When I was very young I was taught that to be a ‘good’ child I had to be ‘nice’ to my brothers and sisters. The two adjectives were interchangeable. Then when I was in middle school the shared synonymy of the two words was sundered.
I was shooting pool at the YMCA in Wilmington when I overheard some older boys – excited as though suddenly enlightened by some gnostic revelation – boast their new understanding that “there are good girls and then there are nice girls.” In my sheltered mind, linguistic integrity was shattered.
Curiously, this recollection came to mind last week at the bank where I work. Tanya, a recently hired woman who delivers our mail, surprised us one morning when she appeared with a beautiful one-year old toddler in her arms.
When I admired the child, Tanya explained that he wasn’t her son but rather the son of a good friend. Instead, she said with obvious pride, he was her godson. Sensing congratulations were in order I said: “Oh, when was he baptized?”. Somewhat puzzled by the irrelevance of the question, Tanya replied: “Oh, he’s not baptized.”
There is something more than linguistic integrity being compromised here. What makes one a godmother is her participation in the rite of baptism. Evidently, the definition of ‘godparent’ has become so fluid this once essential sacramental requirement can be ignored. This cavalier reinterpretation of words associated with the sacred is disturbing.
Perhaps to a certain extent fluidity of meaning results from the natural dynamism of linguistic evolution. For example, consider the words ‘awesome’ and ‘fantastic’ which originally had very different meanings than their connotations today. But, it seems to me the mutability of meaning – especially in words relating to the sacred and the moral – is now more evident, and even sinister. This trend is certainly facilitated by our capacity for instant and limitless communication.
However, there may be more to it. Maybe there is some social engineering going on. Think of how the word ‘gender’ – once a construct relegated to grammar books – used to have only three possible interpretations. Now, appropriated by the social elite, the word suddenly has five possible meanings which conveniently accommodate today’s novel concept of sexuality.
Or, consider the word ‘Christians.’ No longer limited to those who recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ, the term is now self-referentially used by those who deny his divinity but for reasons of social propriety claim to embrace his teaching.
Misguided though they are, the expanded meanings of words like these are becoming universally popularized and are therefore universally accepted as legitimate.
This is where we need to ponder the ‘Gadarene Swine Fallacy’ and employ the ‘sensus fidei’ solution.
Will we, like those unfortunate swine in the synoptic Gospels, be mindlessly swept up in the thoughtless rush of much of society and hurl ourselves to a precipitous end? Will we learn too late that an unreflecting majority is not necessarily right?
Or will we – in the fluid and ever oncoming waves of change – exercise our obligations as Christians and listen to St. Paul’s admonition to ‘test everything’ in the light of the Gospel and tradition to discern what is true and sane?
Dana Robinson is chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.