I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel– not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-8)
Big Brother is watching.
The all powerful totalitarian state in George Orwell’s novel 1984 uses the comforting, familial image of “Big Brother” to mask the ugly reality of its absolute control. Big Brother uses many tools (such as constant surveillance) to keep and exercise his power, but the most effective is language. By tightly controlling the language, Big Brother can control the way his subjects think. Just as the image of Big Brother himself is a fiction, words and phrases serve, not to convey meaning, but to hide real meanings in favor of whatever content the state chooses to give them.
This language that is intentionally designed to deceive rather than inform is called Newspeak. A character in the novel named Syme, a lexicologist, explains that, as Newspeak develops,
The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of The Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like Freedom is Slavery when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
Again, making things mean their opposite is not a side effect, it’s an intentional strategy, a way of achieving the end goal of controlling how people think and, ultimately, doing their thinking for them.
Orwell had long been concerned about the manipulation of language as a means of thought control. Several years before 1984 came out he published an essay called “Politics and the English Language” in which he explicitly examines the topic. He discusses at length the way in which vague and abstract language is especially suited to confusing and deceiving one’s listeners or readers:
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer . . .
“The great enemy of clear language
“But,” Orwell adds, ” if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Lying language leads to poor reasoning, or “not thinking,” as Syme put it. People who can’t think need somebody else to do their thinking for them: that’s why Newspeak is so loved by demagogues: “Political language−and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists−−is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable. and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Orwell is trying to avoid the appearance of partisanship in this last quote. He had in fact always considered himself a socialist, but learned to hate totalitarianism while serving with the “republican” (i.e., communist and anarchist) forces in the Spanish Civil War (he gives a vivid account of his experiences in Spain in his book Homage to Catalonia). In this case, his phrase “with variations” covers a lot of ground. It’s true that politicians of all sorts will abuse the language in order to manipulate the electorate. True totalitarians are something else altogether: they’re not interested in simply winning elections, they want everything. They want to fundamentally transform entire societies.
And that is why language has become so controversial, including everything from gender pronouns, to which words constitute “microaggressions” and “cultural appropriation,” to symbolic language like flags and statues. A word such as “marriage,” whose meaning has been clear for thousands of years, now somehow means something completely different, and you’re a “hater” if you insist on the historical meaning. When language trumps truth, the masters of the language get to decide what’s real and what isn’t.
Sadly, that’s the way it is out in a world that has forgotten God. There’s really nothing to stop those who have power from imposing their will on those who are less powerful. “”You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them,” Jesus tells his disciples, but “It shall not be so among you.” (Matthew 20:25-26). That’s why it’s so discouraging to see what’s happening to the Church in Germany. I wrote last year that the so-called “Synodal Way” that the German bishops are travelling looks like nothing so much as a straight road out of Christianity. It hasn’t become any better since. The most recent news is that the German bishops have given their blessing to an initiative called “#OutInChurch — For a church without fear.” Among other “demands” the initiative insists that “Defamatory and outdated statements of Church doctrine on sexuality and gender need to be revised on the basis of theological and human-scientific findings.” Among other statements of support, one German bishop notes approvingly that this document represents “a courageous step by 125 queer employees of the Catholic Church from all over the country.”
This isn’t the language of the Gospel . . . at least not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only the initiative itself, but, even more alarmingly, the statements of the Heirs of the Apostles in Germany speak the language of a “different gospel,” as St. Paul calls it, the false gospel of the Sexual Revolution and of the impossible campaign to reshape reality according to human desires.
The corruption and abandonment of the traditional language of the Gospel didn’t start with the Synodal Way in Germany. In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell creates a “modern” translation of a well-known passage from Ecclesiastes that would be hilarious if it weren’t so troubling:
“I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well−known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
Among the various shortcomings of Orwell’s “modern English translation,” the most telling is that, as he puts it, “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” He points out that
The first sentence contains six vivid images and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be considered vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its 90 syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first.
Does that ring a bell? It does for me. When I was seven years old the first official post-Vatican II translation of the Mass was introduced. I had been hearing a temporary, fairly literal, English translation of the liturgy for as long as I could remember in my short life (I never heard the Mass in Latin until many years later, when I had children of my own). I recall becoming slowly aware that something was different as the Mass progressed until finally, just before the adults were to go up for communion, the congregation intoned “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you . . .” At that point an outraged voice in my head screamed out: “What happened to the roof?” I didn’t understand anything about principles of translation, abuse of language, or any of the rest of it. All I knew was that we had been saying “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” something I could picture and hold on to, and now that familiar image had been replaced with empty words.
That’s the problem with concrete images, for the idealogue. Things we can see and touch, hear and smell, have a meaning of their own independent of the idealogue’s intention. If you want to change the Church, if you want to change the beliefs that have animated Christians for two millennia, you need to take away the concrete images, the traditional words, and the familiar actions that embody the traditional understanding of the faith. When you take away “the roof” you don’t merely take something solid and turn it into something malleable, you hide the scriptural source of the liturgical prayer. You cut the connection to the Roman centurion who says to Jesus: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). You erase the memory of the military officer who has the power of command, but confesses that he himself is “under authority” (Matthew 8:9), and that his authority is of no account compared to the authority of Christ. You replace the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a different gospel.
That’s one of the things that’s most alarming about Traditionis Custodes, last year’s papal intervention severely restricting the Traditional Latin Mass (you can read my discussions of the pope’s letter here and here). Where is the urgent need to separate the faithful so forcefully from the things that have embodied the faith for generations of believers, going back to the early centuries of the Church? Why the fanaticism of those such as the cardinal archbishop of Chicago who have gone beyond the strictures of pope’s letter (I suppose we could call it “The Spirit of Traditionis Custodis“)? Cardinal Cupich has even banned saying the post Vatican II Mass ad orientem, that is to say, the traditional manner in which the priest faces the altar rather than the congregation. It is noteworthy that the same prelate has taken a much more benign approach to liturgies that deviate sharply from the rubrics of the Mass in order to promote homosexuality and other politically fashionable topics. This, too, looks a lot like a different gospel.
Words are important. It was not random choice or whimsy that led St. John to begin his Gospel with an extended meditation of Jesus Christ as the Eternal Word. John’s apostolic colleague St. Peter, who went on to become the first pope, tells us: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” We don’t get to make it up: our task is to preserve and pass on what we have received.
Anything else is a different gospel.