When my husband mentions that he teaches business ethics, one occasional comeback is, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
In fact, it’s not. Business is not an intrinsic evil. And, as the Occupy movement unintentionally made clear, it’s incoherent to bash corporations in general while gobbling up the goods and services they offer so as to enhance your anti-business hipster chic.
But teaching ethics to MBA types has its challenges. It’s not that they can’t understand truths about good and evil, virtue and vice. It’s just that they can’t hear those truths at all—unless you express them in a language they can understand. You can’t be preachy,
but not only that—you can’t express anything in a way that hints of preachiness. You want to be exceedingly careful with words like service (or, for that matter, ethics). My husband (I could be biased) happens to be extraordinarily good at this sort of “translation” and has witnessed many of what you could call conversions by people who were suddenly able to see beyond measurable phenomena for the first time.
In the same way, the Church needs to speak to her prodigal sheep in a language they can hear. I think Pope Francis is seeking to do this. We can argue about whether he’s succeeding, but I think that kind of “success” may be far trickier to measure than we assume.
Besides, just as the straying, belligerent, messed-up, lost sheep of the 21st century can misinterpret the language of objective moral norms as heartless judgmentalism, so the more faithful, stable, dedicated sheep can mishear the language of mercy as the sound of someone (maybe unconsciously) watering down the Faith, capitulating to the spirit of the world, shying away from unpopular moral stances. They see clearly that the Pope would only be harming his obviously beloved lost sheep by going down that path.
And many feel a little baffled by the emphasis, the seeming dismissal of all their efforts all these years. As my dear friend Nancy put it the other night,
I agree with the focus being on the prodigals, yes, yes, yes; but the elder brother's faithfulness can be honored too. Maybe not with a whole calf; just a hoof or something...
One way or another, though, we’re all hard of hearing, less multilingual than we imagine.
Then again, I’ve known lots of people who were wandering around in left field, spiritually speaking, and then were drawn to and even converted by a straightforward appeal to moral norms and unapologetic truth claims.
So what do we speak? The language of mercy or the language of doctrine? Love or dogma? Who's the audience here? What's our strategy?
I think there's no one-size-fits-all answer. I think our best bet is to consult the Holy Spirit, the undoer of the curse of Babel. Then maybe we'll be able to hear each other again.