Clearing up the confusion

It is not uncommon for Catholics to run across “gotchas” like this on the Internet:

“Proof that Catholics hate science!: ‘The good Christian should beware of mathematicians, and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of Hell.’”

The quote comes from St. Augustine’s “De Genesi ad Litteram.” The trouble with this “proof” is that Augustine lived in a time before hard divisions had been made between the attempt to manipulate nature we call “science” and the attempt to manipulate nature we call “magic and the occult.” So the Latin term  “mathematicus” meant (among other things) astrologer. It is the occult, not science, to which he is referring — and thereby agreeing with modern scientists that the occult is rubbish.

The moral is: Words can change meanings over time, a fact attested by the giggles teenagers emit every Christmas when people sing “don we now our gay apparel.” More than that, words can be used as jargon. Every specialized subgroup has its own jargon: a sort of shorthand allowing insiders to communicate ideas quickly rather than elaborately spell things out in detail every time a conversation occurs. There is plumber jargon, NASCAR jargon, physics jargon and, yes, Catholic jargon.

The problem comes not when people don’t know jargon but when, as 19th-century humorist Josh Billings said, “what they know ain’t so.” So it is handy for Catholics who wish to bear witness to our culture to learn how to translate Catholicese into English in order to better communicate the Faith.


Take, for instance, religion.

Depending on who you talk to, religion means various things, all of them bad. For some, it means mystical mumbo jumbo like a lucky rabbit’s foot: a thing to be patronizingly indulged until it conflicts with the consensus of up-to-date people. For others, it is Bronze Age savagery that, in the memorable phrase of Christopher Hitchens, “poisons everything” — an evil thing to be terminated with extreme prejudice. For others, particularly of the “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus” or “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord!” variety, it is a human creation that cuts the heart off from a personal relationship with Jesus and encrusts the Gospel in an impenetrable husk devoid of living faith, hope and charity.

But in biblical (which is to say Catholic) parlance, religion is not a bad thing but a good thing. St. Paul, for instance, in 1 Timothy says: “Undeniably great is the mystery of devotion, who was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed to the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (3:16).

Likewise, James remarks: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:26–27).

In short, the problem is not religion but those who “make a pretense of religion but deny its power” (2 Tm 3:5). Religion derives from the Latin “religare” meaning “obligation, bond, reverence.” In other words, it refers to our bond of sacred kinship to God and to neighbor. What kind of bond is that? Love. When we perform acts of worship to God and acts of love toward our neighbor, we are living out what the Catholic Faith (and the New Testament) means by loving the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself. That is truly living a relationship.


Relatedly, tradition comes from the Latin “tradere” and refers to a thing handed on. Ironically, the people who are most hostile to tradition are frequently those who themselves uncritically hand on whatever they read on a website. Some imagine that “tradition” equals “legend,” and then they believe the new atheist legend that Jesus never existed despite the fact that no credible historian in the world is in their court. Others imagine that the Bible condemns all tradition as evil. Still others imagine that tradition suffocates human freedom.

In fact, tradition is the lifeblood of all human cultures and civilization. We are a species that lives by tradition. Whether important traditions such as representative governments, less important ones like driving on the right side of the road in America or trivial ones like candles on birthday cakes, human culture propagates via tradition and could no more banish it than banish breathing.

What the Church holds is that the God who became man has elevated our natural human habit of passing down our life through tradition to a mode of revelation, just as he has raised other ordinary things like water, bread, wine and oil to means of grace in the sacraments. What the Church means by sacred Tradition is not mere human tradition like the things mentioned above, but the common life, worship and teaching handed down from the apostles.

And despite claims to the contrary in some quarters, the reality is not that Catholics rely on sacred Tradition and Protestants don’t. Rather, it is that Catholics rely on sacred Tradition and know that they do, while even the most “Bible only” Protestants rely on sacred Tradition and don’t know that they do. That is how Protestants know what books belong in their Bibles, that God is a Trinity, that human life is sacred from the moment of conception, that revelation closed with the death of the apostles, that polygamy is not Christian marriage, and numerous other things Protestants take for granted (for now, at least).

Nor do Jesus and the apostles condemn tradition. Indeed, St. Paul commands and commends sacred Tradition on several occasions (2 Thes 2:15, 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2). They do not even condemn human traditions. Jesus has no beef with birthday cakes, christening ships, wedding rings or the billions of other traditions, great and small, by which humans hand on their culture. He only objects when we raise those human traditions to the level of divine revelation and insist that, say, capitalism is God’s holy economic system, or that you cannot be saved if you don’t eat organic vegetables, or God’s judgment is on those who don’t much care for chant.

Indeed, what really suffocates freedom is not sacred Tradition but zealots who seize on some pet theory and try to reduce the Catholic Faith to only that.


This brings us to the last misunderstood term: dogma. Postmoderns imagine it means the Church saying to the faithful, “Shut up! If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you!” But in fact, dogma means not the forbiddance of thought but the conclusion of thought. It’s what you get when you finish thinking something through and make up your mind. Only when the Church does it, it trusts that the Holy Spirit will, as Jesus promised, guide her into “all truth” (Jn 16:13).

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once remarked that there were not 10 people who hated what the Church taught, but only what they thought the Church taught. That may have been optimistic since Jesus did not lack communication skills yet still suffered hatred from a lot of people. But it doesn’t hurt to help people know what the Church means so that they hear what it is saying and not what they think it is saying.

Mark Shea is the author of “Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life” (Servant, $15.99). He writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at

Quiz answer is A, an ornamented vessel used to burn incense.

What's in a Word
The English language is a fickle thing, and no exception is made when it comes to ecclesial terms. One example of its tongue-twister nature can be found in the words “censer,” “censor” and “censure.”