speed, language is also war. It's the stuff of propaganda. It's the stuff of rousing pre-battle speeches and of post-battle excuses. It's the handiwork of spies and the tool of diplomats. Yes, language is war in every possible way.
Language is like an ensign or a set of colours. Let me give you an example. When I first married my wife, I moved to South London and we attended a church which had a very fine priest. Sadly he retired shortly after I arrived in the parish and he was replaced by another priest - a withered-looking Irish man who seemed allergic to people. I saw the cut of his jib, however, right from the first Mass I attended at which he was the celebrant. Following the Offering Prayers, he said to the congregation: 'Pray, sisters and brothers ...' Afterwards I said to my wife, 'That's the signal, we know where he is coming from now.' My wife was skeptical, however, and little did either of us suspect the next chapter... Which occurred when we wanted our baby baptized. 'Oh, you don't need to rush into things,' he said. 'It's a big thing welcoming a new person into a family, so it can be organized later. We don't want to be injudicious [sic].' My wife was on the verge of tears and desperate to argue the case. I just looked at him and thought to myself that I knew half a dozen priests who would baptize our child the next day if I asked them to.
But you see, it was all in the language. I knew what clan he belonged to almost from the minute he spoke. It doesn't always work that way, but sometimes it is just very clear ...
And so we come to THAT interview. Before you go any further, reassure yourself here that I am not just a Franciscophobe. Still, I keep coming up against the argument that Pope Francis is working marvels for the image of the Church. His tangible support for the poor is extraordinary, people say, and nobody can criticize him from that. St Francis of Assisi has always been popular even with people who instinctively loathe Catholicism, so placing his papacy under that sign was, from a PR perspective, shrewder than shrewd - or, to use an old favourite, 'more cunning than a fox who has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.'
But since language is war, let me state some of my difficulties with the interview in terms of its language. We don't have much more to go on at the moment:
The language of mercy - for that is how it has been justified - has led to colossal misunderstandings in the last seven days. Pope Francis is loved but for all the wrong reasons: because it is thought his words open the door to the relaxation of "bedsheet dogmas" or open the sanctuary gates to the swish of women in chasubles. In other words, if he has one thing in common with Pope Benedict, it is this: he is misunderstood. But here is the difference: Benedict was misunderstood and hated while Francis is misunderstood and loved. And why? On matters of sexual ethics, Benedict told the hard truth but tempered it with kindness. Francis is all kindness and seems to assume that because he is a "son of the Church", nobody will mistake his meaning. But really, if you're the Vicar of Christ, would you rather be hated because you told the truth (albeit kindly), or loved because someone thought you were changing the truth? And while we're on the topic of telling people they are loved rather than telling them off, the biggest popular devotion in France in the 19th century was that of the Sacred Heart - an iconic expression of God's love for every individual - and the Republicans still loathed and persecuted the Church! Sometime, you just cannot win.
The language of latitude. We have to put an end to the growing false memory of Benedict which even the language of Francis is contributing too. Pope Francis has spoken about "small-minded rules". I would love to ask him what rules he is thinking about. The Church purged itself of a shed-load of small-minded rules after the Council. Recently, Catholicism has been characterized not by small-minded rules, but by a minimalist approach to the law. Legalism has been out for decades.
Likewise, Francis's concerns over what we might call "campaign doctrines" (abortion, etc) is perturbing. When he says that the Church's pastoral ministry cannot just be "obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines" (just after mentioning gay marriage and abortion), it is as if he is blaming the world's inability to understand the Church on those who have given their lives to fight the genocide of the unborn or defend Christian marriage. His language aims of course at toning down dogmatism; yet, its moralistic expression ("the Church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed") implies that the Church has gone about banging on about abortion like some revivalist temperance preacher. If you find any priest thumping a pulpit over abortion or over any sexual sin, do let us know. In fighting with this caricature as if it's true, Pope Francis does nothing other than flatter those who have carefully crafted such an image out of half lies and distortions.
The language of omission - this is a tricky one since no interview is exhaustive. Still, it is always interesting to see how key questions are characterized by those who speak. On the Extraordinary Form - which, in another linguistic coup, is now being called the Vetus Ordo (because it is no longer deemed extraordinary, just old) - the pope says, "I think the decision of Pope Benedict [his decision of July 7, 2007, to allow a wider use of the Tridentine Mass] was prudent and motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity." But, that is only half the story. Anyone who reads Summorum Pontificum will find that is it not only a matter of traditionalist sensibilities. Rather, it is a question of preserving the heritage of the Church. Rather, it is a matter of influencing the Ordinary Form (in a reciprocal relationship theoretically). Like all the language issues I have pointed out, this crucial omission is deeply connotative. If the Extraordinary Form is about sensibilities (as Francis says here), then it is simply a sideshow for traditionalist nostalgia. If it's a heritage for the entire Church (as Benedict wrote), then it cannot be swept under the carpet. So what does Francis think exactly?
And by the way, was there in the interview any mention of cracking together the heads of those responsible for covering up abuse or for slowing down its expurgation? While we are on the topic of omissions, why did he have nothing to say about that - a subject on which the Church's leaders have tended to be silent...? Why mention devolving the CDF's doctrinal work but pass over the biggest scandal of recent times? It's not as if, in not mentioning it, he can keep it out of the headlines...
The fig leaf of orthodoxy - there are various points in the interview where he seems to be sailing close to the wind on a matter of doctrine. Take, for example, the question of the infallibility of the believing Church. He correctly uses the expression infallibilitas in credendo (found in theology manuals of the 1950s, mind you). The passage is worth quoting in full:
[All] the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.
But then comes the fig leaf of orthodoxy: “And, of course, we must be very careful not to think that this infallibilitas of all the faithful I am talking about in the light of Vatican II is a form of populism."
Okay, so in terms of pure orthodoxy, he is covered, but look at the rhetoric here: the warning about populism takes a sentence while the exposition of infallibilitas in credendo takes four. In an age of dogmatic decadence in which this populism has not been a minor issue but a major one, - an age in which vast numbers of Catholics have lost the link between right belief and love of God - his emphasis is on the dialogue between the believing and the teaching Church. This is a bit like vaunting the benefits of jogging to a man in a wheelchair. Here, I confess I come close to throwing teddy out of the cot. Thinking with the non-hierarchical Church (as Pope Francis describes it) is no more than a matter of counsel, since I need not share the theology of any one school; thinking with the hierarchical Church, on the other hand, is a matter of precept. Reading Francis, you would think these two are of equal importance. But counsel is not precept and precept is not counsel. The confusion of the two is hugely dangerous. Moreover, what after all if most Catholics think there is nothing wrong with contraception...? Is that infallible? Tina Beattie has already suggested the possibility of such a change in doctrine about contraception because of the faithful's infallibility ... Pope Francis, however, cannot pretend - though he makes an attempt - that there is no friction in this relationship between the teaching and the learning Church.
The language of dynamic(s) . Finally, the last linguistic hallmark that I find in THAT interview is the language of "dynamic(s)". The word is used at least four times. Vatican II was a new "dynamic" of reading the Gospel; reform requires "new historical dynamics"; God enters the "dynamic" of human relationships; the Synod of Bishops is not "dynamic". Look for the buzz words. "Dynamic" comes from the Greek for power(ful) but I would claim that its rhetorical value in contemporary discourse is "irresistible force". By way of contrast, the word "tradition" appears once in the interview and only then in relation to the Orthodox who have a tradition of synodality (lucky them!). Benedict's buzz word was that good, old-fashioned German warhorse "authentic". Francis's, I hypothesize, will be "dynamic".
So, why does this disquiet me? Because, paradoxically, it denotes a language of power, rather than authority. Francis has behaved autocratically since he came to power, although his excuse has been that it is more humble to cast off the detritus of papal ceremony and convention. Yet, this dynamism seems never aimed as conservation but always at change. In this interview he says he wants to let local bishops' conferences have more responsibility for policing doctrine (oh, how dynamic!) because
"When [the dicasteries of the Roman Curia] are not functioning well, they run the risk of becoming institutions of censorship
The line is worth quoting ... because, frankly, of its internal, manipulative dynamics! On the one hand, we are not sure whether he means the CDF has been guilty of censorship. On the other hand, we know bloody well that that is exactly what he means! And meanwhile, he evinces amazement at the flood of denunciations coming to Rome as if they have not resulted from the doctrinal decadence at large in many parts of the Church. Incidentally, note that this covert dismissal of the work of the CDF (in all but name) is also an implicit criticism of how the Church's doctrine has been policed for the last few decades. And we all know who has been responsible for that...!
In war, truth is not the first victim. Charity is. I confess it here, dear readers: I'm struggling to be charitable about our pope, and you must pray for me! He has done nothing yet - like our priest in South London. But already I hear the rhetoric and I sit very uncomfortably in my seat. No - more than that - this interview has wounded me more than almost anything Benedict ever said or did (and Assisi III was a low point).
I applaud Pope Francis's talk of mercy. But I don't see why it must require such underhand and unwitting blows at souls who have been generous and courageous in defence of the unborn or in defence of orthodoxy. Would he ever have spoken in a way that condemned crusaders against poverty? And, worse than all, when I see the glee of those against whom defenders of the unborn and defenders of orthodoxy have struggled for so long - their joy at having a pope who so tickles their liberal fantasies - I wonder what spirit is abroad. When Francis says that in a field hospital you must treat wounds before treating blood sugar levels, I'm minded to remind him that people die of diabetes every day.
We are in the period of the phoney war, dear readers. As yet, we have more talk than action.
But I hope and pray. I hope and pray on my knees that we will not see the initiation of Francis's 'new historical dynamics'. Truly, I dread to think what they could be.