parramata, Australia also recently publicly rejected this language, saying it “won’t wash” with young people and arguing that there is a contradiction between treating people with love and compassion and terming “their sexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered.’” As Fr. Murray concludes, “Thus we have two Catholic bishops who publicly assert that it is destructive, defensive, divisive, and lacking in love and compassion to preach the simple truth.”

Many critics point to such disavowals of traditional theological language as evidence that the teaching they embody is being rejected. That is certainly possible, but if we were to give the most charitable reading of these statements, we might say they evince a pessimism or despair that the Church’s teaching can be communicated in today’s post-Christian society. The world no longer speaks the Church’s language, so how can it be expected to understand the Church’s message? We need fresh expressions and new terminology, a translation of classical terms into modern parlance.

Yet this can be difficult to do in an age that lacks the key categories of thought. In a culture with an underlying philosophy that rejects objective reality and morals—that rejects the notion of sin—how does one introduce these subjects? To this problem, the proponents of “new language” do not offer much answer. In the interview, Bishop McElroy does not propose an alternative way of conveying the Church’s teaching, apart from a vague statement that “all of us fail at times.” Yet such a statement only begs the question: what is it that one is failing to do in such acts? To act according to the natural order, or to act in such a way that the natural purpose and end of an act is fulfilled? In such a case, should not such acts be described as “disordered”?

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It would seem we are at an impasse, then. The Church’s language is considered arcane and unintelligible, yet no new lexicon has been proposed. How are we to convey the Church’s teaching to the world?

The answer is hiding in plain sight: we define our terms. We retain our traditional language while explaining further what it means. If the Church’s traditional formulations express the truth, then they are adequate to reality. We should be very hesitant thus to throw overboard formulae that are truthful and real from the Barque of Peter. Rather, we use them as a link in the chain, elucidating those terms which have become unfamiliar to the modern world.

To outright reject the terms would give the impression that the Church did not believe their substance anymore. This is the concern of Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap. of Philadelphia. He, too, acknowledges the difficulties in terms such as “intrinsically disordered,” saying that they ought to be “shelved” for a while. Yet in the same interview he clearly explains what the term means: “It means that same-sex attraction is not part of God’s plan, and we can’t deny that’s what the Church thinks,” and says that this reality “absolutely cannot” be lost in any new expression that the Church uses. At least Archbishop Chaput acknowledges the truth of the term even while he cites the difficulty in its reception in modern times.

Some may see this discussion taking place in the Church and shake their heads that we would quibble so much over mere words. Yet G.K. Chesterton reminds us in his novel The Ball and the Cross of what a mistake this is:

What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only thing worth fighting about.

In his book True and False Reform in the Church, the venerable Dominican theologian Yves Cardinal Congar lays out the criteria for identifying a genuine reform in the Catholic faith. Among these he cites the need to maintain the fullness of Catholic doctrine, respecting its prior formulations while keeping in mind that words change their meanings over time. If a word shifts, its original meaning can be lost and the term can become misleading. Thus, Congar noted that language had to be adjusted from time to time in order for the substance of the doctrine to be maintained. Yet Congar also strongly asserted in his master work Tradition and Traditions that many of the Church’s tried and true formulae were part of the fabric of the faith, the load-bearing beams that give the faith shape and structure. Congar wrote, “We should not believe, however, that the old forms are out of date simply because they come from the past. There is in the Christian development a continuity which is opposed to such automatic substitutions.”

Perhaps “intrinsically disordered” is not at the top of the list of indispensable terms, but within the realm of moral theology, the notions of order and natural end are crucial to the Catholic understanding of right action and virtuous living. This term is part of that world of words, and as Orwell taught us, when we erase a word we wipe out the concept it contains. While we need not necessarily die on the hill of “intrinsically disordered,” we should be extremely cautious when considering setting aside our lexicographical patrimony.


  • Nicholas Senz

    Nicholas Senz is Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, NicholasSenz.

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