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Why Orwell matters to the Catholic Church

By  Anna Farrow
  • October 5, 2022

In 1946, George Orwell published a short essay entitled, “Politics and the English Language.” It is a gem that deserves to be ritually proclaimed on an annual basis in town squares across the land.

The essay argues that when political discourse is coarsened through ugly and imprecise language the entire body politic suffers. In a sentence around which the scent of St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas lingers, he notes that the English language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Although Orwell declared “I belong to the left” in a 1945 letter to the Duchess of Atholl, the central target of his criticism is the political structure and rhetoric of British socialism and Stalinist Russia. His criticisms, however, extend to the entire gamut of “modern writing.” He illustrates by way of five excerpts taken from various sources, including a Communist pamphlet and a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Among other bad habits, Orwell pinpoints the use of “dying metaphors,” “pretentious diction” and “meaningless words” as culprits in this cultural malaise.

Like the literary creations of 1984  — Newspeak, thoughtcrimes, the always wars between Oceania and Eastasia —  observations in Orwell’s 1946 essay are relevant today. Orwell writes, “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ ” He speaks of words used dishonestly, in that the person using them has a private understanding of the word but allows his hearer to “think he means something quite different.” He lists words frequently used dishonestly including, “class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.” Today we might add extremist, populism and safe to the list.

Orwell was an atheist, poked holes in holier than thou Catholicism, and his critical eye was turned on the political realm. Still, I wonder whether Politics and the English Language shouldn’t be required reading for the Catholic hierarchy and its communications departments because things are, in the words of Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside, “bad you know.”

On Sept. 24, the @Pontifex Twitter account posted nine tweets, one of which read, “The plant paradigm takes a different approach to earth and environment. Plants cooperate with all the surroundings environment; even when they compete, they cooperate for the good of the ecosystem. Let’s learn from the meekness of plants!”

A recent social media posting from the official Vatican account that features “content from the General Secretariat of the Synod,” told us that the synod bears “witness to a Church on the move, a living body of Christ where unity respects diversity,” and that “the ongoing discussions reflect the need for a more welcoming, merciful, intercultural and prophetic Church.” 

Perhaps it is the fault of social media and the requirement to produce daily “content” for multiple media platforms. But between the Synod on Synodality (an invented word Orwell would spit out of his mouth like a rotten tooth), the Twitter feed of Pope Francis, apparently taken hostage by a propagandist hack, and the #Season of Creation, the tuned-in, Catholic faithful must endure endless strings of banalities.

The irony is the communication departments of the various dicasteries shouldn’t need to read Orwell to help them clean up their language. Do we not have as our model the Word of God? Isn’t this Word “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart?” 

What does it mean to be part of a Church “on the move” today? What is a “welcoming” and “intercultural” Church? Exactly how am I supposed to model the “meekness of plants”? Who knows? Not I.

Orwell cautioned that the tailspin of foolish thoughts chasing foolish words will eventually collapse in a heap of dangerous behaviour. Could I sound a note of concern that the hash of corporate and religious lingo that currently passes for much Catholic “messaging” is not a sign of health in the Body?

(Farrow is a writer in Montreal.)

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