In an interview, John Cleese, member of Monty Python and creator of the unforgettable series Fawlty Towers, once explained his strange relationship as a comedy writer with catchphrases. The radio series he listened to in his youth at times had whole segments that were little more than a string of one-liners, with no context or setting – just a door opening followed by a voice saying, “I won’t take my coat off, I won’t be staying,” followed by roars and howls of laughter. This left Cleese perplexed: where was the joke? The phrase didn’t mean anything – it had simply come to be associated in the mind of the listeners with humor, and thus they laughed. (Cleese and the Pythons eschewed punchlines and catchphrases for this reason, though they inadvertently created dozens of them.)
From another part of the English intellectual tradition: In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell warned of the dangers of imprecise language to the political health of a nation. Fuzzy expression begets fuzzy thinking, which begets more fuzzy expression, and so on. As Orwell writes, “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrase stacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
There is a tendency in some corners of the Church today to do “catchphrase theology,” to lean on words and phrases which sound positive and produce a warm feeling, but lack much definition or substance, at least in the way they are presented.
Many people have complained, for example, that the recent Synod on Youth suffered from such defects. This has merely followed a trend of the last few years. Despite the frequency with which they have been used recently, words like “discernment” and “accompaniment” remain opaque to most of us. They produce a pleasurable buzz – “Ah yes, that is it, that is what we must do” – in some minds. But others are left confounded and confused. It’s like hearing a catchphrase or inside joke with which you’re not familiar.
A regular pattern has emerged: controversial issues are raised, a call for clarity follows, only to get lost in the fog of these terms.
It is a disorienting experience to continuously hear certain figures in the Church call for “updated language,” “deeper reflection,” and “putting things in terms of today,” only to find the texts produced by those same people to be constructed out of impenetrable sociological argot and paragraphs that read like something that Hegel crumpled up and threw away as being too convoluted.
This phenomenon also occurs by taking key phrases from the Church’s teaching tradition, isolating them, and imposing upon them a new and very different definition. For example, the phrase about being “open to life,” which is the key to understanding the Church’s understanding of the morality of procreative acts.
Within the tradition, the phrase means that conjugal relations should not be impeded by any artificial means that would thwart their primary purpose, the transmission of life. Yet some theologians and commentators have cut these words out of their context and reinterpreted them in a manner such as, “Yes, indeed, I am open to life: I am open to all that life has to offer, to all kinds of experiences and moments; and to be able to have that openness, for now, we must contracept.”
No serious Catholic should read that phrase this way. Which is akin to the kind of judicial activism that strains its eyes to find new and expansive rights guaranteed in the Constitution (such as, to stick with the theme, when Justice William O. Douglas found in the Third Amendment’s protection against soldiers being quartered in private homes an implied right to contraceptives).
But for some people, if we can somehow cram a new meaning into the old phrase, the exercise is deemed a success. We preserve the words of the tradition without preserving the tradition.
Likewise, many have seen a similar dynamic in the attempts at the last few synods to introduce novel interpretations of traditional teaching so as to insert questionable ideas into the mix – even to the point of asserting a meaning for a phrase that is opposed to its typical definition (note recent usages of terms like “casuistry” and “gradualism”).
In all of these cases, theology becomes less an endeavor of clarifying than stretching. Instead of attempting to make our thought more solid and concrete, it becomes gaseous, the content diluted to the point where it can mean anything. You can’t help wondering, given the way that some people use these terms, what sorts of sins cannot be “discerned” into acceptability or “accompanied” into respectability.
Such a way of proceeding reduces things to a word game, fitting for a college dormitory where pedantic sophomores try to argue that the couch over there doesn’t really exist if you think about it, but not for theologians attempting to deepen the Church’s understanding.
We do not need catchphrases and buzzwords and pre-fabricated hen houses. We need the truth. We need words and ideas that adequate the mind to reality, to the truth of God about our purpose and call, “for God is not the author of confusion.” (1 Corinthians 14:33)
*Image: The Construction of the Tower of Babel by Frederik van Valckenborch, c. 1600 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]