The Proper Use of Adjectives

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin

Sometime ago, in an address to Church employees involved in communications, Pope Francis made some intriguing comments about the use of adjectives in public discourse. The Holy Father said that he is “allergic” to the misuse of adjectives. He explained, “We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs, and we have forgotten the strength of nouns. The culture of the adjective has entered the Church and we forget that we are brothers, by saying that this one is ‘this type of’ brother. Beauty manifests itself from the noun itself.”
Interesting comments. Now, I take the Pope’s words to mean that we shouldn’t get in the habit of calling people names to defend our own positions or make theological or political points, and that’s truly a useful reminder for all of us.
Although, truth be told, the Holy Father himself has frequently employed some spicy adjectives to describe certain groups of people. How about his reference to “airport bishops,” or “smarmy priests?” The Pope has decried “rigid Christians” and “superficial Christians.” One of his most memorable descriptions is of “pickled, pepper-faced Christians.” There are many examples of the Pope’s colorful, descriptive language. I sort of like it!
And don’t forget that Jesus himself frequently used adjectives in preaching the Gospel. Our Lord spoke of “good and faithful servants,” as well as “wicked, lazy servants.” He referred to “foolish and wise virgins” and lamented the “faithless and sinful generation” of his time. He warned about “false prophets,” and distinguished between “good trees and good fruit, rotten trees and bad fruit.”
The point is that the use of adjectives is useful, even unavoidable, but they should never be used as arrows to wound other people, to marginalize or dismiss them.
One productive use of adjectives might be to examine our conscience about our status as Christians, as Catholics. You might reflect upon these questions: What kind of a Catholic are you? Are you a devout Catholic, a faithful Catholic, an average Catholic, a cultural Catholic, a searching Catholic, a disillusioned Catholic, a lapsed Catholic? And regardless of where you position yourself along that spectrum, why have you placed yourself there? Are you satisfied with the status of your faith? What are you doing to improve the quality of your faith? In other words, are you growing in the imitation of Christ?
Something to think about: In your speech, do you sometimes use adjectives to label people, to call them names?