Katie Faley: The words we choose can be a powerful force for good . . . or division

Cause of Our Joy / By Katie Faley

I still find just how powerful words are to be a pretty unfathomable concept. The nuances of language, and the punch of subtle differences in the words we choose, can make a huge difference.

A former co-worker and I were talking in our office on a freezing, gray day. Somehow we got on the subject of the environment. My co-worker was accustomed to hearing the conversation regarding “global warming.” He ruefully joked as he looked out the window, “How can global warming be a real issue? It’s freezing outside.” I rolled my eyes at this because I assumed he was implying that caring for the environment was tied to a political belief about which I had pre-conceived notions.

I, however, had been more accustomed to hearing the conversation regarding “climate change.” I blathered on about how we need to feel a sense of urgency in paying attention to “climate change.”


Because of that one difference in language — climate change versus global warming — my co-worker and I thought we had two totally different viewpoints. He thought that my use of the phrase “climate change” implied certain stereotypical things about me; that if I cared about the environment, I couldn’t care about other areas of Catholic social teaching. I thought that his use of the phrase “global warming” implied certain stereotypical things about him; that if he was more passionate about other issues related to Catholic social teaching, he couldn’t care about the environment.

Language is under attack. Something that was created by God for our good — language — is being used to divide and cause conflict.

Being in a shared office doesn’t allow for much of an opportunity to ignore somebody, so we continued the conversation. It turned out we were having the same conversation, merely with different words.

In fact, not only did we clearly care about the same issue, but we realized we also had the same ideas for how to care for God’s creation. We found common ground even in the areas where we agreed less readily with the other’s idea. The more I listened, I found that some of his convictions on the environment were very legitimate.

It’s obvious that the division we face in society is, in many ways, thanks to the power of language. Certain words become associated with certain sides of the political spectrum.

Language is under attack. Something that was created by God for our good — language — is being used to divide and cause conflict. That is exactly what sin is. Something good is distorted and pulls us further away from God, who is Truth and Good. And that is what is happening in the social conversation.

We clearly care about the same issues deeply as a society. It’s clear by the language we use that we are all passionate about hefty, important topics. But, of course, we as a society don’t always see eye-to-eye with others and often have different ideas for solutions and different ways of communicating those hefty ideas.

Words are important. As Catholics we know that language is a force of unity and good. Even Jesus, Good and Truth incarnate, is called the Word of God.


This month, Pope Francis is urging and praying for “social friendship.” He tells us to begin with dialogue. Not surprisingly, Pope Francis is encouraging the world to use language and words to build a bridge, to reclaim the Good and Truth in language — not to divide, but to unite.

It is a challenge to keep Good and Truth in our social conversations. It’s comfortable to listen to only those conversations that we enjoy listening to. But we may just find peace and unity in listening to and engaging with others who think and speak differently. Pope Francis reminds us those are the places where we reach the people on the peripheries.

And, like Pope Francis said in his video message on this month’s petition, “Dialogue is the path to seeing reality in a new way, so we can live with passion the challenges we face in constructing the common good . . . . I would like to invite everyone to go beyond their groups of friends and build social friendship, which is so necessary for living together well.”

Invitation accepted.

Katie Faley

Katie Faley is a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria and digital marketing coordinator for the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. She has a master’s degree in theology and theological studies from the University of Notre Dame. Write to her at katiefaleywriter@gmail.com.


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