Language Barriers in Evangelization


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Archbishop Fulton Sheen famously said:

“There are not even 100 people in this country who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they think the Catholic Church to be.”

Where do they come from, these things people mistakenly think the Church teaches?

Some certainly come from anti-Catholic literature. Some must come from well-meaning misunderstanding, and there are other sources. I suspect, though, that some comes from us – from the believing, faithful, catechized evangelizers.

How so?

Shop talk. Inside baseball. Jargon.

A good philosopher defines his terms, and those definitions can be critical. For example, when some physicists explain how the universe sprang uncaused from “nothing,” their “nothing” isn’t the same as our “nothing.”  And that’s something!  They may mean “a vacuum” when they say “nothing,” while we mean “not-anything.”

Even if we don’t consider ourselves philosophers, we are evangelizers.

When we evangelize, we are spreading good news – good news about the very highest truths and deepest mysteries. We, too, need to be careful of the words we use and, especially, that how we understand them is how our readers or hearers understand them.

Don’t get me wrong. I love jargon. I’m a jargonophile. Precise words can reflect very particular shades of meaning or pack a lot into a single expression, and there is a great value to them. I actually pumped my fist the first time I got to say “consubstantial” at Mass. These words, though, are particularly susceptible to misunderstanding because the word must first be learned and then be applied in the context of your statement. That’s two movements in which a misstep could be made.

Is the solution to use simple words?

Unfortunately, simple words are not immune to misunderstanding (nor do they always capture the truth accurately). Even if your reader knows the word and uses it regularly, they may not know or use the word in the way you’re using it. Consider the very simple word: pray. If you search for “pray” at Dictionary.com, you’ll find eight definitions.  Eight meanings for such a simple little four-letter word.

If I say, “I prayed”, do I mean:

  • I offered petition to God?
  • I entered communion with God?
  • I offered a prayer on behalf of someone else?
  • I brought something about through prayer?
  • I asked a person for something?
  • I begged a person for something?

These are all reasonable ways to interpret the words “I prayed,” even if some meanings are less common today. We may be so comfortable with our intended meaning that we can’t see any other possibilities.

We can’t imagine that something as simple as “pray” could be misunderstood, and so we’re flabbergasted when we’re accused of worshipping saints or treating God like a vending machine to get things from.

So what is the solution?

Theological language is sometimes necessary. Simple words with multiple meanings are sometimes unavoidable. What we can do is know our audience, so we can meet them where they are.

We can recognize that words – even seemingly simple words (or especially seemingly simple words!) – can be misunderstood. To avoid this kind of “verbal scandal”, we should check that our meaning is really coming through, through rephrasing, revisiting concepts, and follow-up questions.

We can remember this and check our assumptions whenever we’re spreading the Good News to others, whether speaking or writing.

I pray you do that as you evangelize (in whichever way you take my meaning).

Copyright © 2012, Joe Wetterling

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Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling is a professional educator, homeschooling dad, and writer. He's appeared at national conferences, both secular and religious, speaking on education, technology, and philosophy. Joe writes online for New Evangelizers, as well as his own blogs. He's taught in the Holy Apostles MOOC program and currently teaches Natural Theology at the new Dominican Institute. He's a member of the Militia Immaculata and current President of the Catholic Writers Guild. Learn more about him at JoeWetterling.com.

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