Rhetoric is properly regarded as a science but of the softer kind. That is, it is possible to make verifiable predictions about the effects of various rhetorical skills and techniques. But their accuracy is, like those in, say, psychology or economics, measured by significant statistical probability rather than with a ruler. And since we readily acknowledge the need for effective communication in the Church, it is right to look at this science from time to time.
Plato disapproved of rhetoric. Not only did he rank it as a skill on par with cooking, but he held that its only useful purpose was to mislead the listener or reader, and take him further from the truth. Nevertheless Plato (or Socrates speaking through him) used rhetoric continually while in the very act of insisting on plain speaking.
Aristotle approached the subject with particular care for detail. His Rhetoric is both comprehensive and hard going. But he understood clearly, as the ancients did, that to be effective and persuasive to an audience was a necessary attribute for a man of public affairs. Indeed, even a modern Jesuit school will title its senior class Rhetoric, reminding us that its mastery was the apogee of scholastic success.
I cannot here cover the breadth of rhetoric but we do have, through good fortune, two current and contrasting examples to examine. These are Tiger Woods’s statement about his womanising and the Vatican report following the Pope’s meeting with the Irish bishops. They have in common the need to make the best out of difficult situations, and will both have been the result of careful preparation and expert advice. I am not concerned here with the validity of either, but merely with the rhetoric used.
Tiger Woods’s remarks might be stylised as the apology direct. It is typified by his words: “I want to say to each of you, simply and directly: I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behaviour.” He asserts his recognition that he has let down his family and his friends, he takes full responsibility for his behaviour, and presents the steps he is taking to improve it for the future. His appearance is emotional; he conveys the impression of being near to tears.
This direct approach can be very effective. There is no attempt to hide behind other people. We may be cynical, believing that this verbal and physical vulnerability was a calculated means of appealing for sympathy. But I judge that a large proportion of his audience went away with at least a hope that he would prove his words good in the future.
The Holy Office was faced by a very different situation, and it called for very different, and rather more subtle, techniques. We might describe it as the explanation circumspect.
Perhaps the first thing we note is the use of the rhetoric of omission. The awkward fact that the Pope, when prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) had emphasised to all bishops in 2001 that the CDF had exclusive competence in this area, and that all cases were to be reported to it, was never mentioned. Exclusive competence means ultimate responsibility within the Church.
Strong, dramatic language – even if it adds no new information – can often be useful to mask more awkward questions, and the choice of “heinous crime” and “grave sin” was certainly powerful enough to throw into the background, for that moment at least, the ultimately much more serious accusation of organised and official cover-up which had allowed the abuse to spread. I was reminded of the distinguished psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, and his strictures about condemning the bad apples without reviewing the bad barrel.
Switching blame to a more general cause for which no one and everyone may be responsible is often used in rhetoric. In this case a contributor is apparently a weakening of faith which has led to a lack of respect for the human person. We are not told whose faith is weakened. Is it the corrupted teenager? Or the seducing priest? Or the Pontius Pilate bishop? Nor are we told how the one led to the other. But we do not need to know for the rhetoric to work.
Perhaps the one rhetorical move which was missing was the claim that everyone was doing it. Fortunately there was help on hand, and the Bishop of Down and Connor reminded us on Radio 4 last Sunday that abuse was widespread and went beyond “the frontiers of the Catholic Church itself”. This defence has the danger of suggesting that the Church, despite its claim to rigorous moral values, should be judged by the world’s standards and not its own. But it can have the effect of allowing the unwary to think that, if everyone’s doing it, it can’t be as bad as all that.
Naturally there were assurances about how much good work had been done, and was still being done, to ensure that such a situation could not occur again. While such assurances cannot be omitted, they have little effect rhetorically since they are announced every time some large public or private organisation has been caught in flagrante delicto.
I have not attempted to review the whole of the Irish meeting, but only the rhetoric employed. There will in due course be a pastoral letter in which all necessary matters will doubtless be dealt with directly. But together with the Tiger Woods’s apology, we have had an opportunity to look at samples of how rhetoric can serve.
If you believe that either party could have made better or stronger use of rhetoric to achieve the wanted effect, you may care to note down and give us the benefit of your ideas. You may also wish to comment on whether you think that either Tiger Woods or the drafter of the papal report crossed the boundary between rhetoric and “economy with the truth”.