Making a revolution by changing the meaning of words

Making a revolution by changing the meaning of words

Frank Mobbs

A major problem facing practising Christians today is the manner in which familiar religious words have apparently lost their original meanings. Some theologians and Scripture scholars continue to use orthodox-sounding expressions but behind these are radically different intentions and definitions.

Among the curiosities of our time is the way organs of the Catholic Church routinely publish articles parodying the doctrines of the Church. For example, Catholic School Studies: a Journal of Education for Australian Catholic Schools, carried an article (July 1985) by Professor Monika Hellwig, of Georgetown University, which had previously been published in the USA. The Catholic Leader (Brisbane), later put out an abbreviated version (23 February 1986) with the headline, "What makes Catholic Schools Catholic?" Certainly Professor Monika Hellwig's article provides no answer; yet her writings are among recommended readings in diocesan catechetical guidelines for teachers.

Professor Monika Hellwig's article is a shining example of the substitution process commonly employed in recent theology. This process involves taking the words of a document with the meanings they have in the document, then removing those meanings and replacing them with different ones, and triumphantly concluding, "See, that is what the documents really mean."

Such a process is very commonly employed in expositions of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which is precisely why I am drawing attention to it. Let us see how Monika Hellwig employs it.

Her thesis, dimly discernible in the depths of murky prose, can be summarised thus:

1. Vatican II gave us a new ecclesiology, a new description of the Catholic Church.

2. The traditional four marks of the Church, expressed by the words "one, holy, catholic, apostolic", still distinguish the Church, but they do not have the same meanings they used to have.

3. If a school is Catholic, then it will be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, in the new sense furnished by Vatican II.

4. Therefore, the policies (aims) of the school will be different.


According to Hellwig, what is it for the Church to be one, to have unity? It is to work for ecumenism and peace among nations.

What is it for the Church to be holy? Yes, it does include explicit prayer. But it is more, it is "an attitude of reverence for human life and freedom, gratitude for the good things of creation and a sense of responsibility and focus in life".

And to be Catholic? It is to witness "to social justice and peace by enrolling minority and immigrant students ..." and "to teach history, social studies and religious knowledge in ways that counteract inbuilt prejudices and hostilities ...".

And apostolic? It is to reflect "an atmosphere of hope and courage and trust about the future of the human race and of the local society", to inspire "humility and attention towards the cumulative wisdom of the past", "to find reconciliation and wholeness."

So there we have it. The Church is the Catholic Church when it does these things, a school is a Catholic school when it does them and a person is a Catholic when he does them.

Who could possibly quarrel with the statement that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic - unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam - as we say in the Nicene Creed; and that a Catholic is one who shares these qualities?


But these four marks are a far cry from the traditional ones as, say, expressed in the catechism in use in Australia before Vatican II, a catechism virtually identical with others in use throughout the Church where: one "The Catholic Church is one because all its members believe the same truths; offer to God the same Holy Sacrifice; share the same Sacraments; and are united under one visible head on earth, the Pope", holy "founded by Jesus Christ ...", universal (catholic) "its Founder Jesus Christ, appointed it to teach all nations ...", apostolic "the Bishops ... can trace back their authority in an unbroken line to Jesus Christ and the apostles".

Did Vatican II reject the traditional account of the four marks, replacing it with a new account such as Hellwig gives?

At one point Lumen Gentium, 8 (Constitution on the Church) mentions the traditional four marks. After saying that Christ established and sustains the Church, the Constitution says: "This is the unique Church of Christ which in the Creed we avow as one, holy, catholic and apostolic."

True, a description of the four marks is not systemically developed. But equivalents of the traditional teachings are to be found in Lumen Gentium, as well as in other documents.

Lack of space prevents my assembling evidence on more than one mark.

What does the Council say about the unity (oneness) of the Church? "Reborn as sons of God, the faithful confess before men the faith which they have received from God through the Church," says Lumen Gentium, 11. They "believe the same truths", says the catechism.

"Taking part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine victim to God, and offer themselves along with it", says Lumen Gentium, 11, thus, "they manifest in a practical way that unity (my emphasis) of God's People which is signified" by this sacrament.

Did not the catechism say they "offer to God the same Holy Sacrifice"?

"They are fully incorporated into the society of the Church (i.e., are Catholics) who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system ... and through union with her visible structure are joined to Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops" says Lumen Gentium, 14.

The catechism, you will recall, says the Church is one because its members "are united under one visible head on earth, the Pope."

And what does Monika Hellwig say that Vatican II teaches regarding the unity of the Church? That the Church is committed to ecumenism and peace among nations!


I could go on to compare what the Council says about the other marks of the Church with what Hellwig alleges the Council says. In each case her fraudulent use of the documents would be revealed.

Given that:

1. any Catholic school aims to produce Catholics,

2. Catholics are members of the Catholic Church,

3. the Catholic Church is such as described by Vatican II, Hellwig's thoroughly misleading recourse to the substitution process in providing the criteria of a Catholic, does a gross disservice to anyone trying to bring about a distinctively Catholic school.

"Catholic schools used to enrol Catholic students almost exclusively with the aim of forming them as knowledgeable and committed members of the Catholic Church, who could be trusted to participate in its worship and charitable activities and to conform their lifestyles to its teachings", writes Hellwig, contemptuously implying that Vatican II dropped such an aim.

But such an aim can serve well any Catholic school and it is certainly that of Vatican II.

Dr Frank Mobbs is a Catholic layman from Gosford, NSW, and has lectured in theology and philosophy at teachers' colleges and universities for many years.

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