One Small Word, So Many Souls

Those outside the Catholic Church simply scratch their heads in bemusement and dismay at the effect one word can have on a sacrament, yet they will be up in arms if someone gets a pronoun wrong.

One Small Word, So Many Souls
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A little over two weeks ago, Fr. Andres Arango resigned from being the pastor at St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in Phoenix, Arizona. His reason for doing so wasn’t the usual scandalous one that people have come to expect in these situations. Instead, the reason for his resignation was entirely theological: for 25 years, he had administered the sacrament of Baptism improperly, resulting in thousands of invalid baptisms.

In place of using the pronoun “I”, as in “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit,” Fr. Arango used the word “we.” This makes the baptism invalid because it’s supposed to be Christ administering the sacrament, not the parish community or some other entity. As a statement from the Phoenix diocese explains: “The Baptismal Formula (the words used in the Rite) has always been guarded for this reason: so it is clear that we receive our baptism through Jesus and not the community.”

Naturally, this kind of thinking eludes the understanding of most non-Catholics and, unfortunately, many practicing Catholics. Upon learning of Arango’s resignation, many parishioners are petitioning the bishop to reverse this decision and “practice what they preach.” Even though their pastor utterly failed in one of his fundamental responsibilities, thereby putting  many souls in grave danger, they think the most loving thing to do is to let it slide and move on.

Those outside the Catholic Church simply scratch their heads in bemusement and dismay at the effect one word can have on a sacrament. As the headlines of the story suggestNPR: “An Arizona priest used one wrong word in baptisms for decades. They’re all invalid”; NBC: “All baptisms performed by Phoenix priest invalid because he changed one word”; CBS: “A priest used one wrong word during baptisms. The church now says thousands were invalid”—the whole thing seems petty and unreasonable. 

What’s ironic is that the writers for these outlets know exactly how important one word can be, particularly if it’s a pronoun. That one word means the difference between a normal term of reference and a vicious act of hate. They would never claim that a father lost custody of a child, or that a teacher was fired, or that a famous podcaster is threatened with cancellation because of “one wrong word.” 

And they are right to refrain from oversimplifying the issue to one word. Words, particularly pronouns like “I” and “we,” contain so many multitudes of denotative and connotative meanings that form the many connections in people’s understanding of reality. Thus, they should be expressed and used with care. And they should be heard and interpreted with care as well.

This is more than semantics—the science behind how words are used and defined. Speaking or writing one wrong word implies a serious break with people’s subjective, and sometimes objective, reality. It’s essentially asserting that one’s identity and viewpoint aren’t real or valid. 

Thus, when a person refuses to use another person’s preferred pronouns, they are saying that the other person’s claims about gender and identity aren’t real or valid. Of course, if they do use the preferred pronouns, they are saying that objective definitions aren’t real or valid, at least when they conflict with someone’s subjective reality (or “prisms of our reality” as the new New York City mayor, Eric Adams, put it). 

Doing the latter may be more politically correct in today’s world, but it blurs the line between objective and subjective reality. Furthermore, it prompts an unsettling question: if everyone is entitled to their own subjective reality, and a shared objective reality (the physical reality everyone experiences in common) can be invalidated through deliberately changing the meaning of words, won’t this divide all individuals into their own self-defined islands? How is communication, let alone constructive dialogue, possible when words are based on personal perceptions accessible only to that individual rather than based on observable reality accessible to all?

Words don’t lose their power when they cease to reflect objective reality. Rather, the power of words is redirected away from building connections and forming communities and toward doing the opposite. One small word can ultimately make or break reality.

So, when a priest uses “we” instead of “I” when baptizing another person, he is destroying the metaphysical reality of the sacrament. He is no longer acting in the person of Christ (“in persona Christi”) washing away a person’s sins and making heavenly salvation possible; he is merely a guy in a robe representing a religious organization sprinkling some water. 

His baptism isn’t real. At most, it is symbolic. And for Catholics who are told that the sacraments are not mere symbols of grace but actual physical incarnations of God’s grace, this means it’s invalid. 

In many ways, what is surprising and encouraging about Father Arango’s resignation (for anyone wondering, he’s still a “priest in good standing” and is still working with the diocese) is just how reasonable it is. For so many decades, Catholic theologians continually stretched out the qualifications for baptism, to the point that the Church and the sacraments were effectively unnecessary. 

And by doing this, modern theologians were telling generations of Catholics that the sacraments weren’t real, that articles of faith were ultimately subjective, and that their identity as Catholics meant nothing. Sadly, most average believers became indifferent to the very things that defined what they believed and thus stopped bothering with going to church.

But if Catholic leaders are willing to finally set limits on how words are used—and Fr. Arango is far from being the only priest who botches the language—this means they are willing to restore the reality of the faith. In the short term, this will mean declaring many Catholics’ sacraments invalid, upsetting the blissful ignorance of many of them, and enduring mockery from the secular progressive media. But in the long term, this will allow the possibility of deeper faith and true community in an institution that has been all but destroyed by the misuse of language.  

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]