Aside from working on this blog, I am doing a few side writing projects. One of them is on the saints, and a few others will be focused on spiritual theology. Both these topics are very important to me and have been a huge focus of mine for the past few years. Now that I am putting more effort into researching these items for my work, I have encountered an interesting problem related to unity, which is the confusion and lack of consistency in definitions related to various Catholic teachings. I wanted to write-up on this to emphasize how a lot of confusion and conflict is caused because of our lack of common understanding of the words we use. This is an issue among Catholics and other Christians as well.
I wanted to demonstrate this with a simple example. The word we will look at is “saint.” The Greek word for “saint” is haigos, which literally means “set apart by (or for) God, holy, sacred.” A search through Merriam Webster on the word “saint” will yield the following results:
- One officially recognized especially through canonization as preeminent for holiness
- One of the spirits of the departed in heaven
- One of God’s chosen and usually Christian people
- One eminent for piety or virtue
- An illustrious predecessor
I was surprised to find out that there is a lot of confusion among Protestants and Catholics when defining what a saint is. Looking at the Merriam Webster definition, you can see how definition three seems to reflect the Greek definition the most, however, definition one is very Catholic specific. The cause for this is the change in understanding of the word overtime. Broadly speaking, when Catholics speak of saints they typically are referring to those souls who are in heaven now with God. Those whom the Catholic Church has identified by name in heaven are called canonized saints; however, this does not mean that only those that have been canonized are in heaven. This is a very common misconception held by Protestants. There are many anonymous saints in heaven!
What you will find in most Catholic translations of the Bible such as the New American Bible Revised Edition (NARBE) is that the word saint in the Bible has been replaced with “holy.” In fact, in the NARBE translation, the word “saint” is only used once in Matthew 27:52, while the word “saint” is used 119 times in the Douay-Rheims translation. This is still an acceptable translation of the original Greek text and I believe this was done to prevent the confusion of how Catholics describe saints, who are the souls in heaven with God vs what is commonly held definition of the word “saint”, which are people who are set apart, holy, and sacred. It really doesn’t matter because whether you use holy, sacred, or saint in any translation the meaning remains the same. I do wish we came up with some new word though. It is amazing how much confusion is caused by a change in the definition of a word over time!
This is just one small example that I have seen. This confusion also is seen in spiritual theology as well. Here is an excerpt from a book that expands on this challenge a bit further:
What is now called spiritual theology has been designated by various names throughout the history of theology. Some have called it simply spirituality; others have named it spiritual life; devout life; supernatural life; interior life; mystical evolution; and theology of Christian perfection. The terms first used and still commonly used to designate the systematic theology of the spiritual life are ascetical theology and mystical theology, although these words do not have the same meaning for all theologians – Spiritual Theology by Father Jordan Auman, O.P.
This may not seem like an issue but it can be depending on who you are talking to. I don’t think this was intentional but as different forms of spiritual theology were developing overtime and through different orders, we were left with different words to describe the same thing. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, there can be challenges when people begin to interpret a word in a new light. This is where the danger lies. If we call spiritual theology by 10 different words, and some of those words have different meanings in different contexts or have evolved new meanings overtime, what can inevitably happen is people who are not properly formed can interpret the word in the wrong light which will lead to confusion.
Confusion is a big issue now and we need to put a greater emphasis on dispelling confusion where we can. Not only to aid each other as we are progressing towards perfection but to also admonish those who may hold onto a false understanding of a word and are inadvertently leading others astray. This is especially prevalent in our time when we talk about contemplation and meditation. If you ask a handful of people on what contemplation is, you may get 5 different responses. Some may partially right, some may be completely wrong. Now what happens when you have a so-called expert interpreting contemplation in a different light and teaching this to the people?
Let them alone; they are blind guides [of the blind]. If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit – Matthew 15:14
In order for us to dispel confusion, we need to make sure that we ourselves are properly formed. This does require a great effort on our part to understand the teachings of the church and to read good, holy books that the church doctors have left us. Spend time steeped in scripture and dialogue with good, holy people. The Lord of course will dispel this confusion the more we are steeped in prayer and the sacraments. He will not allow His sheep to be led astray if our wills are surrendered to His.
Blessed Mother, pray for us!