Speaking like persons, not a corporation

The Church communicates best when it expresses itself in a way that is personal and spiritual, inviting us to a deep relationship with the Person of Jesus.

(Image: Mark kassinos/Unsplash.com)

Readers are no doubt familiar with this: The USCCB’s Twitter account posted a graphic a few days ago listing seven attitudes we might adopt in participating in the Synod on Synodality. The post was lambasted by many as an example of the kind of corporatized jargon that has come to be the lingua franca for too many episcopal statements in recent years.

It is not hard to find similar examples. One need only think of many bishops’ press releases regarding the revelation of Theodore McCarrick’s crimes, which were able to muster words like “saddened” or even “very saddened” while pledging to review processes and policies. Or one might recall the “farewell Mass” of Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, MN, in which the bishop, departing the diocese in disgrace after a Vos estis investigation found he had attempted to cover up abuse and blackmail a victim, acknowledged his crimes not with anything like repentance or contrition, but a legalese interjection into his homily about “failing, at times, to enforce applicable norms.”

It may help us to take a moment to reflect on this point: what is it about such language that is, as many insist, “corporate” in character?

If we might put it simply, such statements are bloodless. They lack vitality, a living principle. They lack the Spirit, which creates and sustains the Church and which ought to animate the words and acts of the Church and her leaders.

To put it another way, when people criticize a statement as jargon or corporate-speak, what they are saying is: this is not how people talk. This does not come across as the self-expression of a person.

The key here is that the Church is a body, the Mystical Body of Christ. It is best understood organically, as a living thing. Living things grow into themselves and need to be nourished to do so. They feel pain and can be wounded, and need to be tended and cared.

Corporations, on the other hand, are not bodies. They are more akin to machines. Machines do not grow into fulfilling their natural end or purpose as embodied creatures do. The overriding concern for a machine is that it continue operating as it was built to. Treadmills have no teleology.

Thus, the Church communicates best when it expresses itself in a way that is personal and spiritual, that conveys the sense that the Church is inviting us to a deep relationship with the Person of Jesus, and with others who share in this relationship, too. When the Church fails to do this, she fails to be herself.

This critique is nothing new. We often hear about the problem of “maintenance parishes” that seem to exist merely to keep existing, or the “sacramental assembly line” in which people are shuffled along the process of initiation into the Christian mysteries, but without imparting the a true sense of faith or relationship with Christ. To speak of someone who has been “sacramentalized but not evangelized” is to speak of a person who has experienced the Church as a machine rather than as the Body.

All of this being said, I think the Synod on Synodality could be an opportunity to address these challenges rather than being one more symptom of them. The goal of the local Synodal processes is to hear from the faithful about their experience of the life of the Church, and how they think the Church’s life can be lived more fruitfully. And some of the attitudes named in the graphic in question could help achieve this. Others, one wonders.

For example, “listening” and “accompaniment” are essential dispositions for the Church: for example, the faithful must listen to their pastors to hear the Church’s teachings, and pastors should listen to their flock to see whether that teaching has been understood and received, and if not, why. Pastors can then accompany the faithful through the trials and tribulations of life into deeper communion with Christ.

Yet such words can ring hollow if they are held up as principles but not put into action. Many Catholics from various points on the ecclesial compass feel that even if the pastors of the Church could be made to listen to their concerns about restrictions on the pre-Vatican II liturgy, or their worries that the Church’s response to present social concerns on race or democracy has been insufficient, that their concerns would be addressed or even understood. There is a difference between listening and hearing. Likewise, one potential danger of accompaniment is that we focus on the journey to the detriment of the goal, that we lose sight of the truths of the faith to which the faithful need to be guided. Accompaniment can focus on the process but lose sight of the person.

The same critique can be applied to the other five attitude, each in their own way: each can be used to engage persons and their needs, but can also become an ouroboros, an endless process about the process consuming itself. It is the risk of the Church becoming the kind of navel-gazing, self-involved body Pope Francis has warned against, rather than the evangelizing force it was founded to be.

The point is not to beat up on USCCB staffers who are no doubt doing their best, but to point to trends in the language the Church uses to address the world. The Church calls all people to a relationship with Christ. This will be much more effective if the pastors of the Church sound like people inviting others into a family, not a corporation.


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About Nicholas Senz 24 Articles
Nicholas Senz is is Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children. Visit him online at www.nicholassenz.com.

14 Comments

  1. Excellent commentary. Also worth mentioning is how patronizing the corporate lingo is. And do the bishops ever say that the best accompaniment occurs during Confession?

  2. The key is in yesterday’s Gospel, when Mary tells the servants, “Do what he tells you.” No matter how many “synods” or how much “synodality” we engage, the message is clear. “Do what he tells you,” should be the only thing we need to remember. Listen, and stop wasting time on all kinds of “Synods,” like the one that fizzled in Denver “More than you realize.” True but not a surprise. Our discernment of what might come from any synod is contained in Scripture, and it all comes down to “Do what he tells you.” It’s simple, but it’s not easy. We make it more difficult by trying to discern something else while not doing what he tells us.

  3. What can one expect from distant and unspiritual professional managers and staffs at the USCCB? We are talking people who make their livings off the Church….poverty? Really?

    They spend their careers managing and rising through the ranks of other office managers identical to themselves….having a spiritual life is the least of their worries.

  4. The answer is in yesterday’s Gospel when Mary tells the servants, “Do what he tells you.” That’s the message that directs our lives, or should. It’s simple and requires no “synod” or “synodality,” just an attention to what he asks of us every day in every situation. We waste a lot of time on “study” groups or “discernment” groups like the failed Denver “More Than You Realize,” which is true, but requires attention to the direction “Do what he tells you,” rather than any trite phrase we can conjure. “Do what he tells you,” is the answer to all our detective work to try to understand our mission in this world. It’s simple, but it’s not easy, which is why we keep “studying” instead of doing what he tells us.

  5. Ah, but Nicholas, the lesion of corporatism is deeply entrenched. Back in 2002 George Weigel included the following insight in his “Courage to be Catholic”:

    “After Vatican II, the original design of the bishops’ national operation was led by Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit, then the conference president [remember too, his disastrous Call to Action], who chose the management-consultant firm of Booz-Allen Hamilton to advise the bishops [bishops!] on how they should do their corporate business (Cardinal Dearden was reportedly impressed by the work that firm had done in restructuring the management of the auto industry, but that is another story.)”

    Ergo, the silencing consensus model of decision-making and the jargon that comes with it, as Weigel notes later (pp. 210, and now 214) “When shepherds become flocks, shepherds become sheep, and something in the nature of a shepherd is gravely damaged”…

    As under synodality (the vademecum), when the successors of the apostles [!] become “primarily facilitators.” Hence the featureless and hollow language of facilitation…the business of business is to move things along! But, finally, praise God, we see real shepherds behind the 222-8 vote to at least restore the light of Eucharistic coherence in place of Roberts’ Rules of Order and chandeliers.

    • Both. For example, St. Paul writes, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it…” (Gal 1:13) and, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Eph 5:25). That holds true throughout the tradition, just as it the case that the Church is never understood as masculine, but always feminine. In “Mystici Corporis Christi,” for instance, Pope Pius XII used both “it” and “she” (see pars 23-28), as did “Lumen Gentium” (see LG 6), just as the Catechism does (pars 751ff), although the CCC uses “she/her” most often.

  6. I’m guilty of it. I want to sound 1) intelligent 2) educated 3) make what i’m doing seem deep and important. guilty. THe author did a good job making it more than just a communication thingy like ‘Valley Girl Talk’. I hope our bishops see this as a teaching moment. thanks for this.

  7. There is a double edge to corporative unanimity and individual independence. Christ, Apostles, and the Fathers taught unity in one faith, one voice. Although that tension first evident between Paul and Peter occurs dramatically with Athanasius of Alexandria standing virtually alone against universal Arianism. Except for one ally Saint Anthony of the Desert.
    Reading through the comments I was impressed by Beaulieu’s quote of G Weigel, “When shepherds become flocks, shepherds become sheep, and something in the nature of a shepherd is gravely damaged”. Quite true though an anomaly in consideration of Christian unity. Can leaders be both, leaders and a unity of beliefs? Theoretically yes but with great effort. N Senz sees the answer in the USCCB acting as persons rather than adopting the corporation jargon that resulted in roundhouse jeers. Invitation to join a family [Senz] is an improvement though it remains somewhat political.
    Leadership qualities are essential whether individually or within a USCCB corporate like setting. And we have some who’ve spoken outside their confined space within a conference. Taking Weigel’s comment in that context pastors in an executive forum like the USCCB need be conscious of their role as pastors and avoid becoming anonymous sheep for sake of a false vision of unity.
    Just imagine, if a few leaders stood firm on Eucharistic cohesion instead of caving. Just imagine, “We are all gathered here right now I can feel it, it’s about to go down There’s a time and place for a face in the crowd And today is the day, stand out Stand up, stand your ground” (Lyrics from the song Just Imagine).

  8. I personally think we ought to cut the bishops (and/or their staff) some slack. I know that the comments have been funny and clever, but look at it from their side. If you are going to do this Synodality thing, how do you do it? For something this big, you can’t go bottom up. You have to give organizing principles to serve as the poles of discussion. Of course, the problem with that approach is that those principles are abstract. And so, we end up with The List.

    Given that Jesus Christ has put Francis in place as his Pope, I think we should approach the task with the idea of making the best of it. And that will take a lot of energy. You know that others will be trying to make the process into a machine to carry out their agenda. Don’t sit on the sidelines and criticize! Jump in and drive the process to make meaningful improvements in how we interact with the world. Put up with the abstractions and lead it to concrete improvements. I’ll bet you would do that at work.

  9. CorporateSpeak is not about communicating.

    It’s about *not* communicating.

    The words that are chosen are deliberately non-descriptive, non-specific, vague, mushy.

    There’s a reason for this. Being a success in corporate life requires one to blend in with the crowd. So one tries, as much as possible, to not take positions, to not do or say anything to make oneself in any way noticeable or accountable.

    In other words, to be noncommittal, non-confrontational, impersonal, largely unnoticed.

    For Catholic bishops to adopt the corporate mindset — in non-action or non-commitment or non-communication — is an abomination.

    It’s exactly the *opposite* of how our Savior lived and worked and communicated.

  10. The USCCB deserves all the beat down comments it receives. We don’t need the USCCB. It is a self serving, very expensive and very useless organization.

  11. The purpose of this superficial and detached language is to avoid saying anything of substance while, as pointed out, sounding intelligent and sophisticated. It’s a way of avoiding having a real conversation by not providing any point of argument. People and institutions that do this deserve to be ignored. Dig into your heart and speak truthfully, or say nothing.

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