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Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Papal invective revived

Charaxes brutus natalensis

"Smarmy narcissistic butterflies." If we follow the summary, provided by Vatican Radio, of the homily of Pope Francis last Saturday, we priests must be clear that we don't want to be one of those. Laurence England has updated his helpful Pope Francis Little Book of Insults though he has, with scholarly precision, separated the smarmy bit from the butterflies.

There are problems with the translation. When speaking a language other than one's mother-tongue, insults and swear-words are dangerous territory. It is notoriously difficult to know the strength of any particular expression, and there are often regional variations in just how offensive a word is. The pitfalls of translation are magnified when derogatory Italian expressions are translated into a variety of other modern languages.

We might be tempted to translate "untuoso" into English simply as "unctuous" which is not quite as strong as "smarmy", but my Dizionario Garzanti does give "subdolo" (underhand, sly, devious, deceitful) as well as "ipocrita" (hypocrite) and "falsamente umile" (falsely humble), so perhaps "smarmy" is right. It is hard to be sure.

The butterfly is also problematic. Garzanti gives for farfalla a second meaning of "persona di carattere volubile e leggero" (a person of unstable and lightweight character.) That's not really a meaning we would readily recognise for butterfly in English, but the Vatican Radio team might have considered it too much of a liberty to substitute the Middle English flippertigibbet, and flippertigibbet might not be as sharp-edged as farfalla. So we are left with "smarmy narcissistic butterflies" and I have been unable to get out of my mind the insults of the French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail modified along the lines of "You smarmy set of narcissistic butterflies, your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries. I blow my nose at you... etc." (See clip)

Papal invective has a long and noble history from which I have drawn a few examples after a quick search: there are probably many better ones. In Exsurge Domine, condemning the errors of Martin Luther, Pope Leo X said
"Against the Roman Church, you [St Peter] warned, lying teachers are rising, introducing ruinous sects, and drawing upon themselves speedy doom. Their tongues are fire, a restless evil, full of deadly poison. They have bitter zeal, contention in their hearts, and boast and lie against the truth."
Pope Gregory XVI, in condemning the errors of liberalism and religious indifferentism in his encyclical Mirari Vos spoke of those within the Church who had been condemned:
"In the meantime We were again delayed because of the insolent and factious men who endeavoured to raise the standard of treason. Eventually, We had to use Our God-given authority to restrain the great obstinacy of these men with the rod. Before We did, their unbridled rage seemed to grow from continued impunity and Our considerable indulgence."
[UPDATE] Fr Zuhlsdorf kindly passed on from one of his readers this humdinger, also from Mirari Vos:
"We see the destruction of public order, the fall of principalities, and the overturning of all legitimate power approaching. Indeed this great mass of calamities had its inception in the heretical societies and sects in which all that is sacrilegious, infamous, and blasphemous has gathered as bilge water in a ship’s hold, a congealed mass of all filth."
Generally reckoned one of the milder of the 19th century popes, Leo XIII pulled no punches when describing the Freemasons in Humanum Genus. for example:
"The sect of the Freemasons shows itself insolent and proud of its success, and seems as if it would put no bounds to its pertinacity. Its followers, joined together by a wicked compact and by secret counsels, give help one to another, and excite one another to an audacity for evil things."
In the twentieth century, Pope Pius XI was capable of some scathing remarks, such as those in Mortalium Animos concerning promoters of ecumenism:
"For which reason conventions, meetings and addresses are frequently arranged by these persons, at which a large number of listeners are present, and at which all without distinction are invited to join in the discussion, both infidels of every kind, and Christians, even those who have unhappily fallen away from Christ or who with obstinacy and pertinacity deny His divine nature and mission."
The use of papal invective went out of fashion for some years - one could not imagine the Blessed John XIII speaking in this way, and his successors did not continue the practice. Now, it seems, Pope Francis has revived the tradition, though he has the handicap of the modern custom of using vernacular languages which do not have the more enduring consensus of scholars which Latin insults have concerning their meaning.

There is one (probably unintended) advantage of the butterfly reference. We may now hope that the hymn in which we indulge in the thought experiment of actually being a butterfly and how we would express thanksgiving to the Father in such a case, might be consigned finally to the "Hymns We Don't Use Any More" section of the music cupboard.
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