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 | By Sister Pam Smith

Our Ungodly Search for ‘Niceness’

As the pandemic wore on, we heard more and more about “food insecurity.” In response, schools packaged meals for students who usually had breakfast and lunch provided and arranged pick-up systems. Outreach centers decided to forego the usual walk-in services and bagged non-perishable foods for outdoor delivery. War-torn and disease-riddled countries and refugee camps continue to receive huge packages from Catholic Relief Services and other aid organizations. All of this addresses food insecurity.

One has to wonder about the wording. Aren’t we really talking about widespread malnutrition and starvation? “Food insecurity” sounds a little nicer, though, and maybe a little less dreadful. Feeding the poor is laudable and necessary, but we have to ask why we cannot use clear language to describe dire threats.

Americans like niceness. We prefer reassurance to uncertainty and sugar-coating to doomsday scenarios. Businesses and corporations speak of rightsizing. That somehow is supposed to make it more palatable when jobs are shifted overseas to countries unbothered by child labor laws or employees here at home are let go on short notice. We speak of debt consolidation rather than addressing the tendency of families to incur gargantuan debt to support elaborate vacations or simply to shop, shop, shop. The result of our appetite for debt and excess is bankruptcy declarations, on one hand, and donations of still-tagged clothing from the recently deceased on the other.

And then there is political spin. Gender identity has become a matter of self-definition rather than chromosomes and physiology. The proliferation of assault rifles and military grade weaponry is treated as a Second Amendment issue. Despite the escalating incidence of severe storms and wildfires, opposition to taking orchestrated action to protect the environment becomes politicized. Reluctance to take anti-COVID vaccines is sometimes attributable to claims by self-styled internet prophets. In other cases, certain anti-vaxxers insist that personal rights and preferences have priority over what seems the demonstrable common good. And we see party loyalty invoked as a reason for refusal to have reasonable discussion about many of these matters.

The truth is that we use — or exploit — language to make things sound more pleasant or to justify dubious and, at times, immoral action and inaction. Nowhere is this more evident than in matters pertaining to human life.

Quality of life is cited as a justification for assisted suicide, and euthanasia is described as mercy killing. The purported “right” to abortion is touted in terms of women’s health, reproductive freedom, choice, privacy and medical self-determination. Debates about when a life is actually human ignore the genetic structure of a human being. All of these linguistic gymnastics divert attention from the fact that a child has been conceived, and a human being is deliberately killed — legally.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw our verbal plight. “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness to light, and light into darkness, who change bitter to sweet, and sweet into bitter,” he declared (Is 5:20). It seems there is a lot of that around. And it is ungodly.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is the diocesan director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at