Vaticanology: The Vatican’s Newspeak Guide
Lexicon: The Vatican’s Newspeak Guide
By John Maguire
Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who commissioned the recently-published Lexicon on Ambiguous and Colloquial Terms About Family Life and Ethical Questions, should perhaps have considered a few other issues before he sent this 900-page tome to press. Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, prepared this semi-official glossary to combat what its authors regard as “deceptive and ambiguous language,” such as “voluntary interruption of pregnancy” for abortion and “reproductive health” for contraception.
The cardinal might have reflected on why it is that so many members of the Roman Curia—including the non-curial authors of the 78 chapters in the Lexicon—speak in languages that seem to have little connection with the way ordinary people experience life, think and express themselves. And why do so many in the Curia seem unable to encounter, listen to and appreciate in any real way what people in the “real world” beyond those sacred walls are trying to say? Indeed, the gap between the world that is and the one the Vatican wants appears unbridgeable. But, it need not be so-not if all of us are prepared to return to the first article of the Creed and ask ourselves, “What does it really mean in my life when I say, ‘I believe in God the Creator Almighty?'”
And why do so many in the Curia seem unable to encounter, listen to and appreciate in any real way what people in the “real world” beyond those sacred walls are trying to say?
Responses to the Lexicon, which was released (so far only in Italian) according to Trujillo in an interview with Eternal Word Television Network “to stimulate open and honest debate about some controversial topics,” have bordered on the vitriolic. Michael Kelly of the Rainbow Sash movement in Australia said the Lexicon represented “the most right-wing, fascist elements within the Roman Curia.” Others were less kind. What might have become an opportunity for constructive debate, indeed might even have marked a significant turning point in Vatican history, has merely cemented the barriers between the Vatican and Catholicism as practiced by believers. Indeed, as Kelly pointed out, it is perhaps for the best that it runs to 900 pages, as nobody will read it.
The cardinal claimed that he in no way wished to condemn others. However this laudable goal does not seem to have percolated through to several of his chosen writers. The tone and language of many articles, on reproductive health, homosexuality and biotechnology to name but a few, read as if the writers were not interested in real dialogue, but were intent on excluding from the family of the Catholic faith anybody who espoused certain positions or who thought particular thoughts. Not everybody will be disappointed: there is a full chapter devoted to the work of Catholics for a Free Choice and its sister organizations–surely a sign that the Vatican is concerned about the impact this organization is having.
Many, however, will be upset. Tony Anatrella, the author of the section on Homosexuality and Homophobia, chose to return to the old argument that homosexuality “has no rights because it has no social value.” John XXIII in his encyclicalPacem in Terris had put that old canard about “error having no rights” to bed well before Vatican II had convened. People are the subject of rights, not any particular reification about what constitutes a completely human person devised over the centuries; not any particular quality a person may possess or lack. Some people are homosexual in their orientation, regardless of how or why. Homosexuals are people with rights and a duty to work out that aspect of the reality of their lives in God to the best of their ability–just as heterosexuals have the same rights and duties in regard to their sexual orientation.
Laudable Goals, Poorly Executed
It would be remiss if I did not indicate some of the Lexicon‘s positive aspects. Cardinal Trujillo is right to be concerned about the abuse of language that presently permeates our culture. Quite evidently Trujillo acted out of deep concern for the present moral state of our world, and his realization that there is need for strong, clear leadership in ethical matters at this time.
There is indeed a sickly, dangerously deceptive fog of Orwellian “new-speak” everywhere. Deliberate lies have become “statements which are no longer ‘operative,'” murder, or at best foreseen, preordained manslaughter, has become “collateral damage,” state-sanctioned terrorism, blitzkriegs and carpet bombings are now “Shock and Awe,” … the list goes on and is indeed worrying. But these are not issues about which the Vatican is concerned. It is evident we part company when it comes to which particularly ambiguous terms and phrases most urgently need to be critiqued today.
[T]he cardinal and many of his chosen writers seem to begin from an already closed mind-set —a predetermination that the truth of the matter has already been exhaustively discovered and stated by the hierarchy—and that, therefore, no one has any right to challenge any of its already enunciated positions.
Another matter where I agree with Trujillo is in his passionate rejection of relativism. Everyday examples include: “That is just your opinion,” and “this is my chosen life-style and no one has any right to challenge it…or me.” These kinds of statements remove the basis for any meaningful dialogue or constructive challenge. Any society that seeks to build itself on such shifting sands is doomed, and must collapse before too much time passes.
However, these positive aspects are not sufficient counterweight for its inadequacies. One of the things I felt most evident in the Lexicon–by its absence–was any clear indication that its writers had been encouraged–let alone required-to sit down in heart-to-heart, face-to-face encounters with people whose positions they were critiquing. Perhaps they did do this. Perhaps I am wrong in the sense that comes through to me that the starting point for many, if not all, the writers was an already predetermined “answer.” But I fear not.
The authority the authors and Trujillo claim for themselves in order to pontificate on these matters dissolves once the pages are opened. (We should remember that real authority is born, if not out of direct personal experiences of the questions, at least out of real loving encounters with those who have.) Such authority is not something that can be guaranteed merely because one has been “ordained” or appointed to some particular institutional position. Cardinal Trujillo claims that by virtue of his office he has a duty to form the consciences of leaders. That may be. But this will mean nothing unless he can give evidence that he speaks out of some direct experience of that of which he writes. To any one who, in fact, has “been there” in any serious ethical dilemma, claiming a right and duty to speak by virtue of his office (which few these days are prepared to recognize in any case) can smack of an extraordinary pride and arrogance.
What worries me most perhaps is that both the cardinal and many of his chosen writers seem to begin from an already closed mind-set-a predetermination that the truth of the matter has already been exhaustively discovered and stated by the hierarchy-and that, therefore, no one has any right to challenge any of its already enunciated positions.
Such unquestioning acceptance of predetermined truths leads to a Taliban-like idolatry of the written word, or the idolatry of particular interpretations of what some earlier holy writer or prophet may have taught; or an idolatry of seeing earlier magisterial statements as having been absolutely complete and irrevocably final. Needless to say, this is not how the non- Curial world sees their faith.
When people hear Trujillo defending the contents of his Lexicon with the excuse, “We had to be mindful of the church’smagisterium and faithful to Christian morality, for many his words come across as just another example of yet another Vatican prelate seeking to protect himself from having to justify and to defend his arguments. Roma locuta est; causa finita est. But is it?
But enough people are only too well aware today that earlier statements of the magisterium have quietly been allowed to fall into disuse, until forgotten; and subsequently ignored. Because of this, many will read Trujillo’s statements as just another example of Orwellian doublespeak, this time from within the context of a long- but convenient-historical forgetfulness and untruthfulness.
John Maguire, the author of Conscience: a cautionary tale? is a theologian and historian based in Brisbane, Australia.www.johnmaguire.org