The English language is not a walled garden, but rather a trampled field over which many passers through have left their mark. The French language has an academy to protect it, which can ban certain words and which has the legal power to enforce its will. But on this side of the Channel, if you use a new word or phrase, as long as it sticks, that word or phrase may well find its way into the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Some of these neologisms have a certain charm or energy to them. Others are ugly, lazy or debased and come, all too often, from America. (Britain has a tendency only to take the worst of American neologisms, rarely the best.) But there is another community of speakers who seem to enjoy scraping the marble cladding off the language of Shakespeare and reducing it to brick. I mean, of course, the Catholic Church. This is one Romanist conspiracy that is sadly
all too real.
Here are 10 examples of Catholic-speak that should be banned.
1) Formation. This word has nothing to do with making things out of clay or Plasticine. Rather, you will encounter it in the following setting: “religious formation” or “clergy formation”. It means something wider than mere education or studies, and is supposed to cover all those activities that go on in seminaries. Sometimes a priest may ask another priest: “Where did you do your formation?” The word comes to us from Italian (formazione) but what the priest really should be saying is: “Where did you do your training?”
2) Robes. Those things you see your priest wearing at the altar? They are not robes. They are vestments. A robe is what you wear on your way to the bathroom. Judges wear robes, but priests vest. Priestly vestments are distinct and important. Robes sound like what they wore in Star Wars.
3) Share. As in “thank you for sharing”. The only possible legitimate use of the word “share”, this side of California, is in the context of the stock market. So, instead of inviting people to share at the next meeting of the parish council, just turn and say: “So, what do you think?”
4) Delicate. This is another import from Italian. Italians use the word delicato where we might use the words “awkward” or “embarrassing”. You are told that the situation in the parish is “delicate”. This means that everyone should bury their heads in the sand, because they are too embarrassed to mention some elephant in the room. Go ahead: mention it and see what happens. And while on that topic…
5) Elephant in the room. This phrase should never be used. Instead, try saying the following: “Major infraction of canon law, which is clear for all to see, but which we are all pretending does not exist.”
6) Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Just ban it. Now. Never let these words be mentioned together again. Ever.
7) Outreach. It seems like a good idea to reach out to people, but why this involves the invention of a new word, I am not sure. What happened to “mission”, a word good enough for the Church’s founder?
8) Guideline. As in “only a guideline”. This is a favourite of those who fear they may be on the wrong side of canon law. It isn’t a guideline, it’s a law. So deal with it.
9) Ongoing. This is a great favourite, especially when nothing is in fact going on. “Our investigations are ongoing” translates as: “We are doing nothing about it at present, except fob you off with words.” This is often found with the first example, as in “ongoing formation” (outside the Church, what is called in-service training), another form of words that masks a lacuna of activity.
10) I know you are very busy right now, Father. Well, he might be or there again, he might not be. But whichever way, he was ordained to minister to the people of God, so speak to him. But whatever you say, do not use any of the words and phrases outlined above.
The 10 words that I have nominated for banishment could perhaps be joined by many others. Every Catholic will have his or her own list. This is mine.
But there is a serious point behind all this. The new translation of the Roman liturgy, and all the talk of a new evangelisation, rest on the concept of communicating timeless truth is a way that is attractive and even enticing. The words and phrase above are either ugly or obfuscating, or both.
We need to tell it like it is, to use one American phrase which is good, direct and powerful. Throwing away the jargon is one small, but necessary, step towards this.