If I could have one superpower, it would be the ability to speak and understand multiple languages. I am especially reminded of this when I travel abroad, for instance during my family’s brief encounter with Pope Francis back in April. When in Rome, I was very grateful to meet with friends and make many contacts, most of whom speak brilliant English as a second language. If they hadn’t, there would have been no way to carry on a conversation.

My lack of linguistic versatility also puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to Pope Francis, who is (I am told) very creative with his use of language, jumping back and forth between Spanish and Italian, frequently interjecting words and phrases from Lunfardo, the local dialect in Buenos Aires. He also has a fondness for making neologisms—literally inventing new words. He doesn’t do this only in conversation, but from time to time even in formal teachings. Quite often he invents these words in order to express a point in a unique and nuanced way.

Sadly, the effect of most of the pope’s neologisms are lost in translation. For example, In 2018, Bishop Octavio Ruíz Arenas, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, explained a neologism that appears in Evangelii Gaudium but isn’t found in the English text. The English translation of paragraph 24 of the document begins, “The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step.” But the Spanish word that Francis uses is “primerean,” from the infinitive “primerear.” Primero means the adjective “first” in Spanish, so he’s turning the adjective into a verb, “to first.” So a more accurate translation would be, The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who first.” The bishop also mentioned “misericordiar,” which in English means “to mercy” or might be expressed as “mercying.” Bishop Ruíz explained that these invented verbs bring more immediacy, “to say that I have to exercise mercy is not the same thing as to say ‘mercying,’ which is a stronger action.”

Unlike his predecessors Pope Benedict XVI (who was at least conversant in English, if not fluent) and Pope St. John Paul II (whose English wasn’t quite as strong as Benedict’s in spontaneous moments, but was quite good at English pronunciation when delivering a prepared speech), Pope Francis struggles to speak in English and only does so occasionally. Sometimes, he will deliver a speech in English, but then go off script in Spanish or Italian, with which he is clearly more comfortable.

In fact, Pope Francis didn’t deliver a speech in English until more than a year after his election, during his visit to South Korea. A CBS News report said that he studied English for three months in Ireland decades ago, but that he struggled mightily with it. As he said to a biographer, “The one language that always caused me big problems was English, especially its pronunciation because I am very tone-deaf.” I can only imagine the difficulties of learning to understand and speak English, as our language doesn’t exactly stick to standard rules of spelling and pronunciation. That was the first time I’d heard English described as a tonal language. Still, there is a certain unique sound and cadence to English and perhaps that’s what he means.

With this language barrier between myself and the Holy Father, I nearly missed out on the latest neologism from Pope Francis—this time creating an Italian word during his flight back to Rome from Canada. He was speaking about traditionalists, who are not “traditional” in the sense that is meant by the Catholic Church, but “indietrists.” Here is the English translation provided by Catholic News Agency:

A Church that does not develop its thought in an ecclesial sense is a Church that goes backwards. And this is the problem of so many who call themselves traditional today. They are not traditional, they are “indietrists,” they are going backwards without roots — “That’s the way it has always been done,” “That’s the way it was done in the last century.” Indietrism [looking backward] is sin because it does not go forward with the Church. And instead, someone described tradition — I think I said it in one of the speeches — as the living faith of the dead and instead for these “indietrists,” who call themselves “traditionalists,” it is the dead faith of the living.

Tradition is the root of inspiration to go forward in the Church, always these roots, and “indietrism,” looking backward, is always closed. It is important to understand well the role of tradition, which is always open like the roots of the tree. The tree grows like that, no. A composer had a very beautiful phrase — Gustav Mahler — said that tradition in this sense is the guarantee of the future, it is not a museum piece. If you conceive tradition as closed, this is not Christian tradition. Always it is the root substance that takes you forward, forward, forward.

I saw a few comments here and there about “indietrism,” but it wasn’t until I received an email from Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation from the Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, which concluded with “I’m looking forward to your article on the subject!”

Not being the type of person who would ever intentionally disappoint a cloistered nun, I set about writing this piece. Yet also not being the type of person who understands other languages, this was going to be a challenge. It was time to turn to some polyglots and find some answers.

First, I turned to WPI contributor, attorney, and St. Oscar Romero devotee Carlos Colorado for his thoughts. He told me, “I’m sure you know ‘indietro’ means backwards in Italian.” (I did now.) He continued, “I’ve noted that Francis sometimes creates -isms by taking common words and making them into nouns.”

Fr. Bernardo Lara, a Mexican-American priest from the Diocese of San Diego, added his own insights into Francis’s wordplay. He explained, “There are a number of terms in Italian that are understood in Spanish: ‘buongiorno’ (good day) and ‘buona notte’ (good night) for example. The same thing happens with ‘indietrismo.’ Even though this word does not exist in Spanish, I think it is easy to draw the conclusion of its meaning for Spanish-speakers due to the similarity between the Spanish word ‘detrás’ (backwards) and ‘dietro’ (backwards).”

Fr. Lara continued, “By constantly speaking several languages, sometimes it is easier to express a certain meaning with a specific word from the mother tongue and other times one finds it easier and more accurate to use a word from the second language.” He compared it to “Spanglish,” which is a mixture of Spanish and English.”

What then might be a neologism in English with the same meaning? Perhaps the closest equivalent is “backwardsism.” And those who indulge in backwardsism are “backwardsists.” Thus, a better translation of Francis’s response would be something like: “They are not traditional, they are ‘backwardsists,’ they are going backwards without roots — ‘That’s the way it has always been done,’ ‘That’s the way it was done in the last century.’ Backwardsism is sin because it does not go forward with the Church.”

With the pope’s meaning now clarified, Carlos Colorado discussed how Francis used the term in relation to doctrinal development: “He mentions St. Vincent of Lerins in the press conference, and he also presents the positive vision of how Francis thinks it’s supposed to work — the opposite of indietrism. Call it ‘avantism!’”

He suggested that this might result in accusations that the pope is a “progressive” because he’s criticizing going backwards and wants to move forward. “But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying exactly,” he continued. Colorado explained how the pope “referred to the metaphor of tradition being like the roots of a tree. I think the point is that the tree should be alive: its roots feed it, the sap takes the nutrients all around. Pope Francis made it clear that it is up to the Magisterium to say yes or no, but you want theologians to ask questions. When we are committed to locking things in — that’s what he calls indietrism. It’s when you want to produce an artificial result by killing the tree or cutting off the roots.”

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh noted, “It’s interesting that he’s used the word so soon after talking of restorationism in relation to liturgy. I think it’s probably the same kind of thing. A refusal to admit that the Spirit is in charge of the Church, to see that Spirit causes it always to grow and develop its teaching. Essentially a form of gnosticism in that it posits a realm of pure, abstract ‘truth’ outside history, lifeless and static. The attempt to go back to some moment in history where the Church was considered to be unsullied by compromise with modernity is, of course, a hopeless exercise, because at those moments where the Church is at war with modernity it is also most defined by it. Whereas those periods in history where the Church is developing and changing very fast is precisely when it is evangelizing, rather than combatting, the contemporary world. Indietrismo is, like most Catholic ideologies, rooted in a refusal to evangelize.”

Mexican Catholic podcaster and theology student Rafa Piña agreed. He suggested that the word indicated “a form of anti-conversion. If conversion means ‘to turn’ towards God and the Church, ‘indietro’ is to turn not only back, but backwards; to turn against God and Church.”

Journalist Christopher Lamb echoed Ivereigh’s thoughts on trying to recapture a glorious but non-existent past. He said, “While superficially attractive, this is an illusion and Francis knows it obscures any understanding of the Church’s living tradition. The past offers the resources for the Church to renew its mission for the here and now. Francis is showing that true reform is about going deeper into tradition, not trying to create a museum Church.”

In her email, Sr. Gabriela lent her own insights. She said, “I can recognize what Pope Francis is referring to with his description of ‘indietrism.’ When I lived in Europe, I met up with the ‘that’s the way it is’ mindset. Things have been done this way for several hundred years, and that’s the way it is.” She gave an example: “The Europeans invented jellied doughnuts, the doughnuts with jam inside them. In French they’re called ‘Boules de Berlin’ and they have strawberry jam inside and cinnamon sugar sprinkled all around it. Maybe they have come up with variations since I lived there, but I don’t remember ever seeing any other kind of jellied doughnuts except the strawberry, cinnamon sugar kind. Americans take the idea and come up with 47 varieties. The Europeans keep to the traditional style.” I think we can all understand this outlook – those who reject innovation and insist on doing things exactly as they were done before.

I think this is perhaps why Pope Francis is so hard on the traditionalist outlook. He realizes that they are thinking from a frame of reference that has little in common with the reality of the Church. The backwardsist mindset is rooted in returning to or keeping everything as it is at some imaginary fixed point. Quite often they will come up with new and novel arguments, but the goal is always the same: to return to a glorious ideal. Back in 2018, Pope Francis called for “a true evangelical hermeneutic for better understanding life, the world and humanity, not of a synthesis but of a spiritual atmosphere of research and certainty based on the truths of reason and of faith.” This vision, which is rooted in our ancient faith but rejects backwardsism is not merely determined to recycle old ideas, is the way to renew the Church and bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Also, as Pope Francis reminds us, “this is fruitful only if it is done with an open mind and on one’s knees.”


Image: Vatican Media.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Pope Francis, neologisms, and doctrinal development
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