What role does ambiguity play in the current crisis of faith experienced in the Roman Catholic Church? A very significant one, particularly since Vatican II, in my opinion.
D.Q. McInerny, Professor of Philosophy
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary
The wizened and wily tyrant, King Ambidexterius III, was on his deathbed. He called for his son, the heir to the throne, to give him some last minute advice as to how he should conduct his reign. Among the things he said to the young man, soon to become Ambidexterius IV, was the following: "My son, always speak with a forked tongue when addressing the people. Let all your proclamations be fairly awash in ambiguity. It is through ambiguity—ah, glorious ambiguity!—that you will be able to keep the people in a state of debilitating doubt and uncertainty, and thus safely out of reach of the truth. Remember, my son, in ambiguity is our strength, for truth is our enemy, and ambiguity suffocates truth.” History does not provide us with the particulars as to how Ambidexterius IV followed his father's advice, but followed it he must have, for we do know that he was every bit the tyrant as was his father.
Ambiguity is a linguistic disease of a peculiarly virulent kind. It does indeed, as Ambidexterius III knew well, have a suffocating effect on truth. Just what are we dealing with here? Let us begin with some etymology, which is always illuminating. Our word ambiguity has its roots in the Latin noun ambiguus, which means "uncertain,” which in turn is rooted in the verb ambigere, meaning "to wander about." That nicely describes just the way ambiguous language works: it wanders about aimlessly, never managing to arrive at a definite, clearly identifiable and comprehensible destination.
The typical effect of ambiguous language on those who are exposed to it is a general blurring of the mind. Doubt and uncertainty reign. You know, or at least you strongly suspect, that the language is intended to convey some potentially detectable ideas, but, if so, those ideas are so thickly fog-bound that no amount of determined squinting on your part will allow you to make them out. After a while, out of fatigue or frustration, you may choose simply to give up the effort, which could prove to have unfortunate consequences, if it was your initial understanding that the message addressed to you had to do with some really serious matters.
The doubt and uncertainty which is engendered by ambiguous language, because of its equivocal, double-dealing nature, is of course clearly disadvantageous to the individual, for each of us, as rational creatures, is made to know the truth, and doubt and uncertainty stand as formidable obstacles to the truth. But the negative effects of ambiguity assume a larger, communal dimension as well. Language is the highest form of communication, for it is the discourse of rational creatures. The root of the word communication (Latin communis = "common") is the same for the word community. When communication among a people breaks down, as the result of a surfeit of ambiguous language, and the suffocation of truth it brings with it, then the community to which those people belong begins to disintegrate. Common adherence to fundamental truths, which is the bond which ensures the integrity and coherence of any community, begins to weaken as doubt and uncertainty pervades the entire atmosphere.
There are two causes of ambiguity—carelessness and calculation. We are all liable at time to traffic in ambiguous language, in our speech and in our writing, simply because we are not giving to language the constant monitoring attention it demands. But if we are in general properly conscientious about our language, once we are made aware of the fact that we are not being clear and unambiguous in what we say and write, we usually will promptly take measures to correct the situation. We should always be prepared to take ambiguity seriously, as did the author E. B. White. In a bright little book called The Elements of Style he wrote that ambiguous language "is not merely a disturber of prose, it is a destroyer of life, of hope."
The second cause of ambiguity is calculation. Here ambiguous language is not accidental, not the result of inattention; it is quite deliberate. People who use ambiguous language in a calculating manner know exactly what they are doing. Their modus operandi is one of artful disingenuousness. They want to inculcate doubt and uncertainty in the minds of those who hear what they say and read what they write. They are not friends of truth; in fact, it is precisely the truth they wish to undermine, but they know that were they to attempt to do so in a clear, straightforward manner they could not gain their objective, for people would immediately see what they were up to and the alarm bells would go off. So, in order to accomplish their plan of substituting falsity for truth, they advert to ambiguity.
In doing this they take a two-pronged approach. First, they never explicitly state, much less emphasize, what they know to be the truth, but leave it unspoken so that it is not in the forefront of the minds of their auditors or readers. Thus they set the stage for confusion. Secondly, they focus on the falsity which they want to promote, but they do so in a subtle, indirect manner. Let us say that X is what they know to be the truth—which, if they were responsible, they should be defending—while Y is the falsity which they are promoting. They will not come right out and say, "X is clearly the truth and we must adhere to it tenaciously." Nor will they say, "Y is the new truth which we must now all assent to." That would be too blunt an approach, and would only backfire on them. Rather, they invite their auditors or readers to be open and flexible in their thinking, receptive to new possibilities, so that they might see in Y something worth serious consideration. "Yes, of course," they would say, "we have always in the past considered Y to be false, and, mind you, we are not exactly saying that it is true now, but, after all, times are changing, and we must be prepared to make accommodations in order to keep up with the progressive advance of human history." And they might, quite irrelevantly, throw in the idea that we all have to strive to be caring and compassionate.
Those on the receiving end of this calculated use of ambiguity are left in a state of perplexity. Having not heard the truth which is X explicitly stated, while having been presented with the falsity which is Y as something which, so they are left to suppose, is a negotiable matter, and even as something they are perhaps under moral obligation to regard as an acceptable alternative to what they previously believed to be true, they do not quite know where they stand. "What is the truth?" they ask themselves. And now, given their confused frame of mind, there is the danger that eventually they may wonder if there is any objectively determinable truth at all to be recognized in the matter. Perhaps, they think, it is simply up to each individual to decide, "following his conscience." Enter moral relativism.
Our Lord admonished us to be clear and direct in our language, saying Yes, Yes, or No, No. The raspy voice of ambiguity, for its part, says, Maybe Yes, Yes; Maybe No, No.