Language gap

Jamie Manson’s latest NCR commentary is entitled: “Dolan and Cordileone: Please don’t call it love.” She wonders what exactly it might mean for Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, to proclaim that the Catholic Church really does love gays and lesbians.

Dolan said “I love you, too” (literally) in an Easter Sunday interview on ABC. He elaborated: “we want your happiness…you’re entitled to friendship.’” And when Cordileone arrived in San Francisco in 2012, he announced: “We need to continue to learn how to be welcoming, let them know that we love them and we want to help them.”

But Dolan is, of course, a vocal opponent of marriage equality. He also declined a request to meet with homeless LGBTQ youth last year. Cordileone, meanwhile, is nicknamed the “Father of Proposition 8.”

And Jamie notes that when the Human Rights Campaign recently distributed a red and white equal-sign graphic on Facebook, meant to be posted while the Supreme Court heard arguments on marriage equality, Cordileone’s PR staff went ahead with their own jaw-dropping riposte: “a graphic of a white division sign and the citation ‘Luke 12:51’ on a red square. (Luke 12:51 is the verse in which Jesus says, ‘Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division.’)” The archdiocese pulled it from Facebook when people complained, but the division sign had made its point.

Jamie wants church officials to stop using the word “love” unless they demonstrate it in concrete, relational ways:

When we love another person, we genuinely desire to know her or him. When we love, we long to listen to the beloved and to learn his or her story….But that quality of listening requires true presence and vulnerability. For now, men like Dolan and Cordileone continue to insist that gays and lesbians do not know the truth about themselves and their relationships.

Unsurprisingly, commenters began shooting back. One critic, who goes by the screen name Purgatrix Ineptiae (my rough translation: “she who cleans out the folly”), wrote that love means something else entirely:

When a bishop says he loves you, he means he wants to help you get into heaven. It doesn’t mean he will clear his schedule to listen (for the thousandth time) to your protestations that he should adopt your opinions. It doesn’t mean he enjoys your company. It doesn’t mean he wants you to like him. It means he wants to help you eschew sin and grow in faith in accordance with his understanding of sin and faith.

Reading Jamie’s understanding of love, which I confess to sharing, and reading the alternate view provided by Purgatrix, I realized (for the thousandth time) what one of the biggest problems is in the church today. It is the language gap.

For all intents and purposes, there are multiple Catholicisms. Words and symbols might coincide, but meanings do not. I began to grasp this near the end of my college career, while researching a paper on sexual ethics for a theology class. I read articles about John Paul II’s understanding of love.

The articles suggested that love for John Paul was, at bottom, the choice to disinterestedly pursue the objective good of another person, particularly the other’s eternal good. Because God is the creator and ground of all that is, we learn how to make such a choice by first studying God’s self-revelation, of which the church is the privileged custodian. Only secondarily do we study human experience.

This view appeals to our idealism, and has some beauty and logic. It is also somewhat removed from the friction of our everyday, embodied lives. It frequently does not allow our personal encounters to speak for themselves with all their compelling mystery and poetry, their unbidden ecstasy and sorrow. And so when we try to dialogue with the Vatican about love, particularly sexual love, the result is generally an impasse.

Speaking of dialogue, I had a related light-bulb moment while reading David Gibson’s book about Pope Benedict XVI, The Rule of Benedict. One passage argued that while Benedict considered himself wholeheartedly committed to dialogue, he often used the word in a different way than it appears in common discourse. Benedict’s model for “dialogue” was the Gospel of John, in which the truth-seeker asks questions of the truth-bearer, as Nicodemus does with Jesus, and then accepts what the truth-bearer reveals. This is dialogos with the divine logos, not a hashing-out among parties of equal standing. For me, it explained a lot.

If this is how much our basic terms and concepts differ, then consider just how much we talk past each other, and how much we will continue to do so. I obviously have no easy solution. I doubt there is even a hard solution.

But if I am not immediately optimistic, I yet have hope. My hope is in Jesus’ observation that the proof of the tree is its fruit. My hope is in Gamaliel’s counsel that what comes from God is not stoppable. We will see which language, which worldview, gives the most abundant life to the most people. And you know where my bias is.