Communicating Catholicism

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A cynical person has written, “It is impossible to communicate without being misunderstood.” That’s going a bit far, but I know what he means! If it is difficult to communicate about every day, ordinary things, how much harder it is to communicate abstract ideas about the Catholic faith!

C. S. Lewis wrote an essay in 1961 about the basic principles of communication for those trying to talk about the faith. He says we have to ‘translate’ the faith into everyday language for people. We forget that, as Catholics, we use a special language when talking about our faith. Non-Catholics don’t understand our specialized lingo, and an increasing number of Catholics don’t either.

We use five categories of specialized religious language, and the good evangelist and apologist will understand them and not only avoid the special language, but translate it for his reader or listener. The first category of religious language we use is theological. We toss terms about like “Immaculate Conception” and “Double Procession of the Holy Spirit” or refer to the filioque clause. This won’t do. We need to use simple language, and explain what these terms mean.

The second category of special language we use is liturgical language. People don’t know what an ‘ordo’ is and don’t much care about the difference between a tunicle and a dalmatic. They don’t know what the ‘epiclesis’ is and don’t know what we’re talking about when we spout words like ‘ad orientem’ or ‘versus populum’. When we talk about our worship we need to use ordinary language. Likewise, when we use devotional and spiritual talk or the specialized jargon of canon law and the intricacies of the church hierarchy.

In additional to getting rid of insider jargon, Lewis says we must watch out for high brow language, academic references, and literary and cultural allusions. It’s not much good trying to communicate the faith if we quote Jean Paul Sartre in French, refer to ‘the Greek text’ and refer to the novels of Dostoevsky. These references are often included only so the communicator can show off, and when he does his listeners are intimidated and put off the message.

C. S. Lewis says we must try to translate all of this religious talk into a language that the plumber or house cleaner would understand. I might add that if we get the plumber or house cleaner to understand the banker and the lawyer we know might just understand as well!

I have recently re-written a book where I have tried to take Lewis’ advice to heart. In Catholicism Pure and Simple I set out to explain the existence of God, and move through the story of Jesus Christ, the church and sacraments in a way that everyone can connect to. I avoided churchy jargon, theological lingo and high brow references. There are no footnotes or academic references. It’s Catholicism straight and true.

Something happened as I wrote and re-wrote which C. S. Lewis pinpoints. He says that this process of ‘translating’ the faith in a ‘pure and simple’ way helps us to understand how communication works. First of all, it makes you grateful for the jargon and specialized lingo. The specialized lingo has a vocabulary that is useful and one can answer the question briefly and simply. Translating and explaining takes up a lot more words. So, for example, the term ‘immaculate conception’ properly understood says in two clear words what you might need two paragraphs to explain simply.

Secondly, in the process of ‘translation’ you come to understand and appreciate what you are communicating in a much deeper way. They say the way to learn something is to teach it. So it is with translating special religious language for others: as you go through that process you come to know what you’re talking about. Lewis says, “If you can’t explain what you believe to a sensible, ordinary person, then you don’t really understand it very well yourself.”

Lewis observes elsewhere that it is comparatively easy to study a bit and learn the insider jargon and have discussions at an academic level about theology, liturgy, spirituality and church life. The real challenge is to translate all that for others in a way that is motivating, encouraging and down to earth. It’s complicated and messy. It’s difficult to communicate without being misunderstood. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the effort to make Catholicism pure and simple is rarely pure and never simple.


Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and the author of many articles and books on the Catholic faith. Visit his blog and website at www.dwightlongenecker.com

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About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

Visit Fr. Longenecker on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/frlongenecker.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

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