On “Church-speak” and the Tendency to be Obscure

Blog-2-7Many groups have a tendency to use words that make sense to their members but are unintelligible to outsiders. I have sometimes had to decode “Church-speak” for recent converts.

For example, one time I proudly announced, “RCIA classes will begin next week, so if you know anyone who is interested in attending please fill out an information card on the table just outside the sacristy door.” I thought I’d been perfectly clear, but then a new member approached me after Mass to inquire about the availability of classes to become Catholic and when they would begin. Wondering if she’d forgotten the announcement I reminded her what I had said about RCIA classes; she looked at me blankly. “Oh,” I said, “Let me explain what I mean by RCIA.” After I did so, I mentioned that she could pick up a flyer over by the sacristy door. Again I got a blank stare, followed by the question “What’s the sacristy?” Did I dare tell her that the classes would be held in the rectory?

I’ve had a similar reaction when announcing CCD classes. One angry parent called me to protest that she had been told by the DRE (more Church-speak) that her daughter could not make her First Holy Communion unless she started attending CCD. The mother, the non-Catholic wife of a less-than-practicing Catholic husband, had no idea what CCD meant and why it should be required in order for her daughter to receive Holy Communion. She had never connected the term CCD with Sunday school or any form of religious instruction.

Over my years as a priest I have become more and more aware that although I use what I would call ordinary terms of traditional Catholicism, given the poor catechesis (another Church word, meaning religious training, by the way) of so many, the meaning of what I am saying is lost. For example, I have discovered that some Catholics think that “mortal sin” refers only to killing someone. Even the expression “grave sin” is nebulous to many; they know it isn’t good, but aren’t really sure what it means. “Venial sin” is even less well understood!

Other words such as covenant, matrimony, incarnation, transubstantiation, liturgy, oration, epistle, Gospel, Collect, Homily, compunction, contrition, Sanctus, chalice, paten, alb, Holy Orders, theological, missal, consubstantial, one in being, Monsignor, narthex, ambo, and Eucharistic, while meaningful to many in the Church, are often only vaguely understood by others in the Church, not to mention the unchurched (is that another Church word?).

Once, at daily Mass, I was preaching based on a reading from the First Letter of John and was attempting to make the point that our faith is “incarnational.” I noticed vacant looks out in the pews. And so I asked the small group gathered that day if anyone knew what “incarnational” meant; no one did. I went on to explain that it meant that the Word of God had to become flesh in us; it had to become real in the way we live our lives. To me, the word “incarnational” captured the concept perfectly, but most of the people didn’t even really know for sure what “incarnation” meant, let alone “incarnational.”

Ah, Church-speak!

During my years in the seminary the art of Church-speak seemed to rise to new levels. I remember that many of my professors, while railing against the use of Latin in the liturgy, had a strange fascination with Greek-based terminology. Mass was out, Eucharist was in. “Going to Mass” was out, “confecting the synaxis” was in. Canon was out, “anamnesis” and “anaphora” were in. Communion was out, koinonia was in. Mystagogia, catechumenate, mysterion, epikaia, protoevangelion, hapax legomenon, epiklesis, synderesis, eschatology, Parousia, and apakatastasis were all in. These are necessary words, I suppose, but surely opaque to most parishioners. Church-speak indeed, or should I say ekklesia-legomenon.

Ah, Church-speak! Here is a list of many other Church words for your edification (and amusement): Church words defined.

At any rate, I have learned to be a little more careful when speaking so as to avoid using too many insider expressions and older terms without carefully explaining them. I think we can and should learn many of them, but we should not assume that most people know them.

The great and Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that he discovered early on that he often got credit for being learned when in fact he was merely being obscure. And for any who knew him in his later years, especially through his television show, he was always very careful to explain Church teaching in a way that made it accessible to the masses. It’s good advice for all of us: a little less of the CCD and RCIA jargon and little more clear “religious instruction” can help others to decode our Church-speak.

I am not saying that we should “dumb down” our vocabulary, for indeed it is a precious patrimony in many cases. But we need to do more explaining rather than merely presuming that most people will know what our terms mean.

This video has a lot of gibberish in it, but it illustrates how we can sound at times if we’re not careful!

Here’s another funny one:

9 Replies to “On “Church-speak” and the Tendency to be Obscure”

  1. Maybe “church speak” is why non Catholics view Catholics as being somewhat Orwellian.

  2. A way of explaining God’s Incarnation would be describing His Theophanies, which culminate in the Theophany of Theophanies: the Incarnation. It’s an unique Theophany, so we can only understand as much as God has revealed.

    I don’t recommend comparing the Incarnation to Vishu’s avatars, which is sabellianism; nor to pantheism, which is idolization of the world; nor to anthropomorphism, which is funny animals.

    Materialization of other religions’ gods are comparable to angelic apparitions in the Old Testament, so one need not bring them up either.

  3. This is not just a problem for churches. It is a problem for any human activity that develops a specialized vocabulary whether it is the medical profession, the legal profession or any other technical profession. I manage a corporate computer helpdesk and it is a very significant problem in the business of providing a corporate computer helpdesk. For many years the standard approach to dealing with the problem was to adapt the language to level of the customer, to “dumb it down” as it were. That is still a valid approach. The problem with it though is that specialized vocabulary has developed for a reason: it really does represent the most effective way to communicate about matters in that specialization. If people are going to carry on a meaningful conversation about matters in that specialization beyond the basics it eventually becomes necessary to learn the associated vocabulary. So the correct approach required movement in both directions. It is necessary to adapt language and vocabulary to level of the least informed party to a conversation while at the same time working raise the level of language and vocabulary so that conversations can become increasing meaningful and informed.

    Perhaps the best illustration of this can be found when looking at individuals and families who are coping with a serious and protracted illness. At the beginning of their experience with this illness their knowledge of the medicine involved is generally pretty limited. In the beginning, medical professionals have to adapt their language a very great deal. Over time, that knowledge and vocabulary of patients and families grow to be quite substantial and fewer adaptations are required. The patient and their family have acquired the knowledge and vocabulary necessary to converse meaningfully about the subject at hand.

    In the religious field one can see that some of the objections to the new translation of the Roman Missal were based on vocabulary. It was objected that the translation was inadequate because it used to many words that “Joe and Mary Catholic” couldn’t understand, works like “consubstantial” for instance. It was suggested that the Missal should only use language that ordinary people could understand.

    I think that is a horrible approach. For one thing, it is incredibly condescending. “Joe and Mary Catholic” may be uninformed but they are not stupid. For another if we always and only adjust language downward, we will never have an informed or theologically sophisticated population. It’s like saying “we can’t teach people X because they don’t already know X”. “We can’t teach kids mathematics because they don’t know arithmetic.” Well that’s the point of teaching them isn’t it? Maybe “Joe and Mary Catholic” don’t know what “consubstantial” means, but they should, at least to some degree if not to the degree a theologian should understand it. If we always avoid that term, however, they likely never will know what it means.

    The correct approach is to adjust language and vocabulary down to the lowest level necessary while also seeking to raise them to the highest level possible under the circumstances.

  4. It is somewhat amusing that RCIA and CCD are new terms for new things that would convey just as little to a Catholic in 1917 as to a non-Catholic in 2017.

    Incarnation on the other hand…

    (PS, as a convert that read into the Church, RCIA and the like meant absolutely nothing to me either. I had read starting with the Fathers and going forward so that about the most recent thing I had read was Chesterton, so when I wanted to convert, I did what I thought anyone did, just like I read in Newman’s Loss and Gain, I found a priest and started talking with him. It happened to be at an FSSP parish, which is how they still do it, so I never knew such a thing as RCIA existed till a few days before I was received into the Church when someone explained it to me. If I heard the term before then, it conveyed as little to my mind as to the woman in the article. I am thankful to have gone the “old way” myself, and to anyone that has the option, I would recommend it.)

  5. Any Catholic that does not know what the Incarnation is is liable to be snatched up by the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the New Age movement or Islam or Eastern religions. It is not churchspeak, it is core doctrine.

    I understand the catechetical mess we are in, but priests really need to include catechetics in each homily, even if it just a question in the Penny or Baltimore catechisms per homily.

    1. But they might know that God became man through the birth of Jesus Christ without knowing the word ‘incarnation’. And they might know what the priest does after the Gospel reading without knowing the word ‘homily’.

  6. Thank God that His son Jesus did not ever use any kind of ‘Church-speak’ or long and complicated theological words and phrases! Rather, He said it like it is! – In good old ‘everyday-speak’!!
    Sin, repentance, death, Heaven, Hell, hypocrisy, love God and man as yourself, etc., etc.
    The use of ‘special’ language in the church I believe to be as big a sin as that of its origin – pride itself. For it is out of our arrogance and pride in our own learning, and self-righteous belief that we are in some way superior to others, that we confuse, mis-lead and even confound, with our ‘over-complicated-speak’, those who might otherwise have been interested in finding out just who Christ is and what He stands for, only to shrink from further investigation because they perceive themselves to be not educated nor knowledgeable enough to even begin to understand the apparent complexities of this strange mysterious faith full of obscure words and abbreviations!
    When I began to investigate the Catholic faith, in 1963, at the age of 17, it used be called ‘Instruction in the Faith’ – astonishingly, I understood that perfectly!
    “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” – Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, 14:33.
    And as Jesus Himself said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’! Anything else is of Satan.” – Matthew 5:37.
    “Let the children come to me – for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 19:14 – and – “Unless you change and become like these simple little ones, you shall not ever enter the kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 18:3. I could go on . . . . . . . . . . .
    And, by the way, Msgr Charles, instead of the word ‘incarnational’ perhaps what you ‘should’ have been saying to your congregation that day was, “We must allow Jesus to be born in us and to take over our lives.” – as in the beautiful Christmas hymn, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ – “Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.”
    So – no more obscure and confusing language when speaking of the faith and all of its facets – speak the language of innocent children; then, hopefully, that way we will draw men and women to Jesus in a big way.
    God bless all.

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