Quidquid Recipitur … (Whatever is received …)
Six months after the promulgation of his prophetic and yet most criticized encyclical, Pope Paul VI shared some surprisingly candid thoughts with an audience at St. Peter’s. He admitted a particularly difficult challenge facing the Supreme Pontiff, i.e., the challenge of making himself understood. Not only was he aware of his own limited ability to communicate with others, but he was also aware that what he wished to communicate, the lofty grandeur of the Word of God, was not easy to translate into a language that the average person would need to understand. In short, the difficulty he experienced and candidly disclosed to his audience was how hard it is to remain faithful to the God who saves while at the same time remaining faithful to men in need of salvation.
On the surface, such a challenge may not seem so difficult as to engender what the Holy Father described as “spiritual fear.” After all, who would refuse allegiance to a good and wise God? And, if this good and wise God is also the source of one’s own existence, then what’s not to gain by being faithful to oneself or one’s people? Yet, the Holy Father understood that such fidelity was not as easy as it looks and, of the two, the one that appears to be the easiest is, in fact, the most difficult, namely, fidelity to his audience, to those in need of salvation.
Pope Paul recalled a Scholastic axiom that captures the importance, as well as the difficulty, of knowing one’s audience: Whatever is received, is received in the manner of the receiver (Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur). This axiom stems from the observation that whatever is communicated to another will only be received by that other insofar as he or she is open or disposed to the message. Just try talking to a foreigner, an infant, or a pet and you’ll experience the truth of the axiom. In addition to the more obvious instances, the axiom is also evident when a conversation is attempted amid generational, social, ethnic, economical, political, cultural, religious or sexual differences.
Not only do there exist the more obvious hurdles of foreign languages and idioms, but there also exist certain conditions, presuppositions, and even prejudices that one encounters when communicating or hearing the Word of God, and these can act as barriers to this truth. In our day, the more outspoken atheism that has characterized our culture over the past century or the less well known but even more ubiquitous “practical atheism,” (living as if God did not exist) are obvious examples of characteristics that effect both the communication and the reception of a message. To this one could add other barriers: materialism, consumerism, individualism, etc. Given the nature and gravity of these various conditions, it is no surprise to hear Pope Paul say that spreading the Word of God today engenders in him a “spiritual fear.”
Pope Paul was also aware that, in addition to the conditions that affect both the communicator and the receiver of a message, there are also temptations that one must avoid especially in the communication of the message. For example, the communicator may be so zealous to adapt the message to the recipient that he ends up changing the message itself, or in an effort to be understood, the communicator chooses to share only those truths that will be more readily comprehended. In an age when the use of contraceptives was quickly becoming the norm and an anti-contraceptive message would be a tough pill for the general public to swallow, one can easily imagine the danger of succumbing to either of these temptations.
The Holy Father’s attentiveness and concern actually give witness to one of the elements that made Vatican II a “pastoral council.” At the Council, the Church expressed on many occasions and in many different ways a growing awareness of herself as both the Mystical Body of Christ and as a historical “person” subject to the conditions and vicissitudes of the time. This same awareness would later characterize the “New” Evangelization.
The insight into the conditions and dispositions of both speaker and hearer was not itself new to the Church. Evidence of this axiom in the writings of her saints and theologians testifies to its familiarity. Yet, at Vatican II and in subsequent magisterial teaching it could be seen that this insight was given new and renewed emphasis. It was in this heightened awareness that the Church—as Church—said: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, 1).
While this axiom has been with the Church for quite some time, in our own day it has become expressive of a new level of awareness by the Church, and it demonstrates the way the Church is like “the householder who brings out of [her] treasure what is old and what is new” (Mt 13:52).