The Agreeable, the Irrevocable, and the Prophetic

Winemaking is a brash young business in the area where I live, and environmentalists with more science than sense have tried to slow the proliferation of vineyards by calling them “monoscapes.” To date, their efforts have failed. All but a few of the alcohol farms in central California are profitable, and the negative connotations of the word “monoscape” are largely unknown. For every person alarmed by the way that look-alike vineyards consume water and displace wildlife, scores more are seduced by images of blissful women who stomp grapes while men play mandolins and sing songs they learned from their grandfathers.

Modern winemaking is as romantic as an open-field tackle in football, but cinematographers and holiday-themed Zinfandel commercials have trained that inconvenient fact to nap with its paws in the air and its belly exposed. I mention this because many sectors of contemporary Catholic discussion are themselves monoscapes. Sincere progressives who distrust the magisterium and emphasize lay empowerment can be found in every diocese where liturgy committees exalt small faith communities and personal giftedness. Their unflagging embrace of the priesthood of all believers resonates stronglywith the egalitarian message that has conned generations of public school students into believing that the United States is a democracy rather than a republic. Such homogeneous thinking by religious progressives and their cultural allies sometimes frustrates conservative efforts to preserve the church as a bulwark of sanity in an insane world. Over the long haul, for example, people who describe assent to fashionable aspects of church teaching as “prophetic” do more harm to evangelization efforts than people who call dissent from church teaching “courageous.”

In the poker game of public opinion, dissenters reject the Catholic hand and tell other card players that they’re tired of using a marked deck, but their hostility makes them easy targets for skilled apologists. Enthusiasts, by contrast, invite suspicion from neutral audiences by overplaying the Catholic hand and its superabundance of allegedly prophetic wisdom to the point where would-be evangelists must regain lost trust before they can present a better case for apostolic faith. Of course, over-reliance on adjectives like prophetic is more annoying to some people than to others. When a perfectly-tuned sentence carves barrel rolls in the air over your mind and a group of paragraphs is an exercise in formation flying, you understand why Mark Twain compared the gulf between the right word and the almost-right word to the gulf between lightning and lightning bugs. Faithful Catholics who attain that level of sensitivity to language are almost always disappointed by mainstream discussion of issues like capital punishment. Paragraph #2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads as follows:

“Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.”

Grudging acceptance of capital punishment under limited conditions can hardly be called endorsement of legalized vengeance, but many Catholic leaders are discomfited by the fact that the church makes even theoretical allowance for the death penalty. By their reckoning, Our Lord should have rejected Pontius Pilate’s authority to condemn even an innocent man to death. As erstwhile politician and sometime Catholic radio host Alan Keyes has pointed out, that He merely reminded the Roman governor about the derivative nature of state power bothers progressives more than they care to admit. Theology that extends no further than the comforting notion that the Savior replaced the unforgiving code of the Old Testament with a new Law of Love is poorly equipped to ponder what He does at His trial, or what Paul says to Festus in Acts 25:11 (“If I am guilty of any crime, I do not ask to escape the death penalty”). The problem is that Catholics who look to diocesannewspapers or popular periodicals for help with questions posed by capital punishment are likely to be told only that vengeance belongs to God.

Whether capital punishment should be considered vengeful is a question that many writers refuse to ask. Fortunately for all concerned, Pope John Paul II has made no secret of his opposition to capital punishment. Many people were gratified when the pope called efforts to abolish the death penalty “authentically pro-life.” One wonders why he felt the need to affirm what seems obvious. How canopposition to death be anything other than “authentically pro-life”? You have to answer that question if you want to understand why Christian theologians through the ages have argued that capital punishment is sometimes justifiable. Beyond that, it is a curious fact that many of thepeople who applaud the pope’s opposition to capital punishment do not also applaud his opposition to ordained female priesthood. Why are some papal views called “prophetic” and others not? The answer to that question goes to the heart of the current problem with language, which at root is a problem of impoverished thought. Anyone tracking the misuse of “prophetic” soon discovers that this once-proud adjective now belongs to the vast gray company of terms mugged by the zeitgeist. What meant “inspired by God” when applied to the utterances of Moses and Jeremiah slipped quickly past “predictive of the future” to become a synonym for “insightful,” “savvy,” or “praiseworthy.”

As secondarymeaning turned “gay” from “happy” into “homosexual,” so tertiary meaning turned “prophetic” into a paper umbrella for garnishing verbal cocktails that in political or business contexts might be called visionary. Want to add a splash of religious color to a statement with which you agree? Call it prophetic. Examples of this careless usage abound. In a recent issue of the newspaper for the Catholic diocese of Monterey (California), US bishops were congratulated for their “prophetic” suggestion that the Jubilee Year iteration of a national Hispanic meeting should also be open to people of other cultures. The paper reported that the meeting was a great success, thanks in part to speakers who “shared moving witness about the need for our Church in the United States to become prophetic in its ability to show real community in plurality.” That heartfelt but incoherent statement is typical of the earnest nonsense that so often clouds legitimate disagreements. In a fair fight, unanswered questions about unexamined and possibly untenable relationships between prophecy, plurality, and community would suggest flawed logic.Unfortunately, fairness, like Elvis, has left the building. You don’t need logic in the public square if you stake a pre-emptive claim to the high ground by calling your goal prophetic. Weak as we moderns have let it become, the word still paints your opponents as reactionary. One might wonder whether non-doctrinal questions of word usage deserve our passion. As a self-styled paragraph farmer with a day job in technical writing and a layman’s interest in theology, I would argue that they do. The reason for this is twofold: Because the relationship between language and thought is reciprocal, the Latin formula, “lex orandi, lex credendi” is true.

Moreover, because the words of God that we properly call prophetic borrow what dignity they have from the incarnate Word of God, we ought to take better care of our vocabulary. To misuse “prophetic” in culturally acceptable ways is to engage in something akin to what Blessed John Henry Newman once called “poisoning the wells.” The word, and the church, deserves better.

November 13, 2000

Patrick O'Hannigan is a technical writer in California.