We very often speak of logic as the rules of the cultural-debating game, perhaps mistakenly so given society’s rejection of logic, but linguistics, the way in which logic, thought, and ideas are conveyed, represent the tools necessary to win the game. It is no coincidence that the clearest Catholic thinkers, including G.K. Chesterton and Cardinal Newman, had an exceptional knowledge of the language in which the wrote and spoke. The further we remove ourselves from a deep understanding of the meaning of words and the distinctions between definitions, the easier it is for terms to be manipulated for the benefit of those against Catholic thinking. The Holy Father recently remarked with some urgency that modern education contains the “horrors of manipulation” by pushing the “dictatorship of one form of thinking” in the name of “modernity.”
Many of the contemporary cultural battlefronts are littered with twisted words and meanings. Consider the popular gay-marriage sign “Equality for all!” How one defines “equality,” “freedom,” and “rights” is often indicative of where one stands on the non-negotiable Catholic issues of our day. Explaining why humans do not have the freedom to marry whoever or whatever we choose inherently entails an analysis of what it means to be free.
A strong knowledge of the English language is what makes writers such as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis so effective. Chesterton’s book on Aquinas is barely 100 pages and yet he systematically draws distinctions between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Protestantism and Catholicism, Eastern mystics and Catholics, and modernists and Catholics. In each distinction, he describes the philosophies and methods of the respective religion, articulately explains the definitions of the labels he employs, and applies the definitions to the philosophies and methods. In this manner, for example, he labels Catholicism as “optimistic” with respect to human nature and Protestantism as “pessimistic.” An excellent knowledge of the English language allows Chesterton to succinctly (and soundly) make arguments and apply labels which would be widely decried by scholars knowledgeable of Christian religions and yet ignorant of the definition of a word as simplistic as “optimistic.”
There are several ways the Catholic Gentleman can improve his handle on the English language. First, many of the cultural debates raging today truly began over 100 years ago. Reading Chesterton takes us back to the time when words such as “optimism,” “freedom,” and “rights” were first being manipulated in the name of modernity. I think that Chesterton would be very much at home debating today’s culture, and a careful read of his works reveals a plan for confronting these very issues.
Second, becoming proficient in other languages will help the Catholic Gentleman understand the roots of his own language. For example, most English words contain roots stemming from either Latin, German, French, or even old-English, not to mention the theoretical concepts added by the philosophical contributions of the ancient Greeks (the proper definition of “justice”, for example, might be found in Plato’s Republic). Catholic high schools and colleges have moved further and further away from these building-block languages, and our conceptions of the philosophical concepts implicit in words has suffered as a result. It is no coincidence that nearly all theologians and philosophers of note speak at least two languages.
When discussing Catholic concepts, especially concerning the non-negotiable social issues of the Faith, the Catholic Gentleman should ensure that he is speaking the same language as those around him. Defining the words upon which our culture places a degree of importance is especially important. Protecting our culture begins with protecting the words we use to convey our ideas, thoughts, and identity.
St. Albertus Magnus, Ora pro nobis!