WelCom February 2023
John A Cardinal Dew
Archbishop of Wellington Archdiocese
Apostolic Administrator of Palmerston North Diocese
When Jacinda Ardern recently resigned as New Zealand’s Prime Minister we saw and heard in the media that she has received death threats, she has been subject to many misogynistic comments, she has been called some dreadful names, and referred to with adjectives that should not be applied to any human being.
It is not just the former Prime Minister who is referred to in such derogatory terms. Many leaders, in politics, in the Church, almost in any position of authority, are often subject to words that should never be used for any human being.
As I read and saw some of the ways the former Prime Minister had been referred to, I remembered one of the audiences of Pope Francis in 2019. In that audience the Pope took aim at the use of adjectives and gave his views on language to the Vatican communications team, saying: ‘I am allergic to those words’.
He said, ‘We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs, and we have forgotten the strength of nouns…there is no need to say authentically Christian. It is Christian! The mere fact of the noun “Christian” is enough, “I am Christ” is strong: it is a noun.’
“Our Catholic social teaching principle of human dignity is about understanding that each of us is made in God’s image.”
It might be helpful for us to think about the way we describe others. If we take a hard look at ourselves, if we reflect a little we might find we use too many adjectives to describe people, and some of them probably not very salutary or befitting of the human dignity every person has.
At his General Audience on 11 January this year Pope Francis spoke again of ‘nouns and adjectives’. He said in speaking of the call of the Apostle, Matthew:
‘It all begins with Jesus, who, the Gospel text says, “saw a man”. Few people saw Matthew as he was: they knew him as the one who was “sitting at the tax office”. He was, in fact, a tax collector: that is, someone who collected taxes on behalf of the Roman empire that occupied Palestine. In other words, he was a collaborator, a traitor to the people. We can imagine the contempt the people felt for him:
he was a “publican”, as they were called. But in the eyes of Jesus, Matthew is a man, with both his miseries and his greatness. Be aware of this: Jesus does not stop at the adjective – Jesus always seeks out the noun. “This person is a sinner, he’s that kind of person…” these are adjectives: Jesus goes to the person, to the heart. Jesus goes to the essence, the noun, never the adjective. He leaves aside the adjectives. And while there is distance between Matthew and his people – because they see the adjective “publican” – Jesus draws near to him, because every person is loved by God. “This gaze of Jesus sees the other, …”.’ (General Audience, 11 January 2023).
It is not too late to make a New Year’s resolution, a decision not to use negative or insulting adjectives to describe others. Our Catholic social teaching principle of human dignity is about understanding that each of us is made in God’s image. Every person has an innate human dignity no one can take away. Human dignity is given freely to all human beings; whether saint or sinner, imprisoned or free, powerful or marginalised.
You may not necessarily like someone, you may not agree with all that they say or do. Not everybody liked the former Prime Minister, but there is no reason for anyone to use insulting or degrading language. Every person has the dignity of being the daughter or the son of God.
As we reflect let us remember what St Paul wrote to the people of Colossae: ‘You must clothe yourselves with tender-hearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember the Lord forgave you so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.’ – Colossians 3: 12-15