Mixed-up meanings

This is the second in a three-part series in which apologist Mark Shea explains the nuances behind some aspects of Catholic language.

As we discussed in my last article, the Catholic Faith has a peculiar genius for taking common sense ideas and wrapping them in language that 21st-century Americans badly misunderstand. Twenty-first century Americans, meantime, have a genius for being certain we understand things about the Catholic Church we don’t understand. It makes for lots of communication problems. To help remedy that, here are a few more entries in my ongoing “Catholic to American-English Phrasebook” project.

Politically speaking

One of the perennial difficulties of understanding Catholic jargon is that our politics are almost always at complete cross-purposes with it. “Catholic” means “universal,” but 21st-century Americans prefer everybody be American and a member of our political tribe. That’s because all politics, as the saying goes, are local. So we very much want to shrink the Faith to our local American politics as well. To that end, political ideologues like to take favorite Catholic terms and turn them into catchphrases in support of their particular political school of fish.

Take “primacy of conscience,” for example. For progressive dissenters, it’s a phrase that means “feel free to blow off the Church’s teaching if it gets in the way of your sex life.” Catholic abortion supporters regularly invoke it as their rationale for ignoring Catholic teaching on what the Church calls the “abominable crime” of killing children in utero. Meanwhile, for reactionary dissenters, the term “prudential judgment” means “feel free to blow off the Church’s teaching if it gets in the way of your desire for violence or your love of mammon.” So the Right tends to invoke prudential judgment to rationalize torture or ignore Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s warning that “the concept of ‘preventive war’ is not in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

Now both of these terms are, in fact, used in magisterial documents. It’s just that they don’t mean what 21st-century ideologues want them to mean. “Primacy of conscience” denotes, “Form your conscience with the teaching of Holy Church and act according to it,” not “Search for ways to ignore Church teaching.” Likewise, “prudential judgment” means “Use your best wits to figure out how, not whether, to obey the Church’s guidance.” As Lumen Gentium states: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” (Lumen Gentium, No. 25).


Another term people think they understand is merit. Catholics pray to merit an inheritance with the saints and, likewise, pray that such and so will be granted by the merits of the intercession of St. Whosit. Americans, both Protestant and post-Protestant, are quite certain they know what that really means: “Stuff believers do to make up for Jesus’ 50 percent effort in saving them.”

But in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the foremost Catholic theologians of the 20th century, the best modern equivalent for what the medieval and renaissance Church meant by merit is “fruitfulness.” Now “fruitfulness” (as we know from John 15) refers to the outworking of God’s grace in our lives, both in changing us into the image of Christ and in “bearing fruit for the kingdom” by, say, winning hearts for Christ, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy, etc.

None of that is “works of salvation” but simply the way in which we participate in the divine life, go “from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18) and cooperate with the sanctifying power of Christ. In short, salvation does not mean God does half and we do half. It means God does all and we do all. Paul calls us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work” (Phil 2:12-13). The fruit borne by the believer is real fruit which is really and truly given by God and therefore really and truly a part of the believer’s life.

In short, salvation is incarnational. Just as the Word is made flesh, so (in us) grace is enfleshed in real, solid, tangible change with the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). For the very essence of the saving Gospel is that it is to really bear fruit in our lives and become kneaded into our full humanity. When we, under grace, do a good thing, it is really we who do it — because God willed that we do it. And as we cooperate with grace we build up our sanctity muscles and learn habits of virtue that make us more like Jesus, bearing real fruit.

So as the Church taught at Trent: “Man does no good except that which God brings about and man performs.” God’s grace is always prior to our good works, and fruit (or its Catholicese equivalent “merit”) is always the result, not the initiator, of grace. As Paul says, “We are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance” (Eph 2:10). Or as Our Lord said, “Whoever remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).

All this is quite biblical, which is to say, Catholic: Sow for the Spirit, reap from the Spirit. Do good, reap good. Sow little, reap little (Gal 6:7-9; 2 Cor 9:6). For as Jesus says, we will be rewarded according to what we have done. Our actions will have real (and eternal) effects on us and others (Mt 25:31-46). That’s merit.

Worship, venerate

Finally, there are the vexing words “worship” (which now means “adoration due to God” for most English speakers) and “venerate” (which means in Americanese “Catholic word to fudge the fact that they worship Mary and think she is a goddess”). The confusion arises because “worship” is one of those words like “gay” that has changed over time, but has not, like “yclept” or “gleek” (look ’em up!), passed into disuse. “Worship” is derived from “worthship” and originally meant the act of giving honor to something worthy of honor. Only relatively recently has it been whittled down to simply refer to the kind of honor we give to God alone. Proof of this can be seen in the survival of titles such as “Your worship,” addressed to English judges, or by recalling the older form of wedding vows in English (“With my body, I thee worship” was the pledge the bride and groom made to each other, not to God).

This sufficiently puts the boots on the frenzy one periodically runs across on the Web when yet another fundamentalist “discovers” the damning “proof” that Catholics adore Mary as a goddess due to some archaic language from a 17th-century writer who speaks of the “worship” (that is, “honor” in 21st-century English) that Catholics are to pay to Mary. And understanding this explains why modern devotional language tends to distinguish between “worship” and “veneration.” The former tends, along with “adoration,” to be referred solely to God, while the latter is given to saints or other holy things such as the cross or a relic. This gets closer to the Greek in which the New Testament is written, which distinguishes between latria (the honor given only to God), hyperdulia (the honor given God’s greatest creature, Mary) and dulia (the honor given various creatures). This distinction also, by no coincidence, expresses the biblical (that is, Catholic) Faith.

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 Patheos.com.

Quiz answer is B, Greek.