“All are welcome!”
You can hardly walk into a Catholic parish today without encountering this slogan. Not so long ago all the talk was about the “New Evangelization,” but that topic has been back-burnered in favor of “welcoming.” No one should feel excluded from the Catholic Church! Who is it, exactly, that has been complaining about feeling unwelcome? That’s usually left unsaid. Yet the current emphasis on welcoming people to the Church certainly implies, at the very least, that we have been in some way inhospitable in the past.
The welcome wagon movement has as a foundational principle the need for changes in the language of the Church. It posits two problems with the language of our first 1,981 years:
1) It’s too hard to understand, and
2) It makes people feel bad.
The understandability issue relates to theological language – doctrines and how they are explained, in the liturgy and elsewhere. The accusations pertaining to hurt feelings are more often directed at moral language – how and when we speak about the moral law of the Christian life and the effect this has on those who feel implicated.
But is this desire for more understandable and acceptable language consistent with the Church’s mission? Does it help, or undermine, the work of evangelization?
First, the desire to make Catholic language understandable is, well, understandable. We know from Catholic history that the Church has had to discover how to explain her theological truths in ways comprehensible in diverse times and cultures. Current proponents of language changes argue that the Church did just this during the fourth century Trinitarian debates. They propose that the Church sought to explain the Trinity in ways people could understand, specifically by using Greek philosophical terms. However, a closer look shows that the Church was not primarily concerned with making the doctrine of the Trinity understandable. She was interested in making it precise. If the end goal is “understandable,” one usually ends up with a dumbed-down explanation which can easily lead to errors. But if the goal is precision, then although one might have to work to understand a concept, he can be assured of arriving at the correct understanding.
The irony is that when one works for precision he gets understanding, but when he works solely for understanding he gets confusion.
The Church’s desire for linguistic precision was the reason for the recent changes in the English translation of the Ordinary Form texts. Although the new translations might not be in commonly-spoken English, they are more accurate. When we see how many Catholics today have incorrect understandings of basic Catholic doctrines, the need for precision becomes clear. As one example, under the previous terminology Jesus was described as “one in being” with the Father. Couldn’t such a person still be simply a man who was very close to God, like St. Francis? Whereas a Jesus who is “consubstantial” with the Father demands an acknowledgement of his divinity.
Nor do the Gospels attest that the desire to make language understandable is a priority for our Lord. After Jesus tells the story of the Sower in Matthew 13, the disciples ask him why he speaks in parables. Our Lord replies, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11-13). Christ himself makes it clear that the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” will not be understood by everyone, and there is nothing we can do about it. Concentrating our efforts to do so, then, appears to be for naught.
The second attempt to change the Church’s language is more pernicious. It aims not just to make the Church’s language more understandable to modern man, but also to make it more acceptable to him. We see this in the desire to soften the Church’s language about sin, especially in the area of sexual morality. Less than a generation ago, St. John Paul II called the attempt of those who had divorced to later marry outside the Church “evil” (Familiarius Consortio 84), yet today such language is condemned in many quarters of the Church. People will only feel welcome and thus enter our doors, it is said, if we soften our language on the “hard teachings.”
Leaving aside the fact that every religious denomination that has done this has hurled themselves head-long into obscurity, this attempt is contrary to the whole of Catholic tradition. Both St. John the Baptist and St. Thomas More were martyred rather than deny the truth about the sanctity of marriage. Countless missionaries have been persecuted and killed in far-flung lands for refusing to give in to the moral errors that proliferated in those areas. Furthermore, we see that the desire to make language related to morality more acceptable is not shared by our Lord. In the Sermon on the Mount – known today only for the Beatitudes – Jesus’ language surrounding various moral questions could not be more forceful: “Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully commits adultery with her in his heart,” “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5: 28, 32, 30). There is no talk of “positive values” in immoral relationships or actions – just a simple and direct condemnation of them.
Those who desire to change the language of the Church to make it more welcoming might have good intentions, but focusing our evangelization efforts simply on a message of “welcome” is fruitless. Imagine encountering a person who is lost because he misread a map. Would you be fearful of using precise language, contradicting his misreading and possibly offending him, in order to set him on the correct path? Or picture finding a person drowning in quicksand. Would your first concern be greeting her cheerfully and making sure she feels comfortable in your presence?
Today there are countless souls lost and drowning, and the mission of the Church is to set them on the right path to salvation. This is done by a message not of welcome, but of conversion. Whereas a message of “welcome” often masks the desperate state many souls are in, a message of conversion highlights the need for people to leave their erroneous and sinful lifestyle and embrace Christ. It confidently asserts that there is a better way: the way of Jesus Christ as found in the Catholic Church. Too often Catholics have accepted the mess of pottage that the world offers – adultery, abortion, birth control, homosexuality, fornication – as the best some people can achieve, instead of embracing our birthright – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5-22-23) – as something anyone can obtain through the grace of conversion.
Conversion, however, includes a confrontation with one’s own misunderstandings and sins, and because of the fallen nature of man, such a confrontation is, for most people, unwelcome. For who wants to be told that they believe something wrong, or even worse, do things that are wrong? Those who use precise language and preach conversion therefore are often seen as unwelcoming, especially in an age of constant affirmation and inflated self-esteem. Yet Catholics are obliged to instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner, as the Spiritual Works of Mercy tell us. Paradoxically, this message of conversion will be the most welcoming message of all, for once one confronts his failings, and, like the prodigal son, decides to convert from his former life and return home, he will find the greatest welcome possible in the arms of his loving Father.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.