Some Thoughts on Words and Their Meanings

Published February 4, 2021

The Catholic Thing

Martin Luther liked to say, “Don’t lie when you pray.”  It’s one of my favorite lines.  I don’t know if he really said it or not, because I got it off the Internet more than a decade ago.  But if he didn’t say it, he should have, because it’s true.

Don’t lie when you pray.  It’s a line worth considering in an era of ambiguously Catholic public officials.  When we really believe what we claim to believe, we conform our hearts, our minds, our choices, and our actions – both in private and in public – to the convictions we claim to hold.  Otherwise, we’re liars.

There are dozens of political and cultural issues, for example, on which faithful Catholics can legitimately disagree.  But there are some issues where, if we want to be true to our faith, there’s very little wiggle room.  Talking about human rights and dignity is a vital part of our political discourse.  But it’s little more than empty piety if the foundational human right – the right to life – is compromised, or worse, actively repudiated by “sacramentalizing” the violence of abortion.  Which is exactly what our nation, and evidently our current Catholic president, now do.

We live in a pluralist democracy that balances its legitimacy – always precariously – on two equal pillars: cooperation and conflict.  We need both.  As citizens, we need to cooperate and compromise with each other whenever we can, for the sake of the common good.  And we also need to fight, peacefully but vigorously, for the things we believe in, without excuses or embarrassment.

Our willingness to fight for our beliefs is also for the sake of the common good, because all law and all public policy involve an application of that important little word “should.”  To put it more plainly, all laws impose somebody’s morality – someone s idea of what’s right and wrong for society – on everybody else.  So if we don’t work to advance our Catholic convictions in public decision-making, others with very different convictions will advance theirs.  It’s that simple.

Conflict is an unavoidable part of a fallen world.  We’re called to love the sinner but reject and resist the sin.  This is what the Church has always meant when she speaks of spiritual warfare.  And it’s directly applicable to our duty as citizens.  A healthy understanding of diversity demands a respect for differing views.  A healthy understanding of pluralism demands that people of conviction fight for their beliefs in the public square.

Otherwise, words like “diversity” and “pluralism” are narcotic lies, masks for the pursuit and acquisition of power; and a society dominated by lies is ultimately lethal to its people and itself.  The ugly underside of American democracy, which Alexis de Tocqueville described so well – the mediocrity of soul that it encourages, and the fear it breeds in all of us of being cut out of the herd and derided by majority opinion – is precisely what’s crippled the evangelical witness of American Catholics for the past 50 years, even as we’ve succeeded in politics, commerce, and professional life.

I love words.  I’ve worked with them all my life.  I love language for the reality and richness it conveys about the world and our lives.  More than 50 years after exiting my Jesuit high school and heading for university, I still remember the first Greek line I learned from the Odyssey: Andra moi ennepe Mousa, polutropon, hos mala polla.  “Sing to me, O Muse, of the man of many wanderings “ There’s a mellifluous beauty to the original Greek that a reader can inhale like a fragrance.  I mention it here, though, not to ramble on about classical literature, but because my wife and I have an adult son, Dan, who lives with us.

Dan has Down syndrome.  His IQ is 47.  Because of his condition, he has a painfully hard time formulating and expressing his thoughts.  He struggles and stutters and repeats himself to say even the simplest words.  Listening to him can be like deciphering code.  It’s an education in patience and humility.

But here’s my point:  There’s a transparency to his love, joys, and sadnesses that doesn’t need words; a transparency that’s absolutely honest.  Dan can be stubborn and confused, but there’s no untruth in him.  What you see is what you get, and his life is a treasure to his siblings and to us as parents.

I find it useful to weigh his struggle to speak against the $132 million the top 10 Big Tech companies spent on lobbying Congress last year, and the millions more they spent on sunny public relations and convincing us to buy things we don’t really need.  At least two of those 10 companies have interfered with or threatened free speech at home. Other major tech companies in our “land of the free” have propped up the Chinese surveillance state via their business abroad.

When I do this comparison, I remember exactly whom I need to defend and what I need to fight for as a believer and as a citizen.

A final thought for the weirdness of our moment: Nearly half a century ago, the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper observed that one of the central evils of our age is the subversion of language into an instrument of power through the studied use of flattery, deceit, fantasy, and intimidation.  “The common element in all of this,” he wrote in his book Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, “is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape.”

Language as an instrument of rape:  That’s what our political discourse can become, and will become, if we fail to speak and live our Catholic faith – all of it – truly and vigorously, not just in private, but in public, when it’s convenient and when it’s not.

As Martin Luther said, or should have said:  Don’t lie when you pray.  Words matter.  And how we live needs to prove what they mean.

© 2021 The Catholic Thing.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior research associate at the University of Notre Dame.

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