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.