March 2013 Print

The New Theological Babel: The Renunciation Of Juridical Language and Its Consequences

By Mario Palmaro

One of the aspects which characterize the language used by the texts of Vatican II is the renunciation of juridical language.

To use a language means to acquire a certain mental elasticity coherent with it. When one studies a foreign language it is said that the language is learned well when one begins to think in that language, because between the language one uses and one’s way of thinking there is a strong connection.

Naturally, the use of language most adapted to the ears of men, we could say, and to the changes in society which are seen over time is not scandalous in itself, but is in keeping with a concern which is always present in the Church. The mistake, sometimes, is in presenting the ‘pastoral approach’ as something absolutely new or absolutely unheard of, as if there were eighteen hundred years of absolute pastoral insensitivity, and that at a certain point it was suddenly discovered.

In reality, this is a problem which presents itself in repeated cycles, because it is true that history and the world change, that cultures, society, and customs tend to undergo transformations, so it would not even be correct to think of a total immutability of language.

Nonetheless, it would likewise be erroneous to think that language can be transformed, or even completely changed and abandoned without consequences. Thus a point of balance is achieved in that which serves as communication, as was the case, for example, with the Native Americans or with the Indians of South America which the Christians found at the beginning of the fifteenth century, because the missionaries did not wait until 1962 to have this pastoral concern. At the same time, though, it must be clear what in this attention to language—which has been called inculturation of the Faith—can be negotiable, or what can be put in play and what, on the other hand, cannot be negotiated because it would no longer communicate the truth.

Considering the topic of Vatican II and looking at the history of the Church, we realize that in its communication the Catholic Church has used three columns. These three columns of Catholic communication, which I and Alessandro Gnocchi have briefly analyzed in our book,1 are: the use of the Latin language, a style of preaching based on apologetics, and the definitional and juridical style.

Definitional Language

The third column of the communication of the Church is the use of the juridical-definitional style which historically has characterized the language of the Church over time and has produced some objective consequences. It has been fundamental, for example, for the counteracting of heresies.

The Church has continued defining her doctrinal patrimony progressively, even solemnly, and responding stroke by stroke to those tendencies which from her midst have come out with certain ideas and opinions which were truly theologically heretical.

Definitional language is a perfect, ideal language to counteract heresy. A language which is instead descriptive, existential, or empathetic would have been able with great difficulty to shave the edge off heresy, which is basically always a definitional affirmation of an error. Juridical-definitional language has allowed the Church over time to make Catholic doctrine precise without equivocations and ambiguities. Thus the method is to be succinct, because a good school of writing teaches that a text is finished when it has been cut, shortened.

When does one write well? When one has time to edit. When one does not have the time to write, one writes too much. When one wants to write a nice article, a nice book, one starts using scissors, rather than adding. A text is more effective when it is concise, based also on the theory of communication which uses the image of the bullet. If I send out a single message, I am much surer that this message will reach its destination. I have a precise target and I shoot a shot in a certain direction. If, instead, I have the ambition to shoot several messages, in the end no one knows what I even wanted to say. This rule of communication holds true in a particular way for texts of the Magisterium.

Juridical-definitional language has been an antidote to an experiential, emotional, and existential idea of the Catholic Faith, exactly the type of idea which, not coincidentally, has spread in these last decades.

Now, to say one has an experiential, emotional, or existential idea of the Catholic Faith does not mean that one has a totally erroneous idea because the Catholic Faith is certainly also a communication of experience, it is a life that has been lived, an effort of coherence between what one believes and what one lives. But the error is in the fact of reducing the Catholic Faith to existence only, to experience only, to an empathetic tendency only, because at that point doctrine becomes absent. If one lives only of empathy, of sensation, even of great emotional rapture, things which may have their due place and are also a help, at a certain point if you put ten of such emotional people around a table comparing their faith, you find, perhaps, ten completely different beliefs.

It is beyond discussion that this juridical-definitional style has been abandoned in the many wide-ranging texts used by the Second Vatican Council. These three “columns” of communication have been set aside, in fact, precisely because juridical-definitional language is not used. It is not rejected in a formal and unequivocal way. There is no single line in the texts of the Second Vatican Council which clearly says no to apologetics or to Latin, even though on Latin the question is more controversial, but the problem is that a language is chosen which, in the name of a pastoral approach, is no longer juridical-definitional language.

Therefore, certainly one can say without having any derogatory intent, that from the point of view of linguistic analysis, the Conciliar texts, or at least some of them, appear verbose, complex, long-winded, and characterized by a fluctuating communicative technique in which the paragraphs sometimes give the impression of contradicting each other or of changing their sense as the discourse continues. All of these are characteristics which objectively are at odds with juridical-definitional language.

You can make a comparison with the budget law. The budget goes to parliament in a certain way, then amendments are added, and in the end one no longer recognizes the original. Undoubtedly, the dialectical nature that characterized the debate within the parliamentary sessions finds itself poured out into this fluctuating style. There is a new mode of expression that has these characteristics.

Principle of Non-Contradiction

A key requirement of the definitional style is the constant employment of the principle of non-contradiction.

I will not go into the merits of the Council’s topics, because my interest is to emphasize that there is a problem of communication technique that deeply affects the substance.

To accept or not to accept the principle of non-contradiction is not just a nuance; it changes a lot. Obviously in this case there is not a rejection of the principle of non-contradiction, but there is not a habit of proceeding logically, guided by this principle. It is difficult to say that one rejects openly the principle of non-contradiction, but it can happen that one proceeds without realizing that it is being forgotten, that it is being left aside. If I were an Italian composition teacher I would say that it is an issue of sloppy logic.

The definitional style focuses on what is essential. For example, when it was said that someone was a heretic, it is not that this term was used in a derogatory way, but rather a truthful judgment was given which focused on the essential question. This person, for example, could be a very nice Lutheran, even leading a pious life, a good father, a good husband—all elements that are to his merit and also make the evaluation and judgment of this soul even more complex.

But what does definitional language say here? We’re focusing on something that is essential to our discussion: that the man is a heretic. Maybe he’s a great striker in soccer, but then we simply know that he is an excellent heretical striker.

The abandonment of definitional language is precisely the source of the loss of the essential element in which, in my opinion, there is nothing aggressive. Saying that someone is a heretic does not mean that you want to insult him, but you’re stating a true fact with regard to his position on the truth of the Faith. Nevertheless we are great friends, we visit each other, we like each other, right?

One of the paradoxical effects of the abandonment of definitional language is that it prevents us from saying how things are, because if we say how things are, then it is assumed that we want to offend someone. And this is paradoxical. Of course, we must be vigilant in our conscience, in the purification of our intentions, because maybe we can say to someone that he is a heretic because we want to insult him, but this is a problem of the improper use of the truth, using the truth like a club to knock someone over the head. This, objectively, is never good and one must be careful not to make that mistake.

Meaning of Words

A definition is the obligatory beginning of every possible argument. Definitional language is interesting because, in addition to the principle of non-contradiction, in order to think you need to know what you mean when you use a word. This is a fundamental Thomistic approach.

First of all, let’s clarify what the words we use mean. Today, most of the problems of the Catholic and non-Catholic world stem from a misunderstanding of the meaning of words. One says: “I am for the family, my four wives are fine.” He, perhaps from the subjective point of view, is convinced he is for the family. Then this problem, mutatis mutandis, moved from the cultural environment on to theological matters is due to weak definitions. But what does one mean when one says a certain word or a certain thing? Without clarity on the concepts one cannot make judgments, or they are ambiguous ones. You see, then, what sort of landslide comes simply from the abandonment of a certain type of style.

Historians say that, in preparing the Second Vatican Council, almost two thousand pages of preparatory outlines had been prepared that reflected largely the classical outlines, using definitional language.

Apparently, John XXIII gave a generally positive opinion of these outlines; however, he did not defend them when confronted with the decision to scrap them. Therefore, the outlines were thrown away and everything began again from zero. This revolution in the use of language brought with it all of the problems pointed out by several parties.

The Roman Curia, then, had arranged the outlines, which could be likened to the tracks on which the train of theological discussion must somehow travel, forcing it to use the principle of non-contradiction and definitional style, and still in keeping with the pastoral concern for which the council itself had been convoked.

It is clear that this methodology, undoubtedly, has the effect of simplifying the work of the interpreter. The work of the interpreter, usually the Church herself, is always a bit like the relationship that exists with Sacred Scripture. In Catholic tradition, the relationship with Sacred Scripture is not based on subjective free examination, but on the fact that it is the Church that helps one to grasp and to understand in truth the meaning of the text. There is an interpretative action, but, of course, in continuity. If the text follows definitional and juridical language, the work of the interpreter is decidedly simplified.

Mixture of Truth and Charity

What was the motive that led to the abandonment of definitional language? The motive was that definitional language has an assertive, categorical, sure, and concise style. With these characteristics, it is clear that the language of definition could, but not necessarily should, annoy the listeners’ ears. That is, carrying the message with assertive, categorical, sure, and concise characteristics can upset someone because essentialness is effective, it is a sharp word. Jesus, meeting the Samaritan woman, tells her: “Thou hast said well, and the man whom thou now hast is not thy husband.” In some ways it is a match more than a meeting.

To all this, the Church has always responded with a good mixture of truth and charity that cannot be in contradiction. That is, to be charitable one does not have to sacrifice truth on a pagan altar, and on the other hand, if one wants to impart the truth fully, it cannot be done without charity.

This is another big issue that is posed by this concept of a pastoral approach, in which one seems to discern a contrast between truth and charity, which comes from many components which are perhaps understandable, but dangerous.

If the main problem of the apostle, the Christian, the priest, of whoever is called to be a missionary, is not to disturb the listener, we are faced with a serious problem.

It is not that the disturbance of the listener is something that, to be clear, should not concern us. Think, for example, of the dialectic which for two thousand years has been held together by the Church between preaching and the relationship with the penitent. Preaching, the place of full and even harsh communication of the truth, is also the place of reproach. To the penitent it is the place of reproach, but it is also a place of forgiveness. The Church has found this balance in the way of imparting doctrinal firmness, but together with the understanding that we are all sinners.

The modern world, the atheistic world, the world which we face every day, does not understand and does not digest so many things about Catholicism, but this in particular. The modern world is a world that denies that it commits sin because it does not want to be forgiven. And that is what makes it horrific in its relationship with Catholicism and which makes it more sympathetic instead towards that typically Protestant attitude that we cannot be like what God would like us to be, so we just modify our teaching.

Protestantism does exactly this. The bar is too high, so they let it down, and then let it down some more, until they just discard it. They remove, therefore, that moral tension that is found in Catholicism: “You have sinned, but get up again.”

This idea concerning the consciences and the souls of men, is, paradoxically, defended by definitional language because to realize one needs a confessor, a priest, one needs to realize that one is sinning. In a mish-mash in which true is false and good and evil can no longer be told apart, it is difficult to understand that one is sick.

There is an analogy—it seems to me that we have written it in the book—in the relationship between doctor and patient. The good doctor is a doctor who cares about how his patient will respond to some news. You know that now it is very fashionable to theorize about transparency between doctor and patient with an approach, however, which is typically rationalistic.

We need to see how the truth is communicated to the patient, as this may become a burden that crushes him. This concern must be taken together, however, with the need to say how things are to the patient, also for the good of his soul. If a patient has a very serious condition and the doctor moved by pity hides the truth, saying, “Be calm, go home and don’t worry,” and the patient does not know he has little time left to live, the doctor does not even give him a chance to see his life in spiritual terms.

Somehow, the abandonment of definitional language is likely to make all of us, all of mankind, patients who go home still thinking that they have nothing wrong.

Additional Observations

On the topic of juridical language I would say that it is in fact definitional language, but some additional observations seem important to make.

The language of the Church is definitional but also juridical. What is juridical language? It is a prescriptive language. The rule of law is characterized as prescribing something one must do or must not do: “If anyone thinks that this thing is true, let him be anathema,” or “If he thinks this thing is false, let him be anathema.” That is to say, “This is the truth, this is what you must hold as true.” Precept and then penalty.

So, the pairing of precept-penalty is a typical result of juridical language. If one strays from that perspective, it is no longer said what must be firmly held and no longer said what happens to those who do not hold it. And this is a great lack of charity.

Of course, even here it seems fair to underscore that juridical language, like all things human, has its limits and even its risks. Therefore, in evoking the need for a return to definitional-juridical language we must not fall into a legal formalism which would be fatal for the faith. The first to complain of this formalism was Our Lord in His relationship with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are a perfect example of orthodoxy in respect to the religion of the time, characterized by a formalism against which Jesus is fiercely critical, to the point that He heaps invective on them reserved to no other class of men in the New Testament.

The return and the recovery of definitional and juridical language must not slip into formalism, or into a kind of legalism that would not be Catholic.

In juridical language there is also, however, the dialectic between law and reality that is played, for example, by the Roman jurists, with the instrument of fairness. There is a Latin saying: Summum ius, summa iniuria. What does this mean? It means that the truth is one thing, the law is one thing, and it cannot be changed as a favor to someone. The priest, confessor, spiritual director evaluates the circumstances, conditions, and helps set a path in which there is no room for a changing of the law itself, because the law cannot change, but there is room for a law of change.

So, realistically I think that there should not and there cannot be room for a changing of the law, but we have to somehow recognize that there may be some law of change.

But for this more time is needed.


1 A. Gnocchi and M. Palmaro, La bella addormentata: Perché dopo il Concilio Vaticano II la Chiesa è entrata in crisi, perché si risveglierà (Vallecchi 2011).