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Words matter; especially the words of the sacraments

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Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 02/20/22

After WWII, Catholic intellectual Josef Pieper had significant things to say about language and its abuse.

In a popular children’s book, the main character decides, after discovering a golden pen, to begin to refer to pens exclusively as “frindles.” Rejecting his English teacher’s attempts to squash the word, “frindle” catches on. Carrying a quasi-revolutionary spirit, students across the nation refuse to use the word “pen.” The book’s epilogue concludes with the English teacher sending the inventor of the word “frindle” a dictionary, which included his newly-coined word.

The charming book raises real questions about the philosophy of language. Who determines what words mean? Are terms dictated by convention and culture alone? 

In the philosophical aftermath of World War II, leading German Catholic intellectual Josef Pieper had significant things to say about language and its abuse. The lies, deceptions, and manipulations of previous decades prompted this philosopher to respond brilliantly.

In an essay, titled in English “Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power,” Pieper argues,

Word and language, in essence, do not constitute a specific or specialized area; they are not a particular discipline or field. No, word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted.

We need words! They don’t belong simply to philosophers or even philologists. Without common discourse, without common meaning, it will be impossible for us to understand each other. We will become incapable of sharing our day-to-day experiences, to say nothing of losing the ability to hold deeper conversations of meaning.

The 2-fold purpose of language

For Pieper, “human words and language accomplish a twofold purpose.”

First, he argues, “words convey reality.” We use words to share observations, convey experiences, to identify things as they are. Second, we do so in order to share what is real with others.

Words that fail to convey reality are lies. Untruths. They fail to do that which they are supposed to do! Language requires grounding in reality, which requires making truth claims.

Several millenia ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that “truth” is best described as the adequation of the mind to reality. Truth is the harmony of thinking or knowing things as they are. Truth is the conformity of the intellect to the order of things.

Words, our language, carry that harmony. Words convey truth. Words matter, objectively, a lot.

But words also matter among ourselves. If we lack the ability to convey to others that reality, we’re failing in our use of language. The words aren’t serving their purpose.

The words of the sacraments

All of this matters deeply to the Catholic understanding of the sacraments. The operative power of grace is conveyed by the minister, whose words effect what they signify. We do not confect the Eucharist by saying: “Take this all of you and eat of it, this is a sign of my body.” No! 

The priest prays the words from Scripture, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” These words make present the reality of Christ. In praying the formula, the priest changes humble bread into the Body of Christ.

But the words alone do not suffice. This is why Pieper’s philosophical approach is so rich. The words are communicating to someone.

In the case of the sacraments, the minister acts in the context of the Church. The dialogue is hers, entrusted to her by Christ. Words expelled and changed from the Church’s conversation are distorted, twisted … or worse.

The words of baptism

The words and sacraments have been in the news a lot this past week, due to the case of a priest who, for more than 20 years, did not use the Church’s words to perform baptisms in Arizona.

One commentator titled her criticism of this teaching, “The Catholic Church baptism crisis is manufactured. Faith is bigger than grammar. Amen.” Another argues that thinking carefully about the formulas of the sacraments is like “treating the traditional words of baptism like a computer password.”

But as Pieper has helped us to see, the words matter because reality is a thing. And the words convey ideas to others.

Humility facing the words 

Whether we like the words of the sacraments or not, they require us to submit humbly, before reality and before the Church. We can have our own ideas and preferences, but in the end, they will only do violence if we cling more vigorously to them than to the language of the communion of believers. The world will suffer, because the intelligibility of the Gospel will suffer from our lack of clarity. And we ourselves will suffer, twisting our minds to be more distant from that which is and those we are called to love.

Yes, God is more powerful than our ideas. Yes, He is more merciful too. But neither of those principles sufficiently consider the power – or abuse – of language.

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