TO: My Colleagues in the Department of Theology

FROM: James F. White

On December 13, 1982, the Department made an important step in approving a motion calling upon us to avoid sex-exclusive and sex-discriminatory language. I write you because as time progresses, I find further injustices in words and phrases that we have long used in doing theology. I invite you to consider and discuss these examples of which I have become aware.

The terms “crippled,” “disabled,” or “handicapped” are unfortunate. I am told that the current preference is “physically challenged,” which certainly sounds more positive.

I am astonished at how much we use physical terms in ethical talk. “Upright” is good and “fallen” is bad, but those are terms that make the physically fit morally normative. I think we need to be more sensitive. I am still terrified of stairs without railings, but this does not mean that I am a better or worse person because of fear of falling.

In theology we have a long history of using “blind” for those with whom we disagree. While in seminary, I read much of Calvin to a blind student, and I know how often I flinched at that term. “Dumb” and “deaf” are also used as derogatory terms when nothing physical is intended. It would seem to be best to avoid physical terms for describing intellectual perception.

The term “non-Catholic” is discriminatory, as are all negative terms. Blacks resent being called “non-white” or women being labeled “non-male.” The alternative is to be specific: “other Christians,” “other faiths,” or “without religious identity.” “Non-Catholic” is simply insulting.

The term “Catholic” itself is offensive to Anglican and Orthodox students when used in a sense that excludes them. However, the term “Roman” which some of our students and colleagues use seems equally problematic in emphasizing the particular and possibly the least attractive feature of Roman Catholicism. (Dick McBrien and Jim Burtchaell have done some interesting writing on this question.)

The use of the article is important in speaking of “the Church,” “a Church,” or “the churches.” It is not correct to make such statements as “Newman left the Church in 1845” or “the Church is not a democracy.” These statements may be true of one Church or another (although I find even the second example debatable) but not of the universal Church. The clear implication of misuse of the definite article with the singular is that other churches do not count. I do not think that is good Roman theology (though prevalent) today. Certainly, in a university setting, impartiality should be taken for granted.

I hope these suggestions will provoke some thought and lead you to share with me other examples of linguistic injustice which you have discovered.

TO: James F. White and other colleagues in Theology

FROM: James T. Burtchaell

The very last day of the term is a tired time, and I confess that when your memo on “linguistic injustice” came around, Jim, I read it and put it aside for filing. But your argument and examples stayed with me”they “provoked some thought,” as you had hoped” and suggested some further views that I hope you will entertain.

I remember well that when our department was debating the resolution to forgo discriminatory language eight years ago, my misgivings arose from the absence of any accompanying norms. We were told at the time that the matter was intuitively clear, yet when it came to a vote there were no explicit principles or illustrations to define or describe what we thought we were adopting. Although I strive to use gender-inclusive language wherever possible and appropriate, and I ask the same (with explanation) from my students, your own extensions of the basic insight or sentiment are debatable enough, I believe, to summon up my misgivings of yesteryear.

Your first suggestion is that we discontinue the use of certain physical metaphors in moral discourse. “Crippled,” “disabled,” “handicapped,” “blind,” “dumb,” “deaf,” and other such terms, you believe, are derogatory because they “make the physically fit morally normative.” This claim encounters serious problems. First of all, to be consistent, we would also have to forswear such terms as “clear-sighted,” “articulate,” and “vigorous.” Mary could not receive the “power of the Spirit”; Deborah could no longer cry, “Give ear, you princes” (nor could she sing of the “warriors in Israel unbinding their hair,” lest baldness carry moral reproach), and the report in Acts that “with these words, (Stephen) fell asleep” would need correction out of deference to those afflicted by either narcolepsy or insomnia.

But back to the negatives . . . . I was immediately reminded, by your examples, of the letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea (sorry about “the church”; cf. infra): “You say to yourself: I am rich, I have made a fortune and have everything I want, never realizing that you are wretchedly and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too.”

I think that what you are asking is that we abandon all use of metaphor. But only people given to verbal naiveté, such as academics, are liable to misunderstand a healthy use of analogy to convey, or at least to suggest, the mysteries of our life in the spirit. How can we forgo all use of bodily metaphor to allude to the invigorating or the withering (sorry!) of the spirit?

We worship one who is, among his other identities, known as Soter: healer. Health is surely one of the Bible’s most pervasive metaphors for what is spiritually normative, precisely because we naturally think of health as normative for the body. And so it is.

I am not insensitive to our capacity for our using images in ways that unwittingly sting others. In the late 1960s a black undergraduate read his poem one evening at Mass in Dillon Hall; it was entitled “Nigger Night.” He brought home to us how black was the metaphoric tag for evil: devil’s food cake (cp. angel food cake), black hats vs. white hats, the dark side, blackening one’s character, blackguard, black-hearted, blackball, blacklist, blackmail. Black Mass, black sheep. Black Plague. People who had just laid aside the term “Negro” for “black” were dismayed to find that so many of its associations were sinister (sorry). Yet as a Christian, I would be bewildered to be deprived of all the central imagery of darkness, that begins our Story by covering the watery deep, and light, that glorifies the heavenly Jerusalem at the End.

I also remember discovering during one Easter vigil the almost physical distress of some Eastern Rite Palestinians among us who as refugees driven from their homeland were affronted by our incessant imagery of the people of Israel despoiling the Egyptians, and seizing vines and trees they never planted and cisterns others had dug. I went home that night wondering how on earth they celebrate Easter in the Coptic Rite; I concluded that their liturgy must use the Exodus texts very sparingly indeed. But I did explain to my Palestinian friends that our spiritual ancestry was not to the State of Israel today (nor to any other state or race), but to a Lord who had revealed himself to our slowly growing understanding through reflection on those incidents of the past. And, on balance, I think I would rather explain to those whose health is handicapped or injured today how it is that we use metaphor, than try to eke out a bleak existence deprived of our inspired imagery.

In a word, I think most people (except, perhaps, us academics) will understand that our use of physical metaphors in moral discourse does not imply that physical health is morally normative. But if I understand you correctly you are going further: you are suggesting that we ought not consider or depict physical health as physically normative. This is astonishing. I have never known a blind person or a paraplegic or an alcoholic who was not very aware of impairment. Those who have benefited from the wonderful rehabilitation programs, who have physically surmounted or even transfigured their handicap”and who have often undergone moral transformation in the process”seem to me to be the most aware of having begun at a loss. I work regularly with some of these people, and have not encountered vocabulary-landscaping such as “physically challenged” in place of “disabled.” In some official circles “developmentally disabled” is now prescribed in place of “retarded,” but one wonders whether the improvement of sentiment is worth the loss of brevity; one thinks of “Persons with primary language other than English (PLOTEs).” These are circumlocutions that really take the long way around.

Your second instance of linguistic injustice is more familiar: “The term ‘non-Catholic’ is discriminatory, as are all negative terms.” Jim, what of the nonaligned countries, the nonviolent, the noncombatants, the nonbelligerents, the Nonconformist, the Nonjurors, the nonsmokers, the noncommissioned officers, the nonobservant Jews, the nonprofit corporations, not to mention the Gentiles, the inorganic compounds, the nonferrous metals? And what of God Godself, whom we can literally depict only with negatives: unchangeable, interminable, immutable, noncomposed . . . ? Once again, are academics the only people whose use of language is so unsupple (sorry) that we cannot grasp the difference between negatives intended to describe or to differentiate and negatives meant to denigrate?

I admit that when I went to a soccer match between England and The Rest of the World I was uneasy at the chauvinism of the title, but then I remembered the World Boxing Champion selected by some folks in New York, and I took it more in stride (sorry). India is not defined as a nonaligned country, but it can for some purposes be categorized that way (and others as well). And in an institution or a community where there are Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Buddhists, Druzes, Methodists, Jews, Mennonites, Muslims (Sunni, Shiite, et al.), Hindus, Sikhs, and others, “non-Catholics” strikes me as the very efficient expression when one needs to refer to all but the Catholics.

I believe that you consider both “non-Catholics” (I prefer “Noncatholics”) when referring to other Christians, and “Catholics” when referring to members of the Catholic Church, to be offensive. As for the latter. it is the name we give ourselves. It dates back to Ignatius of Antioch and I see no reason to apologize for our continuity of usage. It is not intended to imply disdain for any others, only to characterize us by our calling. By contrast, “Roman” as you use it is a term of disdain.

You object to any Christian using “the Church” or “the church” to denote his or her own communion, because it implies claims of authenticity or continuity that are impolite to those of other Christian allegiances, and because it is derogatory to the notion of a “universal church.” I confess, Jim, that I sometimes use “the Great Church” to refer to all Christian groups taken together. The difficulty with that is that the Christian churches are not, in fact, together. We proclaim the gospel differently, we do not sup at the Lord’s table together, and we descry different ways to walk.

The language you advocate is not neutral, as you seem to propose. I do not belong to my church indifferently. I belong in the belief that it continues as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, while it simultaneously continues as the fractious, sinful, disloyal, and deviant church. It is not the church to which you belong. We are not in communion with one another. I lament this and share some of the blame for it. But we are in different churches. I give no public account of your communion and allegiance; that is for you to do. It is entirely inappropriate for me to require you to defer in your self-referring public discourse to my sense of your church. But neither is it appropriate for you to demand that we Catholics describe ourselves in ways that suit your ecclesiology. Still less, in a Catholic university, should Catholics have to apologize for continuing to call themselves Catholics.

So, Jim, I thank you and commend you for having stirred up the issue, though I cannot agree with the particular injunctions you would lay upon our shared discourse. You have managed to disallow two of the most fundamental kinds of Christian theological discourse: the via analogica and the via negativa. I wish you had done so earlier in the term; it would have made a stimulating colloquium. But perhaps we can make it a stimulating colloquy anyway, by memoranda.

James F. White and James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., teach in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.