Toward a Rhetorical Crisis in the Catholic Church

To claim that the Church is “in crisis,” at this moment in her history, is to risk being met with an exhausted shrug. The crises are so relentless that, according to one scholar, only the Protestant Reformation provides the proper scale: the never-ending stories of the sexual abuse of minors and the exposure of shameful coverups; the acrimonious disunity of bishops the world over; the shocking hostility of some of those same bishops toward the pope; and the collapse of identification and interest from the young.

“Crisis” seems not to do justice to these problems. But that has not stopped anyone from using the word. In addition to the abuse crisis, Catholic officials and intellectuals have spoken of a theological crisis, a magisterium crisis, a parish crisis, a gender crisis, and a crisis of despair among the clergy. Reasonable people can debate the merits and priorities of these various claims. What seems beyond debate is that the Church is experiencing crisis fatigue.

Nevertheless, I want to risk the word one more time to speak about a rhetorical crisis. I hope to be forgiven for this by recalling a more basic meaning of “crisis” as a turning point or moment of decision. Crisis implies not only an emergency, but any crossroads at which a community faces the burden of judgment—of taking a course of action whose outcome is uncertain.

Because the outcomes of such judgments are uncertain, a crisis also requires persuasion, the speech we use when, in the absence of perfect knowledge, we seek cooperation, especially among parties whose perspectives conflict. In such situations, speakers must account not only for the content of their arguments, but also for the time, place, and manner in which those arguments are delivered. Pick the wrong moment or the wrong means, and even the strongest appeal will fail. Rhetoric, then, may be defined as the study of time, place, and manner, or the study of persuasion in all its forms. To call a crisis “rhetorical,” therefore, is not to diminish it, but to take it seriously.

There is as much evidence for the rhetorical crisis as there is for any other of the Church’s crises, despite the absence of the word “rhetoric” in most of the relevant discussions. The problems of homilies are well attested and perhaps best captured by the working document from the Continental Stage of the Synod: “poor preaching, including the distance between the content of the sermon, the beauty of faith and the concreteness of life” (§ 93). The Synod itself—a deliberation on how we deliberate—is also evidence of a rhetorical crisis. Pope Francis has even called synodality a “style,” (thus invoking the third of the five canons of rhetoric, the others being invention, arrangement, memory, and delivery). There is also the “New Evangelization” (no longer very new), which refers to a collection of efforts aimed at revitalizing the Church’s outreach. The fact that the New Evangelization has continued through three papacies suggests both the permanent nature of the Church’s evangelization mission and a persistent concern about how that mission is being pursued.

That concern is the subject of what follows. Specifically, I track an argument about the 2023 World Youth Day, which took place in Lisbon, Portugal. In the month leading up to the event, its lead organizer, Bishop Américo Aguiar, was widely criticized for appearing to suggest that he did not view World Youth Day as an opportunity for evangelization. What followed was the kind of controversy that has become all too familiar in today’s Church, with one side excoriating the remarks in question and another insisting that they had been taken out of context. Yet surprisingly, despite the familiar contours, this dispute managed to raise a serious question (though one that the disputants themselves struggled to answer): just how intentional should evangelization be? This is a question of rhetoric, and the inability to identify it as such lies at the heart of the Church’s rhetorical crisis.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Persuasion

Persuasion lies at the very roots of Christian faith. The New Testament word for faith—pistis—is the same word that Aristotle uses for “proof” in his treatise on rhetoric.[1] To come to faith, then, was to have been persuaded. As John Milbank writes:

Christianity does not claim that the Good and True are self-evident to merely objective reason, or dialectical argument. On the contrary, it is from the first qualified philosophy by rhetoric in contending that the Good and the True are those things of which we “have a persuasion,” pistis, or “faith.”[2]

Still, some might balk at calling evangelization “rhetorical.” The reason, argues rhetorician Richard Lanham, is that the West has long suffered from a “bad conscience” about the rhetorical arts.[3] Since Plato’s attacks on the Sophists, the western imagination has linked rhetoric with pleasure and play—too frivolous for weighty matters like religion. The bad conscience leads to the persistent feeling that persuasion is wrong, in and of itself. So pervasive is this attitude that it is echoed by Pope Francis, an enormously gifted rhetor.

The pope has warned about a culture in which “image is more important than what is proposed. Plato said it in The Republic, rhetoric—which equates [to] aesthetic—is to politics what cosmetics is to health.”[4] Yet just as frequently, Francis has spoken as an anonymous rhetorician, insisting, for example, that the Church does not grow by proselytizing, but by attraction, or that the style of God is marked by “closeness, compassion, tenderness,” or that we must restore “healthy debates” to our political life rather than giving into “slick marketing techniques.” These are rhetorical considerations, even if the pope does not recognize them as such.

One can see this bad rhetorical conscience on display not only in Francis’s comments, but also in the controversy over the evangelizing goals of World Youth Day. The controversy began with an interview in which Bishop Aguiar described the kind of atmosphere he was seeking for World Youth Day, an atmosphere marked by interfaith dialogue and understanding, including with those who have no faith at all. He wished “a young person who has no religion to feel welcome and to perhaps not feel strange for thinking in a different way.” While these remarks seem in keeping with Pope Francis’s idea of a culture of encounter, Bishop Aguiar then seemed to take a further step: “We don’t want to convert the young people to Christ or to the Catholic Church or anything like that at all.”

Though the bishop quickly attempted to clarify his remarks, it was too late to head off the drearily familiar controversy. One such back-and-forth perfectly displayed the West’s bad conscience about rhetoric. I am speaking of a more or less friendly argument between papal biographer Austen Ivereigh and Minnesota bishop Robert Barron. Though they repeatedly insisted that they disagreed with each other, Ivereigh and Barron struggled to articulate the crux of their dispute. The reason is that neither could recognize that evangelization might have something to do with persuasion.

The dispute began with Barron inveighing against Aguiar, complaining that he had surrendered to the cultural consensus that “it finally doesn’t matter what one believes as long as one subscribes to certain ethical principles.” In a world marked by what Barron calls “epistemological indifferentism,” the world might see conversion as nothing more than “arrogant aggression.” But the Church, Barron insists, “thinks that religious truth is available to us and that having it (or not having it) matters immensely.” The Church must boldly proclaim these truths to all, including and especially to those who do not yet share them.

Austen Ivereigh responded to Barron by arguing that the Bishop had failed to make an important distinction. “What Barron has trouble understanding is that the bid to convert others to the Catholic Church—proselytism—contradicts evangelization, which is firstly about facilitating the encounter with Christ.” Such facilitation requires that we prioritize listening rather than speaking. Ivereigh suggests that we need not worry about converting, for it is ultimately not our job. “It is Christ (the Holy Spirit) who converts, not the power of our persuasion.” “Persuasion” introduces rhetoric to the discussion, but only, as ever, to serve as a foil. Persuasion is tantamount to the proselytism that Ivereigh wants to avoid.

As does Barron. Barron acknowledges the same distinction between evangelization and proselytism. Quoting an ad limina visit with Pope Francis, Barron defines proselytism as “an attempt at evangelization that is aggressive, browbeating, condescending, and disrespectful.” Ivereigh’s central mistake, therefore, is to identify proselytism with conversion. Bishop Barron goes on to argue that Ivereigh suffers from his own terminological confusion in failing to distinguish between “evangelization” and “pre-evangelization.” As the term suggests, “pre-evangelization” precedes evangelization; in pre-evangelization, one may have an eye toward conversion as the final aim but does not yet explicitly invite it.

In making this distinction Barron imitates Ivereigh both in introducing more explicitly rhetorical concepts and in using them as foils. “One can indeed prepare the ground for Christ in a thousand different ways: through invitation, conversation, debate, argument, the establishment of friendship, etc.” Conversation, debate, argument—all of these are traditionally associated with rhetoric. But here they are assigned to pre-evangelization, suggesting that Barron agrees that evangelization proper does not include rhetoric.

In a final response to Barron, Ivereigh insists that Barron has not fully grasped the distinction Francis makes between proselytism and evangelization. To make his point, he quotes a 2015 homily from Pope Francis: “in the mentality of the Gospel, you do not convince people with arguments, strategies, or tactics. You convince them by simply learning to welcome them.” In the pope’s own words, we once again see a notion of evangelization based explicitly on the rejection of traditional rhetorical moves—arguments, strategies, tactics. Francis repeats this distinction in other remarks, suggesting that the job of evangelization is “to put Jesus in contact with the people, without convincing them but allowing the Lord to do the convincing.” Ivereigh concludes that the pope is trying to teach us that the Gospel witness “can be in tension with, even contradicted by, our attempt to evangelize by means of persuasion, strategies, theological explanations.” Once again, evangelization is defined by the via negativa; whatever we are doing when we are evangelizing, we should not be persuading anyone.

Yet, the striking feature of this dispute is that there is no dispute. Both writers favor evangelization over proselytism, both insist that an encounter with Christ is the aim and means of evangelization, and both cite Pope Francis as an authority for their positions. Most importantly, both reject traditional rhetorical means of persuasion. Yet they cannot finally sustain this rejection. The use of rhetoric, even as an unnamed foil, forces them to define evangelization by its style, which is a rhetorical consideration. If proselytism is “aggressive, browbeating, condescending, and disrespectful,” evangelization must be gentle, inviting, hospitable, and respectful. But if Barron and Ivereigh agree that evangelization is defined by its style, then they also agree that it is defined by its strategy, even if that word is distasteful. Gentler words like “approach” or “manner” might make us more comfortable, speaking of “how” evangelization may proceed. But “how” remains a matter of rhetoric—that is, of suiting a message to time, place, and manner.

The same point can be made regarding Ivereigh’s notion of “facilitation.” Ivereigh writes, “we facilitate . . . the encounter [with the Holy Spirit] whenever we listen respectfully to the heart of another who thinks very differently.” Insofar as respectful listening facilitates this encounter, listening becomes a tactic—a move one makes with some end or aim in mind. Certainly, respectful listening is also an end in itself: it conveys goodwill and kindness to the other, regardless of any other outcomes. But in the context of evangelization, respectful listening is also strategic insofar as it is trying to accomplish something. One can imagine, for example, a situation in which a would-be evangelizer senses that her friend is interested in the Gospel. Yet she also senses that her friend is not quite ready to articulate her interest. So, the evangelizer continues to listen. That choice is a matter of both kindness and design. Only our bad conscience about rhetoric makes us think that they are mutually exclusive.

Emmanuel Levinas offers a useful distinction. Levinas also had a bad conscience about rhetoric, which he saw as an attempt at mastery over the other. Yet he also acknowledged that rhetoric was woven into the very texture of thought. The attempt to name the world always leaves a gap between the word and the thing, a gap that can be bridged only by synecdoche upon synecdoche. Without rhetorical figure and trope, language could not function. At the same time, he also distinguished between the “everyday language” of rhetoric on the one hand and eloquence on the other.

The former might emerge from the encounter with the other, where proximity leavens the “Said” of figure and trope into the “Saying” of particular words appropriate for the particular other. If the Said implies a formality that distances, “[t]he Saying is drawing nigh to one’s neighbor.”[5] In this context, “eloquence is excluded under penalty of provoking laughter.”[6] But the exclusion of eloquence does not exclude rhetoric in more proximate encounters, though Levinas wishes it were so. Even the transcendence of the other requires “metaphors capable of signifying infinity.”[7] Even intimacy requires art.

Pope Francis senses a similar distinction. In the Paraguay homily Ivereigh cites, Francis distinguishes between two approaches to the Church’s mission. One is marked by “plans and programs.” This approach focuses on “strategies, tactics, maneuvers, techniques, as if we could convert people on the basis of our own arguments.” But that is not how you convince people, Francis insists. “You convince them by simply learning how to welcome them.” When Jesus sends out the twelve, Francis says, He has a purpose in mind. “Jesus does not send them out as men of influence, landlords, officials armed with rules and regulations. Instead, he makes them see that the Christian journey is simply about changing hearts. One’s own heart first of all, and then helping to transform the hearts of others.”

Any fair-minded reader will understand the point he is making. Evangelization is not about step-by-step schemes. It is about a culture of encounter in which would-be evangelizers are as open to persuasion as those they are trying to persuade. But that encounter still has a desired aim, and Jesus recognizes that this aim can be better accomplished with some approaches rather than with others. In this case, Jesus’s style of evangelization is to put the apostles in the position of being welcomed—that is, in a position of vulnerability and dependence rather than the kind of power we might associate with would-be men of influence. (This is an unsurprisingly Levinasian move.) But there is still an influence occasioned by the vulnerability. Evangelization cannot exclude such influence, and it cannot therefore exclude rhetoric. Unless and until we become comfortable talking about rhetoric—about urging, attracting, enticing, influencing—it is hard to see how we will get any better at evangelization.

Team Clarity and Team Context

My defense of rhetoric should not suggest that anyone concoct a handy list of tips and tricks for evangelization. If we were to turn to the history of Christian persuasion—particularly representatives such as Paul, Augustine, Erasmus, Newman, among others—we would find sustained and serious reflection on both the art and the ethics of persuasive religious speech. The rhetorical resources of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition mitigate against the superficial.

Those riches are too vast to begin to mine here. As a preliminary step, however, I would suggest that a more self-consciously rhetorical approach to evangelization might at least help us escape from the struggle between the usual partisans of the Francis papacy: Team Clarity and Team Context. Team Clarity includes those who think Francis’s remarks suffer from confusion, and Team Context those who insist that confusion occurs only when the pope’s words are taken out of context. Team Clarity accuses the pope of confusing the faithful, though they sometimes blame the media for deliberately misunderstanding Francis. Others found Francis’s policy on the traditional Latin mass confusing, especially given Francis’s stated commitment to dialogue. The Synod on Synodality has also been a frequent target of the confusion complaint. Others, meanwhile, have argued that Francis himself is confused about the glories of capitalism.

Team Context, on the other hand, insists that his comments must be understood in context. Writers have noted how frequently a single line has been excised from a much longer interview or personal interaction. (Bishop Aguiar has now also learned this lesson.) Others have focused on specific instances in which an off-hand remark might be construed as a major change in Church teaching. Because of this tendency of the news media (and Francis’s critics) to soundbite the pope, the Vatican has sometimes had to clarify Francis’s remarks.

Ultimately, I think Team Context has the better argument. Too often, members of Team Clarity have isolated a remark just to read it uncharitably. But there is no sense in trying to adjudicate the clarity-context dispute. The fact is that Team Clarity and Team Context, just like Barron and Ivereigh, are operating from the exact same premise, which is that religious language ought to be judged primarily on how well it conveys meaning. Team Clarity accuses Francis of failing to convey meaning; Team Context counters by saying that Francis is succeeding in conveying meaning if only you look at the totality of what he has said. But both these claims grant the premise that conveying meaning is the point.

Meaning is important, but it is not the only criterion for persuasion—or, I would venture to say, evangelization. For persuasion, time, place, and manner are the key criteria, and if these are ignored, even precision can work against our aims.

The late French intellectual Bruno Latour understood this. In Rejoicing, Or the Torments of Religious Speech, Latour argues that the basic mistake moderns make about religious discourse is to judge it as a version of scientific discourse—that is, to ask religious discourse to convey information. But that is not what religious speech does. Religious speech seeks not to inform the person who hears it, but rather to transform them. Religious speech is like speech between lovers, who seek not to “convey messages,” but to “change those they address. What they transfer is not an information content, but a new container.”[8]

Religious discourse should therefore proceed like a lover’s dialogue. If a husband asks his wife, “Do you love me?” he is not seeking some piece of information that might be conveyed, a purpose that could be accomplished by saying, “Yes, but you already know that, I told you so last year.”[9] That response is certainly clear, but it is hard to see how it could be persuasive. If the wife wants to answer the question she has actually been asked—will you show me that you love me?—she must find new forms of expression. If she is successful, it will be because she was able to speak both from kindness and by design. That is also what evangelizers must do: to answer the question “do you love me?” and answer it generously, with the style of closeness, compassion, tenderness. There is no manipulation in that.

[1] James L. Kinneavy Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith: An Inquiry. (New York: Oxford, 1987).

[2] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 401.

[3] Richard A. Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 5.

[4] Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth, Translated by Alejandro Bermudez and Howard Goodman (New York: Image, 2013), 141. Francis makes similar remarks in Evangelii Gaudium: “It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric.” In the next section, Francis cites Plato’s Gorgias to lament, “the truth is manipulated, cosmetics take the place of real care of our bodies” (§ 232).

[5] Emmanuel Levinas, “Everday Language and Rhetoric without Eloquence.” Outside the Subject, Translated by Michael B. Smith (Stanford UP, 1994), 142.

[6] Ibid., 142.

[7] Ibid., 143.

[8] Bruno Latour, Rejoicing, Or the Torments of Religious Speech, Translated by Julie Rose (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 32.

[9] Ibid., 25.

Featured Image: Veronese, Jesus Among the Doctors, c. 1650; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Paul Lynch

Paul Lynch is an associate professor of English at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Persuasions of God: Inventing the Rhetoric of René Girard, forthcoming from The Pennsylvania State University Press and the co-editor of Rhetoric and Religion in the 21st Century: Pluralism in a Post-secular Age.

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