How to Write Your Own Encyclical

The cracks in the Axis powers became clear when the Armistice of Cassibile was announced on September 8, 1943, after the Italian government broke with the Nazis and joined the Western Allies. The National Socialists under the codename Unternehmen Alarich tried to take over the Italian zones of occupation in southern France and the Balkans before disarming the army of Italy itself, but they were foiled. Like the people they led, Hitler and Mussolini were birds of very different feathers, and their marriage of convenience was bound to fail. As languages reveal the psychology of the people who speak them, German and Italian are almost drolly unlike. For instance, German has many words for “invade,” such as überfallen, einfallen, and einmarschieren, while Italian for the most part simply has invadere, used more often than not in the passive tense.

What the German language may lack in mellifluousness (although Lieder have their beguilements) it makes up in its brilliant precision.  If words are inadequate, it just makes up new ones by cobbling old ones together. While German may be superior for expressing thought, the elegant art of the Italian language lies in its ability to articulate vacuity. Or, more precisely, it employs melodic vowels to give the occasional impression of thought when there is none. Here, of course, the ghosts of Dante and Petrarch may stir to haunt me, but they were derivative of the Latin school. It is a long and downward spiral from Cicero to Il Duce.

This past summer, what is now called the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family was “reconstituted” with an abruptness and thoroughness that scandalized over forty international scholars, who objected to the firing of several distinguished professors. It was a real purge—a term for which German has many equivalents such as Saüberung and Reinigung, but which Italian invariably would call epurazione.  The Institute retains the name “John Paul II,” but that only serves now as an ironic reminder that it has distanced itself from the theology, philosophy, and prophetic vision of that pontiff.

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Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, oversaw the “reconstitution” of the Institute, of which he is also Grand Chancellor. When he was bishop of Terni-Narni-Amelia, Monsignor Paglia commissioned a large mural by Ricardo Cinalli, an Argentinian whose Uranian appetites are on full display in the erotic figures depicted—including the future Grand Chancellor. In 2016, Paglia also supervised the publication of a Vatican-approved sex education booklet; in response, Dr Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist who was a consultant to the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy and adjunct professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, said: “this obscene or pornographic approach abuses youth psychologically and spiritually.”

In 2015, at the time of the Synod on the Family, Archbishop Paglia called for an end to “ecclesiastical gobbledygook” that “sterilizes families.” Perhaps to avoid the kind of  “foolish consistency” Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” the Grand Chancellor contradicted himself by appointing as President of the John Paul II Institute a cleric not guiltless of gobbledygook (discorso senza senso).  This summer in his address at the opening of the new term, Monsignor Pierangelo Sequieri orated:

The recomposition of the thought (ricomposizione del pensiero) and practice of faith with the global covenant (l’alleanza globale delluomo) of man and woman is now, with all evidence, a planetary theological space for the epochal remodeling of the Christian form (un lugo teologico planetario per il rimodellamento epocale della forma cristiana); and for the reconciliation of the human creature with the beauty of faith. To put it in the simplest terms, by overcoming every intellectualistic separation between theology and pastoral care, spirituality and life, knowledge and love, this evidence must be rendered convincing for all: the knowledge of faith cares about the men and women of our time.

When he was finished, no one asked him what he meant, although there may have been much between the lines that should not have been said. It sounded too enchanting to mean less than its affected portentousness.

Several decades ago, I was subjected to a ritual oral examination, a vive voce for a degree in the University of Oxford, before a tribunal of professors whose imposing presence in their academicals made the prospect of the Day of Judgement like a frolic. But they turned out to be quite kindly souls, if of different schools of thought on God and man. To my surprise, after having perused the hundred or so pages of my dissertation, the only criticism was that on an obscure page there was a line containing “academic jargon.”  It was an edifying, and obviously memorable, complaint, even though the don making it harbored a Christology that might not have passed a test administered by St. Athanasius. The point was: if you know what you are saying and believe it to be true, make it clear—and not just to dons, but to everyone.

That was a different time, a different place, and a different culture. And the dons wore their learning lightly.

Descent into jargon to give the impression that obscurity is profundity is a temptation indulged not only by ecclesiastics, for it luxuriates in the ivied halls of academia and the labyrinthine corridors of government. But it parades with colorful panache in the Church, and it can bewitch even in English translation. If you make a list of jargonish adjectives and another of jargonish nouns, you are on your way to writing your own neoplastic academic speech, papal audience address, Apostolic Exhortation, or even your own Encyclical. Look through the ever-lengthening volumes of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis and other pontifical sources, and you can find inventive adjectives like “integrally ecological,” “planetary,” “dialectical,” “epochal,” “nuanced,” “ontological,” “clericalist,” “osteoporotic,” “neo-Pelagian,” “leprous,” “sloth-diseased,” “schizophrenic,” “paradigmatic,” “issue-oriented,” “cosmetic,” and “pickle pepper-faced.”  Then in the column of nouns you can list, for starters: “field hospital,” “coprophagist,” “nominalist,” “soap bubble,” “rigidity,” “peripheries,” “paradigm,” “dicastery,” and “ecological debt.”

By switching back and forth, or by occult inspiration, you can construct prophetic sounding platitudes such as: “integrally ecological field hospitals,” “planetary  coprophagists,” “dialectical nominalists,” “epochal soap bubbles,” “nuanced rigidities,” “ontological peripheries,” “clericalist paradigms,” and “pickle pepper-faced ecological debts.” Then you can start crisscrossing: “issue-oriented coprophagists,” “paradigmatic consequentialists,” “sloth-diseased nominalists,” and so forth. You can even describe “planetary field hospitals,” “osteoporotic nominalists,” “epochal peripheries,” and “schizophrenic clericalists.” It’s fun, and might have been the sort of pastime the late imperial senators in moth-eaten togas engaged in while the Ostrogoths menaced the crumbling Roman walls in the sixth century. Mathematically there are hundreds and indeed thousands of possibilities, and enough verbiage to keep paradigmatic dicasteries busy forever, per sempre. Or, to be more precise, Jargon wird niemals kaputt sein.

Photo credit: © L’Osservatore Romano

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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