Talismanic Words

This was an ingenious phrase that a good friend reminded me of in recent days. I first came across it when I read the extremely helpful booklet: Preferential Option for the Family which you can download for free here, Option for the Family.

It’s a gem of a book which has been described thus:

“A handbook of 100 questions and answers explaining the Church’s doctrine on marriage and the family.. With the aim of clearing up confusion ahead of the October Synod of Bishops on the Family.” This booklet authored by — Archbishop Aldo de Cillo Pagotto of Paraíba, Brazil, Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, California and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary of Astana, Kazakhstan — is described as a “vademecum [handbook] on the family.”

“Vade mecum” literally means ‘go with me.’ The idea being that you want the reader to explore a very important point or issue in more detail but not in an overly lengthy way. Occasionally the Holy See issues vademecums (one might call them clarifications if you like) by way of a little ‘tonic’ as it were, or ‘tiramisu’ [a pick-me-up] for the spiritual and pastoral life of Faithful. The last official vademecum [so far as I am aware] was the 1997 “Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of the Conjugal Life” from the Pontifical Council for the Family. I explained what I think are the most significant aspects of this document in a letter which was published in the London Catholic Herald in April this year:

‘[It] is absolutely correct to state that perhaps a pastoral solution to difficulties in marriage might be to prepare priests for the confessional better. This was explored in great detail and with much precision in the vademecum of 1997. With its 20th anniversary coming up next February, we should revisit this document, in the light of Amoris Laetitia, especially paragraphs 9 and 10:

“9. The pastoral ‘law of gradualness’, not to be confused with the ‘gradualness of the law’ which would tend to diminish the demands it places on us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands.

“10. On the other hand, to presume to make one’s own weakness the criterion of moral truth is unacceptable.” Striking the balance on the first so that an individual receiving guidance realises the full import of the second is more important than ever for the integrity of matrimony. Or as Benedict XVI so wisely put it in his address to the Congress for the Diocese of Rome in 2005: “The educational relationship is, by its very nature, something delicate: it implies the other’s freedom who, even with gentleness, is forced to make a decision.” Amoris Laetitia ought not to be misinterpreted to dispense with this approach to pastoral care.’

My point is that what a vademecum should do is clarify important points, clear up confusion concerning crucial questions. After all we all need to do this from time to time don’t we? Being clear about what we mean and meaning what we say and ensuring that others clearly understand what it is we communicate, is the “currency” if you like of maintaining good harmonious relationships, whether that’s at work or home or among relations and friends etc.

As Blessed Pope Paul VI so eloquently put it in his first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam:

“Clarity demands that what is said should be intelligible. We can think of it as a kind of thought transfusion […] all of us who feel the spur of the apostolate should examine closely the kind of speech we use. Is it easy to understand? Can it be grasped by ordinary people? Is it current idiom?” n81

And he reinforces the need for clarity by saying how the virtue of prudence is essential for fruitful dialogue;

“…the prudence of a teacher who is most careful to make allowances for the psychological and moral circumstances of his hearer, [Mt.6:7]  particularly if he is a child, unprepared, suspicious or hostile […] is always at pains to learn the sensitivities of his audience, and […] adapts himself […] to the susceptibilities and the degree of intelligence of his hearers”

So words, and how we use them are important and the language of authentic loving as Christ loves is especially important. “Let your no mean no and your yes mean yes,” as Jesus says. So when we witness a talismanic use of words, we should be vigilant as to the intent behind the one using them. Why? Because, according to the dictionary, a talisman is an object, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that is thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck. Now luck, chance, confusion and constant indecision is not of God but from an altogether different source; some might legitimately argue – the Father of Lies, instead of the Prince of Peace.  And we must all be on our guard against it especially in our most important relationships.

As the authors of the Preferential Option for the Family put it on page 50:

‘A “talismanic word”, while legitimate in itself, carries strong emotional content, and as such is perceived as being entirely flexible and changeable, assuming different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. This elasticity makes it susceptible to being used for propaganda purposes and abused for ideological ends.

For example, a talismanic word is a useful tool to create an “unperceived ideological transhipment,” i.e., a process that changes a target person’s mindset without his realising it, moving him from a legitimate to an illegitimate position. Manipulated by propaganda, the talismanic word gradually assumes meanings ever closer to the ideological positions to which the target persons are being led. 

This process can be easily applied also to the Church community. In fact, the use of certain words and not others can push the faithful to replace a moral judgement with a sentimental one or a substantial judgement with a formal one, coming to regard as good, or at least tolerable, what at first was considered bad.’

-Edmund Adamus





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