Extending an invitation: Synod prompts revamp in church language

The need to develop a new way of communicating Church teaching in contemporary society emerged in synod discussions last week, with specific emphasis given to expressions regarding life and moral issues.
“The question of language has been a biggie,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told journalists at an Oct. 8 event in Rome.
“It’s a question of the consistency of the Church’s truth, the immutability of the Church’s truth, but our burning desire to find a language that can present it in a more gracious, compelling, cogent way.”
In a press conference, Father Thomas Rosica, who is auditing the synod sessions as an English-language spokesman, said synod participants have called for a new language that speaks more directly to biblical truths, rather that concepts that are often not understood outside the academic realm.
“There is a problem with language with civil society (particularly) in terms of abortion and euthanasia,” he said, as well as homosexual partnerships and divorced and remarried persons.
While the doctrine itself is not in question, the priest noted that synod participants spoke of the need to form a “language that invites,” rather than suggesting “moral judgement.”
Just as St. John XXIII affirmed the immutability of Church doctrine at the start of the Second Vatican Council while calling for a “re-packaging” and “re-presenting” of how that doctrine was conveyed to the world, this synod is asking for the same thing, Cardinal Dolan said.
“So there’s the overriding question about language,” he continued, explaining that bishops are currently speaking in a “very candid” way about common Catholic vocabulary that we perhaps want to cling to, but which doesn’t seem “to have much cache anymore.”
As an example, the cardinal cited “natural law,” saying although the phrase is a “magnificent concept that the Church didn’t make up” and came to us from great philosophers, it is rarely understood by those outside the Church.
“The natural law is there and we count on it, we can never disregard it; it’s fundamental. But the phrase itself doesn’t seem to have much sway in our contemporary society,” he said.
Cardinal Dolan said a change in language to make Church teachings more approachable does not mean a push to “soften” or “dilute” Church teaching, but is rather an effort to present the same teachings in a way that is “more credible and more cogent.”
“So it’s not a code word for side-stepping tough things. It’s more of a methodology to try and find a new vocabulary. And Pope Francis is modeling that in many ways.”
Also present at the Oct. 8 event in Rome was Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, who affirmed the change in language as something positive, saying that what you say in an academic seminar would be different from what you say in a homily, or in a room relaxing with other people.
He pointed out how often, people hear someone religious speaking and say that “they’re off the wave length. They might have a wonderful message, but the way they’re presenting it is not going to work in these situations.”
The cardinal also described how there is still the need to be “intellectually coherent and consistent” underneath the current of a new language, and that “there’s nothing that prevents us from doing that” right now.
“Catholics are people who stand under the scriptures, we are people who have tradition,” he said. “We believe in the development of doctrine, but not doctrinal backflips.”
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville also spoke on the topic to CNA during an Oct. 8 interview, saying that the renewal of Church language is “something that the Church has done in every age.”
Rather than looking for a change in doctrine, the synod is “looking at the pastoral and I would say the creative pastoral way, in which we are able to reach out and welcome,” the archbishop observed.
Pope Francis, he said, has given us a few clues in terms of looking at the person before all else, and accompanying them on their way to Christ.
“So in a sense conversion is at the very heart of our outreach, but it is a conversion that you and I share also. So in a sense we are on a pilgrimage together.”

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