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.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!