Ever feel like you’re not communicating?

Imagine that you are the chancellor of a university who devises some method by which certain high-school students are able to attend your university tuition-free. Excited, you start advertising this tuition-free option for qualifying students, and before you know it you have a small group of eager would-be enrollees at your institution. You open the matriculation process, and soon start to receive some angry phone calls from parents crying foul. “You said it was FREE!” they snarl. “My kid just told me he’s going to have to pay upwards of $1,000 dollars this semester for books, lab fees and meals!” Baffled, you explain to the irate callers that you were advertising a tuition-free opportunity for eligible students. You NEVER claimed that their books would be paid for, or that they’d get free food, and lab fees have never fallen into the category of “tuition.” All you get for your trouble is hung-up on.

Where did you go wrong?? You stated as clearly as you could in your advertising that the offer was for free TUITION. Then it begins to dawn on you. As an educator, you are well-versed in university lingo. Others may not be. And apparently when these parents heard “4 years tuition-free,” this translated in their minds to “4 years of free college.” Free, as in “I don’t pay ANYTHING.”

It’s a misunderstanding. Not your fault. No one’s going to be hauling you into court on charges of misrepresentation. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to be fielding angry phone calls for the foreseeable future….

Things like this happen because people confuse terms. They have only a passing familiarity with the actual definition of certain words. We see it every time a huge windstorm blows through town, wreaking havoc, and the National Weather Service announces that it was NOT a tornado. “Not a tornado!!” huffs your cousin Melba. “Then why is my barn in my neighbor’s yard???” Because when the NWS says there was no “tornado,” what your cousin understands them to be claiming is that there was no windstorm – and she’s here to tell you that there most certainly was.

Cousin Melba and the Weather Service aren’t the only ones quibbling over terms, and confusion of terms isn’t the only reason people miscommunicate; the reasons are legion. In fact, it’s a wonder anything gets communicated at all sometimes. The issue can be as simple as a vocabulary deficit. When I as a Protestant started attending Mass, I heard words like “paschal” and “oblation.” I had no clue what they meant, but fortunately I did care enough to find out. Not everyone is all that interested, and many people simply wander off mumbling something about mumbo-jumbo rather than learn a few new words. Another problem that surfaces in Protestant-Catholic dialogue is when Evangelicalese meets Catholicspeak. Huh?? So much of our vocabulary is the same, yet the meanings assigned to various terms differ. Take “grace” and “justification” for starters. Evangelicals and Catholics define these differently, so your Protestant neighbor may be hearing something slightly different that what you think you’re saying when you explain that Catholics believe that we are saved by grace and justified by faith. Sometimes the problem is a matter of ineptitude on the part of the communicator, and other times it’s a hearing impairment on the part of the listener. Why else would we bother to coin the lament, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant”?

Our best-laid plans to explain Catholicism to Protestants often go astray because of this – we try to explain what we believe, but the listener just can’t hear what we’re actually saying. It’s as if they have mental earwax. You explain to our next-door neighbor that Catholics don’t buy into the “secret rapture” doctrine so dear to Evangelical hearts. She goes home and tells her husband that Catholics don’t believe in the Second Coming of Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead. Is that what you said? No, but that’s what she thinks she heard. Her husband sees you that evening in the supermarket and asks you where the Bible says that Mary was conceived without sin. You ask him where the Bible says that every doctrine must be found in the Bible, and explain to him that Catholics don’t accept the self-refuting doctrine of sola Scriptura. He buys his avocadoes, goes home and tells his wife that Catholics don’t believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Is that what you said? No, but that’s what he thinks he heard.

I wonder if you can buy an ear trumpet cheap on eBay….

One real impediment to communication is know-it-alreadyism. You would assume that one of mankind’s primary motives for engaging in conversation is the exchange of information, right? Sounds great in theory, but how often does that correspond with conversational reality? Communication relies to a certain extent upon an openness of mind. If you already know everything, you kind of lose your incentive to exchange information. It could be that your neighbors have already been misinformed, having been told that Catholics don’t believe in the Second Coming or the inerrancy of Scripture. When you talk to them, they can see your lips moving, but they “hear” what they already believe.

When I lived in Germany, I had a conversation with two guys from Asia Minor. We were discussing life in the U.S. when one of them casually mentioned something about the 51 American states. I politely corrected him – there are 50 American states. He stared at me quizzically. He and his friend exchanged glances and discussed the matter between themselves. “Yep!” was the conclusion to which they came – there are 51 states.

Well, gee, don’t mind me! I’m just a native of the U.S.A.! Hard to believe that I might know how many states are in my own Union!

This helps to explain the ongoing battle Catholics wage against Protestant confusion over our doctrine. Back to your next-door neighbors again. You can clarify as patiently as Job to your neighbor that, no, Catholics don’t worship Mary. God forbid! That is an obvious violation of the First Commandment. God alone is to be worshipped! Catholics do, however, venerate Mary. That means that we give her honor, more honor than we give to any other human being, because of the role we believe she played in salvation history. We sometimes pray to her. Just as one of your Protestant ancestors might have asked a godly friend, “Pray assist me, dear Elizabeth, in beseeching our Lord for the life of my child,” we often “pray” (that is, “direct petitions” to Mary), asking her to take our concerns to her Son and plead for us. That doesn’t mean that we think she’s God; it means that we think she can intercede on our behalf, just as you believe that your fellow Christians can intercede on your behalf. We study Mary’s life, we sing about her, and in the month of May we may even bring flowers to statues of Mary because we love her as the “mother” Jesus gave to us as He hung on the cross (Jn 19:26-27). The Bible tells us that we are her children (Rev 12:17)! You might occasionally see someone in a Catholic church kneeling before a statue of Mary. They aren’t worshipping Mary or the statue. If you want a pop-culture reference, think “Star Wars,” where Amidala went down on her knees before Boss Nass, asking for his aid, because she knew that without his help her revolt was pretty much dead in the water. She wasn’t worshipping him; she was humbly imploring his assistance. So, you explain to your neighbor, Catholics simply DO NOT worship Mary. Got it?

“Uh-huh,” responds your neighbor. “You guys worship the pope, too, don’t you?”

Don’t mind me, I’m just Catholic.

And that’s how it goes sometimes in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue. Terms need to be defined; prejudices must be addressed. It’s an uphill battle, and we charge into the fray wielding Q-Tips, in the form of prayer, patience, prayer, charity, prayer, perseverance and… prayer. It helps if more than one person is working to communicate the truth to a given individual. Sometimes it’s that 15th refutation of justification by faith ALONE that finally does the trick. I know it can be mighty tempting to just give up when your neighbors ignore everything you say and persist in insisting that Catholics worship Mary. You want to shrug your shoulders and retreat. It’s hopeless. Don’t mind me – I’m just Catholic! Remember, though, your neighbors may be hearing more than you think. They may be uncomfortable because you are starting to making sense, and your patience, charity and perseverance are a witness of God working in you. Believe it or not, some scientists actually believe that anxiety and stress may increase the production of earwax!

“To the hard of hearing you shout,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Clearly, communication crises call for bold measures. Storm the heavens, and persistently petition the Holy Spirit, the Divine Hearing Aid, to aid your communication efforts and to assist your neighbors in listening as well as hearing.

And don’t forget – ear trumpets make stylish and affordable presents for birthdays, anniversaries or any gift-giving occasion!

Available at your local Catholic religious goods shop!


On the memorial of St. Josemaría Escrivá

Deo omnis gloria!

Postscript:  George from Convert Journal suggests this link to ear trumpets on eBay.  Who knew?

Photo credits: A pack of 54 counts Q-tips cotton swabs, made in USA by Geographer

  1. Lovely post, and timely, too: just read this http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/06/evangelical-faith-and-the-challenge-of-historical-criticism-a-new-book-on-a-recurring-problem/. The author being interviewed is the son of the man in the next office over from mine, a very good evangelical and a heck of a nice guy – him, I have patience with. His son, the author, reads all the scriptural languages (and speaks German, Spanish and English), has spent a decade at the finest institutions of learning both here and in Europe, and is now headed for South America where he plans to evangelize and train others to evangelize the poor, ignorant Catholics. Him, although another decent and kind man, I have no patience with – good thing I’ve only met him a couple times. (My wife, a much holier person than me (which is sadly not saying much) charmed his socks off, so we as a couple are probably a wash in his eyes.)

    Anyway: that a typical pew-sitting Protestant might hold libelous beliefs about the Church is not surprising. Most people are not like you, willing to put in massive effort to track down the truth. BUT: that somebody can be brilliant enough to achieve what Dr. Hays has achieved and yet NOT pick up on – getting technical here – the radical decontextualization that is at the root of Protestantism, even to the point of writing a book about historical context while admitting such context has proved ‘challenging’ to Evangelicals over the years – well, THAT is, if not willful ignorance, at least culpable blindness.

    Ya know?

    While the steady stream of smart Evangelicals like you who have flowed and continue to flow into the Church is a great blessing, the ocean of smart Evangelicals who don’t is a mystery.

    • From Dr. Hays’ interview:
      “Historical criticism can be a tool providing greater insight into the sort of literature the Bible is, so that we can better hear what God is trying to say to us, and so that we can stop fighting to defend perspectives (for example, a 6,000 year-old earth or the creation of humans out of dirt) that the Bible doesn’t ask us to defend”.

      I know some Evangelicals who would tar and feather him in a New York minute for a statement like that. He’d better never show his face in central Virginia! 🙂

      As Robert Wilken wrote:

      “Any effort to mount an interpretation of the Bible that ignores its first readers is doomed to end up with a bouquet of fragments that are neither the book of the church nor the imaginative wellspring of Western literature, art and music.” Sounds obvious, but…. I guess it’s not.

      I like the way Francis Beckwith (a pretty bright guy) explained the fact that some Protestants just don’t see what we see. Speaking specifically of the doctrine of justification, Beckwith wrote:

      “…I do not think that the Reformed Protestant view of justification is obviously unreasonable or that one cannot make a biblical case for it that some will find persuasive. Some of the brightest people I know are Reformed theologians, and I have great respect for the work they do. But what I am suggesting is that for me, all things considered, the Catholic view has more explanatory power than the Protestant view. This is why it made sense to me that the Early Church Fathers… were so Catholic in their teachings. They held to the view that, I believe, does the best job of accounting for all the New Testament’s passages on justification and sanctification.”

      Which gives me an idea for another blog post. Do you mind if I mention your name, or should I refer to you as a generic “reader”?

      I’ve heard that Tolkien explained C.S. Lewis’ refusal to consider Catholicism by pointing to Lewis’ place of birth – Ulster. Some Protestants, no matter how bright, started with a non-negotiable NO when it comes to Catholicism. And that’s that….

  2. It is inevitable that a Protestant claim to add context of any kind – historical, literary, cultural, ecclesiastical – will, if accurate and true, cause mayhem among believers. How could it not?

    Sure, you can use my name. Maybe both my regular readers will spot it. 😉

  3. Nancy said:

    SO EXCELLENT. You write so well, and clarify things so well, that I wonder if you could be considered one of Our Lord’s spiritual Q-Tips? 🙂 Although I suppose ear trumpet sounds nicer. Either one is applicable. Just in case you want to put something glowing on a resume sometime…….

    • I work in a medical practice. I wonder what a prospective employer would think if I put “Amateur ear trumpet” on an application. It might ingratiate me with the otolaryngologists….

      You folks here in the combox are what I was talking about when I said, “It helps if more than one person is working to communicate the truth to a given individual.” You, Nancy, write so lucidly about Catholic spirituality that Protestants who read your blogs would be hard-pressed to claim that “Catholics don’t know Christ” as they would often like to do. George over at Convert Journal addresses topics in a far more earnest and convincing fashion than I (I tend to be flippant), and Joseph at Yard Sale of the Mind could make a dog laugh (seriously!) Individually, our witness may be easy to brush off, but collectively – as George is making possible through his New Evangelists Monthly – we are HARD TO IGNORE!!

      “And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.” And four or more speaking in unison make a very loud noise! 🙂

  4. It is often frustrating, but as you note we need to calmly just plant and replant the seeds as long as it takes. Eventually the wall of babel, as invincible as it appears, gets penetrated.

    BTW – Ebay on ear trumpets offers this.

    • Oh my gosh, it was a joke! I can’t believe they really have ear trumpets!!

      Well, I guess this is our opportunity to stock up! 🙂

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