Stephen Kent

What’s the good word? It’s “consubstantial.”

Yes, that much maligned word that seemed to draw the most criticism of the new English-language translation of the Roman Missal when it was introduced last fall. The translation of the Nicene Creed replaced the phrase “one in being with the Father” to “consubstantial with the Father.” Stilted and awkward, difficult to sing, said its critics.

However, it is the perfect word, in its nontheological use, to provide some insight into the disassociation found in today’s culture.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines consubstantial as “of the same substance or essence,” while noting it is primarily used to describe the Trinity.

Its utility came to mind when reading a news article about the state of Washington paying $5 million in a settlement of a liability claim in connection with the deaths of two police officers.

“It’s not the state that is paying $5 million, it is coming from the taxpayers,” said one comment appended to the article.

That’s true, but that is not what the complainant intended to say. It is true because the state and the taxpayers are the same, or of the same substance or essence, consubstantial, if you will.

This is important because it illustrates what is at the root of some of today’s social problems: divisions and rancor.

It’s the anti-government, the “us vs. them” attitude. But if understood as the same, one can’t be anti-government without being anti-self.

Government is way a community choses to organize and administer itself. It may be easier to understand in terms of a family or a small group, more difficult to understand as the scale becomes larger.

A family, as a small community, has little difficulty in redistribution. It is called sharing and it comes naturally. The family agrees to these behaviors because that is how things are done.

A larger group, such as a homeowners’ association, requires more formality with written rules to be enforced. Still, these come from the people who have the opportunity for input and to agree to regulations that include the mundane, such as dogs should not roam off-leash on common grounds.

The recognition of consubstantial is still apparent in the smaller community of a family and the larger community of homeowners.

It is not until the community gets larger and larger that the meaning is diluted, fades into disuse so that anger and rancor are directed against “the government” or “the church.”

If one is of the same substance and essence of the other, then there should be little difficulty in maintaining community.

The early church did not speak of redistribution or socialism. It did not talk of the 47 percent or the 1 percent but of all, as described in the Acts of the Apostles:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.”

Pogo, the possum philosopher so familiar to baby boomers, said famously: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Walt Kelly, Pogo’s cartoonist creator said: “I attempted to explain each individual is wholly involved in the democratic process, work at it or no. The results of the process fall on the head of the public and he who is recalcitrant or procrastinates in raising his voice can blame no one but himself.”

Consubstantial is a good word to help come to an understanding on the true meaning of community. Community is not just a collection of units but results from individual pieces related and integrated by a common goal.


Kent, now retired, was editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at: