Published September 9, 2021
They say that in writing, “you must kill all your darlings.” For those who don’t fancy themselves writers, what this means is that a writer ought to ruthlessly eliminate pet phrases that, however cute or clever, might distract from the substance or argument of a piece of writing. It’s excellent advice, and hard to follow.
For a long time now, ecclesial writing has suffered from a growing number of “darlings” – a multiplication of platitudes, swaddled in jargon, masquerading as prose. (The problem predates this pontificate, for what it’s worth.) The length of official Church documents, you may have also noticed, has grown in inverse proportion to the artfulness of the prose. As an aesthetic problem, such writing is bad enough. But clumsy ecclesial prose is also an impediment to the mission of the Church. Muddled language obscures the Gospel.
Earlier this week, the Synod for Bishops released a preparatory document and a vademecum in anticipation of the upcoming Synod on synodality. I have written before about the promise (yes) and opportunity (really) presented by this Synod. The new documents released this week do not reinforce any optimism I have about the endeavor, but they do reinforce my conviction that the success of the Synod – and the good of the Church – require those capable of making worthwhile contributions to do so.
The new Synod documents spend a great deal of time explaining what synodality and the Synod are not. It is reassuring to read, for example, that “synodality is not so much an event or a slogan as a style and a way of being,” and that “[s]ynodality is not a corporate strategic exercise.” But why then does the Church insist on speaking in precisely the language of corporate slogans and strategic rebranding?
The Synod documents are filled with this sort of thing. “Synods are a time to dream,” we are told. And then there is the line, “faith always emerges as a valuing of people.” “Thus, a dynamism is activated,” we read, “that allows us to begin to reap some of the fruits of a synodal conversion, which will progressively mature.”
Ask yourself: If you had been one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and your mysterious traveling companion had spoken to you this way, would your heart have burned inside you? Would you even have invited him to stay for dinner?
Which, to return to my earlier point, is precisely the sort of question laity and clergy and bishops ought to be asking of the synod! If the language of the Synod and synodality becomes so weighed down with jargon and corporate-speak that the freshness of the Gospel is completely lost, now is the time to speak plainly!
Wherever the Church accommodates worldliness, it dies. Wherever the Church chases the approval of the world and embraces uncritically the spirit of the age, it dies. Wherever Catholics try to change the Church rather than convert themselves, the faith dies. Wherever the Church grows rich, comfortable, insular, and content, her rotten fruit scatters the seeds of corruption – and then she dies. Wherever the Church is stingy in mercy, she dies. Wherever the Church makes excuses for sin, she dies. Wherever the Church mistakes the Kingdom of Man for the Kingdom of Heaven, she dies. Wherever the Church exalts herself instead of the Cross, she dies. The wages of sin remain death.
And what brings life? Beyond the Sacraments themselves, poverty, chastity, and obedience are as fine starting points as any. The Church should not feign ignorance about what those require, nor about what tremendous fruit they produce. Virtue – real virtue, not the mere absence of culpable guilt – is another sign and source of life: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Humility. Wonder. Repentance and penance. Love that is selfless; never self-righteous. Where these things are, no matter how arid the spiritual desert, an oasis of hope is to be found. Faith flourishes there.
Notice how the sources and fruits of Christian life are often the same. None of this is hard to discern. None of this is a secret. All of Scripture and 2,000 years of living tradition attest to the vitality of these truths. Why do we so easily forget or neglect what is tried and true for what is novel and unproven?
Why then don’t our shepherds speak and write in a way that is recognizably Christian! When our shepherds sound more like corporate consultants than shepherds, it is hard to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. If people constantly struggle to explain, in plain terms, what they believe and why, at some point it becomes hard to believe them.
And it is hard to trust someone you don’t believe.
Trust the Holy Spirit? Yes, of course! Trust our bishops? Maybe. Hopefully. Trust the jargon-mongers, however well-meaning, who speak the language of international NGOs with frightening fluency but the language of the Gospel as a third language? Why should we trust such voices? Why would we follow them?
The Synod, we are told, is about walking together. And so it is. But our shepherds are still our shepherds, and they still have to lead us. Is it too much to expect that they say what they mean and mean what they say? Is it too much to ask, even as we show our willingness to trust, that they speak with a voice that is recognizable?
If the Church would keep the sheep in the fold, and call home those who have strayed, it would do well to speak in a recognizable voice. The flock will not follow any voice but that of the Good Shepherd: “They will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
This is something for us all to keep in mind – shepherd and flock alike – as the 2023 Synod draws near.
*Image: The Good Shepherd fresco by an unknown artist, c. 200 [Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome]
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.