Abstract Language vs. the Incarnate Word


I think it only fair to give an example of a sentence that is truly Catholic. And I am going to turn to a real expert on the subject, Walker Percy. He was a Catholic who knew what the Catholic faith is. He was a novelist who knew what words are all about.

Walker Percy

A few years ago, an issue of Boston College Magazine contained an article entitled "Writing Catholic", in which several Catholic writers were asked to describe how their faith affects their work. One of the respondents, Mary Helen Washington, noted toward the end of her contribution that, some years ago, an essay she had written for Ms. Magazine was returned to her by one of the editors, with this remark: "Say something about your sex life or your readers will think you're weird." Ms. Washington responded to this as follows:
I thought about my mother, about my high school teachers, my college teachers, confession, the sixth commandment; and I wrote these cryptic and evasive lines: "I'd like an alliance with a man who could be a comrade and a kindred spirit, and I've had such alliances in the past; even with the hassles they were enriching and enjoyable experiences." For anyone interested in the phenomenon of religious linguistics, that, I assure you, is truly a Catholic sentence.1

These comments raise three interesting questions. First, is there such a thing as a "Catholic sentence"? Second, if so, just what elements would be required to make a sentence Catholic? Third, does Ms. Washington's sentence contain these elements? But they also raise a fourth and crucial question, crucial for the future of both our society and the Church.

Those seeking power today recognize clearly that a politics of power necessarily entails a politics of language as well. The phenomenon of political correctness, embodied in politically correct speech, bears witness to the power of words to influence the course of events. As English columnist Roger Scruton has observed, "If you want to control the world, first control language; such has been the unspoken maxim of revolutionary politics in our century."3

If the conflict about politically correct speech is a battle for the soul of our society, the conflict about "inclusive" language is just as much a battle for the soul of the Church. Under these circumstances, we must ask ourselves not only if there is such a thing as a Catholic use of language, but also what implications it would have for our faith to adopt in its place the so-called non-sexist language proposed by the feminist movement.

Before attempting to answer any of the above questions, however, I would like to consider, first, why language is important enough to talk about at all, and, second, what sort of use we have been making of the English language in modern American society.

The Importance of Language

Although there are many reasons why language is important, two in particular deserve our special attention. The first of these is the relationship between language and reality. As one expert in the field of communication maintains: "Communication creates what we call reality."3

Furthermore, language guidelines now in use in some universities in this country begin with the remark, "Language reflects, reinforces and creates reality."4 While not everyone would agree that language alone creates reality, most people would grant that language does express and influence the way we perceive reality. Not for nothing do we say that "the pen is mightier than the sword".

Second, language is important because it is by its very nature communal. There is no such thing as a private language, any more than there is a private solar system. In the words of Catholic priest and theologian Romano Guardini, "Speech is not something added to a complete human existence. We exist in the word, in conversation, hence in relation to others and by the universal communality of life."5 For this reason, the American journalist Edwin Newman is quite right in insisting that "the language belongs to all of us. We have no more valuable possession."6

Modern American Use of English

What use have we Americans been making of this precious possession of ours? The word which best characterizes how we use words today is, I think, abstraction. According to Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, the three primary definitions of the adjective abstract are (1) thought of apart from any particular instances or material objects; not concrete. (2) expressing a quality thought of apart from any particular or material object; as, beauty is an abstract word. (3) not easy to understand, abstruse. Abstraction, in other words, has the effect of removing from consideration the specific, the particular and, perhaps most importantly, the material elements of anything about which we might be thinking. Abstraction therefore tends to eliminate from our thinking the limits, the boundaries that confront us in everyday experience. The beautiful sunset upon which we are gazing embodies beauty in a concrete, specific, material way. The word beauty, in contrast, floats free of any such specificity, any such limits. And because abstract thinking tends to float free of any specifications, it can easily and quickly become difficult to understand by anyone who is himself a concrete, particular, materially-embodied person in a concrete, particular, materially-embodied world. If you have ever taken a philosophy class, you know just how quickly discussions of such abstractions as "being" and "essence" can become entirely incomprehensible.

Our use of language in America today is riddled with abstraction — for several quite different reasons, two of which I would like to discuss here. First (and I deliberately want to give priority to this reason because I do not think we generally understand just how important it is), our language is abstract because we simply do not know enough, either linguistically or culturally, to express the richness and diversity either in ourselves or in the people, places and events of our ordinary experience. Consider the implications of the following statement about the English language: "It is huge, with over 700,000 words, and growing fast; it is also grievously underused by its habituates. The average English-speaker's customary vocabulary is only 6oo words, and monitoring experiments carried out by the Bell Telephone Laboratory show that a group of 100 common words constitute over 75% of all conversations."7

If I have only a few hundred words at my disposal to describe everyone and everything I know, pretty soon the people and things I know are going to start sounding like reruns of one another. Perhaps this is why so many shows on television give this impression long before the reruns start. Perhaps this is why football viewers such as myself find ourselves assaulted weekly by such monotonous comments as "this is a great game", "that was a great pass", "the quarterback is a great young man", "that was a great reception", "their coach does a great job", etc.

Language such as this is abstract not in the scientific or philosophical sense but in the repetitive and lackluster sense. Different qualities are not abstracted from concrete particulars, as the philosopher might abstract. Instead, the same qualities are applied to all concrete particulars, because the speaker simply does not know any other qualities, any other words, to apply. Hence, people, places and events lose their specificity, their uniqueness, because we, the users of our language, simply do not know the words which would allow us to express the differences that are there.

Our use of language is also limited, as E. D. Hersch, Jr., has recently pointed out to us, by our lack of cultural literacy. The sentence "The lilies are blooming in the fields today" is meaningless to people who do not know the word "lilies" and the word "fields". But the sentence "She is one of the lilies of the field" is equally meaningless to people who know all about lilies and fields but do not know anything about the Bible. After reading Hersch's book, I conducted a short cultural literacy test in three of my classes and discovered, to my dismay, that not a single student in any one of them knew what "lilies of the field" means. Thousands upon thousands of the words we use not only have direct, specific meanings (denotations); they also carry with them whole ranges of associated meanings (connotations). If we do not know the connotations, something of the vividness of the word and of the thing the word signifies is irreparably lost.8

To give just one small example from my own recent experience, I, like most people, learned as a small child the word "ladybug", and I have on many occasions in life observed specific creatures which are denoted by that expression. What I did not know until recently is that the "lady" in ladybug is the Blessed Virgin Mary and that these bugs were so named because they eat insects which would otherwise destroy a farmer's crops. I shall never again be able to think of a ladybug without thinking of our Lady and of her benevolence toward us. Indeed, I shall probably find it impossible in the future to see a ladybug without thinking of it as a creature entrusted with a mission that links the heavens and the earth.

Unless we consciously labor both to increase the number of words we know and to recover the associated meanings attached to them, we can expect ordinary English to become even more tedious and lifeless than it already is. And it is already intolerably wearisome. As Edwin Newman observed several years ago,

Much written and spoken expression these days is equivalent to the background music that incessantly encroaches on us, in banks, restaurants, department stores, trains, shops, airports, airplanes, dentists' offices, hospitals, elevators, waiting rooms, hotel lobbies, pools, apartment building lobbies, bars, and, to my personal knowledge, at least one museum. It thumps and tinkles away, mechanical, without color, inflection, vigor, charm, or distinction. People who work in the presence of background music often tell you, and sometimes with pride, that they don't hear it anymore. The parallel with language is alarming.9

The second major reason our language has become so abstract is that science exercises such an enormous influence on how we think and on how we perceive reality. Theoretical physics holds the pride of place among the hard sciences, and no human being alive today is more intent on pursuing the abstract than the theoretical physicist. From Newton through Einstein to Hawking, each is seeking some grand unified theory which can be expressed in that most abstract of all languages, mathematics. For an Einstein, equations such as E = MC2 represent the highest pinnacle the human mind can ever hope to scale. Einstein himself made the point quite clearly when, in 1952, he declined the presidency of Israel on grounds that "equations are more important to me, because politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity."10 Here we get a chilling glimpse into the scientific heaven, where God is replaced by the grand unified theory and beatitude is contemplation of equations.

Einstein's remark was cited in the recent bestseller, A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, Einstein's legitimate successor in both genius and fame. And Stephen Hawking, in that same book, notes that because a unified theory is "just a set of rules and equations", we have to ask what its actual relationship to our universe might be. He then poses what to some people must have seemed a really stunning question: "Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence?"11 To wonder if equations might possess the power to create a universe is to carry the art of abstraction into the realm of the bizarre.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking has set the tone for every discipline on God's green earth which makes any claim, valid or not, to being scientific, including, of course and perhaps especially, theology, which still remembers those long, glorious centuries of old in which she held pride of place as the queen of all the sciences. As a result, every discipline seems intent on demonstrating that its subject matter can be rendered just as abstract as the most abstract grand unified theory. Under these circumstances, sociologists become, as Edwin Newman quips, "people who pretend to advance the cause of knowledge by calling a family a microcluster of structured role expectations or a bounded plurality of role-playing individuals".12 Educational theorists produce one tome after another of incomprehensible abstractions which never, under any circumstances, suggest that education has anything to do with living, breathing human beings. Richard Mitchell's several books, most especially The Graves of Academe, document well the absurdities spawned by this method. The following is just one example of the netherworld in which educational theory today dwells. Consider the following description of "instructional approaches":

These instructional approaches are perhaps best conceived on a systems model, where instructional variables (input factors) are mediated by factors of students' existing cognitive structure (organizational properties of the learner's immediately relevant concepts in the particular subject field); and by personal predispositions and tolerance toward the requirements of inference, abstraction, and impulse control, all prerequisite to achievement in the discovery or the hypothetical learning mode.13

If you want to know why American education has declined so strikingly in recent years, you could do worse than begin your inquiry right here.

Theology, of course, has kept up with this sort of thing stride for stride. I will content myself here by citing an example included by Edwin Newman in his book A Civil Tongue. The following reflection on the subject of "piety and politics" can be found in Paul Lehman's The Transfiguration of Politics: The Presence and Power of Jesus of Nazareth in and over Human Affairs.

Piety and politics belong intrinsically and inseparably together. Piety is the compound of reverence and thankfulness that forms and transforms the reciprocity between creaturehood and creativity, in privacy and in society, into the possibility and the power of fulfilling human freedom and joy. Politics is the compound of justice, ordination, and order that shapes, sustains and gives structure to a social matrix for the human practice of privacy and for the practice of humanness in community. In such a matrix, justice is the reciprocity of differences in creaturehood and creativity, experienced as enrichment rather than as a threat; ordination is the insistent priority and pressure of purpose over power in the practice of reciprocity between creaturehood and creativity; and order is the possibility and the power of so living in one time and place as not to destroy the possibility of other times and places. So piety apart from politics loses its integrity and converts into apostasy; whereas politics without piety subverts both its divine ordination and its ordering of humanness, perverts justice, and converts into idolatry.... The human meaning of politics is to the biblical meaning of politics as the Fall is to the creaturehood and destiny of humanity in a world that has been created and redeemed.14

What does this mean? Newman thinks it means "the Bible [sic] is viable."15 All I can add is that the Bible would not be viable if Jesus Christ had permitted himself to talk like that.

Lest we think that such uncivil language is confined to academic discourse, we would do well to remember that what starts there sooner or later filters out, through the graduates of our colleges and universities, into government and business, into art and literature, into law and medicine, into newspapers and television, and, alas, even into our churches. A few examples, to which I am indebted to Edwin Newman, will, I think, suffice. An investment company tells us, "We have exceptional game plan capabilities together with strict concerns for programming successful situations." Making buses run on time translates into "schedule adherence with emphasis on hitting checkpoints within the targeted time". Cemeteries are now "human interment space", taxes have become "revenue enhancement", and death is "negative patient care outcome". A young man was so moved by the kindness and compassion of an older man who had helped him that he wrote to the local newspaper about this person who "became an experiencing person in my life, lending an aura to my developing personality of absolute rapport and communicatory relevance". A priest wrote to Edwin Newman expressing the fear that his days as a pastor were numbered: "Unless the trend in language was reversed, he expected to be Coordinator of the Faith Community Dimension."16

Such language is perhaps appropriate at a time when we are encouraged to walk about in a permanent state of open-mindedness, since these contentless words float easily in and out of such minds. G. K. Chesterton was not, however, much taken with modern notions of open-mindedness. In reference to the views of H. G. Wells, he was moved to remark, "I think [Wells] thought the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid."17 In this debate, Chesterton is right. And it is impossible to have thoughts to think unless one has words upon which the mind can fix itself. If we fix our attention, for example, on the family, our minds can entertain real thoughts about husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters and the commitments, responsibilities, loyalties and loves that bind them together. If, in contrast, we fix our attention on "a microcluster of structured role expectations", human thought grinds to a halt. All of us have had some experience with fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, but none of us has ever met a structured role expectation, not on our longest day or in our wildest dreams.

The Catholic Faith and Language

Edwin Newman characterizes the good use of language, or "a civil tongue", as he calls it, as "direct, specific, concrete, vigorous, colorful, subtle, and imaginative when it should be, and as lucid and eloquent as we are able to make it".18And common sense alone should be enough to tell us he is right. But if he is right, and if language is bound up with our perception of reality, then there must also be something about reality itself that allows us to perceive it more readily by way of specific, concrete words than by way of abstractions. To return to one of the questions raised at the beginning: Is there such a thing as a Catholic sentence?

If by that question we mean, are there sentences which convey, by their very use of language, a view of reality that is consistent with the Catholic faith, the answer must be an unmistakable yes. What kinds of sentences are they? They are precisely the kind Edwin Newman describes: "direct, specific, concrete". Why? The answer is obvious and simple and can be found in a single verse at the beginning of John's Gospel: "And the Word became flesh." If I may draw once again on Chesterton:

Whenever you hear much of things being unutterable and indefinable and impalpable and unnamable and subtly indescribable, then elevate your aristocratic nose towards heaven and snuff up the smell of decay. It is perfectly true that there is something in all good things that is beyond all speech or figure of speech. But it is also true that there is in all good things a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is always made. If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word.19

In the beginning, and by his word, God spoke things into existence, and the things he spoke into existence were direct, specific and concrete. They were, in short, materially embodied and materially related to one another. And God looked at what he had made and declared it to be very good.

Millions of years later, scientific man looked at God's handiwork and asked what makes it tick. And he discovered that he could only find out by taking it apart. Thus began what we might call the great deconstruction of that world — and, to some degree, the deconstruction of man himself. The result, as Guardini has observed, is that "man's relations with nature have been altered radically, have become indirect. The old immediateness has been lost, for now his relations are transmitted by mathematics or by instruments. Abstract and formalized, nature has lost all concreteness; having become inorganic and technical, it has lost the quality of real experience."20

Abstracted or removed from his old direct relationship with the natural order, man has also abstracted himself from his own human nature, which is to say, from his own flesh. And just as he has come to see the whole order of nature, all of its powers, its forces, as rationally understandable and subject to technological control, so also he has come to see his own body, his own physical existence, in much the same light — as rationally understandable and technologically controllable.

This "demystification of the human body", as one writer puts it, removes all of the traditional restraints that previous ages attached to the two most bodily events we know: sex and death. The result, as that same writer points out, is that

the unborn child is no longer a human person, attached by indelible rights and obligations to the mother who bears him, but a slowly ripening deformity, which can be aborted at will, should the mother choose to cure herself. In surrogate motherhood the relation between mother and child ceases to issue from the very body of the mother and is severed from the experience of incarnation. The bond between mother and child is demystified, made clear, intelligible, scientific — and also provisional, revocable and of no more than contractual force.... In just the same way the sexual bond has become clear and intelligible, and also provisional, revocable and of merely contractual force, governed by the morality of adult "consent". . . . It no longer seems to us that the merely bodily character of our acts can determine their moral value. Hence arises the extraordinary view that the homosexual act, considered in itself, is morally indistinguishable from the heterosexual act: for what is there, in its merely physical character, to justify the traditional stigma?21

This modern detachment of man from his body is most apparent in the abstract language that today in matters of sex and death replaces the direct, concrete expressions of earlier ages. Lust is free love, adultery is open marriage, homosexuality is a lifestyle, masturbation is safe sex, pregnancy is disease, abortion is termination of that disease, procreation is reproduction, birth prevention is birth control, natural mothers are surrogate mothers, unborn children are embryos, embryos are property, murder is mercy killing, mercy killing is assisted suicide, and suicide is death with dignity.

There was a time when I viewed this new language as euphemistic, that is, as a deliberate attempt to find pleasing ways to characterize nasty things in order to rationalize the doing of those things. Unfortunately, something much more ominous is abroad in the land. The people who use this language are not, from their point of view, speaking euphemistically. They are speaking quite accurately, because they are operating with what Cardinal Ratzinger recently characterized as a "revolutionary vision of man". At the heart of this vision, as Ratzinger points out,

the body is something that one has and that one uses. No longer does man expect to receive a message from his bodiliness as to who he is and what he should do; but definitely, on the basis of his reasonable deliberations and even with complete independence, he expects to do with it as he wishes. In consequence, there is indeed no difference whether the body be of the masculine or the feminine sex; the body no longer expresses being at all; on the contrary, it has become a piece of property.22

When it no longer matters whether the body be masculine or feminine, then it no longer matters that language reflect the masculine or feminine character of specific human beings; hence the feminist insistence that we employ so-called nonsexist or inclusive language. Men and women become persons, mothering and fathering become parenting, couples expecting a baby are encouraged to mouth such nonsense as "we are pregnant". The abstractive character of such language achieves heights heretofore undreamed of in the expression "significant other", which abstracts not only from sexual differentiation but also from every conceivable differentiation. My "significant other" can be literally anything from my pet rock to God himself (though, of course, we are no longer allowed to refer to God as a "him").

At the same time, if my body is my property, at my disposal, then there are virtually no limits to what I can do with it. I can rent it out for sex (hence current justifications of prostitution), rent out my womb for the bearing of someone else's child, view my own children as diseases to be surgically removed, or treat my own physical life as something to be ended when I wish. Women who talk about their rights to control their reproductive organs really do view their bodies, as the language suggests, in some fashion as machines producing goods, such that both the machine and the goods are at the disposal of the woman who possesses them. And the "control" they have in mind is not the control which is appropriate to persons, i.e., self-control, but those kinds of external controls appropriate to machines, i.e., pills, diaphragms, condoms and, if all else fails, abortionists. These women have abstracted themselves from their own materiality, and hence, when they speak of freeing themselves from their biology, they are not talking euphemistically; they are talking abstractly, and they are doing so because abstract language does accurately express their perception of reality.

The most alarming feature of such language is that, by abstracting from the concrete, the specific, the materially embodied, we also abstract from the limits within which we must live our lives. Just as abstractions float free of any particular context, so human beings who perceive reality this way float free of any particular order. The incessant use of the word "liberation" today expresses precisely the modern, abstracted perception of reality that supposes human beings to be no longer constrained by authority, by irrevocable commitments, by tradition, by history, or even by God. Everything in creation, from our bodies to the farthest flung galaxies, now appears to us to be at our disposal. Everything is just so much playdough, to be manipulated at will.

As Chesterton once observed: "The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only thing worth fighting about."23 Battles about words are always battles about competing views of reality. And the battle today is about competing and mutually exclusive visions of man, a conflict that confronts Catholics with, in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, a "truly fundamental opposition to Faith's vision of man, an opposition which admits no possibility of compromise but places squarely before us the alternatives of believing or not" .24

Big Brother is Really Big Sister

If the Catholic vision of man is correct, then the present and the immediate future bode ill, for, as one modern idiom puts it, what goes around comes around. And, to mix our idioms here, the chickens are already coming home to roost on this one. We know they are, not only because we have been forewarned by our own faith but also because we have been forewarned from the pen of the secular writer George Orwell. In his brilliant satire on the future, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he tells us just how it is that modern abstractive thought takes its vengeance on us, and today in American society we can see that vengeance already upon us.

Big Brother and the Party operate on a very simple, but very effective principle: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Big Brother realizes that effective control of the past, present, and future requires total control of language — hence, Newspeak.

Big Brother's strategy to control language is basically fourfold. First, replace Oldspeak with Newspeak and impose this change on everyone. Second, see to it that Newspeak operates with a much smaller vocabulary than was available in Oldspeak. This strategy is conducted for two purposes, that the range of thought might be narrowed and that whole categories of words might be destroyed.

It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so construed as to give exact and subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatsoever.25

Third, control people's consciousness and memories by mandated hate sessions, lectures, and assorted activities all conducted in the language of Newspeak. Finally, and most ominously, see to it that all records of the past are translated into Newspeak and continually revised, such that the collective memory of the community, contained in its documents, can never contradict Big Brother's current agenda. Orwell's description is chilling:

The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and is equally in full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.26

Big Brother is already present among us, and he is Big Sister. It takes very little effort to discover that what the feminist movement is up to bears an uncanny and fearful resemblance to the machinations of Big Brother. First, feminism would change the "language of the body", as John Paul II calls it, into "sex-neutral" language, and feminism would have this new way of speaking imposed on everyone. Already dictionaries analogous to the various editions of the Newspeak dictionary have appeared in our midst. But that is not all. The language guidelines to which I made reference earlier are explicitly entitled "Guidelines for Non-Sexist Language", and the copy I have of them is one imposed on graduate students in the Yale University Divinity School. These guidelines, among other things, instruct the students to avoid the generic use of man and of male pronouns, to avoid masculine or masculine-only pronouns for God and to avoid the use of feminine pronouns in reference to Israel and the Church. The student is told at the outset that "language reflects, reinforces and creates reality. It is important that language in term papers represent as full an understanding as possible of human reality. For this reason, linguistic sexism ... is to be avoided."27 Clearly only one view of reality is going to be permitted under these circumstances, and that view is not going to be whatever the student happens to bring with him to Yale's Divinity School.

Second, this new way of talking diminishes vocabulary in order to diminish the range of thought and in order to destroy words and/or their secondary meanings. With regard to this second strategy, let us first note that our society as a whole has already paved the way to such reductionism, because we already operate with a radically restricted vocabulary and neglect to learn the connotations or secondary meanings of words. In our society, Big Sister finds half her task accomplished for her before she even begins.

With the vocabulary that we continue to use, however, words are already, in nonsexist language, being destroyed. Man and woman are not necessary if person can cover both. Fathering and mothering give way to parenting. And significant other, as previously noted, could half empty our dictionaries in a single stroke. Secondary meanings also go by the board. The Nonsexist Communicator, one of those handbooks mandating how we are to conform ourselves to feminist Newspeak, provides us with an appendix entitled "Alternatives to Sexist Usage" and instructs us therein on how secondary meanings of words, when applied to women, must be "eliminated" (and that is the text's word, not mine). To give you a sample, the following words beginning with the letter "B" are now, in their secondary application to women and in the parlance of Nineteen Eighty-Four, to be regarded as Oldspeak and crimethought: baby, baby doll, bag, ball and chain, bastard, bat, battle-ax, bearcat, beauty pageants, beauty queen, better half, bitch, boy, broad, brood mare, built, and bunny.28 Although the "L" section of this minidictionary does not include ladybug, it does instruct us that the word "lady" ought to be eliminated as a noun.

Third, the control of people's consciousness in Nineteen Eighty-Four bears an uncanny and chilling resemblance to feminist conscious-raising sessions and Womanchurch liturgies — mandatory activities, it would seem, for those who seek to be truly feminist. Like the inner Party members in Oceania, whose indoctrination in doublethink is absolute, so too those in the inner circles of the feminist movement all share in similar forms of the same feminist consciousness, maintained and reinforced by activities conducted in the language of feminist newspeak.

Finally, the altering of past documents, the collective memory of the community, is already upon us in the Christian churches, where the translation of the Bible and liturgical texts into the new language is even now well under way. If this process is carried to its logical conclusion, the day could come when nothing in the documents of the past will be found that contradicts what Big Sister says. If you have ever read the feminist revision of the Nicene Creed in use at the Episcopal Divinity School of Cambridge, Massachusetts, you know that God the Father cannot be found anywhere in it. As William Oddie observes, "The resulting document reminds one of nothing so much as a new edition of the Soviet Encyclopedia, from which all mention of some luminary who has suddenly become a non-person is unaccountably discovered to be eliminated."29 Or, as O'Brien, the Party rep, says to Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, "Posterity will never hear of you. You will be lifted clean out of the stream of history."30

"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Scientific/technological man (Big Brother) and feminist woman (Big Sister) both operate on the same principle and for the same reason: both are in thrall to abstraction, abstraction from the limits of nature, from the limits of history, from the limits of human bodiliness. When O'Brien tells Winston that he, O'Brien, is capable of floating right off the floor like a soap bubble, Winston, now deeply indoctrinated in doublethink, is able to figure out what O'Brien means: "If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens... All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens."31 Feminism operates along the same lines. If the feminists believe that sexual differentiation is insignificant, and if the rest of us can be persuaded by them that sexual differentiation is insignificant, then the thing happens. Sexual differentiation becomes insignificant — or so the feminists would like to think.

The Catholic Faith and Inclusive Language

Let us return, here at the end, to those questions raised at the beginning. Is there such a thing as a Catholic sentence? Yes. What are the elements of such a sentence? The elements are those good words which, like God's own creative and salvific word, seek to become flesh, that is, seek to speak the truth about a world that is concrete, not abstract, and about human beings who are ensouled bodies, not souls possessing bodies.

Is Ms. Washington's sentence truly a Catholic sentence? Let us run it by again. "I'd like an alliance with a man who could be a comrade and a kindred spirit, and I've had such alliances in the past; even with the hassles they were enriching and enjoyable experiences." It is hard to understand how anyone really familiar with the Catholic faith could think of that as a Catholic sentence. Of course, Ms. Washington appeals not to the Catholic faith but to the phenomenon of religious linguistics, a phenomenon with which I personally am not familiar and, if this be the sort of conclusions it yields, a phenomenon with which I hope never to become familiar.

What is an "alliance", and what does that have to do with Ms. Washington's sex life (remember, this sentence is aimed at readers who will think she is weird if she does not say something on that subject)? What does she mean by "comrade" and "kindred spirit"? All we know for sure is that these alliances with comrades and kindred spirits involved men. What is an enriching experience? Eating a hot fudge sundae is an enriching experience when one considers that sundae from the point of view of fat, cholesterol and calories. "Enriching experience" is to activities what "significant other" is to relationships. Almost anything can qualify.

Ms. Washington characterizes this sentence as "Catholic", but let us not forget that she also characterizes it as "cryptic and evasive", which it most certainly is. Why does she think a "cryptic and evasive" sentence is also a "Catholic" sentence? I must confess I have no idea why. There is only one sense in which I could regard this sentence as Catholic, and that is the sense in which it is quite proper to wax cryptic and evasive when perfect strangers start nosing about in one's sex life. In such situations, however, an even better Catholic response would be to tell such readers directly, concretely, specifically, vigorously, and, if necessary, colorfully that such matters are none of their business, followed by a firm resolve never again to write essays for magazines whose readers think such matters are their business.

Finally, what implications would it have for the Catholic Church were we to replace incarnational language with "inclusive" language? It would sooner or later have all of the effects which removing the doctrine of the Incarnation from the faith would have. Human beings engaged in abstracting themselves from their materiality could make no sense of a God intent on inserting himself into that materiality. People committed to the use of abstract words would have no ears to hear the Word made flesh.

Truly a Catholic Sentence

I have said so much about what is not a Catholic sentence that I think it only fair, in conclusion, to give an example of a sentence that is truly Catholic. And I am going to turn to a real expert on the subject, Walker Percy. He was a Catholic who knew what the Catholic faith is. He was a novelist who knew what words are all about. He was a medical doctor by education and thus knew all about diseases and how to recognize them in their symptoms. And he was an astute physician of our age, having diagnosed the "modern sickness" as "the disease of abstraction".32

Happily, he also contributed to the "Writing Catholic" article and has supplied us therein with not just one but two truly Catholic sentences. The major point of his contribution is that the Catholic faith better serves the novelist than does any other religion or philosophy, because of its recognition that man is a pilgrim journeying through a world that is both sacrament and mystery rather than an ego absorbed with itself in a world of abstractions and illusions. What, concretely, does this mean? Percy tells us what it means: "Show me a lapsed Catholic who writes a good novel about being a young Communist at Columbia and I'll show you a novelist who owes more to Sister Gertrude at Sacred Heart in Brooklyn, who slapped him clean out of his seat for disrespect to the Eucharist, than he owes to all of Marxist dialect."33

Now there is a Catholic sentence — direct, concrete, specific, vigorous, and colorful. And every one of us, even those of us who have never been to Brooklyn or indeed have never been in Catholic schools, know all about Sacred Heart and Sister Gertrude and just what she is capable of meting out when her high standards of respect for the Eucharist are violated. And we all know just as well how deeply indebted we are to her today for whatever reverence we have been able to retain for the Eucharist through the many intervening and difficult years in which we have had to endure that abstractive process known as "liturgical renewal".34

As for the second sentence, Walker Percy tells us: "In the end, 10 boring Hail Marys are worth more to the novelist than 10 hours of Joseph Campbell on TV."35 For those of you who know anything about the phenomenon of Joseph Campbell, you will recognize that to be truly a Catholic sentence.


  1. Mary Helen Washington, "Writing Catholic", Boston College Magazine 48 (Summer 1989), 31.
  2. Roger Scruton, Untimely Tracts (London: Macmillan, 1987), 5.
  3. Paul Watzlawick, How Real Is Real? (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1976), xi.
  4. Guidelines adapted from "Guidelines for Equal Treatment of the Sexes in McGraw-Hill Book Company Publications" and "Linguistic Sexism", Journal of Ecumenical Studies II.
  5. Romano Guardini, The Focus of Freedom, trans. Gregory Roettger (Baltimore and Dublin: Melicon, 1966), 37.
  6. Edwin Newman, A Civil Tongue (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975),19.
  7. Paul Johnson, Enemies of Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), 103.
  8. Cultural illiteracy renders not only our use of language but whole ranges of experience abstract. Consider the following observation by Allan Bloom regarding the young American who enjoys virtually no acquaintance with the normative books of our civilization: "Imagine such a young person walking through the Louvre or the Uffrzi, and you can immediately grasp the condition of his soul. In his innocence of the stories of Biblical and Greek or Roman antiquity, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and all the others can say nothing to him. All he sees are colors and forms — modern art. In short, like almost everything else in his spiritual life, the paintings and statues are abstract. No matter what much of modem wisdom asserts, these artists counted on immediate recognition of their subjects and, what is more, on their having a powerful meaning for their viewers. The works were the fulfillment of those meanings, giving them a sensuous reality and hence completing them. Without those meanings, and without their being something essential to the viewer as a moral, political and religious being, the works lose their essence. It is not merely the tradition that is lost when the voice of civilization elaborated over millennia has been stilled in this way. It is being itself that vanishes beyond the dissolving horizon" (The Closing of the American Mind [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987], 63).
  9. Edwin Newman, Strictly Speaking (New York: Warner Books, 1974), 30- 31.
  10. Cited in Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Toronto, New York, London, Sydney, and Auckland: Bantam Books, 1988), 178.
  11. Ibid., 174.
  12. Newman, A Civil Tongue, 13.
  13. Richard Mitchell, The Graves of Academe (New York: Simon and Schuster, A Fireside Book, 1980, 33.
  14. Newman, A Civil Tongue, 155-56.
  15. Ibid., 156.
  16. Ibid., 5, 9, 15.
  17. G. K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1936), 228-29.
  18. Newman, A Civil Tongue, 6.
  19. G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men (New York: Dodd, Mead, 19 12), 174.
  20. Roman Guardini, The End of the Modern World, trans. Joseph Theman and Herbert Turke, edited with introduction by Frederick D. Wilhelmsen (New York: Sheed and Ward, x956), 87-88.
  21. Scruton, Roger, Untimely Tracts, (London: Macmillan Press, 1987), 205. See also Romano Guardini, Power and Responsibility, trans. Elinor C. Briefs (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961), especially 50-51, for a similar discussion of this phenomenon.
  22. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Difficulties Confronting the Faith in Europe Today", in L'Osservatore Romano [English edition], (July 24, 1989), 6.
  23. G. K. Chesterton, The Bell and the Cross (New York: John Lane, 1910), 96.
  24. Ratzinger, "Difficulties", 6.
  25. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), 303-4.
  26. Ibid., 214.
  27. See note 3.
  28. Bobbye D. Sorrels, The Nonsexist Communicator (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983),125-27.
  29. William Oddie, What Will Happen to God? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 108.
  30. Orwell, 25-7.
  31. Ibid., 281.
  32. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, eds., Conversations with Walker Percy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985), 73.
  33. Walker Percy, "Writing Catholic", Boston College Magazine 48 (Summer 1989), 26.
  34. For a most illuminating discussion of this process of liturgical abstraction (or "digitalization", as the author calls it), see Paul C. Vitz, "The Brain Hemispheres and the Liturgy", in CCICA Annual (1983):9-29.
  35. Percy, "Writing Catholic", 26.


Joyce Little. "Abstract Language vs. the Incarnate Word." Chapter Two in The Church and the Culture War: Secular Anarchy or Sacred Order (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995): 45-64.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Ignatius Press


Joyce Little is professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. She has written numerous articles for both popular and scholarly Catholic journals and speaks frequently at conferences around the country.

Copyright © 1995 Ignatius Press

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