Monday, 12 July 2010

When boo words are best

In one very interesting study of contemporary English a distinction is made between what the author calls 'boo words' and 'hurrah words'. His contention is that in the flow of vocabulary which constitutes our media-led public discourse certain words can be used in order to produce in listeners, readers or spectators instant approval (hurrah words) or disapproval (boo words).

And he's quite right of course. Introduce words like 'advanced', 'daring', 'latest' or 'taboo-breaking' and the public mind - I use the terms loosely - is supposed to give the old thumbs up. Use words like 'traditional', 'middle-class', and the like, and you''re bound to stimulate the contrary reaction. The responsibility of public communicators ought to be to avoid this kind of language, but we know they don't. After all it's not as if public debates are about truth; they are only about who wins. Who cares if you use a little loose language, like a used carpet salesman?

I think that's why I am so irritated by reports that Bishop Kieran Conry has labelled the new Pontifical Council for Evangelisation as unnecessary. I have tried to find the edition of BBC Radio 4's Sunday on which he made these remarks but it is no longer available online. Still, The Catholic Herald reports him saying that the Church had become 'simply irrelevant' for many people:

It's authoritative. It's intolerant. It's demanding. It's exclusive. I think the Church has got to re-present itself rather than simply blame everything on the ills of society.

Begging his Lordship's pardon, but he must be fantasising about some Church I have yet to come across.

In the first place I object to the use of the word 'authoritative'. I assume he means 'authoritarian', but that is not the same thing. Then again, is the Church authoritarian today? And if so, is there cause to be a little authoritarian? I would have thought any bishop reading the newspapers this year must be well aware that if there is one thing the world acuses the Church of, it's of not being authoritarian enough, especially over the sins of its own clergy.

But what about the rest of this quotation? Intolerant? Now there is a 'boo' word which is heavily coded. After all, ask Bishop Kieran if he is happy to be intolerant of racism, and you can bet he would say yes. So, intolerance isn't the issue. Indeed, it's only the issue if you are using boo-speak. As for a demanding and exclusive Church, well, I certainly hope the Church is demanding and exclusive. It couldn't be true to its Master if it were not. What, after all, is undemanding about being told to take up your cross and love Christ more than anything else? What is more exclusive than saying nobody goes to the Father except through Christ?

Well, as I say, we cannot hear everything Bishop Kieran says in his interview, and one wouldn't like to pass any definitive judgments on this material. We can all be suspectible of misrepresentation. One can almost expect it from the media.

But, please, somebody, explain to me why Bishop Conry sounds more like an editorial writer from The Independent than a Catholic bishop. Or rather, don't bother. I understand why. What I don't understand is why, even if not every bishop maintains this line, we almost never hear the contrary line. That the problem with the Church is not that it is authoritarian, intolerant, demanding and exclusive, but that it has at times in recent years been lax, fuzzy, indulgent and bland. The choice isn't between being a murderer or a milksop. So why is it those who accuse the Church of murder sound more like milksops than anything else?

I pray for Bishop Kieran. But I would despair of being understood by him. I assume that's because I'm authoritarian, intolerant, demanding and exclusive.


  1. Well put, Innocent! Recently the Holy Father has repeatedly emphasized the ‘full teaching of the Faith’, admonishing bishops – and all of us – not to water-down the Truth. For a long time now Church Doctrine has been watered down by clergy and hierarchy alike. This has been done both positively and negatively. Positively, in casting doubt on various Church teachings and negatively, by avoiding the ‘difficult subjects’ altogether.

    I put the change squarely in the 1960s and particularly after the release of Humanae Vitae in 1968. While there have always been dissenters, doubters and heretics in the Church, prior to HV this was contained. If a priest or bishop had doubts about points of doctrine he was careful not to let this creep into his preaching and teaching lest the faithful be led astray and out of concern for his own lack of faith or conviction.

    Now it was open season with all levels of the hierarchy casting doubt on Paul VI, despite the fact that he did not promulgate anything new, but merely reiterated what had been the constant teaching of the Church. The world expected a change and it didn’t come – and many in the Church went along with what the ‘world’ thought. Fast forward to today and we find many in the Church taking the ‘world’ view on a plethora of matters. The feeling is that the Church has to be conformed to the world instead of - as Our Lord commanded – converting the world to Him.

    We have become lukewarm – and we know what God thinks of the lukewarm and of those who are ‘embarrassed’ by Him. Hot or Cold, Yes or No – and no shilly-shallying on the way!