Religious “Persecution” In a Pluralist Society

Yesterday afternoon I delivered the Thirty-Seventh Annual Giannella Memorial Lecture at Villanova University School of Law. Told I could speak on any topic broadly related to law and religion, my topic was What is Religious “Persecution” in a Pluralist Society?

In my talk, I explored the question of how we should think about what we mean by religious persecution in a pluralist society like the United States and whether we should be concerned with the use of the term “persecution” for the kind of issues that have given rise to that label in the United States.

After talking about why I think the term “persecution” is an inappropriate label for many of the instances to which it is applied, I spoke about why I worry about the use of the term “persecution” both with respect to those who utter the words and those who hear them.

My concern is that once someone sees themselves as “persecuted,” their instinctive reaction is to fight and resist. And the fight becomes fierce because a kind of circle the wagon mentality arises and anyone outside that circle is the enemy. And when we are talking in religious terms, the enemy is evil. If I believe I am persecuted, I must fight to defend myself. It is not just that someone disagrees with me, I am being attacked.

The result of language of persecution is demonization of those who disagree. In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss writes,

The myth of persecution is theologically grounded in the division of the world into two parties, one backed by God and the other by Satan. And everyone knows that you cannot reason with the devil. Even when the devil is not explicitly invoked, the rhetoric of persecution suggests that the persecutors are irrational and immoral and the persecuted are innocent and brave. In a world filled with persecution, efforts to negotiate or even reason with one’s persecutors are interpreted as collaboration and moral compromise. We should not attempt to understand the other party, because to do so would be to cede ground to injustice and hatred.

This, then, is the problem with defining oneself as part of a persecuted group. Persecution is not about disagreement and is not about dialogue. The response to being ‘under attack’ and “persecuted” is to fight and resist. You cannot collaborate with someone who is persecuting you. You have to defend yourself. When modern political and religious debates morph into rhetorical holy war, the same things happens; we have to fight with those who disagree with us. There can be no compromise and no common ground.

Not surprisingly, this kind of attitude inhibits the ability to find any kind of common ground – indeed, to even acknowledge the possible existence of common ground.

There is also an unfortunate effect on those who hear the words. First, the more the language of religious persecution is used for things that are not really persecution, the greater the danger of trivializing the real persecution that exists. There becomes a real credibility problem that makes it much harder for people to take real threats against religion seriously. There is a bit of the “boy who cried wolf” too many times reaction. Moreover, many people feel that calling the kinds of things I’ve mentioned as examples here “persecution” cheapens and detracts from “real” instances of persecution around the world.

Second, the more language of persecution is used, the more likely it is the opponents of a broad concept of religious freedom will tend to argue that anything short of persecution ought to be acceptable. It makes persecution that which we seek to avoid, rather than claiming a strong positive space for things that fall short of an acceptable definition of persecution.

Third, people accused of persecution are also likely to go into a fight mode, creating the possibility of backlash that results in an even narrower understanding of what constitutes persecution and what kinds of protection ought to be granted on religious grounds.

For both – for both those who claim to be persecuted and those accused of doing the persecution, the language of persecution ratchets up the “crazy” emotion, creating dangerous polarization. Candida Moss calls the language of persecution “discursive napalm, ” dialogue-ending language – and I think there is much truth in her conclusion that “In the political and religious arenas, [abandoning the narrative of persecution] would allow us to find common ground in debates that are currently sharply polarized. Rather than demonizing our opponents, we could try to find points of agreement and work together.”

The failure to do so risks turning some people off to Christianity altogether. That is a sad and unfortunate result – if people view Christians as cry-babies who rant about persecution, our evangelization efforts will falter; people will be much less likely to be able to hear the message of Christ.

The entirety of my remarks will be published in the Villanova Law Review.


People-First Language

A letter to the editor in a recent issue of America Magazine caught my eye. In response to an editorial in a prior issue titled Dignity of the Disabled, the author of the letter wrote

I would like to emphasize the importance of avoiding the term “disabled” wherever possible and to use people-first language (“people with disabilities”), which can help center us on what is most important: the human person, rather than the exclusionary category.

A simple point, but a very important one. Whatever the source of the disability or impediment, when we speak of a disabled person, a blind person, a diabetic, a deaf person, etc, we risk reducing the persons of whom we speak “to one characteristic, making them one dimensional and ignoring all of the other strengths and talents they possess.”

Language matters. It affects how we see, how we think of others.

Pope Francis spoke just the other day about the importance of remedying exclusion of people with disabling conditions, of a solidarity that welcomes all. It helps us to do that to actually see the whole person in front of us, and not merely a single characteristic – one that seemingly makes them different from us.

After a Year, What’s Changed?

The beginning of Advent means Catholics have now completed a full year of the new translation of the Mass.

Most of us have gotten accustomed to saying “And with your Spirit” rather than “And also with you” (although I still hear people occasionally saying “And also with your Spirit”). Few seem to have trouble with remembering they are not worthy “that you should enter under my roof” rather than “to receive you.” Many, however, are still fumbling with the word changes in the Gloria, and even more are still struggling with the revisions to the Nicene Creed.

I recognize that talking about this risks my incurring wrath from almost every corner, but I’m clearly not the only one to wonder what the changes have wrought after a year. I actually started to write this post yesterday, but got sidetracked. Shortly after I did, some sent me a link to a survey asking people about their feelings about the changes one year out.

For myself, the conclusions I’ve come to are these. First, I’m not as bothered by some of the word changes as I thought I would be. I was not a big fan about either the process or the results of the new translation, but certainly there is nothing in the words that has hindered my appreciation of the Mass or my connection with God during Mass. (The fact that almost everyone in the pews has to hold up a card to recite the creed and that many priests are still reading the Eucharistic prayers and fumbling over some of the long sentences is a bit distracting, but that is a termporal issues and, I assume, will get better over time.)

But second, I can’t say that the new translation has done anything to increase my reverence or my connection with God during Mass. The short conclusion is that I like some of the changes and I dislike others, but overall, wonder what has really been accomplished by the changes.

Any views on this one way or the other?

What Are We Looking For In A Translation

The other day I read yet another article on the new translation of the Roman Missal that will go into effect in Advent of this year. I have heard many defend and applaud the changes in the language of the Mass, while others lament many of the particular changes as well as the broader shift they fear the changes signal.

I have read or heard any number of people laud the changes as being more faithful to the literal meaning of the Latin phrases in the Mass. In fact, that is not consistently the case. (For example, the Latin Word astare in the Eucharistic Prayer, which literally means “stand in your presence,” is being translated as “be in your presence,” apparently because of the fear that a literal translation might suggest to people that it is acceptable to stand during the Eucharistic Prayer.) More importantly, however, it is legitimate to ask whether literal translation of the Latin is the most important consideration in the language we use for the Mass.

While I appreciate a desire that the language of liturgy be beautiful, there is also a value in clarity and intelligibility, especially since is language the congregation is hearing, not studying. The article I just read says that the average number of words per sentence in the new Eucharistic Prayer is 35.4, an almost 80% increase in sentence length. (In Eucharistic Prayer I, all but one of the sentences is longer than 40 words long, with the longest at 82.)

More than length, some of the phrases are downright confusing. The article gave as one example a Mass preface that reads, “For when you children were scattered afar by sin, through the Blood of your Son and the power of the Spirit, you gathered them you yourself…” Absent careful recitation by the presider, people are likely to hear that the Blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit scattered God’s children. The author of the article lamented that “[e]ven read well, this prayer will likely lose all but its best-educated and most highly attentive hearers.”

Part of me cautions to await Advent and the usage of the new translation before making a judgment. Part of me, however, is concerned that the new translation has elevated a desire to be faithful to a literal translation of the Latin (except where it has decided for other reasons that a literal translation is undesirable) over the goal of language that will be meaningful to the congregation. I pray I am wrong in this concern.

For All or For Many

There has been much discussion in Catholic circles about the new English-language translation of the Mass texts, not to mention the process that led to the recent approval by the Vatican of the final version. The changes are to be implemented during Advent 2011.

Reaction among Catholics has been mixed. Some are in favor of what they view to be a more faithful word-for-word translation of the Latin text. Some were happy with what was in place and see no reason for a change. Others cringe at particular changes. Still others focus on the process by which the changes were adopted, with many priests as well as lay people arguing that the changes should have been delayed.

As I look at the changes I have several reactions. Some strike me as overly formalistic, such as changing “and also with you” to “and with your spirit” or changing “one in being with the Father” to “consubstantial with the Father.” Some seem to me designed to separate the priest from the people, such as changing “our sacrifice” to “my sacrifice and yours.” Some do little more than change word order, such as changing “Lord, you are holy indeed” to “You are indeed, holy, O Lord.” Unlike some people, it doesn’t seem to me that these changes will make the Mass more beautiful or more sacred or in any other way enhance my worship. But equally, most of the changes don’t effect any change in meaning that disturbs me.

There is one change, however, that I do find striking, and that is the change in the Eucharistic prayer of “for all” to “for many.” In the current formulation, Christ tells his disciples that his blood will be shed “for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven. In the changed version, the priest will say that Christ’s blood was shed “for you and for many…”

Catholic doctrine is that Christ died for all of us (indeed, for each of us), not just for some of us. The change in the language of the Mass does not intend to effect any change in that doctrine; Cardinal Arinze in a 2006 letter to the President of the Conference of Bishops wrote that the expression “for many” remains open remains open to the inclusion of every human person and merely reflects that individuals must willingly participate in their redemption.

My concern is with how people will hear “for many” rather than “for all.” There is, among far too many people, a tendency toward exclusivity and toward making judgments about who is in and who is out. Absent proper catechesis – and adult catechesis has not been something the Church does very well in my view – there is risk of this changed language feeding into those kinds of tendencies. One can only pray and hope that the Church does something to counter any possible misinterpretation of the changed language.