On Words and Symbols

I read an interview recently that is worth commenting on. The subject notes:
I was feeling conflicted because my Catholicism is so deeply important to me. It was my sense of connection to the Almighty, to humanity, to my heritage, my upbringing . . . . And my Catholicism informed my view of the world, and the work that I do every day on social justice issues. And yet, so often when I went to church, I was confronted with words and symbols that were anathema to my values.
One hardly knows what to make of such a passage.
The implications of this position need to be spelled out. Let us assume such words were spoken by anyone; what is of concern are the reasons stated. We are all responsible for what we hold, of course, however coherent or incoherent.
The speaker first "feels" in conflict. The verb "to feel," as such, is an emotional, not intellectual, word. Our minds are to rule our feelings in the name of some principle or end. No one can dispute with a "feeling," though we ought to inquire about its validity.
We next want to know what this "conflict" that the person "feels" is about. There are good and bad conflicts. Catholicism is an important personal heritage. No problem exists here unless Catholics are pictured as evil or nutty or both.
Catholicism is a "connection to the Almighty," as with humanity. What one is brought up with, as Aristotle said, provides the habits or virtues (not "values") by which good practical decisions are made.
Just what this "connection to the Almighty" means, or whether the Almighty has any input into the connection, is not obvious. Presumably it means receiving the Sacraments and believing in the essentials of the Creed — or, at least, that is what it means to most Catholics. The Almighty calls the shots for them, not the other way around. If there is a conflict between one’s feelings and the Almighty, the Almighty wins, or at least that is the Catholic view, even granting we remain free to do what we choose and bear the consequences.
Catholicism, we are told, has "informed" this writer’s view of the world. This is good. This expression, however, sounds like Anthony Kennedy in the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision: We all have our right to our own worldview, whatever it may be. The world that counts comes from us, not from the Almighty. We each explain to the Almighty what it ought to look like.
This same Catholicism informs the writer’s daily work in "social justice." The history of social justice, as Ernest Fortin remarked, is hazy; no concept in the political philosophy has a fuzzier pedigree. It can mean almost anything. But we need to know what constitutes social justice, as almost every ideology in the modern world has triumphantly presented itself as a movement of "social justice" of some sort or another.
But let’s grant the benefit of the doubt: Here, social justice means what the encyclicals mean, or what the Catechism means. But then, evidently, when the writer enters the local church on Sunday morning, sirens go off. The things carried into the church ("social justice") run into what is inside the church, namely, "words and symbols." Presumably, the words are Scripture- and Tradition-based. No Catholic thinks he enters the church to run into mere symbols. The Eucharist is not a mere symbol; it is the Real Presence, the one Mass.
These "words and symbols" found within the church turn out to be "anathema" to the writer’s "values." That is an interesting use of the word "anathema." Normally, it is the Church that, in exercising her authority, pronounces this word to define what is or is not in conformity with what is handed down. If Schall pronounces "anathema" on something, as is his wont, it means little. We still must ask whether our anathema is that of the Church or against it. And if someone’s anathema is not the Church’s, we wonder who should be most upset.
"The words and symbols . . . were anathema to my values." The question becomes: Where did I get my values? And why are my values the ultimate standard of what should go on in Church?
As in discussing rights or social justice, we encounter the exact modern meaning of the word "value," which comes into modern discourse from Max Weber. It means that no ultimate order exists. "Values" are incoherent; all social scientists can do is to tell someone how best to get what he wants, whatever that may be.
So if the writer’s values are what rules when he goes into Church, he can logically anathematize anything he finds there that does not agree with them. This is why the Church talks of being, natural law, and doctrine. It wants to know whether what one holds is what the Church holds.
Otherwise, whoever walks into a church carries in his own "values." He anathematizes anyone else whose values, whose "words and symbols," are different from his. He "feels" conflicted. He pronounces "anathemas."

Rev. James V. Schall, S. J., teaches political science at Georgetown University. His latest book, The Mind That Is Catholic, is published by Catholic University of America Press.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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