A Grammar of Dissent

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Analytical psychology provided a virtually limitless opportunity for Carl Jung to play with the canonical vocabulary, expanding it to describe what he thought to be wider realms of human consciousness. An example of his creativity was his concept of Synchronizität. This “synchronicity” described what he perceived to be “meaningful coincidences,” by which he meant events that seem to have some sort of significant relationship even though they lack any apparent causal relationship. The more he considered this, the more he expanded his definitions.

Dr. Jung didn’t go beyond the limits of his own science to claim that God is involved in these phenomena, but others have. G.K. Chesterton called coincidences “spiritual puns.” There is a common instinct to attribute convenient phrases to Einstein, so it is not certain that he really did say, as is often claimed, that coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous. But many thinkers—an overplus of them Frenchmen, such as Anatole France and Théophile Gautier—have said almost the same thing.

Since I wrote a book on coincidences (which, with a lack of imagination, I called Coincidentally) I was neither surprised, nor did I fall to my knees, when I was informed that on the very same day that I published my most recent essay for Crisis on the Vatican’s use and misuse of adjectives, our Holy Father condemned the use of adjectives outright.

In an audience held in the Sala Regia of the Vatican Apostolic Palace and granted to the employees of the Dicastery for Communication and the participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Dicastery, Pope Francis said:

 

We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs, and we have forgotten the strength of nouns. The communicator must make people understand the weight of the reality of nouns that reflect the reality of people. And this is a mission of communication: to communicate with reality, without sweetening with adjectives or adverbs.

Whether this coincidence between Pope and me has any significance, I cannot say. In fact, my views on adjectives were somewhat different from the Holy Father’s. There was no conscious collusion. Indeed, the Pontiff often makes opaque allusions whose meaning can be interpreted variously, and whose full portent may belong to that vast corpus of thoughts whose true sense will only be revealed on a day known to God alone (cf. Luke 2:35). Not even his chief admirers claim that Pope Francis is a prodigy of pellucidity.

But he was clear about one thing, and he said so: he is “slightly allergic” to the use of adjectival and adverbial words such as “authentic and authentically,” and “true and truly,” as qualifiers of the word Christian. The mission of communication, he said, “is to communicate with reality, without sweetening with adjectives or adverbs.” He warned that “this culture of the adjective has entered the Church.”

The Holy Father’s heartfelt desire to persuade all Christians to rejoice in that sturdy title “Christian” without the need of qualifying adjectives like “authentic” (although the word “Christian” is both an adjective and a noun) has an apostolic integrity in the best light. However, there is nothing absolutely wrong with adjectives. After all, “Catholic” can be a helpful adjective, and so can “Holy.”

There is no report of how this description of a grammatical invasion by adjectives was received by the listeners in the audience, but aesthetes might have prickled up their ears when the Holy Father went on to identify adjectives (and presumably adverbs as well) with rococo art. In fact, in an aside, he declared that rococo art is not beautiful. Besides being a personal judgment, which the Pope himself has cautioned against, it must have been unexpected by those listening at quarter to nine in the morning.

Obviously, if inexplicably, this is a subject that animates the Pope to a certain intensity of feeling, and he did not shy away from casting Watteau,  Fragonard, Canaletto, Guardi, Belotto, Tiepolo, and Piranesi into disrepute—probably along with the proleptic grotesques of Raphael in the Vatican Loggia. Before the five hundred communicators, Pope Francis proceeded to compare rococo art to “strawberries on the cake!” The exclamation point used in the official transcript conveys a sense of his ardor.

This was not the first time he used this metaphor. On December 5, 2014, in an address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he provoked complaints from a few female theologians when he called them “strawberries on the cake.”

Pope Francis used yet another gustatory metaphor. To emphasize the need for Christian communicators to give all of themselves without reservation for the propagation of the Gospel, he invoked an Argentinian expression: “He puts all the meat on the grill.” This harmless and even quaint phrase unfortunately—and perhaps also by some Jungian synchronicity—was uttered on the same day the United Nations summit on anthropogenic climate change called for a decrease in meat consumption.

This theory about the weather, which the Pope himself strongly accepts, has become for many an apocalyptic cult whose creed brooks no contradiction. Even adolescent girls are induced to weep in public at the prospect of climate change cynics stealing from them their “dreams and childhood.” One of them, who gave an histrionic speech at the United Nations, has Asperger’s syndrome; thus, putting her on display might well be called child exploitation. Apropos a carnivorous culture, while Argentina exports 51 million head of cattle each year (its cattle produce 30% of its greenhouse emissions), that country’s  National Institute of Agricultural Technology has tried to be ecologically responsible by developing a system by which digestive gases from bovine stomach cavities are channeled through a tube into a tank. Since a single cow emits upwards of 300 liters of pure methane daily, this can provide enough energy to keep a refrigerator working for 24 hours.

Although the Holy Father has not visited his homeland since becoming pope, this is something of which he might be aware and approve. He even addressed the crisis of methane gas in Laudato Si (nn. 23-24).  The opportunities herein for conservation are boundless. Much social benefit would accrue if that Argentinian invention could somehow be applied to celebrities, academics, politicians, and prelates.

The Holy Father certainly would not intend his attack on adjectives such as “authentic” to be read as an absolute. He himself has, from time to time, lapsed into its use. Before he was pope, on April 20, 2000, he published the prayer “On Authentic Priesthood.” He has spoken of “authentic pastors” (January 26, 2018) and “authentic Christians” (April 25, 2018). He has described “authentic conversion” (January 26, 2018) and spoken of “authentic conversions” (August 21, 2019) as well as “the authentic basis of human life” (November 28, 2018). On the 48th World Communication Day, he called for “an authentic culture of encounter” (June 1, 2014); the January 9 before that, he commended “authentic faith.” In his Angelus address as recently as August 12 of this year, he said: “We are invited to live an authentic and mature faith.”

During the course of his audience address on September 23, Pope Francis quoted his patron: “Preach the Gospel, if necessary also with words.” But Saint Francis of Assisi never actually said that. This attribution is as uncertain as the quotation above about God using coincidence to remain anonymous. The venerable Dr. Martin Routh, an Oxford classics scholar and President of Magdalene College, summed up the wisdom of his life’s experience as he approached his hundredth year in 1854: “You will find it a very good practice always to verify your references, sir!” There is, though, verity in Chapter XII of Saint Francis’s Rule of 1221: “No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister… All the Friars… should preach by their deeds.”

This certainly was the message Pope Francis was trying to get across. If the way he said it was somewhat befuddling, that could only be due to his propensity to toss away his script and speak “heart to heart.” In fact, he mentioned “heart” four times in the course of his remarks, beginning:

I have a speech to read… it’s not that long; it’s seven pages… but I’m sure that after the first one the majority of you will fall sleep, and I won’t be able to communicate… I will allow myself to speak a little spontaneously with you, to say what I have in my heart about communication. At least I think there won’t be many who will fall asleep, and we can communicate better!

That must have caused amusement in the audience, but perhaps less so among any sensitive members of the Dicastery for Communication who had written the seven pages. For it is a well-known and even necessary practice for busy men to have ghostwriters. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had the Holy Ghost.

An obligation attaches to the grammar that speaks heart to heart, however, and that duty consists in a simultaneous use of the brain. Sentiment detached from thought will lead down wayward paths. This “heart to heart” language—the cor ad cor of Saint Francis de Sales, which Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman made his motto—is always clear. Newman described the process of attaining certitude in his “Grammar of Assent.” Few minds could match his, just as few could equal his wordcraft, and no one could be confused about what he thought or how he said it.

That is not a mere coincidence. It’s thankworthy that Pope Francis will canonize Newman. Let it be a reminder to all that, no matter how nouns and adjectives and adverbs are employed, messy thinking is a Grammar of Dissent.

Photo: Pope Francis addresses the Dicastery for Communications (Vatican Media/CNA)

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016); The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017); and Calm in Chaos (Ignatius, 2018).

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