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Does Vagueness Have Value?

That question, which first occurred to me decades ago, came into my mind again after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.  I suspect that the event did not bring it into many other people’s minds, and I did not hear the question debated. There was instead plenty of factually-correct and merited acknowledgement of Her Majesty’s unwavering dedication to her role.  It is, however, neither unreasonable nor deliberately disrespectful to mention that the applause was for seventy years of public platitudes (even though people may not have seen it in that way). King Charles said, just after his mother’s death, that she combined a love of tradition with an embrace of progress.[1] He is sure to follow that safely-unspecific, ‘balanced’ policy. The reason is implicit in the role of the U.K. monarch. After a period of absence in the mid-17th century, the monarchy was restored on condition that the monarch would not obstruct the will of Parliament. This has produced a long-established custom of not ‘taking sides’ in controversies, especially if the controversy has become a matter of political disagreement. The monarch assents to the legislature’s decisions, and is ‘advised’ by the Government regarding what to say. For example, each session of Parliament begins with a speech which is made by, and nominally attributed to, the monarch but which is written by the Government. Similarly, the monarch’s speeches at important international meetings are reflections of the Government’s attitude and ‘advice’. The monarchy is, therefore, a ‘tool’ of the Government, and its continuation depends on acceptance of that subservience. Perpetual caution against saying ‘the wrong thing’ must sometimes be irksome, but that is the price for occupying the role.

Publicly-elected Presidency is the democratic alternative to hereditary monarchy. Advocates of a republic say that it is more legitimate and logical. It may be more logical, but not necessarily more legitimate. Probably many people believe that if the citizens are contented with their monarchy, that gives it sufficient legitimacy. Such contentment helps to fulfil monarchy’s purpose – to be a unifying influence (and platitudes are ideal for ‘unifying’ people, however weak the ostensible unity may be). Elections, of a monarch no less than for a legislature, are unavoidably a cause of division, and the defeated cannot reasonably be expected to unite in celebration with the victorious. A President can, at least theoretically, speak more freely than a subservient monarch, but on the other hand has to consider the electoral risks of candour.

The two systems differ, therefore, in the extent to which the ‘top dog’ is restrained in publicly-noticeable opinions. The restraint shows itself typically in statements which are too general to cause objection. Politicians (despite their being in an intrinsically-adversarial ‘walk of life’) often resort to that in order to maximise their ‘appeal’. So they pursue and praise ‘consensus’. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI told British Parliamentarians that if “social consensus” (i.e. apparently-predominant opinion) is the basis of a democracy, “the fragility of the process becomes all too evident.” If ‘safety-first’ triteness and blandness are the hallmarks of a ‘leader,’ the superficiality of the role is similarly clear, however benign or popular the person may be.   

Vagueness for the sake of acceptability is very common also in the world of religion.    

Often Catholic scholars, teachers, and preachers use expressions which are uselessly vague and even opaque, hiding their message in an impenetrable wrapper of scholarly abstraction. St. Paul suggested that no-one is likely to be roused by what is unclear,[2] and it conflicts with Vatican II’s “Gaudium et Spes.” [3] It is an enormous obstacle to extending the influence and practical power of the faith.

The “eclipse of the sense of God” which Pope Benedict mentioned [4]  cannot be expected to end if the truth about God is hidden by avoidable ‘fog,’ even if done in good faith. Here are a few brief examples; dismissing them as ‘out of context’ and therefore unfair is easy; context does not always clarify: 

“Being Catholic means embracing everything, leaving nothing out.”  [5]

“Being a Catholic means accepting the whole of the means of salvation offered by Christ.” [6]

“Nothing authentically human, whatever its origin, can be alien to [the Church]. The heritage of all peoples is her inalienable dowry. In her, man’s desires and God’s have their meeting-place.” [7]

“[E]ach one of us is naturally religious…[T]he deep desire for goodness which God has implanted in each of us… enables us to see what it means to be human; what it means to be good; how to live by what is true.” [8]       

Conspicuous vagueness characterises the title of The Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelisation. Its President, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, said that “We need to avoid, above all, that ‘new evangelisation’ comes across like an abstract formula.” [9]  Well said. It does.

Possible reasons for abstraction being so noticeable in Catholic teaching and preaching include habit, expectation of the necessary intellect in the ‘audience,’ and recognition that there is safety in obscurity (it avoids controversy and ‘smooths-over’ discomforting adversity).

The use of obscurity cannot be explained or justified by an allegation that Our Lord used language which His audiences probably did not understand, or which sometimes His close disciples certainly did not.[10] His personality, bearing, and authority attracted people; modern Churchmen, at all levels, seem to believe that the way to attract people is to avoid ‘hard truths’. Furthermore, He exercised miraculous powers; Church leaders do not, as far as most of us know. Much of His preaching used imagery. Today’s preachers concentrate instead on convolution, sometimes employing figures of speech which do not withstand even basic analysis. In such cases, the initial impression of cleverness turns to ridicule.

For example, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, in his televised first sermon as Archbishop of Westminster, denied that these are dark times for the Church which he led, and said “When the skies are dark, the light shines more brightly.”[11] Natural light comes from the sky, so if the sky is dark there is no light beneath it. Perhaps he meant an artificial light, such as that from a candle or lamp.  

Apart from that uncertainty of intended meaning, the inescapable and ridiculous result of using ‘light’  metaphorically was to portray darkness as a benefit, to be welcomed and if possible increased (because we want the Church’s light to shine more brightly – don’t we?). By that standard, Pope Saint John Paul II should have been pleased that “European culture gives the impression of ‘silent apostasy’ on the part of people who have all that they need and who live as if God does not exist,”[12] Pope Benedict should not have worried about multi-national rejection of true religion[13] and an “eclipse,”[14] and the flock now under Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s successor should rejoice at, for example, judicial repudiation of religion as the proper basis of English law; abortion de facto on demand; marriage undermined and re-defined; ‘safe’ sex for all (children included, regardless of parents), Christians forced out of their jobs and ordered to pay damages for refusal to implement vice-friendly laws, and so on. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor told the National Conference of Priests that “in England and Wales today Christianity as a background to people’s lives and moral decisions is now almost vanquished…I certainly sense a secular outlook in our society which ignores the Gospel: it does not know it and it does not want to;”[15] applying His Eminence’s earlier metaphor, in that situation the light must be shining brightly.      

According to “The Catholic Herald,”[16] Bishop Mark Davies attributed to St. Francis de Sales the following: “People will always respond more to a spoonful of honey than a barrel full of vinegar.” Literally it is true, but it conveys the false implication that people should always be presented with an incentive instead of a deterrent. In religious terms, that equates with a dubious proposition that virtue is more likely to result from stressing the need to love God than from fostering a fear of sin. As the concept of sin has been diluted and ‘side-lined,’ sin has become embedded in culture and subsidised by taxes, and politicians (and some religious people) do not even accept that it is sin, far less have any plans to suppress it.

If that process is to be retarded, halted, and reversed, Church leaders will have to shake off their protective padding of vagueness and anaesthetising aphorisms, and ‘call a spade a spade.’          

[1] “The Catholic Post,” October 2022, p.16.

[2] 1 Cor. 14:8.

[3] Paragraphs 3 & 4.

[4] Sermon in Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, 28th June 2010.

[5] Hans urs von Balthasar, “In the Fullness of Faith,” p.27.

[6] Fr. John Redford, “What Is Catholicism?”, p.39.

[7] Henri de Lubac, “Catholicism,” p.297.

[8] Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, “The Catholic Herald,” 19th January 2001, p.3.

[9] “The Catholic Herald,” 15th October 2010, p.1.

[10] E.g. Mk. 9:31-32.

[11] “The Daily Telegraph,” 23rd March 2000, p.4. 

[12] “Ecclesia in Europa,” 2003, paragraphs 9 and 47.

[13] “The Catholic Herald,” 14th January 2011, p.1.

[14] Op. cit.

[15] “Birmingham Catholic News,” April 2002, p.2.

[16] 18th February 2011, p.3.

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